Afan Valley Adventure Resort: an awfully big adventure

Leisure industry veteran Peter Moore has teamed up with entrepreneur Gavin Woodhouse to develop one of the UK’s most ambitious activity resorts yet.

For those who like the idea of a Center Parcs on steroids, a vast adventure resort in the Welsh valleys could soon be their short-break destination of choice.

Afan Valley Adventure Resort is the brainchild of Peter Moore OBE, the former chief executive of Center Parcs - widely considered the elder statesman of the UK leisure industry - and entrepreneur Gavin Woodhouse, chairman of Northern Powerhouse Developments (NPD), which specialises in developing and refurbishing hotel and leisure properties.

Together, their vision is to bring a dizzying array of high-octane activities to a 450- acre site midway between Cardiff and Swansea in south Wales.

So why is now the right time to bring what will be one of the UK’s largest leisure projects to the market and how are things progressing?

Comprising alpine, forest, ‘xtreme’, trails and ‘zen’ zones, the £130m resort is designed to offer discerning visitors a menu of more than 50 indoor and outdoor activities and experiences including skiing, scuba diving, mountain biking, rock climbing, skateboarding, zip wiring and off-road driving set among the picturesque Welsh hills.

The family-friendly resort will also include a luxury spa, a 100-bed hotel, private lodges, restaurants and bars, as well as a large centrally based plaza where people will be encouraged to mingle.

A planning application has yet to be submitted but the pedigree of those behind the scheme certainly instils confidence. Thirty-five years in the leisure industry and a keen marketing sense have equipped Moore with a natural instinct for a good idea, and it was an introduction to Woodhouse and a “meeting of minds” that took the concept from a seedling of an idea to a full-blown project that is on the cusp of being delivered.

Moore moved to Britain from his native Northern Ireland in the early 1980s to take up the role of director of marketing at Alton Towers and to help reposition it. He was heavily involved in shaping the project - turning it from what was then a leisure park into one of the UK’s first theme parks and influencing much of how it still looks today.

After four years at Alton Towers, Moore was headhunted by the chairman of Center Parcs and joined as director of marketing as part of a team tasked with bringing the Dutch concept to the UK.

A winning formula

“I remember in my youth when I was cramming for my exams and felt overloaded, I’d take time out to play golf or tennis and I knew then how great that was for clearing the mind and recharging the batteries - combining sport and other activities with a spa and pampering seemed to me to be a winning formula and I felt the appeal immediately.

“This was to be a destination for demanding, discerning people who wanted quality - a more stylish holiday option that simply was not available in the UK at the time.”

Others were less convinced, however. Indeed, Moore recalls people telling him it wouldn’t work - they doubted particularly people would be tempted to venture into a forest midweek in the winter - but he felt things were changing. The population was becoming more affluent and companies were beginning to grant their employees more generous holiday allowances. Moore trusted his gut instinct and he was right to do so.

“I was very, very lucky to be part of what is a phenomenal organisation,” he says. “The first Center Parcs [Sherwood Forest] opened 100% full in 1987 - it was unprecedented. It really struck a chord.

“I worked with John Hurt on the television commercial. When that aired the phones went berserk. We couldn’t handle the volume of calls - we had to open another call centre and then another.

“Of course, the people who had told me I was crackers said ‘oh, we always knew it was going to work’. It was a wonderful time and one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. The company sailed through the recession and it continues to go from strength to strength. It’s gold dust.”

Exhilaration with relaxation

Two years after joining Center Parcs, Moore was promoted to managing director and opened four of the UK’s five Center Parcs during his tenure. He became chairman of the international board, overseeing the launch of the brand into France, Belgium and Germany and expanding its presence in Holland.

“Whatever I do, I want it to be 10% to 15% complete original thinking. I’m a trendsetter not a follower,” says Moore. “Doing things that way is ingrained in me, and Gavin and I will be applying that approach to Afan Valley.”

You make money by pleasing people, not by trying to squeeze your customers in a bid to maximise profits - Peter Moore

Moore says the brand essence of Center Parcs is offering people relaxation with a bit of exhilaration - an opportunity to get far away from the madding crowd and switch off. Afan Valley Adventure Resort will share many of the same characteristics but its proposition is essentially the reverse - it will offer exhilaration with a bit of relaxation.

All activities will be graded and overseen by experienced instructors. The idea is that while people might plan to do one or two activities they have done before and enjoy, they might also try something new.

“It comes down to customer satisfaction - that’s front of mind in everything I do,” says Moore. “You make money by pleasing people, not by trying to squeeze your customers in a bid to maximise profits. There were 5,000 people at Center Parcs and we all swam as a single shoal of fish. The litter pickers were just as important to me as the financial directors because they’re the ones who are guest facing.

