Let it Snow: Justin Downes Looks Beyond the Olympics
Justin Downes has always seen opportunity in China’s snow industry. Since 2007, he’s been focused on cultivating China’s promising ski and snowboard industry by developing, designing, and operating snow resorts. The AmCham China Quarterly caught up with Downes to discuss the industry’s post-Olympics outlook, market growth and opportunities, and how China will fare in the 2022 medal count.
Justin Downes serves as President of Axis Leisure Management and has held a number of Senior Resort & Tourism Leadership roles over 25 years and on 3 continents including some of the industry’s leading four-season resorts. Justin has been based in Beijing since 2007.
Prior to founding Axis, a leading international leisure and hospitality management company and consultancy headquartered in Beijing, Justin served as Sr VP Operations for Melco China Resorts; responsible for the planning, development and operation of 5 major resorts in China’s North East, including Yabuli, & Beidahu Resorts. Justin later served as COO for Genting Secret Garden Resort – Hebei, overseeing business and master planning for this 2022 Olympic venue leading up to its grand opening. Axis is currently involved in several high-profile destination mountain resort developments in North East China, including Thaiwoo & Taizicheng Resorts in Chongli, and the Yanqing Olympic Alpine Venue, and multiple Indoor Ski & Snowplay projects across the country. Justin currently serves on the Board of Directors of Freestyle Canada, and the Canada China Business Council.
Prior to coming to China in 2007, Justin held the role of CEO for Hotham Skiing Company, one of Australia’s leading tourism assets. From 2000-2005, Justin served as the opening General Manager and Developer of Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Canada’s Rocky Mountains. Throughout the 90’s, Justin held a number of Executive roles with Intrawest ULC, in Whistler & Panorama BC.
Photo courtesy of Justin Downes
You have been involved in the winter sports industry in China for years. Can you give a brief overview of what you do and your China journey so far?
Justin Downes: I have been working in the winter sports industry since I was 18-years-old. My first-time skiing was in Whistler, British Columbia. Before then I had never even seen snow before. I fell in love with skiing, and, needing to support my new habit, I ended up working in the ski industry. I lived in Whistler for 11 years, working my way up the ranks of the parent company of Whistler. Later, I operated a couple of other ski resorts in the interior of British Columbia. One of the more well-known resorts I worked on was Kicking Horse Mountain Resort which is recognized as a “bucket list” destination for avid skiers and snowboarders around the world.
In 2006, I was contacted by my former employer from Whistler. He told me they were starting a division in China and asked me if I would be up for that adventure. I said, “Hell yeah, let me at it!” In 2007 I moved to China, and helped redevelop five ski resorts in the Northeast. Following the Beijing 2008 Olympics, the company ended up withdrawing from the industry in China. That’s when I decided to stay in China and start my own company. I built my business around the idea of helping people realize their visions of building, owning, and operating first-rate snow resorts.
Could you tell us more about the collaboration process with resorts? What is your role?
Justin Downes: In the initial stages, we’re typically hired as the planning consultant for ski resorts. We categorize that as technical services, so that includes anything from finding the actual plot, advising on what parts of the land to use, conceptual master planning, and detailed master planning and design. In the case that a client needs to raise external capital, we can support the financing program. We are also involved in the operations side, overseeing construction to meet the standards from an operator’s point of view. There is a lot of room for mistakes when a developer does not understand the unique elements of ski resorts. We make sure the designs are executed properly. By the pre-opening phase we are either working as a consultant helping to operate the resort or we are the operator for them. Much like a hotel management company would, we often step into the role of operator. We understand that our clients wish to operate independently, but many have no idea how to do it. We are there to teach them so they can eventually achieve operational independence.
We have the advantage of being one of the only foreign companies in China that does what we are doing. There are some other local companies, but they come from the manufacturing side of the business. Their top priority is to sell equipment to developers, and as a sweetener, they also advise on operations. But, unlike us, they have not come out of a facility management background. We are one of the only companies operating in China with real experience on the hospitality and venue management side. This gives us the added benefit of not being tied to a particular brand of equipment. We are focused on what is in the best interest of the project.
What are the major opportunities for companies within the winter sport industry in China?
Justin Downes: Anything to do with technology. There is huge opportunity for anyone that’s developing wearable technologies, equipment, or materials that reduce environmental impact. That could include anything from building materials to snowmaking equipment. As developers, and especially as ski resort developers, we’re often accused of taking away from the environment and not giving back to it.
The education side of the business will also be massive. Besides the obvious demand for instructors, there is opportunity in the whole pipeline of resort management. That includes the certification process for all of the people who work within the Chinese snow industry. The snow sport industry is similar to the food service industry in that people often don’t consider it as a long-term career. It’s something they see as fun, a thing to do for a couple of years before getting a “real job.” Finally, now, it’s beginning to be seen as a real, viable, and beneficial industry to get into.
There is growing demand for the right education and starting points to develop leaders of the industry.
Of course, the most obvious opportunity in China is the market size. There are 1.4 billion people, and majority of those people still haven’t been exposed to any sort of winter sport. There will continue to be demand for management, designers, contractors, and equipment suppliers. This industry is only going to continue to grow.
