It’s tough for a ski to make through the very end of the line in the Völkl factory in Straubing, Bavaria. At one of the biggest operations in Europe, ski after ski goes through the type of strict, sharp line you would expect from German manufacturing. It’s a fascinating process to walk through: An intelligent elevator system delivers wood cores to be milled to shape. Printers create top sheet graphics, a sandwich construction machine and tech operator create the meat of the ski by layering together the wood core and other materials with resin. That sandwich bakes in a pressurized oven for 36 minutes at 100 degrees Centigrade. The bases and edges run through a long line of spark-shooting grinders. Affixed tips seal the deals. Then comes the real test—the Germans take a look.
A series of quality-control techs look the ski up and down, flex them to the breaking point. Flex must be perfect. The techs match single skis into perfect pairs. More workers rub them down with gloves. The slightest blemish means rejection. At last, the final tech affixes a tiny sticker with the words “Quality Control” printed on it. The ski is ready for retailers.
I had the pleasure of touring this operation in depth as Völkl prepared to launch the latest iteration of its long-popular Mantra ski this fall. It’s called the Mantra M5, and it’s the fifth generation of a ski that has been on the market for 12 years, an almost unprecedented rarity in an industry where products from backpacks to storm shells with very similar constructions receive new names each season alongside slight design tweaks in order to market a “new” product to consumers. Völkl banked on the opposite dynamic: Consumers will turn to the Mantra as a name with trusted heritage, with a few new tweaks.
“It was a trying process,” said Geoff Curtis, VP of marketing at Völkl Marker USA, in regards to the decision to stick with a product name that’s dates back to the Bush presidency. “But when we started thinking about new names, we felt there was so much equity already built into the Mantra. It has a reputation as a freeride ski that can take on everything from powder to ice. But we had to make clear that this was a big upgraded. So we pushed the compromise of the M5, the fifth generation.”
The big change in the M5 is two layers of titanal, a thin, pliable, strong metal sheet added in the sandwich construction phase that gives the ski more life underfoot and allows for a lighter build. It also takes twice as long to make. Again, the brand sees a benefit in putting better product with a proven name on the market. And, at 96 mm, the M5i speaks to current trends, which have seen a return to skis that are a bit less wide underfoot and more versatile—especially when resorts plod through poor snow years.
At retail, the gamble of sticking with an old product name can have mixed results. “i think it all depends on the brand and the customer and the marketing,” said Mike Donohue, co-owner of Burlington, Vermont’s The Outdoor Gear Exchange, which is in the midst of a big in-store expansion and recently began carrying more resort-oriented ski brands like Völkl, as opposed to just focusing on backcountry. “Black Diamond was always a bit of niche player in alpine skiing, and when it tried to cross over, the brand kept the Verdict name in the line even though the ski changed dramatically. In that case, I’m not sure that it was a benefit to keep the name from customer point of view.”
Donohue points out that some brands can make life easier for customers if they stick with a product name, if they maintain a clear presentation. “DPS makes incremental changes each season, but it sticks with skis with the same names [such as the popular Wailer] and customers know they like them and go back to them. It has been super successful. It all goes back to how big of a change you make.”
Völkl is banking on that type of familiarity alongside the solid rep of German engineering. Besides Atomic, few brands build skis on the level in their hometown that Völkl does. Most big ski names use Asian or Eastern European factories and some brands piggyback on the Atomic factory in Altenmarkt, Austria, which has been in operation since 1971. There has been a big push for indie ski brands globally but many of those smaller companies still use big factories for production. Only a handful of custom manufacturers and small brands like Idaho’s Sego or Colorado’s Meier craft planks locally. Völkl, however has remained committed to manufacturing in Germany, specifically Bavaria, and the brand—which, along with K2, is owned by New York private equity firm Kohlberg & Co.—has shifted most of its Asian manufacturing back to Europe over the past five years to double down on the quality control and pride that come from manufacturing in Bavaria.
That’s exactly why Völkl shelled out the cash to bring a North American media crew to Europe (and stuff us with wiener schnitzel and beer). It wants the industry to understand this process runs from design to build to test to rep to retailer to customer.
“We think that being manufactured in Bavaria is a big deal,” said Curtis. “And this is just the beginning of a longer marketing effort. The Mantra M5 is going to set table for next couple of seasons while we continue to introduce new product innovations.”
After touring the factory, our group traveled to the legendary slopes of Sölden, in the Austrian Alps, where the piste is far above the treeline and you can even find a themed James Bond “experience,” to put them to the test. “It’s a weapon,” explained Völkl product engineer Domink Grunert in terms of the ski’s quiver-of-one chops. Indeed. The ski handled hard groomers like a racer and I handled some soft snow off the piste with the grace of a bigger ski. (I took them out into the untracked much to the chagrin of the Völkl marketing managers who were worried that I would scratch new skis that were still under a media embargo…)
From there, the brand made its big launch to dealers at the Outdoor Retailer + Snow Show in Denver in January, launching the ski with a presentation that included a traditional Bavarian band and pretzels. Even more important than those flourishes was the on-snow demo at Colorado’s Copper mountain where retailers got to feel for themselves that the ski is a weapon. “The retailers got to kick the tires. That’s essential,” siad Curtis.
The big questions for both manufacturers and retailers of course comes down to this. Will all this design and marketing pay off at retail?
“Völkl can be a bit of a challenging brand for us since we have had such a backcountry heritage,” said Donohue. “But when we get to demo the ski and understand how it performs it makes it easier to convey that to customers. And they do recognize the brand and get excited that it is made in Germany. As far as keeping the name goes, I think it does make a lot of sense in this case as long as they can convey what changes make it different.”
The real test will come when customers put the ski to the snow next season. Considering the performance we felt in this weapon underfoot, the name may stay the same for another decade.