Adventure Park Insider Fall 2020

Page 10

Taking Care of Employees



Adventure Park Insider

TRENDING # accessible_websites # tree_health # telling_your_story # new_products # standards_revisions # and_more
times of crisis, it’s essential to stay in communication with and develop your staff. Here’s how.
Guiding Lights
of 7 individuals who are having an impact on their parks and the wider industry. FALL 2020 Lessons Learned Looking Ahead to 2021



As we look ahead to 2021, we also have to look back at 2020 to identify the challenges, opportunities, and lessons learned. The Adventure Park Insider team has done this in various ways: virtual brainstorming sessions with industry leaders, API Huddles, and articles in this very issue. The most important look back of all, though, is the 5th annual State of the Industry Survey.

The survey this year is different, as the year itself was. One new aim is to gauge just how much COVID-19 impacted the industry. We’re asking operators to share information about their 2019 and 2020 seasons so that we can truly gauge the differences between a COVID and nonCOVID year. The cumulative data from the survey will be crucial in helping us all look ahead to 2021— and beyond—as we rebound and rebuild.

Your participation in the survey is vital to this effort, whether you had record-breaking business or the pandemic prevented your operation from opening. The more survey participation we get, the more useful the resulting data will be. The 2021 season—at least the first half of it, anyway—will be COVID-limited, and the survey can help identify opportunities, strategies, and tactics that will strengthen the industry in 2021 and beyond.

To help inform how Adventure Park Insider can best support the industry’s recovery, our team has been catching up with industry stakeholders—both operators and suppliers. We gathered several of these for a Zoom call in early October to discuss their experiences from this past season and glean ideas for our 2021 content.

It was clear that the season presented many challenges. “What keeps me up at night is worrying if a tree fell and we can’t get anyone there to fix things, or a staff member got COVID and shut us down when we are already maxed with limited staff and resources,” said one operator.

One participant saw the 2020 season as a learning experience, albeit a forced one: “COVID had us look at things in a new light and made us change in ways that may have been needed. We learned a lot about our businesses because we had to work with less and be out in the field helping out more.”

An operator said the pandemic made his team seek more creative approaches to the little things that, when added up, made a big difference: “The question is: What lessons do we carry forward? Can we operate with a better-quality experience, more amenities, higher ticket rates, and less capacity?”

Through discussions like these, and the results of the State of the Industry Survey, we hope to find answers and identify opportunities. We are committed to helping the industry learn what we can from this strange year so we can all build more resilient businesses going forward. The Editors

3  Fall 2020
^ Our team Huddled with a select group to identify 2021’s challenges and opportunities. Top row: Patrick Avery and Kyle Werner, American Adventure Park Systems; Sarah Borodaeff, API; John Hines, Adventure Park at Sandy Springs. Second row: Lori Pingle, ZipZone; API publisher Olivia Rowan; Cameron Annas, Granite Insurance. Third row: API’s Dave Meeker, Rick Kahl, and Sharon Walsh. Fourth row: Phil Huston, North Shore Adventure Park; Megan Langer, The Flybook; and Corey Wall, Challenge Design Innovations.



One of the many unexpected positives of operating during the pandemic was an influx of visitors who were new to aerial adventure, especially people of color. Among the others: a love of gloves, a willingness to book online and in advance, and a widespread appreciation for uncrowded fun.

Summer 2020: What We’ve Learned Challenges, positives from COVID-19.

Guiding Lights

Profiles of seven up-and-coming leaders.

3 Letter from the Editors Learning from 2020

6 Park Briefs

Virtual conferences, wildfire insurance, and COVID impacts on camps and experiential ed. A Staff Report

8 New Products

Novel items for COVID times and beyond.

10 Brand Storytelling

Tell your story to stand out in the everchurning social media universe.

18 Look Good, Feel Good

Uniforms don’t just help identify staff; they can set the tone for your park.


P.O. Box 644 • Woodbury, CT 06798 Tel. 203.263.0888 / Fax 203.266.0452


Publisher Olivia Rowan

Editor Rick Kahl—

Senior Editor

Dave Meeker—

Associate Editor

Sarah Borodaeff—

Digital Editor Sarah Borodaeff—

Design Director

Sarah Wojcik—

Graphic Design Consultant

Joerg Dressler—

Production Manager

Donna Jacobs—

22 Outside the Classroom

As the school year started virtually, creative operators offered outdoor classrooms.

