Check out images of the resort and how it could look if plans are approved
Last week, the £200m Afan Valley Adventure Resort in Neath Port Talbot received outline planning permission.
The major tourism development is the vision of two men, Peter Moore and Gavin Woodhouse, who met in 2016.
After achieving planning, they spoke to the Local Democracy Reporting Service about how the concept started and why they chose a 325-acre former forestry plantation at Pen-y-Bryn by Croeserw and Cymmer for the resort.
Mr Woodhouse, chairman of Northern Powerhouse Developments, says he first began thinking about an adventure resort after seeing the rise in popularity of adrenalin-fuelled activities and, visiting places like Center Parcs with his family.
He said: “We’ve been around in Wales for quite some time.
“We bought our first hotel in Llandudno several years ago and since then have bought another three in North Wales.
“We could see there was a massive push towards the adventure tourism market with the development of Zip World and Surf Snowdonia, for example.
“My family and I have frequented all of the Center Parcs and UK lodge parks and the concept developed from both being a user of these sorts of locations and taking note of how society has changed.
“The way we live and work has changed.
“For example, golf isn’t as popular as it was once because people can’t afford four hours, instead people are getting on their bike or kayak, and doing more adventurous things, when they can get away for an hour.
“Kids today don’t watch TV, they watch YouTube.
“I pulled together a concept and started working on developing that.”
After doing a lot of desktop research and due diligence, Mr Woodhouse spoke to Peter Moore, the man who brought Center Parcs to the UK.
He said: “While I could pull all the due diligence together, I’m not naive or foolish enough to think I could deliver a £200m resort on my own.
“Peter and I had a good hour-and-a-half conversation on the phone and we agreed it would be a good idea to meet.
“I think it was fate, as he had been working on a similar concept for four or five years.
“Sitting there with Peter was a great moment for me, I pulled my business model together and my financial analysis, and was able to outlay those plans onto those that Peter had put together which were very similar in scope and in offering – and the figures weren’t a million miles apart.
“We then finessed the model with real time data from the likes of Landal GreenParks, looking at the occupancy and needs of lodges and hotels.”
Mr Moore added: “The chemistry was good and the desire to achieve the concept – we both had a similar core for an active lifestyle resort.
“The core that will lead people in to the Afan Valley Adventure Resort is tremendously, excitingly different.
“We could see how popular the adrenalin-fuelled activities had become with attractions all over the UK.
“These things are clearly very successful, and it would be quite a buzz spending three or four days trying out different activities.
“For example, you may come to the Afan Valley Adventure Resort if you like an alpine activity, and then while you’re there you think you’ll do a bit of offroad or you’ve never done a zip-wire before, and try that.”
The resort’s masterplan creates four activity zones connected to a central plaza.
The four villages – Alpine, Forest, X-Sports and Trax n Trails – will be set around a central plaza.
Snowflex from Briton Engineering Developments are building and designing the snow sports area at the resort which, once completed, will be the largest of its kind in the world.
Mr Woodhouse said: “The people who are behind these activity zones are brand leaders, they are the best in the market.
“Peter and I had the same idea – to work with outstanding companies.
“Although this kind of resort hasn’t been delivered before, Center Parcs, the Bear Grylls Survival Academy and Jaguar Land Rover experience all exist as standalone destinations and visitor attractions, and they’re all viable businesses.
“What we have done is to pull them all together into one resort.”
The local community and jobs
In total 700 full time equivalent jobs will be directly employed by the resort with around 350 being at the site on a “typical” day.
This involves 450 full-time jobs and 520 part-time jobs with roles in retail, the hotel, restaurants, administration, leisure facilities, management and technical support.
The jobs will generate a total wage bill of more than £13m a year, with the majority of employees coming from the local area.
At the planning meeting on March 19 councillors on Neath Port Talbot Council unanimously supported the plans, excited by the benefits it will bring.
Ward councillor Scott Jones said the resort was the first real opportunity to reverse the constant decline in population in the Afan Valley since the closure of the coal industry.
He said: “For too long the policy for the upper Afan Valley was managed decline.
“This project offers us with an opportunity for a 180 degree turn and to look to a brighter, more prosperous future.”
