New CEO of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts, Jono Dean, on the business expansion to incorporate year round operations, the challenges presented by changing climate and the associated investment in snowmaking, and the skill shortages making it difficult to hire locally.
RALis a public benefit entity that was formed in 1953, and its primary business is the ski area operations for both Whakapapa, and Turoa which was purchased in 2004. We host 450,000 guests every year in a skiing capacity and provide recreational alpine facilities for those guests.
The business has been evolving since 2017 as we have focused on expanding business opportunities with the board, the New Zealand public and some of our international visitors coming to experience the Tongariro National Park – a UNESCO dual World Heritage site. We’ve made deliberate step-changes within the business to ensure that we showcase the Tongariro National Park as a premier tourism destination in New Zealand.
Our current market is roughly 80% domestic and 20% international. That is set to change in the coming years as we see tourism growth, especially internationally, forecasted to grow year on year. That growth is likely to have an impact on our international visitation to the region and to the southern Waikato and Central Plateau regions.
During the peak of winter, we have 750 employees on the mountain, across Whakapapa and Turoa. Around 700 of those people work on the mountain and 50 people who work in HR, finance, sales and marketing and infrastructure maintenance.
This year is the first time we’ll be running a full summer operation with the Sky Waka Gondola. We will employ a further 75-80 staff across the mountain as a result of the investment in the Sky Waka Gondola in year one. As visitation grows, so will the number of staff required to support that growth.
With the Sky Waka Gondola, we anticipate an additional 130,000 visitors will visit during its first year of operation. By 2025 we anticipate a total visitation of just over half a million people to Whakapapa alone.
In terms of other new products and experiences relating to our summer offering, we’ve just invested $1.6m in our Knoll Ridge Chalet – the restaurant at the top of the gondola. We have incorporated a new buffet restaurant – The Pinnacles Restaurant which opened in the winter season and will play a large part of our overall offering in summer as we extend our daytime hours and include dinner on Friday and Saturday evenings. The views from the restaurant are sensational. Transforming our facilities to enable us to cater to a wide range of visitors, year round has been a big focus in the last 12 months.
As the business has expanded, we’ve had a renewed focus on our food and beverage offering and have incorporated new roles into our business model. We are currently recruiting for an exec chef and a food and beverage team leader.
Another growth area is events and special occasions where we’ve employed an events team leader to drive public and private events business at Knoll Ridge Chalet.
We’ve had a difficult and challenging winter season but our skier days are in line with last year and we expect to finish the year with a similar volume of skiers across the mountain.
The season started with inclement weather through the July school holiday period and the second warmest July that the Central Plateau had ever seen. Coupled with that we then had an 18-day storm for which a period of eight days delivered 1.9 metres of snow. These were extraordinary weather conditions and unfortunately, we had to spend a considerable amount of time digging out and repairing ice damage to reset the business for our ski customers.
Going forward, the weather and our changing climate will be one of our top three challenges – there are a number of factors and variables we have to deal with to open our business each day. With the dramatic impact that weather conditions have had over the last few years we’ve had to ensure that a significant amount of investment – almost $4m – has been spent to help with snowmaking and to develop our snow factory.
We have also been challenged by a skills gap within the region. This poses a significant challenge for us and will continue to do so for a number of years to come. We’ve had to look out of region for people with the skills and expertise we require within specific trades – electricians, fitter/turners, welders and labourers. Obviously, we would love to be recruiting locally but sometimes this isn’t possible.
The skills gap is a key issue and I think the industry needs to ensure that we have a robust learning and development programme locally that we can utilise. We need apprenticeship programmes to be expanded within local polytechnics and learning institutions so that we can create a pipeline of potential candidates that can come and work within our environment.
We have fantastic relationships with all of our stakeholder groups – whether that be from local council, DOC, as the grantor of our concessions, through to our iwi partnerships on both sides of the mountain.
We are incredibly proud of the work that RAL has done on the ground to strengthen these relationships in recent years. They are a pivotal part of our performance and growth and we’ve been fortunate to have a pragmatic approach to a lot of different matters that have arisen over the years with a strength of trust at the forefront of those relationships. We are lucky in terms of the environment that we operate in and the stakeholder groups that we work with on a daily basis. There are professional differences from time to time but ultimately, we work closely to resolve these as soon as possible and to develop ways of working better together to achieve the best outcomes for all groups involved.
Looking at the industry more broadly, one thing I’d like to see change is the development of a greater level of diversity. This is a key target for RAL over the coming years.
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