24 Website Accessibility

The next frontier in ADA compatibility is website accessibility. Yes, that’s a thing.

32 Park Spy

“Do I have to wear a mask in your park?”

34 Understanding Safety Systems Standards

A big-picture look at how existing safety systems are treated as standards evolve.

55 One Eye on the Trees

Signs of health and decline that all staff, and especially guides, should watch for.


40 Summer 2020: What We’ve Learned See description above.

44 Staff Care in the Time of COVID

Communication and staff development are especially important in uncertain times.

47 Park 360: A Recipe for Success

A look at three parks, each of which found its own mix of COVID practices and innovations.


Head to for ongoing coverage of the impacts on the aerial adventure industry from the coronavirus, along with our article archive, State of the Industry Report, and more.

Cameron Annas

Katie Brinton

Bob Curley

April Darrow

Skip King


Paul Cummings

Moira McCarthy

Peter Oliver Paul Thallner Morgan Tilton


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Circulation Manager

Sarah Borodaeff—

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A subscription to Adventure Park Insider is COMPLIMENTARY to adventure park industry professionals. Visit our website,, and click on “Subscribe” to get on our list to receive the publication and online content.


70 Pond Street • Natick, MA 01760 Tel. 508.655.6408 / Fax 508.655.6409

Advertising Director

Sharon Walsh—

Marketing Manager

Sarah Borodaeff—

ADVENTURE PARK INSIDER — Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 2020, is published quarterly: Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, by Beardsley Publishing Corp., 70 Pond Street, Natick, MA 01760-4438. Periodicals Postage pending at Framingham, MA 01701-9998. POSTMASTER: send address changes to Beardsley Publishing, P.O. Box 644, Woodbury, CT 06798

Copyright 2020 Beardsley Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.

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VOL. 6 | NO. 4 | FALL 2020
Photo courtesy Highlands Aerial Park, Scaly Mountain, N.C.


Expos Go Virtual

The prevalence of COVID-19 in the United States coupled with international travel restrictions and local limits on group sizes were the deciding factors in canceling the in-person versions of the outdoor industry’s largest annual conferences and expos. Many events are still happening, though—online.

Switching from a robust, multi-day, in-person event with hundreds—or thousands—of attendees to an online-only event in a matter of a few months is unchartered territory. There are fewer logistics for organizers to tackle, but that doesn’t mean hosting a virtual conference is easy. The costs for going virtual are far less, of course, but so are the revenue opportunities. And the value of face-to-face interactions with experts, customers, and industry friends cannot be overstated. The

And Then There Were Wildfires

This year has been difficult for a variety of reasons—including wildfires. The 2020 wildfire season has been one for the books, with more than 4 million acres burned in California alone. Natural disasters of this scale can leave operators questioning what their insurance policies cover.

“Insurance policy wording is intricate, convoluted, and can sound like a foreign language,” says Cameron Annas of Granite Insurance. That said, most policies cover at least some fire and fire-related damage. Each policy is different, though, and you should verify any coverages with your insurance agent.

Fire and smoke damage. In the event that a business property has sustained fire or smoke damage, it’s probably covered. Fire and smoke are a basic cause of loss covered on most property

Adventure Park Insider team is certainly going to miss seeing everyone this year.

As of press time, here is where three of the biggest events for aerial adventure operators stand:

The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) Expo in Orlando, Fla., traditionally includes several days of educational workshops in addition to the tradeshow extravaganza. This year, the event is sans trade show, of course, but the planned educational sessions will be offered online as part of the IAAPA Expo: Virtual Education Conference, Nov. 16-18, 2020.

The educational sessions will be available live or on-demand. The schedule also includes several keynotes by industry leaders and networking opportunities.

The America Outdoors (AO) Virtual Conference and Outfitter Expo will be Dec. 1-4, 2020. After announcing the event was going virtual back in mid-August, AO was quick to assemble a full online schedule complete with virtual happy hours, networking, keynotes, and daily learning sessions. Every presenter this year is from the outdoor industry because, as AO says on its website, “They know us; they are our people.”

