Surf Snowdonia, North Wales (Photo: www.FreeSurf.TV)
Networking and North Wales
Networking brings many opportunities to people, and whether attending conferences and seminars or specific weekly meetings, you are bound to come across someone who inspires you and more often than not, you will meet a group of people who are passionate about their businesses and sector. This became apparent to me during the International Festival of Business 2016, in Liverpool. I attended the Go North Wales Conference, with my colleague, Alun Jones, and I got to learn so much about North Wales’ tourism sector after listening to the many speakers, who all spoke so passionately about their ventures. From an indoor zip wire experience in a cavernous environment, to a British cycling champion talking about a ‘Desire Code‘, I came away with so much adoration for these North Wales businesses. However, there was one particular venture that stood out for a number of reasons – Surf Snowdonia. This man-made, purpose-built inland surf lagoon is the first of its kind in the UK, and the only inland surf lagoon in the UK. Andy Ainscough, the Managing Director, wanted to expand his horizons and after being inspired by the family business and his love of the great outdoors, sporting activities, and surfing (of course), Surf Snowdonia was born.
Whilst I was networking at the IFB2016, I spoke with Andy and asked him if I could interview him for Face for Business’ blog, which he agreed too. I told him that his story would inspire our followers, and that it would give other entrepreneurs and start-ups hope. This unique surf centre has been open to the public since August 2015 and has amassed great achievements so far. They have reached their 150,000th visitor, won numerous awards including a North Wales Tourist Award, and have hosted the world’s first ever stadium surfing event in conjunction with Red Bull, no less. They are also featured at No.4 in Lonely Planet’s Top Regions to Visit in 2017. Phew…
Would you like to know how such a gigantic project got off the ground? Would you like to know who Andy’s main business influencers are? Read our interview with him, which we’ve entitled ‘If you build it, people will come’. (Drop us a line if you know which film we’re giving the nod to!).
An interview with Surf Snowdonia’s Managing Director, Andy Ainscough.
IF YOU BUILD IT, PEOPLE WILL COME…
A background to Andy and the Surf Snowdonia idea
Can you give me an overview of your business background? What did you start out to achieve?
Growing up, I played Rugby League and when I was 16 I signed semi pro, and played up until the age of 23. With being a kid, and in high school, that was my main focus. I’ve always loved sports and being outdoors, and although Rugby was my focus I also did a bit of canoeing and climbing, but it was always second to rugby really – my ultimate dream was to be signed for a Rugby team, professionally. When I left school I became part of the family business, which was crane hire. I did an apprenticeship in mechanical engineering in cranes for 4 years. I loved that job but could never see myself doing it forever. I thought maybe I’d move into the office. However, as soon as I started driving, I started surfing a little bit. Growing up in the middle of the country there’s not a great deal of waves. You have to travel. You have to be pretty dedicated but I was surfing and climbing all the time, and I basically started to work summers as an outdoor instructor, and in the winter time I was working on machinery removal but also learning the family business and moved into the office. My family were moving into land development so were acquiring land, buying sites, getting planning permission and eventually selling it onto all types of developers. My dad bought the Surf Snowdonia site in 2007. It was one of the first pieces of land he bought on this scale. We were going to develop it with a partner, for leisure. But, with my background as an outdoor instructor and helping run a few leisure centres, it was a natural progression for me. My family and I started talking to RWE [operators of the hydroelectric plant, next door to Surf Snowdonia, They also supply the water.] about getting water for a big surf lagoon and getting power to the site. It was going to be a flat water lagoon but with my knowledge of surfing I was able to reach out to the surfing community to assess the viability of the scheme.
North Wales is not blessed with waves and we’d seen some ‘false wave’ technology on YouTube, so we went out to see the guys from Wavegarden, which is a family run wave park engineering business based in Spain, and was quite a small business at the time in 2012. They had a prototype and we surfed it. What we found really interesting was that they didn’t want to just sell on the prototypes – they could have sold them to China or elsewhere. But Wavegarden wanted to know everything about the business to make sure that the surf school would be run correctly, whether there was a surf shop and if would be selling the right things, and also that the whole business fitted really well. They liked the fact that we are a family business and that we paid particular attention to detail. This project was the first big business thing that I’d done.
Had you any experience with starting a business/project management before?
I’m lucky in that I’ve been around a lot of building sites for quite a number of years because of the crane hire industry and it’s what our family business has always been involved in – crane hire, machinery removal and installation. I could lean back on family for advice as the site developed. The surfing side of it was what I understood. I’d never operated a team as large as this. It was my first business venture and I had some experience of managing smaller teams, but in separate functions.
Customer research, the local community and challenges
How much customer research did you undertake? And what did you find most challenging/difficult in undertaking the research?
Intuitively we knew that North Wales would soon be a compelling destination for outdoor adventure, in conjunction with last year’s ‘Year of Adventure’, leading to wanting to attract as many visitors per year as possible, so if there were enough people visiting North Wales and if you had a good leisure scheme for them to visit, we could essentially build something good enough getting a nice chunk of those visitors.
To check we used a company called Colliers International who are leisure consultants. They sense-checked our business plan and they informed us that we could expect maybe 70,000 paying visitors a year. We also undertook an online survey, requesting facts and figures relating to how many people would be visiting North Wales, how many are interested in water sports, how many are interested in spending £10-£50 per visit etc.
Was it a huge risk? What would you say to other entrepreneurs thinking of pursuing an ambitious project?
You’ve got to do your research obviously and you’ve also got to follow your nose as well. We thought this could work, if we built it and it was impressive, then people would come.
