News and media


New operator and multi-million pound investment announced for Cairngorm Mountain

07 April 2014

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is delighted to announce Natural Retreats, a specialist leisure and travel company, as the new operator of Cairngorm Mountain, taking effect in June 2014. Natural Retreats are renowned for offering customers and guests high quality tourism based experiences in some of the most dramatic natural locations around the world. Natural Retreats are delighted to be operating on a 25 year lease, opening an exciting new chapter for Cairngorm Mountain and the local economy.

HIE will continue to own Cairngorm Estate, including the funicular and associated infrastructure on the mountain. The new arrangement will see the ownership of current operator Cairngorm Mountain Ltd transfer from HIE to Natural Retreats.

Natural Retreats are revealing a £6.2m five-year investment plan which will secure the future of the Resort for the next 25 years. HIE is supporting the development with a £4m loan to develop a new Day Lodge.

Alex Paterson, Chief Executive at HIE commented: “Natural Retreats has the vision, ambition and experience to enable the resort to fulfil its potential as a world-class visitor destination. Their plans include the further development of snowsports and diversification of the business into a high quality, year-round attraction. Natural Retreats’ ambition to attract new visitors to Cairngorm will produce spin-off opportunities for other local businesses in the tourism sector, especially in Strathspey.”

With over 100 years of relevant international and regional leisure and tourism experience, Natural Retreats’ senior management in both Europe and the US bring a wealth of expertise to the Resort. The UK’s largest and busiest skiing destination will be led by Natural Retreats’ market-leading operational team, who have over 65 years of experience within Ski Resorts worldwide. The brand currently operates in close proximity to four world-renowned US ski destinations and Cairngorm Mountain is the perfect addition to their portfolio.

Matt Spence, founder and CEO of Natural Retreats added: “I am immensely thrilled with the appointment of Natural Retreats as operator of Cairngorm Mountain. I founded this company with the aim to create a way of life in a natural world and I am proud that Natural Retreats have been recognised in our quest. We truly believe Natural Retreats will elevate Cairngorm Mountain as one of the leading leisure and adventure resorts in Europe. My dream is to see both the prestigious international summer and winter X Games held here. Cairngorm Mountain is after all one of Scotland’s best assets with Natural Retreats aiming to provide the ultimate training ground for the next generations of Jenny Jones’ and Callum Smiths with the goal of gold at the next Winter Olympics. This is a four season resort with endless opportunities – we are determined to break seasonality here.

Our aim is to re-launch the Cairngorm Mountain brand to encapsulate the unique visitor experience Natural Retreats hopes to bring and to help create a sense of pride and place with the existing expertise on-site. Our mission will be to engage, inspire and mobilise the public. We believe Scotland has the best tourism opportunity in Europe now and for years to come. Visit Scotland’s Homecoming Scotland 2014 coupled with the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games will position Scotland on the international stage as a dynamic and creative nation and we’re honoured to be in the running to help welcome visitors from all over the world.”


To elevate Cairngorm Mountain as one of the leading leisure and adventure resorts in Europe, offering high quality services across all aspects of the site.  To invest and deliver a stepped change at Cairngorm Mountain, creating a visitor attraction that is diverse, commercially self-sustaining and maximising economic impact.

Key objectives include providing more activities at the Resort, creating a full day of activities outside of winter sports, creating a higher quality product offering, increasing new and repeat visitors, increasing food & beverage outlets, range and quality of offerings, expanding retail offering and improving quality and profitability of retail lines, offering a diverse snow sports destination, and creating a new Activity Centre and Education Centre.


Natural Retreats have a £6.2m five-year investment plan which is being delivered across three phases. Phase 1 involves refurbishing the day lodge and retail space, refurbishing Ptarmigan restaurant and exhibition space, enhancing signage and way-finding across the Resort, improving current operational efficiencies, creating an exceptional retail and F&B experience, starting planning application for new facilities and integrating the Natural Retreats brand. Phase 2 consists of, subject to planning, building a new Day Lodge with dedicated space for Retail, Catering, a new Activity Centre and Equipment Hire. This new building is planned for £4m and HIE have approved a loan to Natural Retreats for this. This phase also includes plans to launch a new nursery slope with new beginners’ lift and Perma-Snow slope. Phase 3 involves reconfiguring the Ptarmigan with a new Education Centre and a new restaurant.

