The Championships in Planica are only the beginning

Author: Rok Šinkovc | Read time: 5 minutes 

Slovenia is awaiting one of the biggest – or according to certain criteria – the biggest sports event in its independent history. We will have to tune in between 21 February and 5 March 2023 to see the performances of the Nordic Skiing top athletes, but in the meantime, we have talked to four guests about the behind-the-scenes preparations for the upcoming spectacle. In many ways, this will be a unique, momentous and historic event, not only for Slovenia but the entire ski world.

The Ski Association of Slovenia (SAS) has submitted its candidacy for the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica four times so far. The first three times can now, from a time distance, be evaluated differently: when a small country offers its candidacy for an event of this scale for the first time, there is not much hope. The second time, it can be disappointing. When the SAS and the Planica Organising Committee applied for the third time and failed again, looking back to 2021, when the pandemic took away the viewers, and as a result, a lot of satisfaction and money (this happened to Oberstdorf), it is easy to say that it was for the best. The fourth try was a success – after about a million euros invested in the candidacies, Planica has won.

Our guests, all of them extremely important actors in the event’s organisation chain, believe that Planica will also win during the championships. Preparations are well underway and the International Ski and Snowboard Federation (FIS) is very pleased with the work of the Local Organising Committee.

Vion: FIS is in a vulnerable place, the environment requires adaptation

“We have an excellent collaboration with the Local Organising Committee, and Planica is used to organising major events. But the Nordic WC is about ten times bigger than the World Cup Race, with more investments, more athletes, visitors, media, infrastructure… However, we trust the organisers, the team there is very good and so will be the WC. The last dilemma regarding the 30km and 50km Cross Country Skiing on the last weekend of the championships was also resolved a month ago, when we decided that to move the start of the race in Tarvisio (Italy) would be too risky in terms of finance, organisation and sustainability, and that the best option is to stay in Planica,” revealed Michel Vion, General Secretary at FIS, two months before the event.

“It is not easy to organise the WC outside of a certain world. Scandinavia, Italy, Germany, Austria, and now Slovenia. I am French, I was President of the French Ski Federation for 11 years, and I know France is not able to organise the Nordic WC even if we are a big skiing country. We do not have a venue. In Alpine Skiing, there are more possibilities, from Andorra to the USA. That is the reason we were outside of Europe only three times. The culture is not the same around the world and Planica was the best way to expand,” adds Vion.

The FIS is one of the most vulnerable global sports organisations. Because of the specificity of its disciplines, it has to adapt to climate change, which makes the organisation of the major events even more difficult: “I am not too afraid that WC races will remain, we will find solutions, we will still have snow. It is just higher, above 1500 metres. Planica is a cold valley, so we are not afraid that there will not be enough snow. We do hope for good weather, but we will need some luck. At the same time, we need Nordic disciplines, we need good formats to be attractive. It is not easy to bring young people to the snow, we have to work more with schools and kids; the strategy of our sports is changing. You have seen in China, the legacy of the Olympic Games should bring 300 million people to the winter sports. Of course, there are climate changes, we are not the same as swimming or football, we need snow and cold as well as equipment. You are in Slovenia, you know that instead of 5 months, you now have 3 months of snow. There is still snow in March and April, but only high in the mountains, so we will need to find solutions.”

Vion, who joined the FIS management a year and a half ago, when he was faced with many unexpected challenges due to the pandemic, is now, when things are challenging again for the FIS, calm and deliberate: “We are working to make the value of the Nordic WC more important – in terms of size, the Nordic WC is two times less than Alpine. The support of the industry is important, they are pushing us as a business. There is more of that in Alpine Skiing than in Ski Jumping or Cross Country, even with countries such as Norway that have big purchasing power. The revenue and sale is a bit less than in Alpine, but it should come close in the future.”

The FIS General Secretary also touched on a hot topic in the world of ski business, which has been on the mind of both contracting parties for a year and a half – FIS and Infront, owner of FIS marketing and media rights until 2025: “It is a clear direction by the FIS that we want centralisation, I do not like the word very much, and we have nothing against Infront. It is not personal and it is not a matter of Mr. Eliasch, as all four candidates had this in their programme as FIS presidents: to centralise the rights.”

