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The entrepreneurs carving out a slice of Britain's struggling ski market

Jack Torrance
Nix founder James Mechie in his north London workshop

Skiing has long been a favoured winter pastime of many a British family, but since the financial crisis the industry has been on a downhill slope.

Wholesale UK ski sales dropped around 40pc to just 24,000 units between 2008/9 and 2015/16, according to data from Statista, while regular participation in snowsports in England fell around 24pc to around 140,000 in the same period.

A report earlier this year by the Ski Club of Great Britain suggested that while those who already ski are still enthusiastic and have deep pockets, the sport was struggling to attract enough new blood, warning: “Unless more people come into skiing than leave through natural attrition, the market will shrink putting pressure on those organisations that exist to serve the market.”

The industry, which mostly revolves around people travelling to alpine resorts in mainland Europe, also faces pressure from the newly weak pound and could be threatened by a failure to secure a frictionless trade deal in Britain’s Brexit negotiations.

Unless more people come into skiing than leave through natural attrition, the market will shrink

Ski Club of Great Britain

But while the wider market may have found itself under a snow cloud, several entrepreneurs have found it’s possible to grow a ski business by carving out a niche.

Jöttnar might sound like the name of a particularly angry Norse god but it’s actually a fast-growing UK brand catering to skiers and mountain climbers looking for jackets, fleeces and salopettes with a functional focus.

“We saw what we thought was a gap in the market for a British brand making extremely high quality and technically focused clothing for skiing and mountaineering,” says Steve Howarth, who started the business with fellow ex-Royal Marine Tommy Kelly.

Many of the larger outdoorsy brands like Berghaus and The North Face have broadened out to sell all manner of branded t-shirts, hoodies and laptop bags.

“There’s a bit of distaste in the market for that among the core technical consumers which opens up little gaps for people like us,” Howarth says.

The topline is growing 30pc annually and this year the company expects to turn over more than £1m. It’s also just taken on a “seven-figure” investment from London venture capital firm Venrex, which it plans to use to boost its presence in the US, which already accounts for more than 15pc of sales.

“What we’re doing at the moment is planning a path to profitability which we should achieve next year,” Howarth says.

Syndicate's clothes have proved popular with university ski clubs

At the same time, some skiers want to wear t-shirts and hoodies. It’s only turning over £150,000, but Syndicate Clothing’s eye-catching apparel has become an increasingly common site on the slopes, especially in resorts with lots of UK skiers.   

“It looks bigger and shinier on social media, but it’s still done in a spare room,” admits founder Chris Nicoll, who goes by the name of Sketch.

“We all dream it’s something that’s going to make us rich, but the purpose of it when I started was just to get enough to go away and do a season.”

Syndicate has been boosted by a boom in university ski clubs, many of whom take hundreds of hard-partying students to the alps each year.

“Now that these guys have graduated, they’ve actually got money to spend and we’ve got a really loyal customer base that tends to buy year-on-year, which is good,” Nicoll says.  

A lot of today’s customers are looking for clothes they can wear back home in the UK as well as up on the mountain, he adds

“In the past you could you could identify a skier by what they wore, if you saw them in the street you knew that’s what they did. Whereas now there’s more of a crossover.”

A lot of people are disenfranchised with buying stuff from big factories

James Mechie, Nix

It’s not just clothes. While the UK isn’t exactly a hotbed for hardware companies (the market is dominated by US, Scandi, French and Austrian brands), they do exist. Some even do their manufacturing here, generally with a focus on high-spec, customised gear with prices to match.

New among their number is Nix, founded by industrial design graduate James Mechie, who builds all of its skis and snowboards by hand in a workshop off London’s Caledonian Road.

“There’s a big global trend towards customisation and personalisation, not just in skiing but across the board,” he says. “A lot of people are disenfranchised with buying stuff from big factories and giant brands.”

Mechie spent four years coming up with the brand’s design and manufacturing processes before finally launching in October.

As well as tailoring his skis to customers’ size specifications and preferred skiing style, he also adjusts them depending on their resort of choice.

“If somebody only ever skis in Japan, that’s a very different kind of snow to somebody who only ever skis in the east coast of America.”

Nix’s made-to-measure skis sell for £795-875 a pair, while a fully bespoke set can cost upwards of £1375. As Mechie makes them all himself, capacity is fixed at around two or three pairs per week for now.

Whitedot is capitalising on a growing demand for of-piste skis Credit: Aidan Bolger

Outsourcing production can make it easier to reach scale much quicker, as the founders of Leed-based Whitedot Skis have discovered.

The company sells around 1,000 pairs of its skis, which are pressed in Poland, per year and are priced from €498 to €998 (£436-£875). It has grown by focusing on the burgeoning popularity of off-piste or “back country” skiing.

“As people progress they get better and want to explore a little bit more,” says Simon Henwood, head of partnerships at Ski Club GB. “The ski technology is trying to keep up with the demand.”

“They have to have a large surface area because they have to be able to float on snow that hasn’t been damped down,” adds Whitedot’s founder and chief executive Mark Perkins, a former semi-pro skier who also runs a security business.

As people progress they get better and want to explore a little bit more

Simon Henwood, Ski Club of Great Britain

The majority of Whitedot’s sales come from beyond the UK, with customers in Austria, Germany, Russia, Japan, the USA and Norway, and at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics its skis appeared on the feet of Winter Team GB’s Emma Lonsdale as she competed in the half-pipe event.  

Now Whitedot is trying to raise investment as it explores the possibility of launching a new direct to consumer model instead of handing a big chunk of its margins to distributors.

Each year, 25,000 Brits head to the alps to work in chalets and ski hire shops, so the whole industry is facing up to potential upheaval thanks to Brexit.

Whitedot sells its skis in euros so hasn’t been hit by the slide in the pound, but Perkins says he will be keeping a close eye on how plans for a trade deal progress.

“In terms of the way we actually sell our skis, I don't think we're going to have an issue - although until anybody finds out what's actually going to happen it's difficult for anybody to really say.”