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The power of powder The power of powder

The mountains might be just a three-and-a-half-hour drive away, but those living in the greater Auckland area are still flocking to New Zealand’s only indoor snow park. Located in Silverdale, Snowplanet has been running for 14 years, and thanks to its innovative approach and ability to deliver fresh new experiences its popularity is growing.

Snowplanet's General Manager, Rojie Aguilar

Over the last financial year, 156,000 visitors paid to enjoy the slope at Snowplanet - up from 95,000 in 2008. But, factor in those who come just to dine in the Seven Summits restaurant, and the total number of visitors is closer to 250,000.

Snowplanet caters to everyone from experienced snowboarders and skiers to complete novices. Casual customers and season-pass holders account for much of its business, and after-school and holiday programmes are also important revenue streams. The company runs ski-racing and after-school programmes for those who want to improve their skills, and has partnerships with a number of local schools. Like the Central Plateau ski fields, winter is Snowplanet's busiest season with numbers peaking during the July school holidays. However, the facility is far from idle during summer. Christmas parties are popular in November and December, with corporate functions taking place year-round in Snowplanet's conference rooms.

General Manager Rojie Aguilar says that in addition to skiing and snowboarding, snow tubing is gaining in popularity with around 25,000 visitors a year keen to sample this fun activity.

Aguilar joined the company in 2007 as its company accountant, and has learnt the business from the inside out. While he's worked in chartered accountancy firms, manufacturing, food, property development and real-estate financing, running an indoor snow park was a new proposition.

"I'm from the Philippines where it's hot and tropical, so this was new to me," he laughs. "I learnt to ski here at Snowplanet."

Founder Eduard Ebbinge is still a Snowplanet director, along with Duncan Smith and Henry Tait. Passionate skiers, all three are heavily involved in the company's strategic direction, leaving Aguilar and his team to manage the product development and operational aspects of the business.

And it's a business that never stops. Snowplanet operates 365 days a year, with the snow dome open for up to 15 hours at a stretch during peak season. The maximum capacity on the snow is 300 at any one time, and on Friday nights the place is pumping with visitors enjoying the new terrain layouts of the super park.

"No matter the time of day, there are always people at Snowplanet," says Aguilar. "We do all our maintenance at night and we're actually only closed to the public for a few hours."

Depending on the time of year, Snowplanet employs between 120 and 160 staff. The Snow Sports Academy runs all the structured lessons and the 'resort staff' manage the front-of-house operations (the ticket desk, gear rentals and pommel lifts). Hospitality staff run the restaurant and behind the scenes are the sales and marketing, finance, maintenance, health & safety, human resources and administration staff.

THE COOLEST PLACE IN TOWN

As New Zealand's only indoor snow park, Snowplanet's offering is unique, but it's still vying for our recreation dollar with entertainment venues such as Rainbow's End and Auckland Zoo.

"We don't really compete directly with the mountain," says Aguilar. "We see ourselves as a feeder for the outdoor ski fields - it's a complementary offering. Many of our customers learn to ski at Snowplanet and then go to the mountain or come here during the off-season to train or enjoy the snow."

Like a number of Hayes Knight's clients, to measure customer satisfaction, Snowplanet uses the NPS (Net Promoter Score), which ranges from -100 to +100, with +50 considered 'excellent' and anything above 70 categorised as 'world class'.

"We started using the NPS in 2010. Back then our rating was 37. Over the last two years it's sat at around 78 so we've really improved. We can't please everyone, but the important thing is that we communicate with our customers and respond to all their comments."

KEEPING IT FRESH

While the size of the slope hasn't changed since Snowplanet opened in 2005, the quality of the experiences on offer has improved considerably. Visitors now enjoy a constantly changing terrain of obstacles. "Creating a good experience isn't about the number of features," says Aguilar, "it's about the quality and providing a different style of riding that keeps them excited and keeps the park fresh."

"In 2012, we purchased new rails and features, and four years ago we invested in a lighting upgrade for the dome," says Aguilar. "It's now twice as bright, which greatly enhances the experience."

There is now also more up-market dining and a conference centre and crèche. The Seven Summits restaurant has changed from a tray service to an alpine-bistro dining atmosphere, and recently introduced the innovative 3D 'Dining with Gaston experience'. This multi-sensory pre-meal entertainment, originally from Belgium, is an animated tabletop show featuring a tiny accident-prone chef who runs around between the cutlery and plates. Auckland is just the seventh city in the world to offer it.

"We're continuing to explore other activities that would complement and improve our current offering. There are 25 other snow domes in the world and we look at them all for inspiration and ideas, but we understand the behaviour of our customers and focus on what might be applicable to the New Zealand market."

PLOUGHING EARNINGS BACK INTO THE BUSINESS

While the initial set-up cost for Snowplanet was significant, maintenance CAPEX is ongoing. Every three years, Snowplanet purchases new snow-grooming machines at a cost of $250,000 each. Its cooling system is powered by massive compressors that are stripped and rebuilt every three years. This costs around $40,000 to $50,000.

"We also invest up to $200,000 on replacing a third of our rental gear each year," says Aguilar. "Snow-making is an ongoing cost, as is cooling and powering the venue. We have a risk management plan with generators if the power goes off."

Skiing and snowboarding are normally viewed as high-risk activities, so managing health and safety is another daily challenge. Thousands of dollars have been invested to minimise the risk of injury.

"We ensure that those things within our control are safe. We've padded almost everything inside the dome that can be hit, and helmets are compulsory for all activities except tubing."

Snowplanet has 27 shareholders, and because of its unique offering, the business can sustain itself without corporate backing. Operational costs are funded through its earnings.

For the past six years, Hayes Knight Director Phil Barlow has assisted Snowplanet with a range of business accounting services, including compliance and tax consulting, while Business Services Manager Sue Tregoweth handles the company's filing requirements.

"There's really nothing else like Snowplanet in New Zealand," says Barlow. "It's clearly a niche offering and they're constantly looking at ways to expand on that. With the growth in residential housing and commercial development around Silverdale over the last few years, Snowplanet's turnover has increased and we're delighted to be able to help them handle the associated accounting requirements."

FUTURE EXPANSION

Snowplanet occupies just 4 hectares of the 14 hectare site it owns in Silverdale. Its vision is to develop the rest of the site into a destination facility with a cluster of complementary recreational activities, such as zorbing, indoor climbing and other adventure activities.

Snowplanet's snow dome is currently 40m wide and 200m long, but over the next five years, Aguilar says the plan is to double the width of the slope and add another 80m to the length.

"We've seen the potential to grow the snow sports business. We want to expand our tubing and attract families who simply want to experience snow. By moving the beginners slope to our new facility, we'll free up another 30% of the current slope to create more space for advanced customers to ski or snowboard and improve the experience for everyone."

Snowplanet skiiers

Snowplanet other inside picture

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