Šušteršič: WC as a role model for the next generations

The FIS owns all WC media and marketing rights, which have so far been sold to Infront, the leading international agency in winter sports. This represents the largest income from the competitions, part of which goes to the WC organisers. The only variable part for the hosts is a contractual share from the sale of tickets, food, drink and merchandise. “Apart from the ticket sales, our part of the income, the value of which is not yet known, comes from the state. The Planica Nordic Centre is owned by the Republic of Slovenia and collaboration is being discussed in this very moment. If we are not required to pay renting costs for all facilities owned by the state, it will be much easier. We have bought a part of the rights back from Infront, mostly for hospitality services for the visitors and sale of official products, for example the mascot, Vita the heron, which can be marketed on the local market. The financial aspect of the championships is definitely our main concern, given that the situation is changing – we are mostly worried about energy prices. Consequently, prices are also higher when it comes to travel, artificial snow production, renting temporary infrastructure and so on,” comments Tomaž Šušteršič, OC Planica Secretary General, about their current challenges. The budget is limited to about €15 million; the organisers and the SAS are hoping to earn around 25% of this amount from the sale of tickets, hospitality services and official products.

Šušteršič elaborated on ticket sales and fan experience: “In the light of the championships, we regret that Anamarija Lampič decided to switch from Cross Country Skiing to Biathlon last year, but she may still change her mind and still compete in Planica as she would be a magnet for the fans also on the cross-country skiing track. Traditionally, our greatest expectations as far as Slovenian Nordic ski enthusiasts are concerned are of course placed on ski jumping competitions, which will take place mostly in the afternoon under the spotlights, while the mornings during the two-week event will be dedicated more to cross-country skiers. Much is expected from the Nordic Combined skier Ema Volavšek as well, who has been occupying the world’s top ranking for the last two seasons. All visitors can look forward to a great experience. After arriving at the main parking place in Kranjska Gora, they will be offered a round-trip to Planica. Along the walkway, they will have the opportunity to engage in different adventures, with a lot of accompanying events. Day tickets will be offered throughout the event, allowing them to first see the cross-country skiing competitions and then make their way through the always fun Entertainment Arena to the ski jumping hills. Some days will have four or five competitions, others only one or two. Evenings in the Nordic Park in Kranjska Gora will be particularly entertaining, with medal ceremonies and concerts featuring popular music groups. The medal ceremonies will be held at 20.23 every evening – a time that is easy to remember. The event’s opening ceremony on 21 February will also take place at 20.23 with the presentation of the touristic places across Slovenia and sports achievements of our athletes, many of whom will also be attending. Of course, we cannot count on having 30,000 visitors every day, as with the Ski Flying in Planica, because there will be more limitations, but we still urge the fans to buy their tickets early.”

Seven people are at the core of the organising team, supported by the office team. Their tasks cover the sports part and the venues, marketing, media, logistics and accommodation. The basic structure of the LOC is always suggested by the FIS. Led by the SAS President Enzo Smrekar, it includes the honorary board and strategic council responsible for five areas: finances, sustainable development, tourism, infrastructure and consulting. The organisational unit consists of about 40 persons, while a total of about 1200 people will participate in the organisation of the event, 700 of them volunteers. “We are pleased that so many volunteers are joining, coming from 17 countries,” adds Šušteršič.

Planica is a very important milestone, both for the FIS and the hosts, in yet another aspect and in the spirit of change – sustainable development. “We want to make this WC exemplary, both for the FIS and other sporting events in our country. Not only in the aspect of environmental awareness and sustainability but also in terms of social and economic gains which will allow the local community to feel the long-term legacy of the sustainable competitions and to develop the environment according to their own desires. One of the goals of our strategic council is to create a manual at the national level after the competitions are over for future organisers of similar events. For example, 30,000 square metres of parking spaces around Kranjska Gora will not be a degraded but a sustainable surface and after a few months, no one will be able to tell there used to be a parking spot,” concludes Šušteršič.

