CHINA INDUSTRY INSIDER Q+A Part 1
Published in Chinese on WeChat / GoSki Observer
State of China Resort Landscape - Justin Downes, President of Axis Leisure and IMG Resort Management
Justin Downes serves as President of both Axis Leisure Management & IMG Ski Resort Management and has held a number of Senior Resort & Tourism Leadership roles over 25 years and on three continents including some of the industry's leading four season resorts. Having started his career in the ski industry at 18 years age in Whistler, Canada – he worked nights bussing tables at Whistler’s # 1 restaurant and by day loaded chairlifts on Blackcomb Mountain. Over the next 10 years he worked his way up both the resort management and hospitality side of the business – creating the path that he has followed for the next 18 years.
His experience and past engagements include the following positions:
- Intrawest – Panorama Resort, British Columbia, Canada – 1998-2000 - Operations Director
- Kicking Horse Resort, British Columbia, Canada – 2000-2005 – General Manager
- Mt. Hotham / Falls Creek Resorts, Victoria, Australia – 2005-2006 – Chief Executive Officer
- Melco China Resorts – Yabuli/Beidahu/Lianhuashan Beijing, Changchun, Panshi – 2007-2008 – Senior Vice President, Operations
- Genting Secret Garden Resort – Chongli – 2009-2010 – Chief Operating Officer
- Axis Leisure Management / IMG (Ski) Resort Management – Various Resorts – 2008-Present - President
Justin Downes obviously is no stranger in the China Ski Resort industry. The busy manager took the time to answer some questions exclusively for us to get to the bottom of a few questions concerning the development of Chinese winter sport resorts.
Q: What brought you to China?
My former employer, Intrawest – North America’s largest resort developer/operator at the time was starting up the division – Intrawest China (which later became Melco China Resorts). They knew that I had an interest in being located in Asia, knew that I had resort takeover/redevelopment/start-up & management experience, and my contract in Australia had just finished…timing was good, so it was a win-win-win
Q: Please tell us some important milestones of your career:
At 30 years old I was recruited to establish, develop and operate the only new resort to have been developed in North America in the past 25 years – Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. This was an enormous opportunity and was a project that generated global attention. As General Manager, and the 1st employee of the project, we built this project to a point where it is (still today) on most skiers ‘must visit’ resorts and as a business, is uniquely positioned and performs well financially.
As the leader of the rebranding, redevelopment and operation of Mt Hotham & Falls Creek leading to the sale of over $150million in real estate in first 4 months following launch
A part of the executive team of the Melco China Resorts Group that saw the rebirth of Yabuli.
While this business eventually dissolved it was a highly educational and inspirational experience that became the forefront of the rapid growth in interest in resort development in China
The launch of the joint venture between Axis & IMG in 2014
The launch of China’s first Cat Ski Operation – Powder Paradise at the iconic Heavenly Lake at Changbai Mountain in 2015.
Q: What experience you gained in the past was crucial to your success in China?
The launch and development of Kicking Horse Resort was an invaluable learning experience. At the time, there were very few resources available with previous experience in such launches, so it taught me to be extremely resourceful, creative and alert to every minute detail that was needed to pull together such a globally anticipated development. It taught me to be patient and it taught me that follow up on every aspect and directive was absolutely critical to ensure everything was completed as planned. It taught me to hire people for “attitude” rather than experience and provide them with the tools with which to learn and grow. Starting something new requires enormous energy, a great deal of passion, and importantly, a level of humility to understand when you need to ask for help (both internally and externally) and to lean on your colleagues as a tightly knit team. Importantly, developing a strong brand from the outset, that guides the employees and leaders in their decision making for everything that they do – a strong brand becomes the social fabric of the entire organization and allows you to develop an unwavering message to the market. These aspects helped Kicking Horse to become an industry leader that still holds true today. It is also these aspects that ring true when approaching any new project in China, whether it is a ‘green field project’ or a ‘redevelopment’. Aside from the above, it is about hammering into the team, that compromising on objectives is something that cannot be in our vocabulary and the science of details and the constant quest for improvement is the only thing that keeps you ahead of the competition.
Q: What changed since Beijing won the bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics?
Clearly the interest in all winter sports has grown significantly, and shows no sign of abating. The projected growth in sport in general has motivated most of the major private and state owned developers to get involved in the industry, and as such, there are more and more integrated resort projects under design and under planning – nationwide. The pressure on improved quality of infrastructure, services and brands only serves to benefit the consumer which of course ultimately improves the prospects of these developments. I see more individuals now looking at the industry as a legitimate career path and these individuals are seeking and obtaining relevant and higher levels of education. I also see more and more people choosing to make their homes in Mountain towns because they appreciate and enjoy the quality of life that these places offer – this will certainly help the future viability and success of these regions. I also see a much greater focus on improved systems, training and accreditations (in areas such as ski school and mountain safety), and as a result a rapid increase in the attention that international resort and service operators are placing on China – now it seems that everyone wants to offer something to China – I wonder where they all were 5-10 years ago ?
