Monday, April 25, 2016

Recycled Snow Down Under

Snowmaking at Mt Buller - Courtesy of Mt Buller
The Mt Buller and Mt Stirling ski area in central Victoria, Australia has a strong background - and high ranking - in eco-tourism. But, like all ski regions threatened by global climate change, it has to address the tricky issue of producing artificial snow to bolster natural snowfalls.

Naturally, snowmaking requires large volumes of water which usually comes from nearby lakes and rivers. But as the resort’s website says: “A priority of the Mt Buller and Mt Stirling Alpine Resort Management Board is protection of the high country streams and rivers which originate from the snowfields and alpine slopes. The Delatite and Howqua Rivers ….sustain neighboring farm and town communities as well as provide lasting enjoyment to thousands of people including bushwalkers, canoeists, anglers and campers. Protection and preservation of water quality and quantity are of paramount importance to the wider community and a key objective of environmental management of the Resort.”

So, while its snowmaking water was traditionally provided by Boggy Creek, a tributary of the Delatite River, the resort has spent considerable time and money looking elsewhere for supplies.

Its Snowmaking and Wastewater Recycling Pilot Study investigated making snow from treated effluent (sewage!) from the local wastewater treatment plant run by the Mt Buller and Mt Stirling Alpine Resort Management Board. This would have two potential eco benefits: firstly decreased volumes of effluent released into the environment and secondly decreased extraction of water from Boggy Creek. Before using the wastewater for snowmaking, it had to be further purified both for health and environmental reasons to Class A standards (those required for human food crops and irrigation of parklands and golf courses).

Using ultra-filtration and ozonation via a $1million filtering system, the resort was able to produce clean, pure water to pump through the snowmaking guns onto the slopes. Purifying around 800,000 liters of wastewater each day, the resort initially hoped to meet around 10 per cent of its needs over a three-year period from 2008. Since then, a new Class A Wastewater Treatment Plant can now provide up to two million liters of recycled water for snowmaking per day, increasing Mt Buller’s capacity by 30 per cent. There is a fail-safe mechanism that ensures that the system automatically stops during a system malfunction to prevent any untreated water from entering Sun Valley Reservoir, the snowmaking dam. Requiring 24-hour monitoring for consistent water purity, the project has cost in the region of $3.43 million.

The Mt Buller and Mt Stirling Alpine Resort Management Board was recognized for this innovative work by the United Nations Association of Australia at the World Environment Day awards in 2002. 

Mt Buller’s Environmental Policy is designed to meet criteria outlined in AS/NZS ISO 14001:1996, the leading international standard on environmental management. The ski area is committed to an Environmental Management Plan which guarantees protection of the natural environment while ensuring the sustainability of resort activity and development. The plan incorporates flora and fauna, ecosystems, environmental values and useful information about climate and geography. As the resort is on Crown land, it encourages community input into management with an extensive committee established to address environmental matters.

With a resort entry fee instigated at Mirimbah, at the base of the mountain, some of the burden of funding environmental programs is shifted to the resort’s guests. The fee - which grants access to both mountains - helps maintain essential infrastructure and services including roads and water treatment. Future aims include utilizing the recycled water for household use in new developments and for irrigating open spaces.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Planning the South Korea Olympics 2018 - Apr 14

Plans for Bokwang Phoenix Park for Winter Olympics 2018 - courtesy of Ecosign
Arguably the most prestigious event in winter sports is the Winter Olympic Games. From the initial bidding, building the competitive venues, constructing an Olympic village, hosting the world’s top winter athletes and the media circus that goes with them - and somehow creating a lasting legacy to justify all the tax dollars spent on infrastructure - it is a mammoth task.

The Sochi 2014 Games cost a reported $51 billion. But was this huge investment worth it? Certainly many winter tourism destinations think so and the ski resort area of PyeongChang, South Korea was more than willing to take the risk. It made three attempts to bid successfully for the Winter Olympics, finally nabbing the elite event for 2018. It was all part of its aim to put South Korea’s premier winter sports area firmly on the international ski map and challenge Japan for predominance in Asia.

Konjiam Ski Area
Photo by Korea Tourism
The indoor ice events were planned for Gangneung, a northeastern coastal city with a population of around 230,000. But the international spotlight was directed to the less densely populated county of PyeongChang chosen for the mountain venues as well as the opening and closing ceremonies. The long-term legacy for PyeongChang is hoped to be a commercially viable, international ski center with new venues for training and competitive freestyle skiing and snowboarding events in the future.

