Snow domes. You have heard of them, at least of Ski Dubai, and perhaps of the one that’s built, tested, and ready to open at Xanadu in New Jersey once the economy returns to life.
You may know, too, of other indoor projects planned in the U.S. over the past two decades, none of which got off the ground. Perhaps this made you skeptical about the concept. But roughly 60 indoor centers now operate in 25 countries across Europe, Asia, and New Zealand. It’s only a matter of time before snow domes sprout in North America, too.
That notion is not as farfetched as it might seem. Many domes are profitable; some are well into their second decade of operation, and attract hundreds of thousands of skiers and boarders each year. Many of these visitors are new to snow sports, and would never have taken them up without the ease and relatively low cost of a suburban snow slope. And before long, these new guests all want to get to the mountains for “the real thing.”
A BRIEF HISTORY
The earliest indoor snow centers were in Japan in the 1950s, when snow was trucked from the mountains to create a temporary, indoor snow environment after the season ended. Modern indoor snow centers developed in the late 1980s in Belgium, Australia and Japan, using either a chemical snow-like substance called Snova, or crushed ice flakes on what was essentially a sloping ice rink.
In the early 1990s more snow-like surfaces were created. The British company Acer Snowmec created a particularly popular product that is now in use at many leading snow centers, including Ski Dubai and Xanadu in Madrid, Spain.
Since then indoor snow centers have spread around the world. Japan experienced a major boom in the 1990s. In the past decade, development shifted to Northern Europe. The Netherlands now has eight indoor centers for its 17-million population, ahead of Germany and the UK with six each.
The largest centers have slopes approaching 2,000 feet long and 1,000 feet wide, complete with indoor quad and six-pack chairlifts and some of the world’s longest conveyor lifts. Even longer slopes are in development in Russia and the Middle East.
WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
Existing resorts benefit from indoor facilities because the latter create new skiers and riders, a captive market of potential new destination skiers. That’s why resorts in the Alps are heavy sponsors of northern Europe’s indoor centers, and two German centers were directly funded by Austrian ski areas. Many of the larger centers report more than a million visits a year. So destination resorts have a strong interest in cornering the market at each center.
The relationship takes many forms. There are promotional posters, and replicas of resorts’ mountain restaurants next to the slopes. Some areas send their ski schools to teach indoors. Austria’s Otztal region, including the resorts of Obergurgl and Solden, are heavy sponsors of multiple centers. The group funded a visual representation of its spectacular mountainscape that wraps around the interior the new Hemel Snow Center near London. This montage brightens the space—and serves as a giant billboard.
Americans often poo-poo the short length and gentle pitch of the runs, but that misses the point. Indoor snow centers succeed because they have dozens of uses: creating a year-round terrain park or halfpipe, allowing beginners and nervous intermediates to brush up ahead of the season, providing a venue for other snow sports, enabling on-snow equipment demos, sales and product testing year round. One booming business: selling truckloads of snow to outdoor events. Ski teams can train in a controlled environment. The FIS has even kicked off the World Cup ski and board seasons indoors. (Check out “50 things to do on indoor snow” at www.snow365.com for more examples).
THE U.S. OUTLOOK
Is it really possible that Xanadu in New Jersey will open, and usher in the era of indoor snow domes in the U.S.?
“Most past plans put forward for the U.S. were too big and therefore it has been too difficult to find planning permission and especially investors. It is better to have, say, 10 domes costing $25 million than one dome costing $250 million,” says Kees Albers, a longtime player in the indoor snow industry. His Amsterdam-based, Unlimited Snow (www.snow.biz) has been involved with hundreds of snow initiatives worldwide.
“I still believe that the USA could potentially be the largest market. The main markets will be combinations with malls, indoor waterpark hotels, and theme parks,” says Albers.
Malcolm Clulow, the boss of Acer Snowmec, also believes the future is bright. “We spent three months trawling the U.S., north to south and east to west, and had lots of interest once we got over the primary hurdle of ‘I go skiing to be in the mountains, not in a shed.’” He adds, “We have several very large indoor snow center inquiries that should turn into projects within the next 12 months, in places such as Hawaii, Orlando, Miami, Las Vegas, Kansas City, and Southern California, now that we understand the very different way of developing projects in America.”
Indoor snow technology has already been gaining a foothold here. One of the most successful companies, New Jersey-based Snow Magic, has put snow in centers worldwide. Closer to home it has created the off-season snow at SnowPark Niagara and several other facilities using technology that produces snow at warm temperatures (as the company demonstrated as the owner of Tenney Mountain, N.H., a few years back).
