Martin Flynn is breaking new ground up the air. Yet the experts said it couldn’t be done. They said it was too steep. They said it was too expensive. They said, “You don’t even own the land!” But Martin Flynn was not going to accept no for an answer. He imagined a zip line high above the tree tops, crossing the gorge and the waterfall of the Humber River in the shadow of the soaring Marble Mountain above. He envisioned a future in business as Marble Zip Tours. Looking back on Martin’s youth in Forteau, Labrador, a future in the zip line business seemed to be his destiny. At the age of 13 Martin and a friend constructed a zip line 10 feet above a sand dune. It was all just summer fun. Martin loved the outdoors. It was his recreation and his passion and Labrador offered outdoor challenges for every season. Martin acknowledges, however, he probably would have been an outdoor person anywhere. It was in him. But in Labrador fostering this love was easy because the great outdoors was right out his front door. Even so, sometimes he had to come indoors and help out in the family business. Martin’s father had a number of businesses, among them a grocery store where as a teenager Martin spent many hours working. So like the outdoors, Martin saw owning a business as a natural part of life.
Years later Martin decided to twin his passion for the outdoors and his studies. He enrolled in the Adventure Tourism program at the College of the North Atlantic (CNA) in Corner Brook. It was there when he saw the mighty Marble Mountain that he laughingly said, “Imagine my zip line here!” But he wasn’t joking. He was serious. Perhaps even unbeknownst to him at the time the seed of his future business was planted. He kept his dream to himself.
Martin graduated with his diploma from CNA and took a 6 month job with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. Although this was great experience and great fun, Martin decided not to renew his contract and took a short stint of work at the Whistler ski resort in B.C. On the west coast at Whistler, Martin was drawn back to the east. So he came home, home to Labrador where his father helped him plan for his business dream, a zip line at Marble Mountain.
There were so many challenges in getting started. Who would design it? Build it? Insure it? Inspect it? And fund it? This was going to be expensive and no one was even sure that it was feasible. Experts from outside the country were brought in. Their pessimistic responses were disappointing. But Martin was undeterred. In the end the expertise Martin needed was already on the hill itself. Martin was directed to the outdoor recreation manager of Marble Mountain Ski Resort. This was a man who knew the hill and was an expert in ropes and pulleys and lifts. He was also a contractor, so he knew how to build. He teamed with an engineer from Corner Brook and they designed the plan. Then they built it. And “the experts” said it couldn’t be done. Before the construction could actually take place there were many hurdles to overcome – not the least of which was that Martin did not own the land. It was owned by the ski resort so Martin had to pitch his idea to its 10 person board of directors. They were sold and the decision was unanimous, Martin could build his zip line on the mountain.
They believed in Martin and so did many others. Martin needed financing. He raised money from his family and then took his idea to various funding agencies such as Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), the Department of Innovation, Business and Rural Development (NL) and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). Martin says that it is important to raise money and to prepare a business plan before seeking financing from any of these agencies. Martin’s father assisted with both. The agencies liked what they saw and Martin had his funding.
There were still so many steps to go through as this had never before been done in the province. Was there even anyone to inspect it? No rules existed for zip lining in the provincial building code. These had to be researched and written and it was Martin and his team who had to do it.
There was also the challenge of who would train Martin and the staff. There was no one in the province qualified to do it. They sourced PETZL, a European company that specializes in training and materials for people who work at extreme heights. Martin was trained and set up as a PETZL dealer. This enabled him to get materials at cost.
There were delays. Construction did not begin when scheduled in the fall of 2007. Then came the snow and more delays. They were not ready to open until the end of August of 2008. They lost their busiest season. Even so, two years from planning to opening is impressive. Martin is the sole owner of the business but with the inherent risk and liability involved in a venture of this scope, he incorporated.
In the beginning Martin focused on just getting opened. But once he opened, he had to bring in customers so he turned his attention to marketing. He uses traditional methods such as road signs, brochures in tourist venues, ads on radio stations and posters. Of course, he has a website which is now in its 4th or 5th version.
Martin says that all forms of advertising are important. Yet, the most important marketing tool for Marble Zip is word of mouth. Not the old fashioned word of mouth but virtual word of mouth ‐ on the web. Facebook, YouTube and other social media get the message out. Marble Zip can send out an email and reach 2000 customers. Marble Zip’s videos on YouTube also have a high viewership. Better yet, customers zip line and then go on‐line ‐ to Tweet, upload their videos to YouTube, post their pictures on Facebook and tell their friends and the world, about their amazing experience.
Martin has also benefited from publicity in the media. Marble Zip has been featured on CBC, NTV, Rogers Cable, Sportsnet and K Rock. Print journalists and travel writers have also written stories on the business.
Martin says that marketing is such a large job and is so vital to his business that he has hired a local company, J.Osmond Design, to do everything from brochures and business cards, to on‐line advertising to salable merchandise. Marble Zip now has a line of swag – including t‐shirts and hoodies. People come for the thrill of the ride and they want a souvenir. Selling merchandise adds to the revenue stream and adds to the marketing.
The foundation of Martin’s customer base is tourism. Tourists come from everywhere; however, the majority of his customers are people “staycationing” at home in their own province. Martin expects to see more people from Labrador in the future due to the completed Trans‐Labrador Highway.
Interestingly, 60% of Marble Zips customers are female. Martin has had customers as young as 5 and as old as 88. In the summer he sees many families, couples, and groups. In the winter it is skiers and snowmobilers. People come for the thrill, to see the scenery and to experience something different. One couple has even booked Marble Zip for their wedding. The business, is expanding. Martin’s company has just completed their 9th zipline and have
moved their office headquarters to the ski lodge. It was an exciting day when Martin was approached to partner with Bombardier to offer snowmobile and ATV tours. Marble Mountain’s board of directors approved and Martin added ATV tours to his product mix in the Summer of 2011. Snowmobiles will be available starting in the Winter of 2012. Adding these elements will involve more insurance, more equipment, more storage facilities and more staff but also more reward!
Marble Zip employs 3 full‐time and 4 part‐time staff in the winter. Last summer they had 14 staff members. With expansion they expect to increase to 20 at peak season. Marble Zip primarily hires guides and they have to train them. It is an asset if the applicants have had experience rock climbing or working at heights with ropes. Martin is looking for safety conscious employees who enjoy people. An important part of the job is entertaining the customer.
Marble Zip is growing but Martin does not anticipate any difficulty in finding people to work with him. Students graduate from CNA’s Adventure Tourism program in Corner Brook and can find a summer’s work just down the highway. Other people come from other places and backgrounds.
For Martin being in business in Newfoundland and Labrador has been a positive experience. He is a member of Hospitality Newfoundland and Labrador and Western Destination Marketing Organization. These organizations provide a network of people who share common interests and goals. He is also a member of the Corner Brook Board of Trade. For Martin this membership is important because, “Your business is part of the community and you should be involved in the community.”
Martin says that Newfoundland and Labrador is a great place to start a new enterprise, especially in the tourism sector. He says, “We have so much to offer ‐ some of the best kayaking and hiking in the world. We have a premiere ski facility and we have so much more. We are really only just beginning. “
Just as the future looks bright for tourism in the province, it holds similar promise for this young entrepreneur who has accomplished much in such a short time and who will no doubt continue to break new ground in the air and elsewhere. For Martin, things are looking up.