Publicly-funded grants totalling almost £2million have helped the company that runs troubled Cairngorm Mountain ski centre break even, despite Covid-19 wiping out its winter season.
Takings plunged by more than £1m as pandemic closures hit the business set up by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) to manage the facility following the collapse of its previous operator.
But Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland) said next year promises to be “exciting” at the resort, where the funicular railway is undergoing multi-million pound repairs after being out of service on safety grounds for almost three years.
A makeover for the UK’s highest restaurant, at the railway’s top station, is among planned projects.
Year was ‘challenging and traumatic’
Annual accounts for the company, published by Companies House, showed its turnover slid to just £215,736 in the 12 months to the end of March, from £1.2m in 2019/290.
And they revealed government grants used for operating income totalled £1.9m, compared to £626,541 the previous year.
The total included a £289,187 Coronavirus job retention support grant for the centre, where the average monthly number of employees was cut from 61 to 53 over the period.
In a forward to the accounts, director Peter Mearns described the year as a “very challenging and traumatic period.”
He wrote: “As noted last year, the country went into lockdown shortly before our last accounts in March 2020. In line with Scottish Governments rules we were able to partially re-open in the summer but the restrictions were re-imposed as the year went into second lockdown on 26 December 2020.
As a result the business was closed for nearly six months and we missed the critical winter season in January to March.”
Mr Mearns added: “I am once again grateful to the Scottish Government for its financial support not only to the company but to the sector as a whole and to the UK Government for the furlough scheme which we made use of throughout the year.”
He said that, while support from HIE in the period to the end of March 2020 had been mainly loans and share capital, in the more recent financial year it had come primarily in the form of revenue funding.
“As a result the accounts have shown a break even position,” he added.
“I am pleased to report that once again the company operated within budget.”
Last year, accounts for the first 16 months of the company’s operations showed losses of more than £1m.
Ptarmigan Restaurant to be upgraded
Scottish Government-funded HIE owns the ski centre, near Aviemore, and the 3,500-acre Cairngorm Estate.
The quango awarded private company Natural Retreats UK a 25-year contract to operate the resort in 2014. But, went the firm placed its CairnGorm Mountain (CML) subsidiary into administration shortly after the funicular’s closure in October 2018, HIE stepped in to run it, setting up Cairngorm Mountain (Scotland).
Repairs are being carried out to concrete piers that support the mile-long railway, which is expected to re-open next year. HIE is footing £10.35m of the £16m costs of the work, as part of a £20m project to make Cairngorm a year-round visitor attraction.
Mr Mearns said that, despite the Covid-related closures, work on improvements at the centre had continued.
He added: “We are currently working on plans to re-open and improve the Ptarmigan Restaurant and tenders for the work have been issued.
“Our play slide was opened during the financial year and has proved popular. We have therefore expanded our facilities with two additional slides and a zip-line, thus adding to the attraction for families.”
An HIE spokesman said: “Tourism was one of the economic sectors that bore the brunt of the economic impact of the pandemic during 2020-21, and Cairngorm Mountain was no exception.
Having a sustainable operating company is a key goal of our Cairngorm Masterplan, published in May, and it does feel now that things are moving in the right direction.
“As the sector has opened up again in recent weeks, it’s also been great to see summer visitors flocking again to Cairngorm Mountain, where the newly expanded family play area is already proving very popular.”
Last month it emerged HIE is suing the builders and designers of the funicular railway for £14.5m.
It is also pursuing legal action against the holding company of Natural Retreats.