The shifting economy hit ski resorts world wide last year like a Mother Nature Madoff: unless a resort had three feet of pow to spare, no one showed up. As a result, almost everyone from the Intrawest behemoths to the indie t-bar hills took a beating. On New Zealand's south island it was particularly bad where some of the worst snow levels in a decade had incoming foreign shred dollars harder to find than a finance job in NY. Amidst all the carnage the Lee Family, owners of Snow Park NZ, had some tough decisions to make.
A freestyle terrain park complete with a pro-sized halfpipe, Snow Park is tucked away on a tiny speck of a land at the end of a winding road in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. It's an area that sees as many wandering shred hobbits as it does pros coming through for some pre-season training sessions.
Having recently surged to international notoriety as host to three consecutive Burton New Zealand Opens, Snow Park is essentially a facility whose entire range of services amounts to a mid-mountain lodge at a North American resort. At this size, playing host to hundreds of international media, riders, and accompanying crews at a park-only hill—no hotel room for miles—meeting everyone's expectations is no easy task. Yet hard work and resourceful thinking and they had soon found themselves on the shortlist for any international powder hound looking at a trip to the Southern Hemi. Snow Park was on the map.
But the attention came at a price: living up to the growing expectations of an international customer. After the harshness of last season, and the acute disappearance of said international customer, it was rumored that the Lee family was looking to sell Snow Park. What they were actually doing was looking to lure some major investment into their property that could be used to upgrade it to a "world class" facility.
And then General Manager Sam Lee had an epiphany. Looking at the uphill growth battle that loomed ahead, he thought about what it would be like to go the other way. To stop growing with the Open and to withdraw their hat from the ring of international big dogs. To look at their local customers as their salvation rather than the global snowboard industry. It wasn't that they hadn't had a great run; it was just that it was time for a change. The New Zealand Open is taking place at Cardrona this year but Snow Park is opening on July 4th with an invigorated staff and a new sense of self. ESPN sat down with Sam Lee over a 16 hour time difference and 9000 miles to find out how Snow Park went back to their essence.
Snow Park opens on July 4th and there's been all sort of speculation since last year. What is going on at Snow Park this season?
We've revisited our model this year. For the past several years we've been modeling ourselves after traditional ski resorts and how they operate and we've come to the realization that it isn't how the park should be run. So we've come up with a new philosophy for this year. We've gone back to our roots and tried to figure out what made this place so special back in the beginning.
What was that?
We've come to the conclusion that the atmosphere here didn't come from the events—it came from the crew coming up to ride. Having the big events is great but it started to become our focus every season after a while. Going into each season we would have to think, "Okay how do we work our season around these events?" Where it really should be, "How do we work these events around our season?" We would want to stay focused on the innovation and putting new stuff out in the park and it became a struggle to balance what rails go where, what features and jumps do we have to build for the events versus what do we need to build for our day to day customers.
Getting media coverage is not going to be our focus. Our focus is going to be on making sure that the kid who comes up and buys a day pass or has a season's pass is the most stoked person on the hill.
So you decided to get out of doing international events?
Yes, our biggest change is that we are no longer hosting the major structured freestyle events like the Burton Open and the Free Ski Open. We are concentrating on events that we enjoy because if we enjoy them then so do our customers. I mean of course there is business at the end of the day but we want to focus on fun from our crew down to the kids coming up. This year we are doing a mellow event schedule with events that are super fun and bring a lot of energy to the park but don't necessarily take the focus away from our day to day operations. There's nothing worse than building a great big course for the likes of the Burton Open and then not being able to let our daily customers ride it.
What sort of drain did the Open put on Snow Park?
From a staffing angle, the Open is not just a snowboarding event, it's a media event. Over one hundred media people attend the event: you've got GO211 doing their live streaming, you've got so many moving parts to that event that just from a management perspective, there is a lot to do to keep everyone satisfied. It's a great event, and Burton is a great team, and their whole crew here are friends of mine, so I've got nothing bad to say about them whatsoever, but the size and scale of that event is now at a point where it's a bit too much. When we first started with it, we had it nailed but as it grew it became even more challenging from a management perspective to keep everything right for the event and everything right for the park.
Now a lot of that weight is off of us. It would happen every year, we would spend a bunch of time putting out something super sick in the park for everybody to ride but then event time would come around and we would have to pluck it back out. Some kid would be like "Aw man, I just learned to trick off that rail and I want to keep hitting it," but we'd have to move it onto the event course and tell him he couldn't ride it for two weeks. That was just something we realized internally that had to change.
