How Snowbombing started the ski festival revolution – and lured a new generation to the slopes

Lucy Aspden
Snowbombing has introduced over 100,000 to ski holidays over the past 20 years - © Richard Johnson / Fanatic 2019

Love them or hate them ski festivals are a staple in the winter calendar, when muddy fields are swapped for snowy slopes and the mountains come alive with the sound of (loud) music.

This year Snowbombing, the music festival held in the Austrian ski resort of Mayrhofen, celebrated its 20th anniversary. Over the past two decades the event has been the first taste of a ski holiday for thousands of people.

In honour of the landmark birthday and to experience firsthand what it’s really like to attend ‘the greatest show on snow’ I visited Mayrhofen during the festival in April 2019, with the aim of discovering what role the rising number of events like this play in securing the next generation of snow-sport fans.

Gareth Cooper is founder of Snowbombing and has subsequently become the founder and CEO of Broadwick Live, the events company now in charge.

Twenty years ago Cooper set out with a goal of breaking into the ski holiday market, but with little budget for marketing he needed to try something new. “I thought that combining decent music with a ski holiday would provide the gimmick needed to get the press coverage for it [Snowbombing] and also open skiing and snowboarding up to a whole new market,” said Cooper.

Fat Boy Slim has been a regular act at Snowbombing over the past two decades Credit: FANATIC 2019/ANDREW WHITTON

It’s this that he claims is the festival’s biggest achievement. “The best thing I suppose is that we have given an amazing mountain and a new experience to over 100,000 people,” said Cooper.

But it hasn’t been an easy road of Snowbombing. The festival was established in 1999, and first took place in the French resort of Risoul during the same winter. The year after it moved to Villars in Switzerland for two consecutive years, before another move to Les Arcs in 2004. 

The following year Cooper found Snowbombing a permanent home in Mayrhofen and the event has been running every April in the Austrian resort ever since. The resort, an hour’s drive from Innsbruck, welcomed Snowbombing, and all its raucous baggage, with open arms and this year has signed another three-year contract to continue to host the event.

Mayrhofen has hosted the event for the past 15 years Credit: FANATIC 2019/RICHARD JOHNSON

Since the turn of the millennium there has been a rise in the number of events and festivals held in ski resorts designed to attract British holidaymakers, old and young, to the slopes. The diary of events spans the entire season and genres, from drum and base on the glacier in Les Deux Alpes in December at RISE festival to comedy sets in the snow at Altitude Festival in April.

While some of these events have fizzled out or undergone numerous reincarnations, since its move to Mayrhofen Snowbombing has gone from strength to strength – it’s the biggest of all the snow and music festivals in Europe and has recently expanded to Canada. “We created the idea of the snow festival and we have stood the test of time. Many more have popped up around the world but we are still number one, although we will never take that for granted,” said Cooper.

Breaking the mould of the traditional ski holiday has always been Snowbombing’s key to appealing to a new audience of fans. “I was skiing and totally perplexed at the awful music skiers are expected to endure during the apres-ski or later evening,” said Cooper of his days before Snowbombing.

“We ended up selling packages to seasoned skiers that would go for the snow with the music as a bonus – but also the new market of music lovers that would go for the music with the snow as a bonus. 20 years on and the model has not really changed,” explained Cooper.

While electronic dance music is Snowbombing’s bread and butter, it has widened its appeal with headliners such as Liam Gallagher, Ed Sheeran and Kasabian. This year’s big name was Stormzy, who was due to play his first live show of 2019 on the penultimate night of the event on a stage hidden deep in Mayrhofen’s forest. However, the grime artist from London cancelled his gig hours before he was due to appear.

A statement from the organisers read: “Snowbombing regrets to inform you that Stormzy will no longer be performing at the festival this evening. Last night (Wednesday 10th) Snowbombing’s security were alerted to the possibility that an individual at the festival was allegedly carrying a weapon. In accordance with protocol, a small number of attendees, including Stormzy’s manager were escorted to the nearest exit, searched and no weapon was found. Stormzy’s management were unhappy with the manner by which this took place and as a result Stormzy will no longer be performing.”

