Plummet 2 will go over there,” says Sean Taylor, pointing to a dip in the forest, a stand of Douglas fir. “It’ll simulate a parachute drop. It’s 105 feet – they’ll do it in pairs to share and double the thrill.” It will be the first experience of its kind in the UK. Sean is no stranger to danger: he’s been a real military parachutist – and, in business terms, he’s not afraid to jump in the right place armed with the right stuff. “Friday’s usually a quiet day,” he explains. “It’s a holiday changeover day, so we don’t expect the 5,000-a-day high today.” However, from our balcony vantage point, part of a bustling café, we can see visitors everywhere. Some are ziplining 60 feet high in the trees on what they call ‘Zip Safari’, a highwires course full of challenging obstacles. Others are swooping into view in red bobsleigh-like cars, while others are holding snacks, drinks or ice creams, or counting out the tickets for their next experience. There’s a backing track of excited children’s screams.
“There’s about a thousand people here. We’ll have clocked twice that number before the day ends.” Sean’s eyes are everywhere. We have an immediate sense that the military skills to survey a scene – scan, identify and act – have been reapplied to run his business. You can tell he knows where every one of his red-liveried staff are – and what they’re doing. He beckons one over and peering over the balcony rail he calls to her: “I can see gaps!” He adds: “I think we can fit in more walk-ons.” Sean’s referring to spaces in the activity queues and customers paused by the infoboards. If he wasn’t commanding a platoon from a strategic viewpoint, he could be conducting an orchestra. Sean recalls: “I was driven past this site as a kid. There was a forest, a lay-by and four cars in it. Even then, I thought it was a great place for an adventure business, located as it is next to A470, or as Zip World now calls it ‘The Adventure Highway’, the beginnings of an epic route that links all three Zip World sites: Betws-Y-Coed, Blaenau Ffestiniog and Bethesda, home to the fastest zip-line in the world, Velocity. Sean worked as a timber contractor with his father before joining the Marines. He was there in the major combat zones of the past three decades before applying the leadership and survival skills to security. “I know a thing or two about taking risks,” he says frankly. Self-belief, resourcefulness, and the capacity to size up situations and deliver above expectation are military derivative. So, too, are an instinct for limitations and how to manage them. To top it all there’s intense and broad business nous.
“We started with a mobile office and a Portaloo,” he recalls. “We put in £250,000 to create a zipwire ride. In the first year, we had 18,000 customers. Today, we’re approaching 10 times that number at three complementary sites. Thrillseekers will pay over £60 for the experience and rarely come alone.” The Zip World forest site is on 120 acres of Larch and Douglas fir, which was used sustainably throughout the construction. Today, those trees are generating an income for the landlords and the site includes a circular reception building known as The Mushroom, activity units, two cafés and top-quality restroom facilities. “We’ve had to build a second car park, too,” says Sean. “As key stakeholders in the values of the national parks, we work in partnership with local authorities and government when it comes to planning permission,’’ Sean continues. “I’ve put so many proposals together.” Clearly, the military mindset of self confidence and perseverance melded with local knowledge of the community and business sense. An important part of it was tackling doubts about physical health and safety.
THE SKY’S THE LIMIT
“We’re going to grow in three ways,” Sean predicts. “This site’s got so much, but can do more. I wish I’d put in two Alpine Coasters side by side, not only to meet demand, but so couples or families can race. That’s a development we can still deliver at relatively little cost. I’ve already mentioned Plummet 2, but I’d like to see this become a resort with various types of accommodation. “But I’m also looking at acquisition and new sites. The power of brand is that it creates a stamp of quality and trust. Moreover, it reaches out beyond the local bubble as a destination. Our vision sees Zip Worlds in other parts of the UK and beyond. “I’d welcome any landlords to get in touch with land for potential development. Tourism is Wales’s fastest-growing sector. I don’t fear competition in the area. We do what we do really well – and other adventure businesses will only secure Wales’s growing reputation as the go-to for adventure. There’s a commonality between us – we’re providing unique experiences. That’s why people come.”
SEAN TAYLOR’S TIPS
• All your staff matter: you may have millions of pounds’ worth of facilities, the best staff and great refreshments, but the chap in the car park is equally important to the business: he creates the first impression
• Believe in yourself, get good people behind you and persevere