How Montreal’s Snow Village—the ultimate snow fort— earns cold, hard cash

Everyone is familiar with snow forts: Now imagine a city made of snow and ice. This city includes a 30-room ice hotel, 60-seat restaurant, 250-seat bar with terrace, 200-person convention center, and a church-sized wedding chapel with lots of pews.

Have this picture in mind? Good: You now have a concept of Montreal’s amazing Snow Village (www.snowvillage canada.com). Built in Jean Drapeau Park, on a manmade island that was originally home to the Expo 67 World’s Fair, Montreal’s Snow Village is the ultimate snow fort fantasy—made real.

Of course, no children’s snow fort had the benefit of extremely high domed ceilings, multicolored LED lights frozen into the walls, and furniture carved out of ice—including large beds, tables, and chairs. “Only our kitchen and bathrooms are in conventional non-ice buildings,” says Guy Belanger, president of Snow Village Canada, which built and operates the Montreal Snow Village. “Actually, we have one more conventional building: It’s a heated dormitory, for hotel guests who need to warm up overnight.”

The Snow Village Concept
Belanger and his business partners, Carl Fugère and Yanick Tremblay, were inspired to build the Montreal Snow Village after visiting such a village in Finland. “We fell in love with the original project and decided to import it to Montreal,” says Fugère. “There is a lot of demand for outdoor winter activities in Montreal, but until now there hasn’t been any permanent winter event to meet this need. Snow Village fills this void and appeals to Quebecers and tourists alike.”

In fact, Snow Village fills a number of market niches. One market exists for an overnight attraction where guests can drink and dine in icy halls; suitably seated on thick lambskin rugs to keep the chill off their bones. Similar skins warm the chairs and foam mattresses in their hotel suites — bolstered by sub-Arctic grade insulated sleeping bags.

Given that the Snow Hotel only has 30 rooms—15 standards, 10 themed suites, and five vast snow igloos—overnight traffic is only part of its revenue stream. More money is earned by day visitors who use the large convention room, visit the Amarula bar and Pommery champagne restaurant, and rent out the chapel for unique wedding ceremonies.

Finally, a third revenue stream is generated by tourists who pay an admission fee just to tour Snow Village. “Once they are here, they often have a drink at the bar, or enjoy a hot lunch complete with hot chocolate,” Belanger says.

Playful Yet Purposeful Premise
Snow Village’s key selling point is its playful yet purposeful use of snow and ice. Its connecting halls are made of snow arches with blue LED lights covered by chunks of clear, glowing ice; creating a haunting magical mood that feels entirely otherworldly. In honor of its host city of Montreal, the entire site is decorated with ice sculptures that show the city skyline, plus a massive snow carving of the old Montreal streetscape.

In the Pommery restaurant, the tables and chairs are all cut out of ice. So is the tall Pommery Champgne Bottle centerpiece that dominates the roof, complete with carved cork and champagne exploding from its top. The Amarula bar’s countertop and back bar are made of ice; so, too, are the fireplace (complete with electric “flames”) and furniture in the hotel lobby.

The ice hotel’s rooms employ large blocks of clear ice embedded with LED lights to create fanciful furniture and fittings. The themed rooms are the most fun; one devoted to racing includes a full-sized ice replica of a Formula racer, internally lit in red light. For fans of the legendary Montreal Canadians hockey team, there is a room complete with full-sized ice statues of a hockey player and the coveted Stanley Cup.

“Montreal is a Nordic city,” says Belanger. “So it is only fitting that we have a truly Nordic city here; one made of snow and ice!”

Construction Considerations and Challenges
Even a snow city has to conform to code. This is why Snow Village’s buildings are properly wired with exit signs and fire alarms. There are even fire extinguishers housed inside cutouts in the snow and ice walls.

As for structural support? All of the weight is borne by the arched walls, which are made of highly compressed snow produced on site. “Thanks to the snow cannon that produces our snow, we are able to achieve a load-bearing density of 450-600 kilograms (990 to 1320 pounds) per square meter,” Belanger tells Funworld. “That’s comparable to concrete.”

The Snow Village’s interior spaces are created using balloons (yes, balloons). With the exception of connecting archways that are poured over inverted V-shaped molds, the high-ceilinged rooms are made by inflating balloons, shooting snow onto them using the cannon, and then deflating the balloons once the walls and ceilings have set.

“The resulting structures are incredibly strong,” Belanger says. “The only issue we have is that, as the season progresses, they slowly melt into the ground.” This is why having high ceilings is a must, to compensate for the slow sinking of the buildings.

Of course, doorways also get closer to the floor as the buildings melt. So Snow Village staff equipped with chainsaws carve doorways and arches on an ongoing basis, to ensure they remain high enough to let everyone pass through.

Heat generated by visitors also causes the ice sculptures to melt over time. The tables in the restaurant are particularly prone to melting due to the heat coming from customers’ legs. (Being dripped upon while seated here comes with the territory.) At least the top surfaces can be protected, by using thick wooden slabs to absorb heat from serving dishes and mugs.

A Frozen Franchise?
Weather-borne challenges aside, Snow Village has proven to be a popular attraction in downtown Montreal. So popular, in fact, that Belanger and his partners intend to build a new Snow Village next winter.

“We are also hoping to franchise the Snow Village concept,” he says. “After all, there are plenty of cold-weather locations in both Canada and the United States that could host their own Snow Villages—and we certainly have the technical and marketing know-how to help people make this happen.”

In the interim, Belanger and his people have their hands full keeping this season’s Snow Village open, operational, and fully frozen. “Like so many attraction owners, we are at the mercy of the weather,” he admits. “Of course, most other attractions don’t have to worry about their entire infrastructure vanishing when the weather warms up. But that just goes with the territory when you’re in the snow village business.”

James Careless is a freelance writer with credits from Business Week, NBC News, and NPR.

Guy Belanger’s Five Tips for Operating a Snow/Ice Feature

1. Have a good source of fresh snow on hand, like an industrial snow maker.

2. Use low-power LED lights for illumination, to reduce melting due to heat.

3. Protect ice surfaces exposed to heat from customers.

4. Make ceilings high to avoid guests becoming claustrophobic.

5. Factor in extra height in the structure, to account for subsidence due to melting.