Innovator Spotlight: Making ski-holidays more sustainable with Snowcarbon

Jeremy Smith speaks to Daniel Elkan, who founded Snowcarbon to make it easier for skiers travelling to the Alps to get there as sustainably as possible.

1: What inspired you to create your business?

Profile Parliament HillI set up Snowcarbon to help other skiers have a more sustainable and enjoyable journey to the Alps. Many people who fly or drive to the Alps would actually prefer to travel by train if they were able to find out how to do it, or persuade their friends to. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, you can trace the birth Snowcarbon to a moment 16 year ago when I was sat on the transfer coach from an airport to a ski resort in Italy, called Sauze d’Oulx. It had been a journey of about 8-9 hours – with lots of tedious airport queues. But just as we were finally approaching the ski resort village, I noticed something glinting in the sunlight, further down the valley as the coach turned a bend. I made it out to be a railway track before it disappeared around the corner. I’d never imagined that you could travel by train to the Alps – I’d assumed it would take too long. But I was curious, found out the name of the railway station and I looked up the journey in a battered old Interrail timetable when I got home. To my surprise, we could have come by train nearly as quickly as flying. From that day on, I started organising our ski trips by train each year. The journeys were fun – and obviously far less polluting than flying. Trying to find out where you could reach by train was a pain. But the more rail routes I researched, the more I discovered. And in many resorts, other skiers would always be surprised and curious that we had come by train. I began writing about the subject as a travel journalist and finally, in 2009, I launched the Snowcarbon website, so that I could help far more skiers find out the nitty gritty details that had always taken me so long to research for our holidays.

 2: How does being responsible help your business attract potential customers?

Boy on TGV, photo by Daniel ElkanSnowcarbon aims to inspire and inform skiers about rail options to the Alps. Although this is a far more responsible way to travel – because the journeys cause only a fraction of the pollution of travelling to the Alps by plane or car – the environmental/responsible aspect is often not the reason most skiers want to travel by train. Lots of skiers choose rail travel because they want a more relaxing, enjoyable journey or – if they go overnight – extra time on the slopes. The sustainability benefit is more the icing on the cake for them – but it certainly makes these journeys more attractive overall, because skiers can feel they are doing something to help reduce the impact on the environment.

3: How do you engage guests in your responsible tourism activities?

TGV cafe bar, by Daniel ElkanSimply by travelling by train, skiers are engaging in responsible tourism in terms of mode of travel. Per person, a journey to the Alps by plane creates about 120kg of Co2, a place in a full car about 55kg, and a journey by train about 11kg. So it’s a big saving in terms of pollution and resources.

But it would be great to go further, in the future, to make every train journey contribute positively to the environment in some way – not just saving resources but actively contributing to important environmental issues – perhaps linked with protecting areas of rainforest, or planting trees where they are needed – or something like that.

4: What is the responsible tourism initiative of which you are most proud?

One of the initiatives of which I’m most proud is the film we have recently made about how children make the journey part of the holiday. In 16 years of travelling by train to the Alps, I’ve seen countless families enjoying the journey. You walk down the gangway of a Eurostar or TGV for example, look around you at what the children are doing. It’s fantastic: chatting with family or friends, playing games, drawing, scribbling. Parents often tell me that when their ski holiday is approaching, it’s the train journey that gets the children most excited.

I wanted to tell that story, to inspire more families to see that the train is the way to go. So I got a ticket for the Eurostar Ski Train at Easter (thanks to help from Crystal Ski), carried my DSLR camera on board and asked children to tell me about why they enjoy train travel. The enthusiasm with which they, and their parents, greeted my questions was really heartwarming. The film I made came runner up at the TV/e Global Sustainabilty Film Awards, and it’s a film that other travel websites are using to communicate the benefits of train travel to the Alps too, so a good way of spreading the word.

5: What positive impacts does your tourism business have on the community / environment where you are based?

Sleeper train from Paris by Daniel ElkanOn a global scale, travel causes a significant amount of pollution and carbon emissions, and uses a huge amount of finite fossil fuel resources. In London, where Snowcarbon is based, we might not feel the impact results of our transport choices so directly but that doesn’t make them any less important. Giving skiers travelling from the UK to the Alps a sustainable travel option means that they can do an activity that they love with far less damage to the environment and detriment to the planet. I think that’s a really important positive impact.

6: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced?

Train in snow, by Daniel ElkanThe biggest challenge that I’ve faced – and still face – is getting train companies to engage more effectively with the ski-travel industry so as to enable far more skiers to get the train. If train operators like Eurostar offered rail fares at fixed or shielded prices for a wide variety of ski tour operators, it would vastly increase the volume of rail options available to skiers. Ski tour operators are super keen to promote the train and currently it’s the train companies’ policies that prevent them from doing so. The situation is counterproductive, yet it’s a struggle to get the train companies to see the opportunity and engage with the trade in a more meaningful way. That’s the big challenge we face – and I’ve launched an initiative to help solve this problem and am gaining support from the ski industry and beyond. Hopefully the new London-Lyon direct service, which will run next winter and be a good new train route to the Alps, may focus minds on this issue.

 7: What advice would you give to any entrepreneur starting a responsible tourism business?

My first piece of advice is that if you can help fill an important information gap about sustainable travel, you will be doing something really useful – and doing something useful is crucial in business. It’s never been easier for people to access information about travel quickly, but that doesn’t mean they can find out what they really want to know. Some of our most highly viewed pages, for example, are detailed guides on how to change station in Paris – unique information that makes all the difference in terms of enabling journeys.

Second, look for important partners. Before I set Snowcarbon up I spent three months touring the Alps in spring and summer, by train, talking to ski resort tourist offices about the importance helping skiers to travel by train. I asked the tourist offices to become members of Snowcarbon, contributing financially so that Snowcarbon could effectively promote sustainable, enjoyable journeys to these resorts. I remember running out of money while in Switzerland and sleeping in a doorway, the day before a big meeting, wondering if I would succeed in getting the resort partners on board. But I did. Serre Chevalier, in France, was the first resort to join, and soon I had 30 resort partners. I would definitely recommend thinking creatively about which organisations might become partners. And seek other organisations who share your aims and with whom you can develop solutions. We have started working with train-booking website Loco2.com, who have been innovative in helping make booking train travel easier.

Thirdly, research. Ask people – your target market (not necessarily your friends), what they think about your idea. This research need cost you nothing, just conversations. Don’t do it once, do it regularly as your idea evolves. Look for honest feedback, not encouragement. Find out the reasons behind people’s travel decisions, and look to solve their problems. You can learn a lot this way – I certainly still am. 

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Jeremy Smith is a writer and editor specialising in responsible tourism. He is the editor of Travindy.com, an industry news site focussing on developments in sustainable and responsible tourism. He also works with ethical and sustainable travel businesses, developing their communications, brands, marketing and digital & social media strategy.

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