Rather than compete with Sochi’s extravagant facilities and expenditure, PyeongChang aimed to use many existing venues and create a lower key but more authentic atmosphere reminiscent of the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Lillehammer’s ski resorts are spread over five alpine centers:, Skeikampen, Kvitfjell, Gålå and Sjusjøen. Incidentally, although Lillehammer may not have indulged in the huge financial outlay of Vancouver or Sochi, it is now the location for the award-winning TV drama series, Lilyhammer, starring Steven Van Zandt, which has given lasting marketing and advertising ROI to the quaint Norwegian mountain town. The Lillehammer Olympic ski jump was immortalized in one of the most iconic episodes.

Having worked on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics), Paul Mathews’ company, Ecosign was chosen to plan the Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding venues for PyeongChang. Ecosign had already designed various ski resorts in South Korea including Konjiam Resort, Hyundai Sungwoo Resort at Tunnae Village and Yeongpyong Resort. “The job we are doing for POCOG, the Organizing Committee for the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games has been to prepare an overall Venue Master Plan for Bokwang Phoenix Park Ski Area for Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding,” says Mathews. The master plan, formulated in 2013, also entailed detailed designs for construction.

Traditional Skiing
Photo by Korea Tourism
The process of creating any Olympic venue is typically fraught with unexpected problems. In the case of PyeongChang, the original bid was based on fielding 12 Freestyle Ski and Snowboard sections. “In the summer of 2011, the IOC added eight competitions to Freestyle Skiing and Snowboarding so that the total for Sochi and PyeongChang was now 20 competitions; 10 for men and 10 for women,” says Mathews, adding that the Korean budget had not allocated funds or terrain for these extra events.

Mathews says there have been other contentious issues. “They also had the ‘impression’ that Bokwang Phoenix Park was pretty well ready to host all Olympic competitions,” he explains. “The truth is, Bokwang Phoenix Park had a moguls and aerial course and a halfpipe but none of those venues met the FIS Technical Requirements for Olympic Winter Games; there are different standards for Olympic Games, World Cup and then Europa Cup, Continental Cup, the local races, etc. Obviously, the Olympic Winter Games has the highest standards.”

Phoenix Park - Photo by Korea Tourism
Putting the venues in suitable places with lift access for athletes and workers as well as technical roads and other infrastructure turned out to be a much more complex undertaking than the Korean committee anticipated. “We then entered a competition to do the detailed design for construction of the six venues: aerials, moguls, ski/boarder cross, halfpipe, slopestyle and parallel giant slalom,” Mathews recalls. “This work involves precise design and engineering of the competition fields of play within 20 cm accuracy to be built in soil but we had to forecast the final elevations in snow. This was becoming a very complex job but we have now finished this work and handed it over to a Korean engineering company which is making the final drawings for construction tendering for the summer of 2015.”

Friday, April 1, 2016

Powder and Property Investment in Japan

Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
Unlike development in many of Japan’s smaller ski areas, winter sports’ infrastructure and tourism is on the rise in Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly island. Australia and New Zealand have traditionally been the strongest ski holiday markets and they continue to grow year on year. While interest in ski resort investment has declined from the Aussie market, demand for both ski vacations and also for investment in ski property in Japan is increasingly coming from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. There are also significant numbers from other parts of Asia, including Singapore and Malaysia, as well as growing visitation from Europe and North America.

Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
Since hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s ski industry has blossomed with dramatic development over the past 20 years. According to the Japanese National Tourism Organization, there are around 600 mostly small, locals’ ski resorts dotted all over the mountainsides of Japan. But, on Hokkaido there are a number of premier resorts, notably Niseko, dubbed the ‘Aspen of Asia’.

Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
Greg Hough, Director of Marketing for the Niseko Promotion Board, says that Niseko – and Japan in general – is firmly on the map now as a global ski destination. Although many smaller ski resorts are suffering due to declining domestic visitation, Niseko is blossoming. “Over all the domestic ski industry in Japan remains in decline with many ski resorts having to close each year,” says Hough. “In recent years there has been an increased awareness of some resorts (including Niseko) because of the inbound growth and interest from foreign investors. There has been a flood of general media interest - mainly international - and most of the major ski and snowboard production companies have been, and are still coming, to Niseko and Japan each year including Warren Miller, Sweetgrass Productions, Matchstick etc.” This continues to heighten awareness from the hardcore powder skier perspective.

