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Issue 48 - More on offer

Scotland Magazine Issue 48
December 2009


This article is 8 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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More on offer

Eight years ago the ski resort of Aviemore had become an embarrassing joke. Now it offers facilities to rival the best resorts in Europe. Dominic Roskrow reports.

By anyone’s standards 2001 was a bad year for the Highland ski-ing resort of Aviemore.

Developed as Scotland’s first purposebuilt ski resort in 1960 and once touted as Scotland’s answer to San Moritz, the resort, nestling at the foot of the Cairngorms and ideally placed to serve as a base for walkers, climbers, explorers, geologists and skiers, enjoyed a few good years in the 60s and 70s.

But it had started a long and increasingly rapid decline throughout the rest of the century and in the last decade, had seen visitor numbers and revenues fall. Its hotels had become tired, its clichéd offering of kilts and bagpipes had become an unfunny joke and those seeking to make a living from it had become demoralised and bitter.

On one amazing occasion I was witness to, a packed party of hotel guests on holiday to celebrate Hogmanay were even told that the bar was shutting at 11.45pm because the hotel staff wanted to get away for their own New Year celebrations.

The resort seemed to be hampered at ever turn. Built in the distinctive but increasingly dated style of the 60s, its facilities had become tawdry. And the climate didn’t help. Ski seasons were patchy and unpredictable, and no match for the modern and snow-blessed resorts of France, Switzerland and Austria.

Even when the snow fell, the experience was nothing like that of Europe’s best slopes.

As Sunday newspaper columnist and critic AA Gill put it, ski-ing in the wet and cold of Scotland’s winter was like diving in a quarry: an unpleasant approximation of the proper experience.

Aviemore was dying a slow death. But even by these low standards, 2001 took the biscuit, with a morale-draining double whammy that would normally have nailed down the coffin of the resort for good.

First the resort was nominated for a Carbuncle Award, which set out to identify the most depressing town in Scotland.

Short-listed for the award, it was described by judges as “the worst wart on the face of Scotland.” Then the organisers of the annual Highland Trade Fair, which had been held in Aviemore for 31 years, announced that it was to move to Glasgow because Aviemore had become a dump. As 2001 drew to a close, it seemed the Aviemore experiment was over.

Late 2009, and despite – or even because of – the recession Aviemore is having a bumper year. The town’s hotels have been thriving with both family holiday makers and business trade.

Both the Scottish Labour Party and the Scottish National Party have held their conferences here, big exhibitors have been in town, and some of the world’s top golfers have been making use of the facilities.

There’s a genuinely positive atmosphere about the resort, and wherever you turn there is information about another event, clan gathering, competition, or visitor experience, creating the quite justified feeling that this region of Scotland has more than enough to keep everybody happy.

So what exactly has happened to drag Aviemore from the brink? Let’s wind back to the end of 2001.

First of all, Aviemore didn’t win the Carbuncle Award. It was pipped by Cumbernauld, which has won it again since.

Then, shortly afterwards, a knight in shinning armour arrived in the region in the form of a business consortium headed by Macdonald Hotels. Its proposal? To make Aviemore as attractive as it was in Victorian times, when Queen Victoria was a regular visitor as she travelled to the spas at Grantown-on-Spey, and when Sir Walter Scott came to the region.

The consortium proposed a £30 million investment to turn the tired and battered resort, described as more “Skegness than San Moritz” in to a resort worthy of the new Millennium. And so began an intense programme which saw the old holiday chalets pulled down, the foundation and establishment of a new international standard golf course, and the redevelopment of the four hotels at the heart of the resort – the Freedom Inn, the Aviemore Highlands Hotel, The Four Seasons Hotel and the Hilton Aviemore.

Today the Macdonald Aviemore Highland Resort is the collective name for the four hotels, a shopping centre, indoor and outdoor leisure centre and woodland cottages that offer a diverse range of accommodation offerings – and the resort has been thriving as never before.

“I think there has been quite a sea change,” says the resort’s David Grant. “If you look at the last few months we have done better than we ever have. This might be partly to do with the state of the economy and the fact that a lot of people chose to stay in Britain this year. But I think it also reflects what we are achieving as a resort.” Indeed, the changes are remarkable. What Aviemore has done is to work together as a team, adopting the view that it doesn’t matter where people are staying in Aviemore as long as they’re staying in Aviemore. With the might of Macdonald at the heart of this drive, all venues and tourist attractions are working together to promote each other, providing the holiday maker with ‘joined up’ publicity. With so much information available in so many places, the visitor is spoiled for choice and the resort is successfully highlighting just how much it has to offer.

The co-operation extends out in to the Highlands, with the Cairngorms, the funicular railway and the nearby Rothiemurchus estate just some of the other attractions you’ll find promoted in the resort.

It’s true that the seasonal weather has been kind the last two years, too, with some excellent ski-ing. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the transformation in the region is represented by the fact that the mountain railway now carries more people in summer than it does winter, and the region is well-established for all-year activities.

But perhaps the resort’s biggest success lies in the way it has been able to accommodate the needs of such diverse groups as the Harley Davidson Owners Club, the major political parties, conferences from international companies and families with young children. According to Grant, it’s been done with flexibility and some ‘blue sky’ thinking.

“The hotels are big enough to cater for everyone,” he says.

“We have conference rooms some of which are left empty at weekends, so that was where the idea of putting a fun factory in for the children to use.” The fun factory is a village of inflatable toys, ranging from slides to ball parks and kicking galleries that will be inflated at weekends and some evenings and which provides children with hours of fun and a welcome break for parents, who can enjoy a drink while their offspring play.

The resort’s facilities stretch further, too.

There’s an all weather children’s activity centre there, a soft play room, a swimming pool area with flumes and wave machines, and for the more adventurous grass sledging, a climbing wall and the chance to try out the mini quad-bikes. Films are also shown on site.

“Perhaps once not enough was done to make sure that boredom didn’t set in,” says Grant. “We realised that there had to be enough to do whatever the weather. The region is great for outdoor activities when the weather holds up, but it also rains a fair bit here, and we have had to take that into account.” The other big change for the resort has been to move away from standard hotel rooms and to provide for the needs of the modern tourist.

There are now 18 woodland lodges, each spaced away from the others along woodland walks that give the guest the opportunity to spot red squirrels and all manner of wildlife as he or she strolls to and from the main complex.

It all makes for an impressive turnaround for Aviemore, and it’s not finished yet. New luxury properties offering annual one or two week occupation – a sort of modern take on the time share concept – are either opened or being built. It all bodes well for the future.

“We feel that Aviemore is once again providing for the needs of people coming to this region again,” says Grant. “It has something for everyone.” A wart on the face of Scotland? Not any more. It’s had a facelift and it’s now more a beauty spot.