We interviewed one of the most outstanding people in the world of snow in Spain and Andorra. Meet Martí Rafel Herrero: a ski lover from head to toe. Within the sector, he has done practically everything.
We don’t want to make a spoiler, but we can tell you that he has participated in world championships, has been an Olympian, a demonstrator, has directed schools and ski resorts for decades and has organised international competitions and events. Currently, he is the General Manager of NOZAR Hotels & Resorts.
Who is Martí Rafel Herrero, what is your link with the world of snow and how has your professional evolution been?
Martí Rafel Herrero: I was born in Barcelona, but I’m a true Xarnego. My father was born in a small village in the Pyrenees, Arén (Huesca), and my mother in Tangiers (Morocco). She studied at the French lycée and always did a lot of sport. My father didn’t, but he was a very clever man: at the age of 12 he was already working in Barcelona. He generated enough resources so that, thanks to his sacrifice and my mother’s passion for sport, I was lucky enough to be able to put on skis from a very young age.
I started skiing at the age of 2, in Vall de Nuria. Obviously, I don’t remember it, but my mother says so and I believe it, of course! When I was 5 years old, I started going to La Molina with my brothers and sisters and there I began to build my love affair with the world of snow.
My father died very young, aged 47, when I was only 14. My mother’s ski instructor, Lay Gaínza, became my reference in the world of snow and beyond. He was one of the pioneers of freestyle, and at the age of 14, I was a bit of a gawker, so I followed in his footsteps and started competing as a youngster. At the age of 16 I won my first absolute Spanish Championship in the ballet discipline, in 1981, in Formigal.
In which discipline were you a reference in winter sports?
Martí Rafel Herrero: Artistic or acrobatic skiing, internationally known as Freestyle Skiing, consisted in those days of three well-defined disciplines: Ballet, Bumps and Jumps. The “brave” ones who competed in the three disciplines also opted for the Combined. I was one of the few who stuck it out until I retired in 1992, after taking part in the Pole Vaulting event at the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville 1992, in France.
I took part in the bumps event because it was the only 100% Olympic event, leaving the ballet and jumps as a mere demonstration. In 1988, in Calgary, all three disciplines had been demonstrated for the first time in the history of the sport. I had the privilege of being invited by the FIS and the International Olympic Committee to participate in the Ballet event because, at that time, I was in many of the finals of the World Cup events. I treasure my Olympic diplomas from Calgary 1988 and Albertville 1992.
Ballet was easy to train with little snow, because with the poles you could practise the gymnastic movements in a park in Barcelona or wherever. Few resources were needed, so ballet was the discipline I was best at, although, as I said, I competed in all three disciplines until the end of my sporting career.
Many athletes, when they finish their sporting career, find it difficult to find a professional outlet. How did you do it?
Martí Rafel Herrero: Well, I would say that I am one of the exceptions that prove the rule. I had the bad luck, which later turned into good luck, of not having many resources to train and compete. Being a skier in Spain has always been difficult at the professional level, even for those who have dedicated themselves to alpine skiing. But I’m telling you that my first international junior championship was in the 79-80 season.
I lived, to a large extent, the evolution of this sport; from the Hotdog when it depended on national associations and a European association to its integration in the FIS, and the whole process to become an Olympic sport.
“I was a skier, a Spaniard and I was dedicated to freestyle; that was impossible at that time.”
What happened was that of the 12 years that I was competing, I was only able to dedicate myself 100% to training and competing for the last four. The other 8 were self-made.
I always had to work and I had to study in parallel to my training and competitions. Almost always in snow-related jobs because it was the easy thing to do and the one that separated me the least from my main goal, which was ski racing.
That made me play all the keys in the world of snow: I was a ski instructor, ski school director, promoter, salesman of a distribution company that later became a subsidiary…
This distributor was a pioneer in the sale of skis in Spain. We sold fisher skis, tyrolia bindings, dynafit boots and a thousand accessories. Then that distributor closed down and I went on to work for the Head subsidiary, which was Head Tyrolia Mares (HTM). I collaborated with the media and television programmes, but always with skiing, giving technical advice.
Also the magazine Solonieve, which was conceived and led by Curro Bultó. Before conceiving the magazine we got together because we knew each other through artistic skiing, he knew that I had many contacts and knowledge of the sector, so I feel a bit like a co-founder with him of the magazine. I also participated in other catalogues like Pixel Nieve, the Slalom Guide and many others. I collaborated with many companies and people because in the end I had to make a living. So I had to work and train professionally in parallel to my sporting career.
After collaborating with the media, you moved into the management of ski resorts. What made you decide to take this leap?
Martí Rafel Herrero: We can say that he had already done everything in the snow. In truth, I was a bit “tired”, so it was clear to me that I would only return to a ski resort if it was as a director, which was the only thing I hadn’t done until then.
Then a good friend and teacher with whom we had coincided when he was General Manager of the Boí Taüll ski resort, Miguel Medina, was made an offer in Andorra to take over the General Management of Pal Arinsal and he proposed that I go with him. I accepted and was the General Services Director of the resort until the creation of Vallnord, the union of Pal Arinsal and Ordino Arcalís, taking over the General Management for almost 10 years.
Of all the projects you have carried out, which one are you most proud of?