The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) International Conference and Expo is scheduled to be held virtually Jan. 19-29, 2021. The theme is “Moving Forward Together… Virtually.” ACCT announced Sept. 8 that the in-person event in Spokane, Wash., was canceled. The association is reassessing the workshop proposals it received before the call for presenters deadline in May. Registration and schedule information are still being developed. •

policies. Most policies also cover water damage from any efforts to extinguish the fire, as well as the expense of cleaning up debris after the fact.

Business income coverage. “You should also have this property coverage supplemented with business income coverage,” says Annas. “[Business income coverage] covers less tangible losses, like the ability to run your business and generate revenue.”

Restricted access coverage. Businesses that have not sustained damage but have had access restricted by authorities due to wildfire may also have their coverage triggered under the “civil authority” clause on a property policy. This does not come without caveats, though.

“Business income coverage is fairly standard, but for it to kick in there might be parameters required, such as being within a certain distance of a damaged property,” says Annas. Many policies also require a waiting period—for exam-

ple, 72 hours after the restriction was set in place—before coverage kicks in.

Extra expense coverage. To deal with incidents such as these, Annas recommends looking into “extra expense” coverage. This provides added protection for costs such as rent, payroll, relocation costs, or other reasonable expenses incurred as a result of the disaster.

What about those operations that may not be damaged or restricted, but choose to close for other reasons—such as air quality concerns? These operators are most likely not covered, Annas advises.

Every carrier is different, and every policy is unique. To be certain about what a policy covers, Annas encourages operators to reach out to their agent well in advance of needing to take advantage of it. “The last thing you want to do [during or following a disaster] is try and dig through policy language to make sense of it all,” he says. •

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COVID-19 Hits Experiential, Camp Programs

While pay-to-play adventure parks have done better than expected, at least in non-quarantined locations (see “Summer 2020: What We’ve Learned,” p. 40), the same cannot be said for many experiential programs and overnight camps. Discussions with sources in these two sectors confirmed that many programs chose not to operate this summer. Others operated with limits on group size. And, as with commercial parks, a few enjoyed record seasons.

For a small number of both camps and experiential programs, this year’s closures will be permanent. But barring unexpected limitations over the next year, most operations are expected to survive, and perhaps thrive as new participants are introduced to the outdoors.

“In terms of volume, everyone across the board [camps and commercial ops] told me that there was normal to above normal interest in getting outdoors and doing activities,” said Randy Smith, of Inner Quest and Vestals Gap Ventures.

For this past season, though, COVID-19 restrictions limited visits. Sherry Bagley, executive director of the Association for Experiential Education, said that perhaps 40 percent of experiential operations and camps were closed for the summer season. Many programs were shuttered for several months, some never opened, others focused on virtual programs, and some operated with small group sizes and social distancing.

“Teambuilding programs and school related programs were and remain virtually non-existent,” Smith noted in early October. Bagley said that while most universities shut down their programs, K-12 schools with their smaller outdoor programs have been able to adapt in many instances and operate in some form.

In the camp world, relatively few residential camps opened. Of those, some operated successfully, but others experienced outbreaks and had to shut down. One Georgia camp had 260 children and staff test positive.

In New England, roughly 50 percent of day camps and less than 10 percent of residential camps opened their doors this summer, according to Michele Rowcliffe, executive director of the American Camp Association, New England. In California, residential camps were not permitted to open at all.

“Location, and what your state allowed you to do, were the big influences on how people did,” said Scott Andrews, policy director for the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT).

Successful case study. A CDC study of four Maine overnight camps this past summer demonstrated that it’s possible to run a nearly-normal camp program— with the proper precautions. The study included 1,022 attendees from 41 states and international locations. The camps implemented a multilayered prevention and mitigation strategy that allowed them to successfully operate.

The protocol included pre-camp athome quarantine, pre- and post-arrival COVID-19 testing and symptom screening, cohorting, and physical distancing between cohorts. In addition, camps required use of face coverings, enhanced hygiene measures, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, maximal outdoor programming, and early and rapid identification of infection.

A few cases of COVID-19 showed up during the four camps, and all were dealt with successfully through isolation of infected individuals and quarantining of exposed persons. Read the full report here

Looking ahead, training consultant Tom Leahy remains positive. As the pandemic has continued, operators have discovered more and more ways to conduct experiential programs. “There are activities you can do that keep people apart,” he said. “COVID-19 isn’t just in our way—we can use it as a teaching tool.” Develop protocols, develop procedures, and use experiential education to teach people how to function during a pandemic, he urged.