THE BUSINESS MODEL
“There’s no such thing as a typical indoor snow center, but for those ballpark figures we all love, you might expect to need to make an investment of around $100 per square foot, and perhaps receive half that back in annual revenue, a sizable proportion of which will go to operating costs. We expect to receive 100,000 visits per million of population, with an average spend of $30 to $45. Overall revenue splits vary, but could be 50 percent for slope use, 40 percent for food and beverage, and 10 percent sponsorship,” says Albers.
Most guests treat indoor snowsports as a one- to two-hour leisure activity alongside ice skating, the movies or a dip in a swimming pool. The challenge for management is to keep the throughput spread throughout the day, which can stretch from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
“The operating costs of a successful facility should not exceed 60 percent of gross sales, with power and water making up 10 percent of the cost, providing a return of 40 percent—which is a very healthy business.” says Clulow.
“It’s important to invest in a good realistic feasibility study and create a project that matches the size of population and content based on the regional target groups,” says Albers. “The snow dome projects that have had problems were too high an investment for the local market.” His advice: “Select the best fitting project for a particular location, or try to find the best possible location for a particular plan.”
As the last major market to embrace indoor snow slopes, the U.S. will have state-of-the-art facilities that avoid earlier mistakes of design, operations or poor snow quality. But these will still require a good deal of vision and imagination.
“Slopes will become more complex, with multiple runs of varying difficulty, snowboard parks, skiercross, boardercross and freerider users, and with multiple profit centers, such as hybrid snowmobile tracks to give an indoor theme park feel. There will be more guest-oriented operations and a full breadth of experiences pre-, during and après-ski to bring whole families who feel as though they are in a major resort,” says Clulow.
“I believe we’ll see more extensive snow and ice play facilities similar to indoor waterpark hotels—the inclusion of which can boost visitor numbers by up to 50 percent,” says Albers, “We’ll also see more virtual Arctic- or Alpine-themed environments.”
Several companies have patented concepts for giant indoor revolving slopes—think ski decks on steroids. Some versions deposit fresh snow on the slope, so the skier is eternally skiing powder. (Check out www.snowvolution.com for a glimpse of these possible futures.)
There are also potential hybrid facilities. Austria’s Bad Kleinkirchheim resort has considered putting about a mile and half of its slopes indoors. One company is marketing a temporary cover that protects outdoor snow to extend the season. Israeli company IDE’s warm-temperature snowmaking technology could be used in indoor snow centers; it’s currently used at the European glacier resorts of Pitztal and Zermatt to ensure their 9- and 12-month ski seasons.
Indoor snow centers have become mainstream in many parts of the world, and could still do so in the U.S. They are staffed and filled by exactly the same kind of people you find at conventional resorts, so it’s good business to maintain a relationship with both the snow domes and its guests. Once they’ve tried snowsports indoors, they’ll want to taste the real thing in the great outdoors.
ALTERNATIVES TO SNOW
Dieter Sturm believes in indoor domes, but also believes that these should have synthetic surface slopes of the kind successfully launched indoors at Copper Mountain and at Liberty University, Va. Sturm, president of All-Season Extreme, Inc. and Snow Making By Sturm, has 25 years experience in creating winter environments by using non-traditional methods.
Surfaces like Snowflex have both cost and environmental advantages, he says. “The Chill Factore snow center, which opened in Manchester, England, in 2007, cost $33 million just for the refrigerated shed, and it costs about $15.5 million a year to run. A Snowflex synthetic surface center of similar size would cost approximately 10 percent [of a conventional snowmaking system] to build, and operationally, the costs are a fraction of those of a snow dome. And the surface is much better for the environment.”
Niccolò Bertocchi of Neveplast agrees. Neveplast’s NP70 surface, often laid down in loading and unloading area of chairlifts and lift mazes, is also used in the Ski Dubai facility. “We have installed more than 9,200 square feet underneath the loading and unloading area of the chairlift, where usually there is a lack of snow,” says Bertocchi. On a larger scale, Neveplast recently provided the surface for a 100,000 square foot (2.5 acre) operation in Hungary. NP70 has also been used on small slopes in indoor shopping malls. A mall in All Ain, UAE, recently installed three tubing runs plus a teaching slope for skiing and a 75-yard-long ski slope, all aimed at introducing visitors to the sensation of sliding on snow.
“Undoubtedly, manmade snow has charisma, and real snow domes have their place,” says Sturm. But artificial surfaces can also play a role.