Otago-born Ed Mumm opened Dig This in the US 12 years ago. It has now been licensed to HWR Group in Invercargill, which launched its attraction on Monday with Mumm attending. He tells the Ticker how building a house gave him the idea for the business, establishing it in Las Vegas and why this week’s shootings in the city is something he has always worried about in America.
What has happened in Las Vegas has been horrible and it is the type of thing I really worry about in America. One of my staff members was affected, he was in the middle of it all, but thankfully he got out without any injuries.
Americans are pretty proud of their Second Amendment right to bear arms and they will fight to keep it. There are almost 300 million guns in that country and 99.9% of gun owners are respectful and act appropriately. But to have access to automatic-type weapons like that shooter did is just crazy and something has to change. I am not sure if anything will though.
I used to based in Omarama, Waitaki, where we ran a rodeo and my friends used to go to America to compete. They would come back with great stories so a couple of us took three months off and headed up there. I met a girl in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, and 25 years later I’m still there.
We decided to build a house in Steamboat in 2005 and I decided to do the excavating work myself because I was a fencing contractor there. I had spent a bit of time on a dozer but never on a digger before. A mate of mine came to help and he drove the digger and he convinced me to give it a go. Two hours later I’d fallen in love with it – it was the greatest machine man had ever built!
I thought, ‘well, if I am having such a good time, imagine all the other people out there who would enjoy this’. From there, Dig This was born. Nobody was doing it in the US but there was a place called Digger Land in the UK which was using just the small 1-ton machines. Of course, in the US they love things big and I wanted to leave an impression.
It took a year for us to get going because we could not get any insurance. Insurers just thought we were nuts and wanted to know how we could let people with no experience anywhere near the equipment. I knew it was perfectly safe and we had a very good system in place but it was not until an underwriter finally came in that we could get going.
When we told people about our idea lots of them loved it but a lot of people also shunned it. When you have a new idea there will always be people who embrace it and there will always be naysayers. I always knew it was going to be a very cool experience and I needed to do it.
We tested the concept in Steamboat Springs’ small market to see how it would go. We put together a team of people – some with and some without construction experience – plus a trained psychologist who helped us bring it all together and teach it to people using the right language. We sat around the table for a couple of days and hammered out some ideas and designed a couple of programmes to test.
I rented a couple of bulldozers and excavators off a local dealer and we gave it a go. Low and behold, once word got out, we had a lot of people travelling from across the US to get to Steamboat specifically to come operate the equipment. After a couple of years expanding in Steamboat, we realised we needed to get it into a larger market. We chose Las Vegas because of its 40 million visitors a year and its corporate and tourism markets. Vegas has 30,000-40,000 meetings or conferences there a year and we knew that would be an important market for us.
There is actually a very small business community in Vegas and it probably took us three or four years to be accepted. There are a lot of ‘fly-by-nighters’ in Vegas who set-up, think they are going to milk the place and leave, so it takes a while to be accepted. Doors have really opened up for us there now and people love what we do and we are always in TripAdvisor’s top five out of 400 things to do in Vegas.
The feedback has been awesome and our repeat business has doubled every year. In the past five years, we put through about 60,000 customers, half of which are corporate events and half tourists.
We have a good relationship with machinery maker Caterpillar, which gave us a really good deal to buy the equipment we needed. The capital cost to start the business was huge so Caterpillar gave us a really good deal to make it possible to launch.
Invercargill’s HWR Group director, Scott O’Donnell, saw what we were doing and he came in to have a look. He told me, ‘I think this would probably work well in Invercargill’ and I remember thinking, ‘Invercargill? What on earth are you thinking!'”.
My vision was Queenstown or Auckland but when I came down to visit and saw what HWR had here, I thought, ‘wow, these guys have really got their act together’. They already had two world-class attractions – Transport World and Motorcycle Mecca – and I realised I wanted to align myself with them. The synergies between us and their future plans make them perfect partners.
It is going to take a few months for the attraction here to get moving but it took us a couple of years to get going in the US. We were building the model of course in the US so made mistakes as any start-up does. But knowing what we know now, we are ideally placed for franchising and have opened in Dallas and are about to open in Los Angeles. We are also in talks for a franchise in Dubai.