“Anything I did or do now is instinctively marketing driven,” he adds. “The offer, product and experience have to be absolutely right for the audience. Afan Valley Adventure Resort is market led and evidence based, and I’m as excited about it as I was during my early days at Center Parcs.”

Adrenalin rush

It was when Moore left Center Parcs after 14 years that he toyed with the idea of a new resort. He had set up his own company, Brightaspect, and it was there, and in his capacity as chairman of several other companies, that he launched a plethora of leisure attractions including Chill Factore in Manchester, the UK’s longest indoor ski slope.

Moore felt the appeal of adrenalin-pumping activities was gaining ground and identified a gap in the market.

While there are plenty of day-out experiences offering an individual pursuit - zip lining or mountain biking, for example - they had not all been brought together under the same roof.

Borne of that realisation, he had the idea for an active lifestyle resort and began to research its viability. He even got as far as looking for sites, but he was working on other projects at the time and decided to focus on those. Then, a year ago, the opportunity arose to dust off the concept and begin looking into it again.

“I was working on another project - a £45m spa retreat - and somebody I was working with on that told me he knew someone who had an idea for a new resort and put me in touch with him - it was Gavin,” Moore explains.

I like to work with people I know I can get on with and Gavin is a very personable, quick-thinking guy - Peter Moore

“I like to work with people I know I can get on with and Gavin is a very personable, quick-thinking guy. I went to meet him to talk about the embryo of what we now know as Afan Valley. He traced it out and asked me what I thought of it. I couldn’t believe it - I opened my laptop and showed him the plans and research I’d done previously, and we just looked at each other. We each saw this opportunity for something extraordinary. It was a complete meeting of minds.”

Woodhouse asked Moore to join NPD as chairman and things began to take shape. They assembled the necessary team of consultants - who Moore says are of “critical importance” - and enlisted a number of renowned leisure industry partners including Neuman Aqua and Snowflex.

In a coup for the project, Bear Grylls Survival Academy will bring a ‘centre of excellence’ to Afan Valley, its first in the UK, which is expected to feature challenges and endurance courses designed to test the stamina, strength and teamwork skills of adults and families.

Tracks and trails

The next challenge was to find the site. “We must have looked at every potentially suitable site in the UK,” says Moore.

“The typography and character of the hills and valleys of Wales seemed right for the kind of activities we want to offer. We can sculpt the ski slope and the tracks and the trails into the hillside without having to do much in the way of shifting soil around to create contours, which is phenomenally expensive. When we saw the site, it felt like something God had given us - it’s absolutely ideal.”

Moore says support from the local community and politicians has been “exceptional”. Part of the appeal of the resort is that it will create 1,000 year-round jobs in an area that has suffered as a result of industrial decline.

The first round of consultation took place a month ago and Moore says it was “lovely” to see people’s reactions. “They came and they asked questions. They saw the scale and the potential of it and they were palpably excited about the prospect of it coming to their area.”

Ken Skates, former tourism minister and current minister for economic advancement in the Welsh government, and David Rees, an elected member of the National Assembly for Wales, have both signalled their support, according to Moore. As for the funding needed to deliver the project, it is being sought via an unusual model, although one that has been tried and tested by Woodhouse and NPD.

The resort will include 600 lodges - 500 of which will be delivered in the first phase - and 80% to 85% will be sold off to investors to cover the cost of the build. So confident are the duo that the lodges are already being marketed, not only before a spade has been put in the ground but even before the planning application has been submitted, although a safety net guarantees investors will get their money back should the project fall through.

We’ve got the vision and we know how to put these things together - Peter Moore

Moore and Woodhouse hope to eventually roll the concept out to other parts of the country and have already begun looking at potential sites in the north of England. For now, though, the aim is to submit the planning application for Afan Valley around Christmas time. Moore is cautious about putting a timeframe on it - “you can’t rush these things,” he says, adding that “if we’re to do this properly we can’t take shortcuts” - but he hopes the two-year build will start next spring.

“Twenty years ago, the concept of Center Parcs was brought to the UK and here we are hoping to bring a new resort to the market,” says Moore. “It can be done; we’ve got the vision and we know how to put these things together.

“It’s a great product. I often come to hear of nice ideas but I know instinctively if they aren’t going to work - this is different. It’s highly commercial and people find the nature of the project very exciting.”

If all goes to plan, people will soon be enjoying adrenalin-fuelled holidays in the Welsh hills. For Moore and Woodhouse, however, the adventure has already begun.

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