Roger Cox: Braehead’s indoor snow centre
When Jamie Smith took over the indoor ski slope formerly known as SNO!zone at Braehead last December, renaming it Snow Factor, his mission plan was simple: stop treating it like a corporate gimmick and start running it like a serious ski resort – a place where skiers and boarders come first.
“Historically, these things [indoor ski slopes] were built as an anchor for retail tenants,” he says. “If you look at Capital and Regional [the previous owners] they’re not an adventure sports company, they’re a property developer. They build these facilities so they can then have Ellis Brigham, North Face, Trespass or whoever else filling up all the retail units. There didn’t seem to be much thought given to the daily operations or profitability of the ski side itself – it was just seen as the anchor to pull the tenants in.”
One of the first things Smith did on taking over the reins at Braehead was attempt to reconnect with the snowsliding community, inviting representatives from more than 40 ski and snowboard clubs to come for a drink and share their views on how the facility could be improved. Having put some of their recommendations into practice – including better snowmaking and permanent park features – Smith and his team are already reaping the rewards.
“Our sales are up 22 per cent on last year,” he says, “and we’ve almost halved the overheads in the business, so we’ve taken a huge jump in profitability – and that’s in the teeth of a recession.”
A keen mountaineer with over 25 years’ experience, Smith already has an impressive track record in the outdoor sports industry. In 2003, he set up the Ice Factor, the largest indoor ice-climbing facility in the world, siting it in the derelict remains of an aluminium complex at Kinlochleven. Critics said a 15m-high freezer at the end of a remote, dead-end valley was doomed to fail, but it now attracts 130,000 visitors a year.
His plans for the Snow Factor are characteristically ambitious. Between now and October, he hopes to install a snowlink, allowing people to ski straight from the ski slope to a Bavarian-themed bar; a brand new ice climbing wall, as high as the Ice Factor at its highest point; and a new parent and child area and kindergarten slope. He also intends to knock through the back wall of the building and put in giant windows, flooding the ski area with natural light and providing views out over the Clyde. That lot should cost about half a million pounds, he reckons. Then, following a relaunch in October, the improvements will continue: a halfpipe is due to be built in the winter to give the place what Smith describes as “a bit of a wow factor”.
“It’s mega-exciting,” he says. “Every day I’m watching another improvement getting made, and I guess I’m frustrated that all the ideas that we’ve got are taking time to get done.”
Not everyone has been pleased by the changes Smith has introduced. In April, under the headline “Tears as jobs go at ski slope”, the Glasgow Evening Times reported that some staff were being laid off at Snow Factor while others were being told to reapply for their positions or face redundancy.
But Smith argues the changes were necessary. He speaks of being “horrified” by an early visit to the centre. “There was this warren of offices under the slope,” he says. “Everywhere you’d go there would be people sitting in front of computers.” What he wanted to do, he says, was move away from having “a team of administrators and bureaucrats to a team of instructors and passionate snow people.”
There are now 35 full-time instructors, and Smith boasts that if you come in off the street without a booking and ask for a lesson you’ll get one in less than an hour.
The snowmaking system has been tweaked, too – Smith is an expert on the physics of indoor refrigeration thanks to his years at Ice Factor – and he describes the result as “perfect squeaky snow”.
Has Smith hit on the winning formula for an indoor ski resort? Time will tell. It’s important he gets it right, though, because if global warming continues to impact on outdoor skiing, places like Snow Factor could be the future.
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Tuesday 21 May 2013
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