Édition #5

Leisure property: a legacy to be considered at its true value if we are to build a future

Sylvain CHARLOT Atout France’s Mountain Representative
Cold beds, warm beds… lukewarm beds? This well-established triptych has guided discussions and even planning guidelines in recent years, against a backdrop of struggle (against cold beds), but always with a view to development (to compensate for the erosion of the marketable stock) and, incidentally, to renovation of the existing stock. But what is the real story? We now need to take a fresh look at this stock of real estate, to gain a better understanding of this unconditional legacy and its associated uses so that we can equip ourselves with operational tools aimed at putting resorts on the path to a sustainable transition towards more balanced living spaces that give greater value to their environment.

REAL ESTATE: THE FOUNDATION OF SKI RESORTS

Make no mistake: ski resorts have largely developed through real estate. The different development plans were based on the development of ski areas but also, and above all, on real estate operations driven by the savings of French people motivated by the purchase of a second home; tax exemption schemes then came along to boost investment, with the model of tourism residences. Overall, these historical mechanisms have led to the current situation: 80% of tourist beds in resorts are in the form of second homes, most of which are in co-owned residences that are 30 or more years old.

This type of property is the economic engine of the resorts: it provides a volume of accommodation (not always objectively assessed) and its weight weighs heavily on the tax revenues of the municipalities the resorts are based in. In 2018, residence tax accounted for an average of 18% of tax revenue, property tax on buildings for 34% and revenue from property transactions (transfer tax) for 19%, while tourism revenue only accounted for 8% (Atout France – Espelia, 2020). The act of building boosted local authorities’ finances so that they could fund the facilities deemed necessary for the development of tourist destinations and the rise in property prices recorded over the last 40 years has accelerated the mechanism of dependence on property for mountain authorities, particularly new property.

BEDS: FROM THEORY TO REALITY

Quantifying and classifying the existing stock is the basis of all thinking and planning. Historically, however, this variable has been only partially understood, with a uniform ratio of 5 beds per second home and a partial view of the associated uses.

The use of land files and requests for land values (DV3F) has made it possible to characterise the stock in a reliable, stable way and without the constraint of administrative limits. The CONITIFF® method, developed and registered by Cerema and Atout France, has made it possible to specify a structural analysis of the property stock in resorts according to accommodation type, without presuming the “warmth” of the associated beds.

This quantitative value can then be filtered by its performance in terms of occupancy. Resorts with visitor number monitoring systems can use their data in detail to deduce their “real capacity”, integrating both the operating constraints (a hotel with 50 rooms / 100 beds are never used by 100 people) and the commercial realities (a one-bedroom apartment with the capacity to sleep 6 will usually accommodate 4 or 5 people), and their “maximum occupancy”, taking into account the realities of use (not all those with a holiday home that they do not rent come at the same time).

ACCOMMODATION: THE ESSENTIAL TRYPTICH TOURIST / PERMANENT / SEASONAL

The size of the accommodation stock needs to be measured and nuanced in its entirety, in response to both objective needs (tourist beds, permanent housing integrating the potential for mutation of the existing stock and residential mobility in the light of demographics, season worker housing) and to a vision for the resort’s future (changes in the tourism offer and positioning, seasonality, habitability).

Housing for the permanent population and for seasonal workers is more than ever at the heart of concerns in a context of pressure on land (accentuated by the ZAN – Zero Net Artificialization – 2050 objective) and pressure on natural resources (particularly water). Maintaining the existing permanent population is becoming essential to avoid the “resortisation” of resorts; hosting a new permanent population can also be sought, while avoiding a form of “gentrification” due to purchase costs. Public policy must be both committed to this direction and adapted to the local context, which may vary greatly from one destination to another.

Tourist accommodation needs to be sized as correctly as possible, in line with the tourism offer. On this point, we can consider that the activity used for sizing resorts remains the ski area, the central attraction for the weeks with the highest visitor numbers. To do this, Atout France has developed a simulator for the balance between the accommodation offer and the ski offer, taking into account future projections in terms of the areas’ skiability as well as the structuring of the property stock: ICAREDS (Identification et CARactérisation des Equilibres pour le Dimensionnement des Stations – Identification and Characterisation of Balances for Sizing Resorts).

THE URGENT NEED TO RENOVATE THE EXISTING ACCOMMODATION

The logic of new real estate developments to “compensate for the erosion of the marketable stock” or to “house the population” comes up against several challenges: land conservation (the ZAN 2050 objective
is unavoidable and the mountains will not be exempt from this goal), the energy transition (any new build, even if it is efficient, remains costly in terms of raw materials and energy consumption), landscape conservation (the primary intangible value of the mountain regions) and resource management (particularly water and energy). New property developments must be seen as exceptions in response to the resort’s real, objectively identified needs, which cannot be met by the existing stock. These new developments should preferably be part of a renewal strategy (demolition-reconstruction) or an elevation strategy (capitalising on above-ground real estate and allowing work to be carried out on existing buildings at the same time).