Krauss: Nature is forcing us to look for alternatives

Stefan Krauss, Vice President, Wintersport, at Infront Sports & Media AG, who is a prominent partner of the Planica Championships, reveals: “Everything looks quite promising, the cooperation with the LOC is excellent, the stadium in Planica outstanding. On our side, there are still a few sponsorship packages to be sold, on the other side, the implementation of the already sold packaged needs to be finally coordinated. I am absolutely convinced that the Nordic World Ski Championships in Planica will become a real highlight of this winter season. There is a huge fan base in Slovenia and nearby Austria for Ski Jumping, a really crazy fan base in Scandinavia especially for Cross Country Skiing and Nordic Combined, and the interest for the Nordic disciplines in general is even increasing each year compared to the other sports. Our rights sales so far are very good. Every commercial partner, sponsor and their guests have to have a great experience at the Nordic World Ski Championships, therefore our team is now focusing on the details of each sponsorship deal, like advertising installations and material, the planned activation, the accommodation, printed material and much more. On the side of the LOC, we have an experienced partner, so that we can be optimistic that everything will work smoothly. Planica is wonderful, it has an amazing scenery, the valley is a true winter fairy tale. As for live transmission, we had around 170 million TV viewers worldwide for the live broadcasts of the last Nordic World Ski Championships 2021 in Oberstdorf, so to reach this as a benchmark would be a great result.”

Infront is adapting to the modern viewing trends both in terms of viewers and sponsors: “We have added a lot of activation plans in our sponsorship packages, new experiences, together with local organisers we are already offering a lot of additional services throughout the running World Cup season, and similar things will be done in Planica. We have to support the creation of prolongations of the sponsorship packages in the interest of the partner via digital platforms and social media campaigns or – maybe today you would say – “old-fashioned” campaigns in newspapers and magazines. The preparations in Planica are also adapting to meet the goals of sustainable development by using recycled materials, replacing visual images with those less spectacular and environment-friendly – to preserve the nature onsite, which is especially important in a winter gem like Planica. I expect that the Nordic World Ski Championships will catch up on the attractiveness for commercial partners, in comparison with the Alpine and even Biathlon competitions. It is such a different interested group mix, which we do not have in Alpine, Biathlon, Luge, Speed Skating or other winter sports.”

Understandably, Krauss does not want to go deep into the FIS’ plans after the current contract with Infront, he only says that the conversations are intense and that this will not have any effect on Planica. He believes, however, that in the next few years, all stakeholders participating in these events will have to adjust to the climate change: “If you analyse different studies, we see that skiing will not be possible in next 15 to 20 years under 1200 metres above sea level anymore, not even with the artificial snow because of the increasing temperatures. Our behaviour needs to create alternatives. To support sustainability activities is our mission. For example, I know Maribor has a long tradition in organising women’s Alpine races, but, even if it sounds hard, you need to think about if further investments in these competitions make sense or not, and discuss what could make sense as an alternative. We will have even more problems in the future, not only with Maribor but also with a significant number of other competition venues. It’s the reality.”

Stora Enso: Everything made from fossil-based materials today can be made out of wood tomorrow

When it comes to environmental awareness of all participating in the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships Planica 2023 and FIS’ efforts towards sustainable development, the approach of one of the six major sponsors of the championships is also encouraging. The event’s presenting partner Stora Enso is a leading Swedish-Finnish company in the forest, paper and packaging industry and is among top five global producers of forest products, employing over 26,000 people. Since WC Falun 2015, they have been working closely with the FIS as partners in the Nordic WC. “In our business, the forest is the starting point. If you look the Nordic forest, people have been skiing in that forest for thousands of years. Our company is very environmentally aware, the sponsorship in the FIS follows the same direction. It was in Falun, in our hometown, where Stora Enso started as a partner, but two years later, at WC Lahti, we were already a presenting sponsor, the same in Planica. There are many similarities between both venues,” says Satu Härkönen, Head of Media Relations with this FIS’ Scandinavian partner that will ensure an environmentally friendly venue in Planica as well.

Photo: Stora Enso

“We work very closely with LOCs in terms of engagement and action to adapt to their venues, especially as they have different targets regarding sustainability. In Planica, there is interest in renewable installations, primarily podiums and tribunes, start and finish gates, furniture in the VIP area, medal boxes, etc. Everything will be made from renewable products, with a lot of wood, our primary material, for the good of the planet. We believe that everything that is made from fossil-based materials today can be made out of wood tomorrow. You will be able to see in Planica what we are capable of,” says Härkönen. As a representative of Stora Enso, she is also proud of their employees’ commitment, which is purposefully strengthened with the WC Nordic: “In Lahti, we had 3000 people around, we will not have as many in Planica, but we will have many motivational events for employees from all over the world, from China to Australia. There will still be a Stora Enso challenge, sports activities, and the winners are invited Planica to celebrate. In this way, we encourage employee engagement, environmental awareness of our colleagues and competition. It is an excellent atmosphere, we are looking forward to see it in Planica, too.”

The article was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 17 (December 2022).