Ahead of the Beijing Olympics, there has been huge investment in infrastructure and resorts. Can you talk about the private investment into ski resorts and the hospitality industry surrounding them that’s been going on? How much continued growth should we expect?
Justin Downes: There are already around 800 outdoor ski destinations in China, which makes it the largest concentration of any country in the world. With that said, some of these are very small. After the Games, we will see some consolidation of the industry. Currently, there are 800 ski resorts and 800 owners. This is not a sustainable model. Post-games I think several resorts will be picked up by one major investor. Another factor to consider is that some of these resorts are now getting to be 10 to 15 years-old. Older resorts require investment and key infrastructure upgrades, so we can expect to see increased investment.
Another large area of opportunity will be indoor ski domes. Today, there are 38 indoor ski domes in China – more than in the rest of the world combined – with at least 50 more in the planning or construction phases. In the near future, every city in China will have some sort of indoor ski and snow play infrastructure.
These indoor snow resorts are especially important for southern China. Exposing people to snow sports is the critical first step to developing the market. We don’t expect people who have never experienced winter sports to fly up to Hebei to try it for the first time. Building infrastructure creates access for people to start exploring domestic snow resorts. The growth in southern China is what will make the country a dominant player on the world stage.
Post-COVID, do you think China could become a genuine international travel destination for winter sports? Or is the focus more on encouraging domestic travel?
Justin Downes: The Chinese market is 99% domestic. There will always be those people who will want to say “I’ve gone skiing in China” but that’s a small percentage of the market. The industry here is not being built for the foreign market. Much of the reason for that is topographical. For example, Japan is world famous for its powder, we don’t get anything remotely close to that in China. It’s a very dry environment. If you’d like cruising around on groomed snow in the sunshine, then come skiing in China. But you could also do that in any other country. If you’re looking for big, tall mountains, and tree-skiing in waist deep powder, you won’t find that here. While China’s physical environment is not a huge selling point, there is a cultural story to tell here. Tourists can come to ski in Xinjiang, or even near the North Korean and Russian boarders, unique cultural destinations like these will be the main attraction for foreigners. Overall though, it will not make a huge dent in the numbers, the market is overwhelmingly built for domestic consumers.
With that said, the rising popularity of skiing and snowboarding in China will be beneficial for the global industry. Right now, the global ski population is declining. There are a number of different factors for the worldwide decline, an aging population, financial reasons, people are choosing to spend their money on different activities. Due to that decline, the successful, sustainable growth of the Chinese market is imperative for the health of the global industry. Post-COVID we can expect to see more Chinese people traveling to US, Europe, and Japan to ski. The Chinese industry is still very immature, only around 3% of the population have tried skiing or snowboarding. However, if you compare that more mature markets like Japan and Korea in their heyday, they had 20-30% of the population considered as skiers. 20% of 1.4 billion, that’s a lot of participation.
Is China’s goal of 300 million winter sports enthusiasts overly optimistic? Can you talk about the growth of the market here?
Justin Downes: In China, 300 million people is only 25% of the population. However, no one has clearly defined what constitutes someone as a “winter sports enthusiast”. Does it mean any individual who attended one event? Went skiing once? What makes up that number? The Chinese government has already said they’ve achieved their goal – and they don’t need to defend that. The proof can be seen. Everywhere you go, every TV channel you turn on, every newspaper you read, they’re all promoting winter sports. So, people are undoubtedly being exposed to it. I’d say purely because of the central government’s efforts through the education system, almost every child in the country has had some exposure to winter sports. That alone gets you pretty close to 300 million people.
Whether you could call this population “regular participants” is a different discussion. A more realistic indicator of participation is skier visits. China is on track to do around 25 million skier visits this year, and the forecast is that they will be around 50 million skier visits by 2024. If those predictions are accurate, by 2025 China will have the largest ski population in the world. Right now, that title is held by the US with around 55 million visits annually.
What are your predictions for China in the Beijing Winter Olympics? How do foreign coaches and advisors fit into the coaching of Chinese athletes?
Justin Downes: I think China will surprise people. There’s an element of mystery surrounding the Chinese athletes since many have been training behind closed doors. Not many people have seen how the athletes or teams have progressed over the past couple of years. There are definitely certain sports where China might not do well. The most obvious examples would be things like ice hockey and alpine skiing, the real strength sports. However, China already does quite well in curling, figure skating, speed skating, and freestyle skiing. Additionally, I believe there will be some sports where they’ll almost come out of nowhere and do well, things like the skeleton, cross country and ski jumping. I think we’re in for some interesting surprises. My prediction is that China will end up in the top five medal count. There are some obvious countries that always dominate – Norway, Canada, and the US – but, I think China could be a real wild card and end up high on the table.
As for Chinese coaches, they’re not ashamed of the fact that they don’t have the history of technical expertise. They are aware that the rest of the world is decades ahead. There will always be a place for foreign coaches in Chinese sport development, with opportunities at both the elite and amateur levels. I think there will be a continued demand from Chinese parents to have their kids taught by a foreign ski or snowboard instructor. Part of the appeal is that they can practice their English, but it’s also due to the of perception that since the foreign market is much more mature, those systems and teaching methods are superior to what would be taught locally. I foresee that gap lessening, but I think there will always be demand for foreign coaches in China.