Current Strengths

Cairngorm Mountain has performed well to date, launching the funicular and associated infrastructure on the mountain. Key strengths include the following:

  • UK’s largest and busiest skiing destination. Established in 1961 and offering over 30km of ski runs. 2013 saw over 120,000 skiing and snowboarding visitors
  • Only Funicular railway in Scotland. Completed in 2001 the Funicular is the main transport link to the top of Cairngorm Mountain and is open all year round. Circa 80,000 visitors made the ascent predominantly in the summer season.
  • UK’s highest restaurant. Sitting at 1,097m above sea level the Ptarmigan building boasts impressive views of Britain’s highest mountain plateau. 84% of visitors to the Resort use the catering facilities
  • Internationally renowned area of scientific interest. The Resort and surrounding areas contain unique natural habitats and wildlife protected by EU legislation
  • Unique Leisure Asset. The Resort is supported by a well invested infrastructure encompassing Funicular Railway, ski uplift equipment, buildings and other infrastructure
  • Unique visitor experience. The Resort is unique to the Country and features on many a visitor itinerary
  • Very strong visitor numbers. The surrounding area attracts 1.4 million annual visitors.

About Natural Retreats

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Mark Twain’s quote is as relevant today as it’s always been and reflects the sense of freedom and adventure we like our guests to experience on a Natural Retreats escape.

At Natural Retreats we pride ourselves on being a unique leisure and travel company offering extraordinary experiences at a selection of stunning coastal, countryside and wilderness locations around the world. We all work and live by the principles that underpin the company forever on a quest to help or guests and customers explore, dream and discover.

We are your guides to life's most amazing experiences and guardians of quality time understanding how important your leisure time is to collect moments to form memories that will last a lifetime.

Natural Retreats truly believes in sustainability, the communities and landscapes within which we develop are the real amenities. We have a real passion for these rural communities; after all, this is where its founder, Matthew Spence, came from having developed the first location in the Yorkshire Dales on his family farm back in 2006.

Now, Natural Retreats operates 18 destinations across Europe and the USA, each offering extraordinary experiences, activities and accommodation. Highlights include John O’Groats, North Highlands, Scotland, Trewhiddle, South Cornwall, England, Tsaina Lodge in Alaska and South Fork Lodge, Idaho, USA.

Find out more about Natural Retreats on their website

About HIE

Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) is a non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government, with a unique remit which integrates economic and community development. 

Active across half of Scotland, from Shetland to Argyll and from the Hebrides to Moray, HIE pursues four priorities to achieve sustainable growth:

  • Supporting businesses and social enterprises to shape and realise their growth aspirations
  • Strengthening communities and fragile areas
  • Developing growth sectors, particularly distinctive regional opportunities
  • Creating the conditions for a competitive and low carbon region

HIE has an annual budget of more than £75m and employs around 250 people in locations around the Highlands and Islands.

About Cairngorm Mountain resort

The Cairngorm mountain railway is a unique Scottish visitor attraction. A highly ambitious and complex construction project in a sensitive and challenging mountain environment, the funicular carried its first passengers on Christmas Eve 2001, and was officially opened in June 2002. Just under two kilometres long, it replaced an outdated chairlift access system which had carried skiers up and down the mountainside since the 1960s. The funicular was designed to strengthen the tourism sector, which is a vital part of the local economy in what is now the Cairngorms National Park.

It enables snowsports enthusiasts to access the mountain in conditions which would have closed the chairlift, and provides summer visitors with an easy and enjoyable route into the heart of some of Scotland's most beautiful scenery. At the top station, visitors can experience spectacular mountain views, dine in the Ptarmigan restaurant, and learn about the history and geography of Cairngorm in an interactive exhibition. The Cairngorm plateau is a highly sensitive environment, home to many rare and fragile plant species, so access to the mountainside is carefully controlled. Operations at the site are currently managed for HIE by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd (CML), which became a subsidiary of the enterprise agency in 2008.  HIE has always been clear, however, that its ownership of the operating company was not intended to be a long-term arrangement.

