Tourism

An Austrian’s experience in Romania

An interview with Martin Freinademetz, a former snowboard world champion who some years ago decided to invest in Romanian tourism

Martin was almost born on skis: In December 1969 it was a winter with so much snow in Innsbruck that his mother had to stay longer in hospital with him as the roads were impassable. He started to ski in the garden at the age of two and by the time he was three he was already skiing Innsbruck’s family slope at Mutterer Alm from top to bottom. He started snowboarding at the age of 17.

After graduating form the local technical high school, where he specialized in civil engineering and ropeways, he became a snowboard professional. He ended up touring around the globe, from one ski resort to the other, for training and snowboard competitions. Besides winning 2 World Championships, 5 European Championships and 5 World ProTour titles, he also learned about marketing and sports management during that period. He has served on the executive committee of several associations and has been a partner in an agency in Innsbruck and a publishing house in Vienna.

ISR: When did you first come to Romania and what made you come here?

Martin Freinademetz: My girlfriend was born in Romania. My first visit was in 1994 when we went with a van full of friends to some Romanian ski resorts: in Poiana Brasov we did some nice runs, but in Balea the cable car was not working and in Paltinis there were only 10 cm of snow. Some years later, when I had more Romanian friends, I realized that skiing at Balea is quite good, but the best runs involve a hike and that kind of skiing is not comparable with the Alps.

ISR: What was your first investment in tourism?

Martin Freinademetz: My first investment in Romania was rebuilding the house of my wife’s (we were married in the meantime) grandparents in a village not far from Sibiu. As it is so undeveloped, Romania is a European Eldorado for off-road sports. When I started to ride enduro motorcycles here in 1996 we hardly met anybody out there in the wild Carpathians. After the grandparents’ farm had been converted into a pension with some guest rooms, we started to offer off-road tours. With all the trail experience I had built up, I decided to organize the most challenging hard-enduro rally in the world. Red Bull liked the idea and in 2004 we organized the first rally.

ISR: How have those first steps developed in the meantime and when did you start investing in the ski industry:

Martin Freinademetz: We are currently holding the 12th edition of Red Bull Romaniacs hard enduro rally now. Romania has been transformed in the meantime from a Communist mentality to a Central European culture. I could write a book about all the things that have changed. People who have never lived in a post-Communist or third world country cannot imagine how business used to be here back in those days. But I always respected the western style of business ethic that I believed in, and I never had to bride institutions to successfully organize my events.

Nowadays our 400 starts are booked out within half a day. People from more than 40 countries from all over the world like the enduro challenge in the beautiful Carpathian Mountains, and they also love the warm and friendly people.

In the early 2000s my later partner, Andy Fazekas, and my wife talked about starting a ski resort. But the existing slope in the Paltinis Ski Area was under a ten-year contract and there was not much point in starting something new.

In 2009 we dismantled the first lifts in Austria and started with re-erection in 2010. I have been to more than a hundred different ski resorts in my life and I have seen a lot. I have also witnessed the developments in skiing from the early 1970s in Austria until today. I have seen resorts progress from single chairlifts to modern detachable installations. In addition to that knowledge, I was helped in planning and building our resort by the talks I was able to have with so many professionals from the cable-car industry, planning companies and ski-resort owners back in the Tyrol.

ISR: What have been the most challenging obstacles for you to overcome here in Romania?

Martin Freinademetz: A big challenge is finding the right employees. Young people in the cities are well educated, and speak English and German well. But it is very difficult to find people with specialized skills. In my field of sports marketing, we had to build our own team and I had to include many non-Romanians in the team, mainly because the local people are not as success-orientated as Central Europeans are. At the ski resort, too, we had to teach our team everything from the beginning. But now, five years later, we are very proud of our team and, if we did not keep coming up with new ideas and plans, I am sure that they could run the business without me, my wife and my partners.

We have always based our services on what we are used to from back home in Austria. Our ski teachers are trained in the Tyrol, and our leading mechanics were taught in the Tyrol and also worked for a few months in the Ziller Valley and Seefeld. We take our team on trips to Innsbruck so that they can see what kind of service is offered by the most experienced professionals in the ski business. Our team is young, eager to learn and motivated.

ISR: What are the main activities you are involved in today?

Martin Freinademetz: Arena Platos Paltinis Mountain Resort is now getting ready for its first summer. We have moved a summer toboggan run, once again from Austria, and will start operations this summer. We have also built several downhill mountain bike trails and implemented more activities to liven up the resort in the summer, too.

Heliskiromania.com is my favorite winter profession because riding powder offers the most fun. Together with my brother, who is an Austrian mountain guide, we organize heliskiing in the Carpathian Mountains. We charter a new AS 350 B3 with a pilot with mountain experience, and the mountains we fly to are satisfying even for clients with experience of Canada and Alaska.

I am also organizing enduro events like Red Bull Romaniacs, Red Bull Sea to Sky in Turkey and we are just starting with a new competition in Brazil.

ISR: How do you see the future of your investments in Romania?

Martin Freinademetz: I am not sure if investment is the right word. I think the whole ski-lift project is like a big hobby. Other successful people buy themselves a new Porsche. We buy another lift. Skiing and snowboarding are what we love to do, and I am also talking for my partner, Andy, in this case.

We expected that running a ski area would be a better business, but from the way things have gone so far we now know that Romania can be expensive, with some costs higher than in Austria. We can only save on the low salaries that are paid here in Romania, but that also means the ticket pricing needs to be lower. The biggest problem is the lack of tourists. Romania’s infrastructure is too weak at the moment to attract enough tourists from foreign countries. Highways are still unfinished, and traveling to the Carpathians takes too long. At the moment we are fighting for each Romanian skier to come to our resort, but the number of Romanian skiers is limited. And their vacation time is also limited. We do good business in the holiday period around Christmas, for example, but right after that things are very quiet. If you want to call it an investment, it has a very long-term horizon. I see a future as the Carpathian Mountains are beautiful and there are many countries round about with lower mountains and less potential, but those countries first need to grow in financial strength. They need to recover from Communism, from war as in Serbia, etc.

In addition, Romania is geographically not as well situated as the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Those two countries are accessible by car for tourists coming from Germany, the Netherlands, etc. without having to drive too long. But no-one wants to drive from the Netherlands to Romania. That cannot be called vacation! So either we are an air-travel destination, or the Romanian infrastructure has to improve fast.

ISR: What advice can you offer other investors with their eyes on the Romanian ski and tourism industries?

Martin Freinademetz: I see two possible forms of investment that could work out:

1. Raise several hundred millions and build a huge resort, Bansko style, not more than two hours’ drive from Bucharest airport

2. Proceed slowly, building one lift after another. Use mainly second-hand equipment. Do not invest more than you can afford or could break you if you cannot pay back. Wait for better times to build new installations.

ISR: Thank you for the interview!

Martin Freinademetz on a snowmobile. Photo: Author

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