Q: In your opinion, which resorts in China have the best potential? How about some pioneers forming alliances? What best practice examples from US or Europe could be useful to look at?
The Chongli resorts most certainly have a distinct advantage in the years to come. In particular, Thaiwoo Resort has demonstrated that they are taking every detail of operation very seriously and the strong focus of year round services and ammenties coupled with industry leading brands and service providers, gives a very optimistic outlook for the future. Secret Garden and the soon to open Fulong Four Season Resort also show strong promise in developing truely world class offerings on a year round basis. With a population of 45 million or so people in driving distance to the region, there is most certainly an abundant audience to attract. With the added benefit of the Olympics, the improved infrastructure that will provide access to the region will make the region accessible to everyone – all year round. It is my opinion that in the long run, these resort destinations will become more popular in the summer months in the winter as people seek places to escape from the city heat and pollution – typically Chongli is blessed with much cooler temperatures and clearer air (as compared to Beijing). For similar reasons I see Beidahu and Songhua Lake being industry leaders as they offer high quality products in a region of fast growing population and economic circumstance. The recent collaboration between Beidahu and Songhua Lake is the first of what I hope are many similar partnerships to be formed. This relationship benefits the operator (in the form of human resource sharing and reduced costs, and also in heightened marketing opportunities), but certainly also benefits the consumer whose experience will be amplified through expanded ski offering, extended services and simplified ticketing, booking and logistics. I see enormous benefit for the Chongli resort cluster to adopt a similar approach in the future. Collaborations between Chinese resorts and International resorts are also important to the growth of the domestic industry as the Chinese skier now receives added value globally, and also benefits from the technical and opertaional knowledge sharing between the partners to improve the overall domestic experience.
The recently opened Changbaishan Powder Paradise Cat Ski operation provides a new and exciting dimension to China’s fledgling industry and we believe that such a product will grow from strength to strength in the future and will ultimately become a destination for international skiers in China.
Best Practices? – I believe that there are several extremely important areas that should be analyzed and implemented. Multi Resort Ticketing (Seasons Passes) I believe are integral to the industry in China, such as the Mountain Collective & Epic Pass in the US/Canada. These passes provide affordable entry into the market for large volumes of people, that are subsequently encouraged to travel throughout the network and fill in the resort „white space“ (ie. Midweek). I also believe regional marketing campaigns (for example „Ski Chongli“ or „Ski Changbaishan“). are to the benefit of the industry as a whole, rather than exclusive and independant programs. Ski School will always be a focus and getting kids involved in the industry is integral to the growth of the sport. Programs such as Grade 5 Snowpass which is successful in countries such as the US, Canada and Australia, provides government and industry sponsored access to skiing for all Grade 5 students nationally – at no cost – thereby making them life long enthusiasts. Unified Ski Instruction and Ski Patrol accredication is paramount, such as it is in all leading ski nations. This needs to be led by a Resort formed association (where all resorts are members) and sanctioned by the Government association.
Q:What are areas the industry needs to develop most?
Key areas the need to be focused on are: 1) Customer Service & Staff Training – 2) Safety Standards and Training – 3)Year Round indoor and outdoor activities for all ages and demographics. Customer Service Training needs to come from the top and filter down, in that the leaders of the resorts must truly understand all aspects of the customer flow, from reservations through to every department operation and interaction. The staff must be shown how to appreciate the mountain life and culture, be encouraged to participate in the activities that the resort has to offer so that they know what it is like to be a customer. Importantly, the resorts need to be led with a fully integrated approach, to ensure that every interaction throughout the resort experience is seamless and enjoyable. Of significant importance is that the industry must focus on creating loyalty within and to the industry and to develop and maintain ‘return visitation’ to the resorts and to the sports that they offer.
Axis is a leading leisure and hospitality consultancy headquartered in Beijing, - specializing in four season development projects on behalf of domestic developers, and representing leading foreign firms in the hospitality/leisure industry looking to offer service, or launch their brand into the growing Asian marketplace in the areas of Ski, Golf, Integrated Resorts and Entertainment Venues. In January 2015, Axis and IMG formed a groundbreaking Joint Venture – IMG Ski Resort Management.