Heli Skiing at Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
Around 100 km south of Sapporo, The Niseko United encompasses four resorts (like Aspen’s Power of Four) on one mountain, the 1308 meter-high Niseko Annupuri. Renowned for dry light powder and consistent abundance of snow, the mountain is open for winter sports from late November into May with slight variations at each resort. Here, visitor numbers jumped 103 percent over the 2011/12 season, according to the Niseko Tourism Board, including more overseas visitors than other Japanese ski areas.

Snowmobiling at Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
“The Niseko ski area has a 50-plus year history but the most recent boom started in 2003 and was driven largely by the Australian market and a few opportunistic developers,” says Hough who also owns and directs Explore Niseko KK. “Since the start of this development boom over 7,000 new beds have been developed and an estimated US$800million has been invested including the sale and re-purchase of two of the adjoining resorts - Niseko Village and Hanazono - as well as some infrastructure upgrade projects.” The key driver up until this point, he adds, has been property development and although the lift network has seen some upgrades, for the most part it remains unchanged. Niseko’s primary target markets for attracting investment are Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia.

Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
International awareness of Japan’s ski industry has been heightened over the years largely by media and social media. “There has been very limited investment in marketing by the resort and much of this has been left to the individual businesses,” says Hough, who has worked in travel and tourism since 1998. “Over the past 10 years most of our growth has happened organically and we have relied heavily on word of mouth marketing. The quality of the snow and a renewed interest in Japan as a ski destination has driven much of the growth.” 

Snowshoeing at Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko
The Niseko United is an all-season resort with a skiing/snowboarding focus in winter and golf, cycling and food in summer. One of the big benefits for Hong Kong visitors is the small time difference (Niseko is just one hour ahead of HK) and a four-hour flight – both big pluses compared with traveling to Europe or North America. Other advantages include a network of 38 lifts accessing 48km of terrain with a substantial snow record (up to six or seven meters according to Japanese National Tourism Organization figures) - and the possibility of very light powder particularly between January and mid-March. Niseko also has many onsens throughout the area – natural hot springs ideal for après ski soaking – with a shuttle-bus link to all four base stations. And there are rapidly developing facilities for other winter activities, including snowshoeing, snowmobiling, heli and catskiing, backcountry tours and a focus on developing other off mountain infrastructure and retail. 
Niseko, Japan - Photo courtesy of Explore Niseko

Monday, March 21, 2016

Customer-Centric Service at Steamboat - Mar 17

It’s most unusual for a town to train the whole community in customer service techniques. But this is exactly what Steamboat Springs, Colorado decided to do in 2014.
Ed Eppley
The innovative plan was hatched by management consultant, Ed Eppley in conjunction with the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association and also the Steamboat Ski and Resort Company (SSRC). Pivotal in planning and implementation were Jim Clark, Executive Director of the Chamber, and Rob Perlman, Senior VP of Sales & Marketing for SSRC.

Steamboat has long been known for its western, family-friendly atmosphere, so focusing on service isn’t new, according to Perlman. “The new part is how we approach service,” he says. “The Service Excellence program at Steamboat is really a derivative of a sales conversion initiative through our call center operations at Steamboat Central Reservations that we started back in 2010.  This whole thing began as an exercise to convert more sales leads into Steamboat vacations.  During that process, we really moved the needle with a consultative selling style that connected with customers in way that isn’t possible through traditional product sales. This approach of building relationships with our guests quickly spread to other departments and Service Excellence was born.”

According to Eppley, owner of Ohio-based company, ProspeX at the time, it was all about exceeding customers’ expectations. The impetus for the dramatic move came after the town of Steamboat Springs witnessed the resort achieve two years of industry leading guest service results from their Service Excellence program while comparing those results with the town’s visitor survey in 2013 which revealed a significant decrease in responders saying they would recommend Steamboat Springs to friends and colleagues. The town’s survey showed a seven point drop from a previous 2010 study.

Several years before the Steamboat Ski & Resort Corporation had engaged ProspeX to improve the conversion rate for incoming sales enquiries. “This work resulted in SSRC raising their Net Promoter Scores with external customers to be the highest in their competitive set,” Eppley recalls. “It also produced a 20 per cent plus increase in their bookings conversion rate through their call center.”