Leave a comment

Douglas Bryce 07/04/2014

Cairngorm is primarily a ski area. I note that the 5 year plan contains investment primarily to upgrade the cafe / retail side of the operation rather than actual investment in Snowports themselves ? Are there any plans in place to upgrade the uplift capacity on the mountain? And in particular key lifts, such as the WW chair, which have obviously remained closed under the much maligned core lifts policy. It is clear that additional mid mountain up lift is required to deal with crowds on busy winter weekends - especially on the ciste side of the mountain.

Martin Queen 07/04/2014

I would second Doug's comments regarding mid-mountain uplift. A new shop is not really needed when skiers are being pushed away by a lack of uplift. There are a number of lifts on the hill that have been earmarked end of life. Is there a plan to replace these lifts? If not then I suspect that skiing will only be possible on learner tows at the top of the mountain next to the cafe in the near future. This will push skiers away from Scotland's "premier ski area" and will cost the winter economy of the area much.

Michael Trantor 08/04/2014

Why don't they invest some money into new uplift? The Ciste chairlifts would be welcomed additions to the resort, they would also take a fair bit of heat off the other lifts. The problem i find is that on busy days the cues are out of hand, too many on the mountain for the lifts provided. As a season ticket holder, I would like to see more invested into the snowsports side of things, there isn't a lot wrong with the facilities that we have up there at present.

John Martin 08/04/2014

As a repeat season ticket holder I think its great news about the future investment plans and bringing new life to the mountain. However on busy days I have waited up to 45 min for a lift in ridiculous queues. This is the mountains main income, an while you charge 33.50 to non pass holders , you really need to have a look at efficiency of your current uplift. Otherwise you will end up with a swank mountain with a swanky café that nobody will visit at there's no value in paying to queue all day

Caroline Barker 08/04/2014

There are a lot of words but little meat about skiing developments. What plans are there for the skiers who turn up year in year out. More eating areas are a great idea but if you wish to entice folk to drive up in the ski season (which can be 6 months long) from the central belt and use the new facilities when Glencoe and Glenshee are closer you need to offer them an incentive to spend their money at CGM.

Geoff Daley 09/04/2014

I'm echoing most of the comments already mentioned. A primary focus should be about improving the uplift for skiers across the whole mountain but especially around the Ciste side where uplift is severely under considered. The queing for uplift is out of control on busy days, I decided a 3hr round trip to Glenshee and back was more beneficial than the time wasted queing at Cairngorm on several occasions this season.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise 10/04/2014

It’s very early days and while there are no immediate plans to install new ski-tows or lifts both HIE and the new operators will be looking carefully at all aspects of the snowsports and wider visitor experience to identify where improvements can be made. HIE and Natural Retreats’ continuing priority is to ensure the infrastructure is maintained in good condition and annual investments form part of the contractual agreement.

Doug Bryce 10/04/2014

HIE : Thanks for the reply and opportunity to comment. Much appreciated. What are the plans for the 2 chairlifts in Coire na Ciste ? With modest investment perhaps these could be brought back into use ? Doing so would have many benefits to snowsport users at Cairngorm (... and would also buy a considerable amount of good will!)

David Anderson 11/04/2014

Sums up the dire situation that they don't even recognise the difference between recommissioning an existing lift and installing a new one. Also clearly being misleading at best when they talk of maintaining the infrastructure as a "priority", given that their entire press release made mention of nothing apart from putting in more gift shops and cafes. The glaring omission of any plans for the ski area apart from an unnescessary beginners lift leave little doubt that the plan is to run down the lift system and just keep the railway surrounded by supporting tourist traps. Especially depressing given that investing the amount they are talking about in the right areas instead of totally superfluous retail and catering outlets could make cairngorm the best scottish ski area once more, instead of it's current state of the most popular, but by no means the best area for snowsports.

David Matthew 10/04/2014

Regarding the chairlifts on the Cist side of Cairngorm Mountain Resort. There was a recent proposal to refurbish the Ciste side of the Mountain to enhance the non winter sports by providing restaurant facilites, refurbished charilift and MTB tracks

Doug Bryce 11/04/2014

Can anyone confirm the current status of this and long term plan for Coire na Ciste? Welcome proposals (such as those mentioned above) are noticeably absent from the Natural Retreats & HIE 5 year plan.