How has the reaction been to this philosophical and organizational shift?
It's really interesting because for our staff, this is probably the most excited I've ever seen them for a beginning of a season. With the locals, I liken it to the surf break that gets publicized. It's everyone's favorite spot to go surfing but then it blows up and loses that charm, the thing you can't buy, so then you've got to reinvent or find a new spot. There have been so many people that I've spoken to that have been like "Oh man, I'm so stoked. It's going to be like 2004 all over again, that was my funnest season riding at the Park!" You see, that was before big events became our focus. Also, now we'll be able to be more accommodating to do special things for any teams that come over. Honestly, though that's not our focus. Getting media coverage is not going to be our focus. Our focus is going to be on making sure that the kid who comes up and buys a day pass or has a season's pass is the most stoked person on the hill.
Do you think you might end up with more business at Snow Park during the Open this year than last year?
We definitely hope there will be positive spinoffs with people knowing that the pipe will be open every day and that the focus is back on them. Cardrona is a really busy mountain, even without an event going on, so while people are waiting in lift lines over there word will spread that there is no queue at the Snow Park and all the features are open and we think people will see that the focus is back on them.
Events are great for revenue and media exposure and getting your name out there but I think that for us, word of mouth and progressive terrain and the ability to tweak anything at any time without worrying about an event is going to bring a heap of value to anyone that has a pass here. Plus we're stoked that the elite level of events is still happening in our area.
What are the mellower events you are hosting at Snow Park?
Our eyewear partner is Electric so we're doing an event called the Electric Hip Attack. We've got $2,000 cash split between male and female and there's heaps of other prizes. It's modeled on the first event we ever did here. Anyone can show up and enter. You can show up late and enter, there are no real restrictions. It's a two hour jam and we pluck out the three finalists and run a PIG format until there's a winner. Billabong has also been a big part of what we've done here so this year we are doing an event called the Billabong Bro-Down. It's a quarterpipe followed by a big air and we've got stuff like a Bacardi cocktail bus coming up, and there's a big blowout party on the last night for all the competitors and spectators.
There's nothing worse than building a great big course for the likes of the Burton Open and then not being able to let our daily customers ride it.
Night Sessions are pretty unique to Snow Park, any plans to for additional focus there?
Oh yeah. Night riding reminds us of where we've come from. It brings the locals out. Since we started doing it, night riding took away a lot of the negative side of the bro-brah atmosphere that would come through during the day trying to look steezy and be the man. At night it was always a much mellower atmosphere, everyone would stop at the Woolshed for a beer, it was what it used to all be about. So we wanted to bring that back. Plus we are the only park with night riding in the southern hemisphere so it makes sense to expand it. One of the biggest barriers for us has been that we are hated by 90-percent of the skiing parents in this region because this is the only place the kids want to ride but it's the last place the parents want to ride. With night riding, parents can come up, crack open a bottle of wine and relax while the kids ride.
Do you have any regrets about having spent so much attention on the Open and the media over the last several years?
No. I think it's been very positive. Will Jackaways has been on our team for a long time and is ripping internationally right now. Also his brother Tim Jackaways. Will was working part time making coffee for us back when we first got up and going with Burton. I used to go to school with will and I've known him for a very long time. I remember one of Burton's first shoots here in 2003. They had the whole international team and we built a 100 foot kicker and Will and Tim were hitting this thing on their beat up rail boards and you couldn't tell who was the international team and who were the local boys. So they've always had the skill but right now it definitely seems like they are getting the right exposure and I'd like to think that some of that has to do with what we've done here at Snow Park in helping to bring the spotlight to freestyle riding in New Zealand. Those boys deserve it.
So now that you are back on track, the big question is whether the weather is going to cooperate this season? Any mystical insight on that?
We have a wonderful guy here name Ken Ring. His website is predictweather.co.nz. He predicts the weather by the moon. I wouldn't pick my wedding day around his predictions because he's fairly loose, but he is really good at predicting trends. So far he's calling for a dry June and July, dry and really cold, but then moving into August with lots of fresh snow. We are already dropping down to freezing at sea level, since we are at 1500 meters that's really good for us to kick our snowmaking off. I remember seasons like 93-94 and 97-98 where we had so much snow it was ridiculous and this year we've already had some serious early dumps. The eastern part of the country is already open with a meter base so I think all signs are pointing to this being the season to shred in New Zealand!