Ski Asia chats to Imagine China founder, Peter Tupper, on setting up a ski school and advice for skiing in China.
Starting a ski school and adventure business as a recent university graduate is a bold move any way you look at it, not least in a country like China, where the business environment is notoriously difficult to navigate. It took Peter Tupper two years to register his company, Imagine China, a process that he says involved all kinds of hurdles and mountains of paperwork – all in Chinese.
Now eight years into his journey, Peter has featured on Chinese mainstream TV, jumped through a ring of fire dressed as Santa Claus, and taught (and organised) countless lessons in a country that has only recently embraced winter sports.
What started as a business taking expat clients to Chinese ski resorts on the weekend has evolved into a year-round outdoor education business, now with branches in Taiwan and Japan. Skiing in China remains a core part of Imagine China’s operations, though his clients, these days, are more likely to be top international schools than weekend warriors.
Peter’s success has been no accident, and when I ask him if this expansion was all part of the plan, there is no hesitation.
“It was always the plan.”
“I started it slowly, bootstrapped it, and decided not to try to do everything at once at the beginning. I wanted to first focus on the quality and making sure everything was good, safe and figure out which areas of business were going to be the most successful, then take directions that were working the best.”
He attributes his fluency in Chinese (his university major) to helping him build relationships in the industry, but says the focus of the business has always been on English language instruction.
“Our instructors speak English, whether they’re Chinese or foreign. That’s our unique selling point in China.”
“Across the whole country, there are typically fewer than 100 foreign ski instructors spread across various resorts, which is actually not that many when you compare it to somewhere like Niseko [Japan].
“But the local instructors are getting more and more qualified. In the past – even 10 years ago – there were very few Chinese instructors with high levels of qualifications from anywhere. Let alone those who spoke English.”
And it’s not just the instructors who are skilling up. China’s snowsports boom has seen millions take to the slopes, spurred on by the development of new ski resorts, better transport, and nation-wide campaigns encouraging the public to embrace winter sports ahead of Beijing 2022. Chinese President Xi Jinping famously declared his intention to have 300 million new skiers in time for the Olympics.
Peter, who has seen the transformation of the industry play out in front of him, jokes that he and his instructors had to develop new instructing techniques to keep their clients safe from the hordes of “dive bombing” beginner skiers.
“In China, especially in the resorts closer to Beijing, you’d get a lot of people who go there for the first time ever, try it out for a day, then go home. And that’s the majority of the client base. And a lot of these people don’t take lessons, and they’re using very dodgy rental equipment, and they just get given a pair of skis and boots. They go straight up to the top of the mountain and just set off down the hill – first time they’ve ever even touched a pair of skis. And they just dive bomb down the slope, completely out of control until they fall over.
“For a while, that was actually kind of recognised as the way you go about skiing. If you watched a TV program about skiing, that always happened, and then there’d be people laughing about it as if it was just a really funny situation – even celebrities trying it out for the first time.
“Since then the situation has improved a lot, there are more and more safety rules, better equipment, a lot more returning customers rather than beginners.”
It’s a fitting metaphor for the industry – a dive bombing beginner that has come on in leaps and bounds in the last decade, and will soon put its skills on display in front of the world.
Peter is confident that it will continue to grow past the Olympics.
“That’s the exciting thing about China. Things move fast – they build stuff really fast. There will always be new resorts opening, new hotels being built, new railway lines. So it’s exciting to live there and be in the industry, because there’s always something fresh.”
“And people are very excited, because it’s all still relatively new in China, so there’s a lot of stoke. A lot of people are just so into it, and so excited to learn everything about skiing and the latest equipment.”
“…it’s all still relatively new in China, so there’s a lot of stoke … people are just so into it, and so excited to learn everything about skiing”
Peter has naturally spent a lot of time exploring the country’s ski resorts (there are more than 700), so he’s more qualified than most to speak on the attractions of skiing in China. Most resorts – particularly those around Beijing – don’t get much natural snowfall, so for anyone picturing the powder-covered slopes that you’d get in parts of Japan, think again.
But there are some benefits that come with consistently cold winters with very little natural snow (mostly man-made).
“For park skiing, it’s very consistent, because you don’t get much natural snowfall”, Peter says.
“That’s actually good for parks because they control everything about the conditions – they make the snow when they want to make it, and when they build the features they stay the same shape. You don’t have a day when suddenly there’s a whiteout and a blizzard, or when there’s too much snow and you can’t hit the park.
“The other good thing is that resorts consistently open in November – usually on November 1st. And that’s really unique in Asia. That’s why a lot of people, even from Japan, go to Wanlong, for example, in November for training. It’s especially good for ski racers.”
And the best places to ski?
“It’s a joint first place between Thaiwoo and Nanshan, because you’d go to each of them for a different purpose.
“For Nanshan, you’d go for the snow park. It has a really good snow park and it’s only one hour from Beijing.
“And the weather is very consistent – not that cold and usually sunny – and you can go there for a day trip from Beijing. They cater well to day-trippers, with lots of shuttle buses and other services.
“Then for Thaiwoo, you’d go for a different purpose entirely. It’s about three hours from Beijing, and it’s a great place for a relaxing weekend or even a week away, because it has a lovely village with restaurants and bars, hotels and everything you’d need for a ski holiday. Plus it has longer ski slopes and more of them, so it’s more of a destination.”
For those willing to travel further afield, Peter recommends Beidahu, a resort in Jilin Province – to the northeast of Beijing – that has more vertical than any other in China.
“The good thing about Beidahu is that it has the best natural snow of all of the resorts. You can actually enjoy some off-piste which is quite rare in China.”
Peter concludes with some advice for Ski Asia readers.
“November is a good time to go because it’s before the busy season, so there aren’t many crowds. China is a great place for early season training before the other [international resorts] open up.
“Where possible, you should aim to visit mid-week to avoid the crowds and get the best of the conditions”.
To find out more in skiing in China, check out Ski Asia’s article on the best resorts in and around Beijing, which features more advice from Peter. To learn more about Peter’s business or book a lesson, visit the Imagine China website.