Martí Rafel Herrero: The truth is that I consider myself lucky. I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve done and I have very fond memories of all the work I’ve done. I don’t know about the first Ski Show in Barcelona, when Alberto Tomba came, among many other world champions, to take part in the show and delight us with a final descent with Blanca Fernández Ochoa in the Palau Sant Jordi with more than 10,000 people.
The promoters of the event were Joan Cuscó and Xavier Bartrolí from S2 (now Octagon), one of the leading companies in indoor sports events. They contacted me through Toni Real from Temps de Neu. They wanted to make snow and do a freestyle event in Barcelona. At first I didn’t take them seriously, because as a good skier we always think we know better than anyone else (laughs). I asked myself, how are we going to make snow in Barcelona at 20ºC with the humidity there? They asked me to please listen to the engineers, how they were going to do it and they explained it to me. To tell you the truth, living that project, making snow and organising that show was very intense.
But I can tell you a thousand things like that. I have also been a ski teacher, I have been the director of a school, I created a ski school in Bariloche and I was a demonstrator, a teacher of teachers, with Eduardo Roldán at the Spanish Ski School.
I think I’ve done it all. In competition I participated in several World Championships and two Olympic Games. I have collaborated with many media. But look, really, if I have to keep something, I prefer it to be something recent. Although it may seem strange to you, I would choose the liquidation of the company Promocions Turístiques de la Vall. The group that owns the ski resort of Boí Taüll and the residential complex of Pla de l’Ermita, with whom I still collaborate in the tourist complex of the Panticosa Spa, and who were forced to liquidate the company. I think it was the most gratifying thing I have ever done.
We managed to ensure that no one lost their place of work. Part of the team is still linked to the resort, which has remained in the hands of the Generalitat de Catalunya under the tutelage of FGC, and the rest, those who worked in the hotel complex, were subrogated to GestBoí, the company that finally took over the assets of Pla de l’Ermita. For the people of Vall de Boí, this formula offers guarantees of continuity and sustainability over time, so they are also satisfied with the solution. This is something relevant, if Boí Taüll needed anything, it was stability. I think it has been a nice thing, complicated but nice.
If you had a wish list for the snow industry in Spain, what would it be?
Martí Rafel Herrero: That it could be consolidated in a sustainable way.
This is connected to the following question: where is the industry going, how are we going to achieve sustainability and tackle climate change?
Martí Rafel Herrero: Well, as I am an optimist by nature, I think it is on the right track. I think that Covid, despite all the negative things it has brought about (we cannot ignore the thousands of deaths, those who are still suffering after-effects, the inhuman efforts of the health workers, the economic disaster…), has helped us to reflect a lot on several things.
I have always argued that, in the snow tourism sector, we are the first to be aware of what is happening: we live off nature and the mountains. From the outside, it sometimes seems that we do aggressive things against the natural environment. Of course mistakes have been made, especially with the constant consumption and generation of waste, but in the sector we are perfectly aware and we take great care of the environment because that is what we live from.
“The future of skiing is not in mass tourism”.
Nowadays the snow produced in the resorts is produced with water and air. It is also good because, as you know, snow is a very important water reservoir. The water that comes from snow, as a reserve, is much better than rainwater, especially when it falls torrentially and reaches the sea without generating any benefit. Snow is a water reserve that gradually melts, seeps into the ground, feeds streams and rivers, and has a very positive impact on the natural environment and the water cycle.
In summer, in ski resorts, you can see that the greenest meadows are those where there is snow produced during the winter. The snow produced is a very compact type of snow, with little oxygen, which lasts over time and respects the environment as it is produced exclusively with water and pressurised air.
There is a natural awareness in the tourism sector, not only in snow, that the future is not mass tourism. And I believe that this is going to be one of the keys to the future of skiing. We have to have a reasonable number of visitors, to amortise investments, but we have to tend towards higher quality models and face up to solvency with associated services, such as catering, après-ski and many other activities beyond skiing.
We are seeing that blockchain, tokens and cryptocurrencies are being implemented abroad as a means of payment. Do you think it will be implemented in ski areas?
Martí Rafel Herrero: Well, with this question you invite me to talk about something we haven’t discussed yet, technology. And yes, of course. Snow tourism is no stranger to what is happening and to trends. And now there are many platforms such as Skitude, Liftopia and many others with very interesting technological proposals that seek to provide solutions. But the truth is that it is not just coming, it is already here.
After all the things you have done, how do you see yourself in 10 or 15 years?
Martí Rafel Herrero: When I was young we had a house on the Costa Brava. I did a lot of light sailing (Optimist, Vaurient, 420, 470, windsurfing…). That’s why one of my dreams since I was young was to sail around the world in a sailboat, but I couldn’t do it because in life, when you’re lucky you have to choose. And finally I chose the snow and the mountains.
Luckily, in 2015 I was able to buy a sailboat and now I’m super into sailing. And the truth is that I’ve been sailing more than skiing for 6 years.
“FOR ME SAILING IS LIKE STARTING ALL OVER AGAIN”.
I’m not the only skier who turns to the sea. For example Aurelien Ducroz, double FWT world champion is doing the Transat with a class 40 thanks to Crosscall’s sponsorship. Sailing, for me, is like starting all over again. So I can assure you that in the future, health permitting, I’ll be sailing a lot of miles and testing a lot of boats.