Did the local community get involved and embrace and support your business?
Yes, they did, definitely. When we first came to the site it was contaminated and derelict. The site previously housed an aluminium factory which had closed in 2007, before we bought the land. 120 jobs had been lost, and we weren’t sure when we came in whether they’d blame us. However, we were in and around the village and undertook a public consultation giving the locals the opportunity to ask us questions. We weren’t doing anything the village already had. There was no pub in the village, our bar was not going to affect their pub business and there was a post office and we weren’t going to start selling newspapers. They’re quite a small community, with about 600 inhabitants. They soon got to know who we were. We came to the site used the local cafe to hold our meetings with planners. They probably thought we were never going to get started. Eventually, we moved the first 10 diggers and 10 dumper trucks on site to get rid of the concrete and employed 60 men – the locals became impressed and thought, “wow, they’re actually doing it.”
What was the main challenge with such a huge project?
We had a very challenging piece of ground. There is a high water table which meant we had to dig into the ground and put a liner in it. It was a difficult piece of ground which was contaminated with oils and hydrocarbons. We were also implementing a brand new technology. The Wavegarden technology has only been implemented on half this scale and they weren’t opening to the public so they didn’t have to worry about water quality. Nobody had seen a lagoon this big. They didn’t know how to classify us in terms of water quality. The other challenge was trying to build during the winter in Wales. And, we had a massive rush to try and make as much in the 2015 season as possible. We had so much invested in the build, but we were also the same team that project managed it and took it through to operation. It was challenging keeping costs low as well as employing the crew and staff, risk assessing the project and ensuring we had the standard operating procedures. It was also challenging thinking about how we were going to run it when we’ve had 300 people on site on day one!
Did you have any help or advice from anybody during that process?
We definitely asked opinions of people but that’s about it. That was the bit I was looking forward to. We designed the building so we knew how we wanted to change it. It’s easy for a consultant to come and tell you that’s how you should do it but you have to implement and own it yourselves. We did look at the Chill Factore, (indoor ski centre in Manchester) white-water centres, and how the flow works and how the ticketing system works. We also looked at other operations but we wanted to own it ourselves. We can then only blame ourselves if it went wrong.
Were there moments when you thought it was all too much, and if so, what turned it around for you?
Most days (laughs). But my end goal is all about the surfing. I’d like to get to a point in my life when I can surf at 5 o’clock every day. I want to share my passion of the sport. Once tried, most people come back for more, as it’s completely addictive, in a good way. But, ultimately, it’s got to work as a business. We all have our own pressures financially so that focuses the mind and your business plan must work – we’ve got a lot of pride and don’t want to embarrass ourselves.
Success, advice and influencers
What three things would you say an entrepreneur needs in order to succeed?
Stamina, mental stamina, and a lot of late nights, you don’t really switch off. If something needs doing it doesn’t matter if it’s Saturday or Sunday or really late at night. You also need resilience. Things have gone wrong for us a million times. Finally, you need a good support team. You can’t just do it on your own. We had 20 consultants on the job at times, certainly during the build – it’s imperative to take the right advice, especially in terms of safety. So use the right team and keep them close to you.
What general advice would you give to entrepreneurs – what are the main qualities they should possess?
Some self-confidence but don’t confuse it with arrogance. I’ve already said it but, stamina. I’m an expert in nothing, but a bit of a jack in all trades, so delegate. Don’t do everything yourself. At times you’ve got to take a little bit of a risk. You can’t sit on the fence over everything. We’d have never started if we’d have waited for every plan to be in place. Just get going and let it develop.
Who are your big business influencers?
My dad. When I was a kid, he was always at work. I did see him but his work ethic really stood out to me. I remember when we’d be on holiday, he’d do a couple of hours in the morning, and it was just accepted as kids that’s what dad did. If you want to be a success you got to put the hours in. A book I read during this process was the founder of the brand Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. He built this brand up and he could have sold out and not followed his beliefs and would have had a lot more money in the short term, but he built a brilliant brand, which in turn was sustainability for his employees and his products. One of the things he says is ‘let your people surf’. He employed people who are like minded, who work hard. His business grew in California and if there were waves he understood the guys weren’t going to try and work that day in the office. Put the hours in when they needed to and work hard. Not just waves but whatever that is to you. You need to have a life. Have a balance. All Surf Snowdonia staff have the opportunity to surf every day between 8-10am, before the park opens to the public. [Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman by Yvon Chouinard].
Do you use social media a lot and how crucial do you think that is to getting the word out?
I think it’s everything for a business like ours. It’s so visual and most of the posts are about a video/YouTube or a photo. Without video marketing nobody sees it or would be interested in looking at it. You can target a market and see the return on that investment as opposed to doing something like radio or tv where you’re not exactly sure if anyone’s seen it or not. We try and answer any questions as personally as we can. We don’t want people commenting and never hearing back from us. We do try and comment back. For the first year there were only 2 of us in the business. I still go on social media on a daily basis to have a look and make sure we’re replying to comments. (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).
(Interview held in summer 2016).
Are you feeling inspired?
Were you inspired by Andy’s words and project? As proven with Surf Snowdonia, no dream is ever ‘too big’. An idea, together with the right resources, knowledge and people around you, can get past the concept stage. Let us know about your big project, and how you overcame any obstacles. Who are your biggest influencers, and how have they had an impact on your projects? We’d love to hear from you. We may even feature your story on our blog…
Interview and edit by Sara Parker of telephone answering service, Face For Business
Transcribed by Katie Harris