Updated: 2011-12-30 07:42
By Mark Graham (China Daily)
Justin Downes says China's skiing industry will undergo many positive changes in the next five years. [Provided to China Daily]
Winter sports consultant rides on growing Chinese market
Ski resort consultant Justin Downes has been a busy man over the past few years - helping open a slew of international level resorts in China. Canadian national Downes, who has been in the snow sports business for more than 20 years, says this is the only part of the world where ski resorts are being built on a major scale, and he has helped advise on the design, construction and operation of many of them.
He first came to live in China five years ago and was hired by the Melco group to set up a chain of properties in the north of the country - places that could be used for skiing and snowboarding in the winter months, and golf, horse-riding and hiking in summer.
Later, Downes set up the consultancy Axis Leisure Management, which helps bring together investors and developers in China with international ski-resort groups from North America and Europe who have the expertise to design, build and manage world-class facilities.
In total, Downes has been involved in planning 11 resorts in China - with other projects now in the discussion and planning stage.
"Nobody was developing world-class, high quality, well-thought-out projects in China, so I saw an opportunity," he says. "There were developers who had the horsepower, had the financing and the land and the desire to build something truly great, but they did not know how to get from point A to point B. My role was to sit between the developers and the investors and the intellectual supply side, the planners and consultants who help co-ordinate these world-class projects.
"It is hard enough keeping track of things even when you are inside the market. There is just so much going on. In more sophisticated environments there are ski magazines and so on to read about it, but not here. I can't say I know everything; I get asked, so I am more enthusiastic about finding out."
Downes has acquired vast practical experience and management know-how from two decades spent in the industry, initially working in resort bars and restaurants, later as a senior executive at mammoth resorts in Canada and Australia.
Initially, Downes, who grew up in Australia, moved to China to help the Melco group with its new ski projects in northeastern China, later consulting on the Secret Garden project, the massive ski-leisure complex being built in Hebei province and due to be opened in phases over the next few years.
The giant facility will ultimately have 82 ski runs, and have chairlifts and gondolas that can carry up to 18,000 guests a day, and 2,700 hotel rooms. In summer, the 100 square kilometers resort will offer golfing, horse riding, tennis, mountain biking and fishing.
It was large-scale developments such as the Secret Garden that persuaded Downes his immediate future lay in China.
The 41-year-old entrepreneur now lives in Beijing, where his teenage daughter Hayley studies in a Chinese school, and travels regularly around the country, consulting on ski resorts and golf courses.
"There will be a lot of positive changes in the next five years," Downes says. "Right now in China there are a lot of one-time skiers that go once and don't come back. But people are becoming more discerning and demanding better quality experiences.
"It hasn't taken off properly but it is growing. It is one of the few ski industries in the world where it is actually growing. In North America it is declining; that may be the product of an ageing population, a lazy population or a recession. In China it is growing. But with a population of 1.3 billion and only five million people estimated to be active skiers, it is not a lot."
Until his late teens, Downes had never been near a ski slope. On a trip to Canada, he sampled skiing for the first time and was instantly addicted, an obsession he has managed to parlay into a successful career.
"I fell in love with the industry," Downes says. "I say that things like skiing and golf become an addiction, like a drug. You need to become a pusher to do the things that you want to do, so that is how I got into the business, to support my habit.
"It has turned into a successful and fun career; it is rare that you can turn something you love into a career."
Like many visitors, he was initially surprised to find out just now many resorts were already located around Beijing and in the northeast of the country. The smaller ones near the capital tend to cater to less-experienced skiers. Aficionados make the trip out to the Wanlong area, which has a number of top-class facilities, including the Duolomedei resort, one of the classiest in the country.
None are as challenging as those in Europe or North America, and all tend to have plenty of facilities for non-skiers such as sleigh rides. Expert-skier Downes is anything but snobbish about such set-ups.
"My main objective, and other people who want to help grow the industry, is to provide a multitude of experiences for people who need to be entertained. They might have no interest in skiing, or snowboarding, but want to be part of the snow environment. So you need to create snow play areas for kids and grandparents, more so in China than any other places in the world. That is a very important component."
Downes regularly receives delegations from major ski-resort players from the United States and Canada in search of opportunities. After so many years working in top resorts such as the renowned Whistler, and five years in China, he has become the go-to guy for anyone seeking information.
"When I worked in Australia and Canada I was an employee running large-scale mature programs, whereas in China it has been consulting in a rapidly growing and relatively unsophisticated market," he says.
"My personal opinion is that the ski industry in China will not be a meaningful national industry until about five years from now; all that infrastructure needs to grow and mature and the public needs to gain a greater appreciation, which the industry itself has a larger responsibility to help them appreciate it.
"These things don't happen overnight. It takes many years to build up a project. I see a lot of opportunities for my company and the industry as a whole."