Renovating existing buildings is a clear commitment to sustainable transition. It means facing up to the reality of the structuring of the existing real estate, which mostly consists of second homes in co ownerships, with co-owners who usually live far from their property and the challenges of “their” resort, and who are usually older (average age 64), involved in the day-today management of their building and supported by management agents who are reluctant to undertake the comprehensive renovation work that is so necessary. It also means mobilising the entire resort ecosystem around a cross-disciplinary issue that calls on a wide range of skills (town planning, architecture, user design, sociology, energy performance, project management, local economy, marketing, finance). Finally, it means having the political courage to initiate actions today that will only bear fruit in 5, 10 or 15 years.

It is against this backdrop and in the face of this reality that Atout France has embarked on this long but essential path to support resorts that are convinced of the need to act and find the keys to action. These keys are based on educational initiatives and the research and development of methods and tools, as well as operational support to motivate and initiate renovation.

“New property developments must be seen as exceptions in response to real and objective needs for the resort and which cannot be met by the existing stock.”

GIVING OURSELVES THE APPROPRIATE MEANS AND TOOLS

As well as knowing the stock and objectively assessing needs based on the tourist-permanent-seasonal triptych, rigorous planning (Local Town Planning Scheme – PLU) and detailed guidelines (Development and Programming Orientations – OAP) make it possible to frame and restrict operations, to avoid investments that will not satisfy a resort’s general interest. We also, and above all, need to be able to anticipate changes in land use and, where necessary, ensure we have the tools for acquiring the most strategic assets (preferably building complexes) and/or land, so that we can go beyond the guidelines of urban planning and regulations. Failing that, we need to have a perfect understanding of our needs in order to enter into a constructive dialogue with investors, so that private and public interests converge and are inscribed in an agreement.

When it comes to renovating residences, project management assistance is essential to support the co-owners and management agents in their project. As a competent and neutral external third party, this project manager provides all their expertise to enable co-owners to understand their property and identify its potential for development, prioritise the challenges, establish the link between the needs, desires and financial viability of interventions and, lastly, optimise the renovation and development of buildings in line with the resort’s vision for the future.

The marketing of furnished accommodation is a cornerstone of the financial equilibrium of renovation operations and the tourism performance of resorts. With over 1/3 of owners registered as letting their property, second homes play an obvious role in a resort’s tourism operation. The annual rental income also, and above all, enables owners to cover their running costs and, if necessary, renovation work (if they do not have access to renovation grants). It is therefore essential to develop effective and attractive local marketing tools, particularly for incoming business, which is clearly the weak link in the furnished accommodation marketing chain.

In addition to rental income, we need to consider financing models that are suited to the renovation of this property stock. Energy Performance Contracts could serve as a model if they were extended to cover the overall renovation of these buildings, which are mainly used by tourists (for rental or personal use). The creation of third-party financing structures, or even third-party investment structures, funded in part by the local tourism players (in addition to the local authority and, traditionally, the ski lift operators), who are directly dependent on the tourism performance of the accommodation, must be considered in the future. Part of the added value generated by tourist numbers must be used to upgrade its production tool: the accommodation. In this area, it is possible to draw inspiration from foreign initiatives such as that of Åre in Sweden (mobilisation of private players in a “local fund” to finance reflection and action, over and above purely public or public-private action, with private levies serving local projects) or that initiated by players in the Tyrol (setting up of economic governance in parallel with the local political governance, with the broad involvement of economic players, including players from outside the area, but whose activity depends on the area’s smooth operation); these examples show that the level of levy for tourism may be high, but it is accepted, because it benefits the individual interests of all the players involved and thereby provides substantial budgets to finance the different tourism development or repositioning projects.

REDUCING OUR DEPENDENCE ON SECOND HOMES?

The legacy of second homes calls for a collective awakening to take the action required. Future regulatory and legislative changes are likely to tighten the current balance (changes in the tax regime for furnished rentals, increase in the residence tax on second homes) and accelerate the need to renovate the existing stock (extension of the rental ban to seasonal lets). A high level of dependence on second homes will de facto be correlated with a high level of vulnerability in terms of offer and therefore visitor numbers. The gradual introduction of coercive measures against owners of second homes must go hand in hand with a capacity to acquire and/or control usage, so as not to suffer the full force of a rapid and programmed upheaval in the balance.

TO CONCLUDE

Acting on the stock of tourist accommodation means, above all, repositioning its role in a general housing policy with a long-term vision, to the benefit of the resort’s smooth economic operation, the quality of
everyday life and access to housing for the most disadvantaged groups (low-income earners and nonresident seasonal workers). This requires conviction and dedicated human resources to mobilise all the
socio-professionals around this pillar of tourism, to develop and implement operational actions covering different areas of expertise and creating an interfac with the professional accommodation providers and second home owners who today have the power to take action on 80% of the available property.

 

Sylvain CHARLOT
Sylvain CHARLOT
An architectural and urban planning engineer from the Ministry of Ecological Transition, Sylvain joined Atout France’s Mountain Delegation ten years ago to work on the question of renovating mountain real estate and returning it to tourism, and to work on the transition of resorts. His passion for the mountains guides his choices and motivates his day-to-day actions, in line with the quote: “They didn’t know it was impossible, so they did it.”