Planning committee vice-chairman Hugh James said the resort would breathe new life into the valley and Councillor Scott Bamsey said he really hoped the adventure resort did become a reality pointing out the area’s track record of projects which had failed.
Speaking after the meeting Mr Moore said: “The enthusiasm [of councillors] took even me back, you could hear the emotion in their voices, it gave me quite a warm buzz.
“I can understand, Gavin and I have listened to people there in the communities that have been hit by economic decline.
“I know the impact something like this has on communities, it gives them a sense of purpose.
“People do behave differently when life changes and they have a job to get up and go to.
“And the economic benefits will ripple out not just across South Wales but the country.”
He added: “One of the things that was the bane of leisure until Center Parcs came along in Britain was the seasonal nature of jobs.
“I was told I was a nutcase for saying I could get the British to go to the middle of a forest, in the middle of the week, in the middle of the winter with Center Parcs.
“We will do the same thing with the Afan Valley, that’s tremendous.
“Our employees will know when they get a job that we will train them, and if they fit the bill and the vast majority do, they have got a job for life and it’s all year round.
“These are big, complex projects but we have been there before, it’s a variation of a theme.
“This will be national, people travelled from Scotland to Land’s End to the first Center Parcs, it will happen here too.
“The market for it is clear, it’s up to us to create this lure, this attraction.
“The first time you come to the Afan Valley Adventure Resort, you will be spellbound.
“The second time, people will say ‘let’s take some time and go and see this county’, and they go out, the economic impact ripples out.
“We don’t put an electric fence around our resort, people have this impression at the beginning it’s a fortress, it’s not.
“What I did at Center Parcs literally was to put up a mini tourist information centre.
“It’s a place to enjoy – if the guest is enjoying it they’re going to become a real stalwart for us, they will go back and say ‘this place is wonderful.”
Mr Moore says the plans for the resort will improve and enhance the nature setting.
He said: “We want to landscape where the forest was hit by a devastating disease and a wee bit of an overzealous forester.
“We will introduce conifer and some deciduous trees.
“Working with consultant ecologists and Natural Resources Wales (NRW) we will make sure the ecology is enhanced and the experience is enriched for the guests coming in.
“We want to create a physical environment that the guest will love – anybody that lives in the village nearby will see an alpine village setting.
“The key is to do it properly. Good enough is not in my lexicon.”
Mr Woodhouse added: “Ecology is part of the projects Center Parcs have brought, they’re bringing something to ecology, with their lakes and habitats.
“There’s going to be development changes to the environment, it’s about how we manage that.
“Our approach is quite holistic – we have spent a lot of time working with NRW and consultant ecologists to understand what the constraints and opportunities are of the location.
“We have designed the area on its natural environment as opposed to coming in and clearing the whole site and starting with a clear canvas.”
Mr Moore added: “It comes down to this question of balance which the planning officers explained in the meeting.
“We cannot create something that will bring and inject the economy with benefits without some physical impact on the site.
“The idea is to do it with as much sensitivity and as great design as possible.”
Will it actually happen?
“It’s a human question,” Mr Moore replies.
“You can’t answer a future situation.
“We have researched the concept, and the evidence is on the ground.
“Do people like resort experiences? The evidence is there in Center Parcs.
“Do we have the capacity and the funding to do it? The officers are the ones who have decided that and the fact we now have planning gives the funders the confidence needed.
“There is a chain reaction that happens.
“There is a lot doubt from anybody until we get planning, planning has to satisfy a certain set of conditions.
“It has to present the case.
“Once planning is granted, it gives funders and developers like ourselves, and anybody that now becomes associated with us, a green light.
“There has to be a vision. We have got to know what we want to do then our job is to find the right people.
“We know how to deliver it.
“There are no ‘what if’s’, we are not into that – all we can do is to keep on doing what we are doing.”
Mr Woodhouse added: “We increase our chance of probability every day as we move one step closer to the end goal.
“I started with a concept and met Peter who has delivered this before.
“With all the professional parties and partners we are affiliated with, there’s a lot of like-minded, very professional and very well-versed individuals who all believe that a project like this can, and will be, delivered.
