By Robin Ecoeur
Alain Blas, CEO of the Avoriaz lift operating company SERMA, doesn’t talk much. Mostly because he has better things to do. Maintaining security of the ski resort, dealing with environmental issues and deciding where to invest millions in ski lift infrastructure are all tough decisions. Most of Alain’s work must be done in advance, long before the wave of tourists, snow and nesting of birds get in the way. “My job is more than simply dealing with ski lifts. It is way more complex than that”.
With Alain in charge of the lift operating company since 2009, SERMA is now a well-oiled machine, controlling 55 ski lifts spanning 70km of piste. It’s a machine that needs €40million and 310 employees each season to function. Maintaining ski lifts, renovating and building new ones, recruiting, training and paying employees and producing artificial snow all fall under the responsibility of one man. The future of snow is on Alain’s mind when we meet on a scorching summer’s day in Avoriaz.
“We’re doing our best to offer good ski conditions with minimum snow” Alain explains. It’s safe to say that without snow, the resort would eventually die. Ski instructors would be out of a job; shops, hotels and restaurants would close. It’s Alain’s job to make sure this never happens. “We store around 90,000 cubic metres of water in Avoriaz to feed the snow canons across the ski area and now we can drain another 160,000 from Lake Montriond through our brand new pumping station”. Producing snow is one less thing for Alain to worry about. For now, at least.
Talking of making decisions, here is one of Alain’s toughest. Avoriaz opened with very little snow coverage in December 2015. There was enough to ski, but barely. The situation was worse across the rest of the French Alps. The busy Christmas and New Year holiday weeks were looming large and still there was no snow on the forecast. Alain, along with his team of department heads, made the tricky decision to reduce the number of skiable slopes open to the public in order to preserve the quality of snow available for the festive hoards. With that came with a reduction in lift pass prices, which in turn reduced the coffers of SERMA and the amount of money available to reinvest on future ski seasons. “We always try to make the best of each situation. We gather snow from other parts of the resort, transport it to the slopes, we work extra hard to produce snow before the season even starts”. As many locals will tell you: if you can’t ski in Avoriaz, then you’ve little chance of skiing anywhere else in the French Alps.
Anticipating the snow levels of the future is one thing, but what else does Alain spend his €40million on each year? On average, a new chairlift will cost around €6million. The final bill for the new Prodains Express 3S when it opened in 2013? €25million. “To maintain our image as a world class ski resort, Avoriaz must invest in new lifts which are comfortable, quick, safe and extremely reliable” Alain explains. And it’s this reliability issue that presents another ecological issue. The mechanics of old ski lifts consume too much energy. Not only is this expensive for the resort, but it’s also very bad for the planet. New technology now exists to lower the carbon footprint of every ski lift ride and Avoriaz is at the forefront of this change. “The older a ski lift is, the more checks we must do on the machinery. This involves taking each lift apart and putting it back together again. It’s a tedious job and it sucks a lot of our resources”.
If you’ve ever wondered why it usually takes two years to build a new ski lift, consider this third and final ecological consideration. Birds. Lift construction can only commence once the ski season ends in April each year, around the same time that local birds build their nests in trees marked for felling. “We’re only allowed to cut down trees at the end of August, once the birds have moved out. It’s too risky for us to attempt to construct a new ski lift in this short time before the next winter arrives. So we plan these projects over a two-year cycle to protect the birds”.
The next time you’re hopping on a packed chairlift above Avoriaz or skiing through the centre of the resort’s snow-covered streets, spare a thought for Alain Blas and the hard working team at SERMA. They’re improving the resort now for the skiers of the future.