Search on for new Cairngorms operator

THE owner of Scotland’s busiest ski centre – who spent over £20million on the resort – has launched a search for a new operator.

• Highlands and Islands Enterprise owns Scotland’s only funicular railway at Cairngorm

• The opportunity to run the facility is being promoted through the Official Journal of the European Union

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• The decision follows an options appraisal carried out last year by Ernst and Young

• Advertisements are appearing in the Journal on March 4, 2013

Highlands and Islands Enterprise built Scotland’s only funicular railway at Cairngorm, along with associated facilities including ski lifts, the base station, shop, visitor centre. Operations at the site are currently managed by CairnGorm Mountain Ltd (CML), which became a subsidiary of HIE in 2008.

The enterprise agency, in a statement, said it has always been clear that its ownership of the operating company was not intended to be a long-term arrangement.

HIE’s decision to advertise for a new operator follows an “options appraisal”, carried out last year by Ernst and Young.

This established that there was national and international interest from potential operators in this opportunity. Nine organisations came forward, mainly interested in taking over all operations and developing the resort further.

The opportunity to run the facility, which will remain publicly-owned, is being promoted through the Official Journal of the European Union.

Advertisements are appearing in the journal on March 4, 2013, inviting suitably qualified applicants to complete a pre-qualification questionnaire which can be sent to Ernst and Young as the first step towards registering interest.

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Charlotte Wright, HIE’s Director of Business and Sector Development, said the mountain resort presented a great opportunity for the right operator.

“Cairngorm is not only well established as one of the UK’s premier snowsports centres, the funicular railway has helped make it a year-round attraction,” said Mrs Wright.

“It’s important to stress that neither the estate nor the funicular is being put up for sale. HIE will retain public ownership of both the land and the infrastructure.

“What we’re seeking is an operator with innovative ideas and the capacity to invest so that a sustainable future can be secured for this important local business.

“The main challenge for the operator of any outdoor attraction is obviously the unpredictable nature of Scottish weather. We’ve enjoyed two record-breaking winter seasons in the past four years which made a profit for the business, but there can be no guarantees.

“We’re particularly interested in ideas to supplement the snowsports business at Cairngorm and attract a broader range of visitors throughout the year.”

Information submitted by the applicants will enable HIE to draw up a shortlist which will be assessed through a process known as ‘competitive dialogue’.

HIE’s handling of the snowsports centre has been criticised in the past.

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In 2010, MSPs said the public agency’s failure to take account of risks to the running of the funicular railway led to “spiralling” costs.

The Scottish Parliament’s audit committee reviewed HIE’s spending on the railway.

Skiers at CairnGorm Mountain during this winter’s snowsports season

In a report, the committee said threats such as warmer winters’ effect on skiing were not taken in account.

At the time, HIE said it recognised the MSPs’ criticism of earlier decisions.

The agency had provided £19.42m - almost £5m more than expected - towards the £26m cost of building and running the funicular.

In 2010, HIE said it spent up to £4m over three to four years on maintaining the facility.

Audit Scotland also investigated HIE’s backing of the railway.

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In 2009, the public spending watchdog said a decline in skiers was among risks to a mountain railway not taken into account before it was built.

The funicular was opened in 2001 and connects a base station with the Ptarmigan Restaurant 1,097m (3,599ft) up Cairn Gorm mountain. It is used by skiers and tourists.

HIE said the competitive dialogue was less prescriptive than other procurement models, giving bidders greater scope to put forward innovative and creative ideas of their own.

It is a process they say which is particularly well suited to complex or unique projects which are likely to require bespoke solutions.

HIE will expect the preferred operator to drive forward product, brand and capital development at the visitor attraction, along with achieving a sustainable business model which will provide the best return for the region’s economy.

CairnGorm Mountain, which is reporting “Alpine” conditions, said that more than 67,000 snowsports enthusiasts have now taken to the slopes this season, with at least two months left.

CairnGorm Mountain spokesman Colin Kirkwood said:”We are now up on all of last year`s total so it is a very welcome position.

Scotland’s other four snowsport centres - Glencoe, Nevis Range, The Lecht and Glenshee - also reported “great” and “excellent” conditions.

The five resorts have had over 140,000 users this season so far.