“We understand the previous plans for the site didn’t happen for whatever reason, that is the previous owner’s position and there’s nothing we can do about that.
“We understand the Circuit of Wales ended up the way it did.
“All we know is that the planning process and due diligence around the viability of this project has been thorough albeit frustrating at times.
“We understand the reasons why and we’re able to stand back now and realise our project is much more complete and thorough as a result, and benefits from it.
“There are not many people in this country that have delivered things of this size and scale.
“Fortunately we have someone that has delivered four sites of similar scale and size, and that’s gone from concept through to delivery.”
Financing a £200m adventure resort
The resort includes 600 lodges/apartments, a 100-bed hotel, restaurants, a vast range of adventure activities, shops, and parking for around 850 cars.
Last summer adverts began appearing for investors to buy one of the lodges or rooms in the Treetops Hotel, with high rates of return.
Prices range from £82,000 to £240,000.
Mr Woodhouse said: “All my hotels are based on the sale and lease back business model.
“The business principle is that instead of buying a buy-to-let apartment or home, people buy a hotel room.
“The business model is very prominent in student accommodation where people buy a room and then sub-let it to a tenant.
“In hotels, an individual buys a room and sublets it to the hotel operator who operates that room and gives the owner an income.
“We have used a very similar model in the early days of this project to sell lodges to individuals who then sub-let them back to our management company who will operate the whole development once built.
“That level of commitment gives us certain capital funding to get the project to a position where we can mobilise other types of funding.
“For example, institutional funds are interested only now as we have the site with planning permission.
“Which banks are lending to an intention in the middle of the Welsh Valleys that doesn’t have planning?
“We have got to meet these stepping stones.
“Where we are selling these lodges we don’t lose control, we operate a ‘put and call’ option.
“These options mean we can buy these units back at the end point.
“To some it’s an abstract way of funding.
“A lot of property developers started looking at alternative ways of raising capital when banks stopped lending in 2008.
“Things like crowdfunding became more prominent, and concepts like this have evolved.
“A lot of projects around are funded through this for example, Pierre & Vacances which includes Center Parcs Europe, has a lot of resorts built on these type of opportunities, it’s a proven way of funding projects.
“As part of the package people are given personal usage for a period of time each year.
“My gut feeling is by the time this place is open the principle investors will have executed the options to buy back all chalets so all those people that have bought lodges would have had them bought back.”
Why the Afan Valley?
Mr Moore told councillors when at the planning meeting that when he first saw the site, he found it breathtaking, seeing the topography and its stunning beauty.
The land became available through a friend of Mr Woodhouse.
He said: “I’ve known of this location for probably 12 years.
“I knew the private landowner through our lawyers, we were at a property dinner and I asked him ‘have you still got that land in Wales?’
“He said ‘yes’. This idea was bubbling in the back of my mind, and that’s how it evolved.
“Taking that concept forward took me up to two or three years ago when the real work started and finding an individual like Peter, it’s been a long journey.
“I have got a real affinity to Wales.
“We work really well with local government and the National Assembly.
“The site became available and really met with our aspirations – but it’s when you look at the demographic, the competitive fit and what’s around it that the site becomes the perfect location.
“We did the deal on the land two and a half years ago.”
The next steps
While the planning application granted permission was outline it included a lot of detail, and included a number of conditions such as ecology commitments to protect the environment, road signs for the resort, Section 106 contributions and public transport for guests to use.
Mr Woodhouse said: “We will allow ourselves 12 months to work on the delivery of the project while meeting those conditions, and go through to get detailed planning.
“There is some more investigative work to do on the ground but work that’s been done on the site already indicated there will be no huge surprises.
“With 24 months of construction, it will be open in quarter one or quarter two in 2022.”
Mr Moore said: “This is a very large scale, sophisticated project and the beauty and topography also makes it a challenge, a challenge we have the right people for.
“A lot of what the planning officers and councillors were asking for we would have pre-empted, we want signs for guests to know the way and if we can get communal cars or arrange local transport that’s good for everybody.
“The council already knows that they, and us, have the same objectives.
“It’s all about vision and capability.
“For me it’s exciting – it’s a new concept but a variation of something I have done.”