Chase and Status perform on the forest stage Credit: © Jenna Foxton / Fanatic 2019/Jenna Foxton

Many festival goers, as well as Stormzy, took to social media to air their frustrations at the situation, which led to international news coverage of the event. But after 20 years in business it’s something an operation like Snowbombing has to be prepared for. These festivals are no longer just the stomping ground of ski bums, they’re international news events that attract some of the world’s biggest artists.

With those A-list names comes a following of fans who have never seen the Alpine mountains, let alone clipped into a pair of skis or a snowboard, before. It’s an exciting opportunity to introduce a whole new generation to the wonders of the mountains in winter.

Cooper explains the mid-to-late twenties age bracket is their target, meaning that my assumption that on arriving in Mayrhofen I would be surrounded by university and college students, all with much more stamina than 27-year-old me, wasn’t wrong. “We want up-for-it, fun, outgoing and nice people... The best thing about Snowbombing is the atmosphere and we want to keep it that way,” said Cooper.

Large groups are another key audience for the festival and there were many parties of friends, some of which were older than the average twenty-somethings. Studying both age groups at the festival, it felt like these older Snowbombing veterans were the ones who truly got why ski holidays and festivals make a good pairing – they understood the carefree, happy-go-lucky attitude that gives both ski resorts and festivals their sparkle. The younger generation however appeared to be more fixated on Instagramming the big-name acts, the endless drinking and how many outrageous outfits they could parade around in the space of six days.

But, like Snowbombing has learnt over the years, these lessons come with growing up and it’s now the festival’s responsibility to teach the next generation what a ski holiday is really about. “Keeping things fresh is always a challenge,” said Cooper and the event has taken numerous steps in recent years to broaden its appeal.

Guests can book ski or snowboard tuition, visit spas, go paragliding or take part in the two-day Snowbombing road trip that travels from the UK to Austria fuelled by the festival’s spirit – experiences that will make memories that the Snowbombers might actually remember.

The pond skimming is just one of the events taking place on the mountain Credit: FANATIC 2019/ANDREW WHITTON

This harmony between the festival and its host town and businesses is crucial in allowing festival-goers to get a taste of what a traditional ski holiday has to offer.

A lot of work has been done to make sure the festival fits seamlessly into its high-altitude home. Local restaurants put on special Snowbombing menus of burgers and pizza, to cater for the hangover-stricken and budget-conscious attendees, the town’s streets are totally transformed by miles of Snowbombing bunting and banners and the local butcher shop, Hans The Butcher, even hosts an annual pop-up DJ set, which sees hundreds cram into the tiny store, while the staff continue to serve schnitzel and sausages. 

Snowbombing’s pricing structure also works for every generation and budget. With packages for a week’s stay and festival wristband starting from as little as £269 and rising to £1,500 – this is thanks to the vast array of accommodation on offer in the Austrian resort, from self-catered apartments to five-star hotels.

Visitors can sample as little or as much of the traditional ski holiday as they wish. While some spend the daylight hours recovering from the night before (the festival’s schedule often goes on way past 4am), some choose to burn the candle at both ends, rising early(ish) to make the most of near-empty pistes and the spring snow conditions.

Those who make it onto the slope can’t go far without speakers blasting in the distance though. The Snowbombing spectacle continues across three stages on the mountain; the mountain stage and the Reggae Shack, both located at the top of two of the resorts main gondolas, the Penkenbahn and Horbergbahn, to make them accessible for non-skiers, and the Snow Park Terrace, at the Grillhofalm, next to the resort’s terrain park.

It was here, on the mountain, in my ski boots drinking a warming gluhwein, surrounded by people dancing on the tables, while others took part in a pond skimming contest, where the two worlds of a traditional ski holiday and music festival collided in perfect harmony.

Here you didn’t need to be a die-hard electronic music fan, you didn’t even need to know how to ski that well, you could just enjoy the music, the mountains and the atmosphere for what it was.

After the hangovers have subsided and the aching legs recovered it is this memory, a lesson in all that is great about ski holidays and festivals alike, that will convince the Snowbombers to return to the mountains time and time again, clad in all their glittery fancy dress. Love or hate their wild antics, they’re the next generation of skiers and snowboarders so praise to Snowbombing for embracing them.

Need to know

Snowbombing 2020 tickets are on-sale this summer, for more information and first access to tickets at early-bird prices visit snowbombing.com.