Matthew Waller 11/04/2014

Cairngorm may have been Scotland's premier Snowsports destination in the 1980's but it certainly isn't now. Only the Lecht has fewer ski lifts these days. The only thing it's top of the league for is for skiers complaints. A quick look at the forums in will demonstrate that. While a new operator presents the possibility for a change in the direction the management can take, the plans so far detailed are somewhat dissappointing. It seems odd that the focus seems to be on revamping the most modern bits of the infrastructure with little emphasis on anything which enables snowsports users to actually use the slopes.

Dave Malcolm 11/04/2014

The numbers in the press release indicate 120,000 snowsport visitors (adult day ticket £33, giving approx. revenue £3M), versus 80,000 summer users of the funicular (adult day ticket £10, giving approx. revenue £0.7M), yet the majority of the investment is targeted at the summer activities, which bring in less revenue, while doing nothing to address the decline of the ski lifts. Even if summer ticket revenue doubles, it will still be less than half of the winter revenue. Cairngorm could be a fantastic ski area, if it had sufficient uplift, and Corrie na Ciste were re-opened. As for building a new activity centre, surely this would attract more visitors if it were in Aviemore, rather than on the mountain: it will be inaccessible on days when the road is closed with snow (when having alternative activities available is of great value), and inaccessible on days when skiing is available, as the car park will be full. I am also concerned at the phasing of the investments: Phase 1 involves refurbishing the Day Lodge and Ptarmigan restaurant, yet Phase 2 involves building a new Day Lodge (which will presumably replace the refurbished Day Lodge), and Phase 3 involves replacing the refurbished Ptarmigan restaurant, funded with a loan of public money. Is this really best value?

Iain 13/04/2014

Usually every season I would make a trip up to Cairngorm but this year I decided enough is enough. I spent the all of my days at Glenshee instead of Cairngorm. This is mainly because the lift system works well there and you were a 15 minute wait max on a lift in the busiest part of the mountain where as on a past experience on cairngorm with a similar number of people on the hill I would be waiting 20 minutes minimum in quieter areas. I remember once I was stuck in the queue for the WW Poma and I was there for over an hour! If the chairs had been spinning there would be a lot less angry customers and more time sliding for us. The priority for NR should be getting those chairs running again than installing a new beginners lift and some new buildings. I used to be a fan of cairngorm but it saddens me that skiing is being pushed to the side for a coach full of grannies buying their choo choo ticket for a trip to the Ptarmigan to have afternoon tea. If uplift is not prioritised I seriously wonder if it ever will. Decommissioned lifts such as the two Ciste chairs and the white lady T-Bar were installed for a reason and now that they're gone the the remaining tows are struggling and have become a major bottleneck. If the number of breakdowns on the WW Poma and the state of its uptrack don't grab your attention I don't know what will.

Jim Cunningham 02/06/2014

I fully support all the comments made here in respect of upgrading the lift system, having visited this resort for years the lift system is a joke. Chairlifts have been taken out, drag lifts taken out, and very little investment put in apart from the train. This last year with good snow was appalling at the weekends when as stated earlier queues of 45 minutes were the norm. If you are looking to upgrade the area to bring in more people then upgrade to chairlifts first where people can get what they pay for.

Ann Cunningham 02/06/2014

This year at Aviemore was certainly not value for money. For those of us who work full time in order to earn money to spend it on skiing were sorely disappointed. Long queues, and closed lifts. Not only that, but not even one chair lift. I would rather spend my hard earned cash skiing at the Lecht or the the Nevis range, who piste their slopes and provide chairlifts so that I can use my leg muscles for skiing rather than standing. After all it is us older skiers who have the disposable income to spend. Remember that when it comes to improvements!

Andy Parums 11/08/2015

Total nonsense. The resort needs to fix the terrible deterioration of the lift system - especially access to the Coire na Ciste, West wall and White Lady, rather than cafes and retail. The public comes here to ski. So where are the development plans for enhancing the lift network. It's actually worse than 30 years ago. The area would be transformed by a gondola from a new base station towards Loch Morlich which would also facilitate new and better car parking. Think it through

Back to top