The idea of training the whole town as well as the ski resort was the brainchild of the Steamboat Chamber CEO and SSRC's COO, Chris Diamond, who was also on the Chamber Board of Directors. “They felt it was important that someone who comes to Steamboat have exceptional experiences, whether they were on the mountain or in the nearby town,” Eppley explains.

He went on to custom design a pilot training program, initially involving four four-hour sessions over the space of a month, teaching the very latest in customer service culture and using many Disney examples of ‘going the extra mile’. His course included techniques such as the connection stack: finding common ground with customers and then using that more intimate relationship to gain their confidence and loyalty to the destination.  

From summer 2014, the Chamber worked with leaders in government, lodging, restaurants and retail to enlist top customer service providers from within these sectors to help train others within the community. Eppley taught a pilot group and those participants then went back and disseminated the new information and tactics among their own staff. “We've trained key thought leaders in the community to become semi-subject matter experts in delivering what we call Service Excellence,” he explains. “They go into businesses that ask for the training and present the concepts to their staff.”

Eppley says that the first requirement is for the owner or executive management of each company to embrace the idea that exceptional customer service is important, and that it comes as much from the culture of the company as any external program or training. “Second, we teach the staff that directly interacts with the guest a simple, quick method to ‘connect’ with the guest,” he explains. “The process of teaching them the connecting method tends to build confidence in the staff to actually use the tool right away. Finally, for the companies who want to change their culture to support Service Excellence, we teach their managers an approach to managing and leading that makes it easier for people to behave the right way.”

Rob Perlman, Steamboat Ski & Resort
At SSRC, the following guidelines were identified by Eppley and Perlman:
1)Find out why you want to do this.
2)Clear focus on what you want (or need) to achieve.  How will we know if we are successful?
3)Passionate internal champions at all levels of the organization. ‘Street Cred’ is critical.
4)Persistence – this will take years to gain full traction. It’s been said you’ll need one full year for every layer of management.
5)You’ll need a doctrine to make your own. For Steamboat, that’s our culture and Service Excellence.
6)Determination – when challenged, use your decision making to reinforce your commitment to Service Excellence. Don’t undermine it.

Not everyone in Steamboat Springs is on board yet, however. Eppley says, as with any broad initiative, it is a ‘bell curve’: “There are certain businesses that feel they don't need help. At the other end of the spectrum are companies that are hungry for the help. The companies that have embraced the concepts feel like they have really benefited from doing so. When asked, most of their staff feels like it has helped them. And they also feel like it makes their interaction with their guests more fun.”

Results are measured quantitatively via the town’s Net Promoter Scores, although instant increases were not anticipated since only 15-20 percent of the town’s businesses had gone through the program by early 2015. “As of February, Net Promoter Scores for the town have not moved in any significant way and were not expected to do so,” Eppley acknowledges. At the ski resort, however, every employee receives an introduction to Service Excellence and results have already proved its worth. “At SSRC, the real movement came starting in the second year and third year,” Eppley says. “It wasn't until the Christmas and New Year's weeks this season, that SSRC had their highest scores to date.” He adds that those were the two busiest weeks of the entire season – a time when customer service scores might logically be expected to decrease. In March 2015, the resort recorded a 91 per cent Net Promoter Score as a result of which they offered 90 randomly selected staff members with prizes.

Qualitative results had already started to show around town with one multi-unit restaurant owner recording improved guest satisfaction scores and asking for more training for his management team. A condominium owner also noticed significant increases in bookings. “Another good indicator is unsolicited comments from guests to Steamboat Springs. Those appear to be moving up,” Eppley confirms.

Improving customer service is definitely a trend in ski resorts world over. In a recent survey of businesses, over 60 per cent said they wanted to make customer service a competitive advantage by 2016, Eppley says. “Saying you want to create customer service experiences that are greater than your competitors is easy,” says Eppley. “Creating a culture that supports that and rewards your people for doing so takes a tremendous effort. SSRC has been doing this now for four plus years. I also know that customers of all kinds, retail, B2B, etc., have higher demands and expectations than ever before. It may be that delivering exceptional customer experiences won't be a competitive advantage, it may be what's required to stay in business.”