A Shining Silver Lining For A Gray European Market

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While the US snowboard industry is enjoying the summer with strong prospects after solid snowfall buoyed sales and spirits, our European counterparts are spending the summer worrying and chain smoking. OK, so they’d most likely be chain-smoking anyway, but recently released Euro-sales figures show a five percent drop in hardgood sales this year, fresh on the heels of an 11 percent drop last season. The concern level has been raised to orange.

However, there was one ray of light in the bleak hardgoods report compiled by Remi Forsans of Boardsports Consulting, and it came from an area usually associated with gray and dismal news, architecture, and landscapes: Eastern Europe. The region is currently building tons of resorts, buying mad gear, and reshaping itself as a winter Mecca. In fact, hardgoods sales in the region are up anywhere from 17 percent in Kosovo to 45 percent in Russia, the largest of the East European markets.

“We have seen Eastern Europe quickly become the largest immediate growth opportunity for our snow program,” says Vans Equipment Category Director Jared Bevens. “We have been involved very early on in the Russian snowboard scene and it is now one of our largest markets in Europe for our snow program.” Russia now ranks fourth in countries with the most boards sold and accounts for nearly 11% of the Euro-pie. To put this in perspective, the European country with the top sales, Switzerland, accounts for just over 14 percent after an 8.29 percent drop. Other countries that have shown the strongest growth are Poland, Serbia Montenegro, Czech Republic, Croatia, Slovenia, and Bulgaria. While most of these markets on their own make up a very small portion of the pie, together they account for nearly 20% of all hardgoods sold.

“In our opinion this is due to the avidity of a market that has not had access to the fun factor that the west has been enjoying since the early days of boardsports in the 80’s,” says Nidecker Brands and Marketing Director Robert Etienne. “Imagine the passionate few wealthy early adaptors who brought snow and skate videos and some magazines back to the late USSR. The access to the boarding ‘toys’ was only accessible to a few until the early 90’s. Then people started to get organized, shops opened and 10-15 years of western boardsports culture, became available pretty much overnight and only a portion of this market is starting to become mature over the past 2-3 years.”

While this area presents a great deal of opportunity, there are also challenges facing the war-torn region that was left in a dark, stagnant state of development during the cold war. “I see a saturation and also I see the danger of the lack of infrastructure,” says Völkl Snowboards brand Manager Karsten Mohr. “Epecially in the central marketplaces in Russia, such as Moscow and St. Petersburg, but also in other countries the snowboarders have to travel long ways to ride exciting mountains. At the moment the mass of the people are stoked by learning something new and making progress and having fun – while this is all possible on ‘suburban moguls,’ the future will show to which extend the mass of snowboarders in the eastern countries is willing to travel long distance to ride constantly. Constant riding is the platform for a healthy market.”

Developers in the area are putting their money on the trend continuing to grow, and, in what is hopefully a self-fulfilling prophecy, are dumping tons of cash into new infrastructure and resorts. “Massive investments are being put into developing European style resorts with state of the art lifts and accommodation,” says Etienne, whose brand is trying to cultivate markets in areas like the Ukraine. “These resorts are growing at a state that is beyond anything happening in the Alps. It seems like there is also a different way of doing business in the land where oligarchies control large areas and are quick to turn them into impressive holiday destinations.”

“I met a young business man from Uzbekistan who is responsible for a large sports organization,” continues Etienne. “They are only starting to see the potential in snowsports and are planning on opening a snowboard department for the 2009/10 winter season. Judging at the successes they’re having in other sports, distant and seemingly dormant eastern countries will be some of the serious players of tomorrow. Just look at a map of the eastern areas before Asia and you’ll see there is room for growth and many mountains to ride.”

Examples of new resorts that will rival their central European counterparts competing for locals’ newfound wealth are as numerous as abandoned missile silos and civil wars across the region. Foreign and local investment is pouring in to countriess like Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and especially Russia, which is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics, where Prime Minister Putin is an avid skier and can push through just about any deal faster than you can say KGB.

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In February, Bulgaria’s capital city of Sofia opened the region’s first open-air snowboard park in its city centre.

“Hopefully (the growth) will help worldwide sales for most companies and bring more people into snowboarding,” says Jack Coghlan, former International Marketing Manager for Flow. “Obviously the worldwide snowboard market in general needs to start growing again so the emergence of the Eastern European countries into a bigger market is only perceived as a VERY good thing!”