He noted that many outdoor programs remain quite doable. “Stay outside, stay distanced, and you can do it,” he said.

Leahy applauded the shift to virtual programming and teaching via Zoom. “There are lots of people testing out different ideas and developing real content, with activity and debrief,” he noted. Programming has ranged from one- to 20-hour programs, he added. He’s also developing virtual training programs for this fall and winter.

“Camps are resilient and flexible by nature,” said Rowcliffe. “With the right safety measures and plenty of time to implement them, we’re confident that camp will continue in 2021.”

The same can be said about experiential education generally. “We’ve heard lots of success stories about virtual programs, and improvements in training,” said Bagley. “People have been forced outside their comfort zone and have figured out virtual training and programming. People are using video to do demonstrations, there are a lot of positives about people connecting through Zoom. The increased accessibility is a big plus.

“I am optimistic that some great things will come out of this situation, and have already. Experiential education will grow because of this.”

“Camps are resilient and flexible by nature.”


terra-nova zipwhipper

Terra-Nova—maker of the ZipRider and ZipTour—has introduced the ZipWhipper, a new “automated competitive climbing experience.” The ZipWhipper combines a 50-foot climbing wall with a pendulum-swing free fall. The harnessed climber gets a set time to ascend the wall. If time runs out before topping, the climber is automatically pulled to the top of the tower and then is released into a pendulum free fall. All climbers are gently lowered to the ground to end the experience. The “Whipper” part of the experience is said to feel like a rock climbing “lead fall.” A patent-pending Swing Dampening System automatically “bumps” the trolley in and out along the arm that extends perpendicular from the top to decrease each patron’s swing. Participants’ height climbed, time, and speed can be loaded online to track how they stack up against other climbers. The entire experience takes 75 seconds, leading to high, predictable customer throughput. Up to 12 ZipWhippers can be installed on a single tower.

Kong Long Visor

The polycarbonate Long Visor from Kong has an anti-fog treatment on both the internal and external sides to ensure visibility in a range of environments. The CE EN 166-conforming, scratchproof visor is long enough to completely cover the operator’s face for maximum protection from highspeed projectiles at up to 120 m/s at room temperature, molten metals and hot solids, as well as electric arcs caused by short circuits—not to mention airborne coronavirus. The mounting kit is compatible with the Kong Mouse, Spin, and Leef helmets.

buddy insurance

With the high cost of healthcare, a trip to the emergency room or hospital can cost thousands of dollars. Buddy Insurance offers your guests the opportunity to purchase on-demand accident insurance of up to $50,000 for rafting, zip lines, rock climbing, or other activities. Similar to purchasing travel insurance for a flight, guests can insure themselves during the reservations process. There is no underwriting, and Buddy delivers an electronic policy immediately. Buddy plans can be purchased for periods as short as a day and as long as a year.

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A collection of new products designed to thrill, guide, and protect.

Tree-mendous nature playground

The Tree-Mendous Nature Playground family of products are sustainable wooden play structures with elements available for kids of all ages. Intended to blend in with nature, the various elements are designed to encourage kids to learn through outdoor play. Every playground element is custom fabricated to order, and constructed with high-quality lumber such as black locust and cedar, ensuring a solid foundation and long lifespan. As a Certified B Corporation, Tree-Mendous focuses on using natural, sustainable, and locally sourced materials in all the Nature Playground products.

perfect descent lanyard guard

Perfect Descent’s Lanyard Guard is a soft, clear, 18-inch tube that fits over all model 220/230 Perfect Descent lanyards. The tube allows for easy cleaning of high-touch points, minimizes chemical exposure to the lanyard, provides abrasion resistance, and allows for visual inspection of the lanyard without removing the guard. It is made of clear vinyl and can be installed on both new and in-service lanyards. Its two-year maximum lifespan mirrors that of replacement lanyards.

kanopeo corona bracket

The Corona Bracket from Kanopeo is a multi-directional bracket for the Kanopeo Speedrunner continuous belay system. The bracket allows participants to remain connected to the lifeline and choose from up to six directions per platform, expanding the design possibilities for park builders and optimizing pathfinding on platforms. The bracket can be designed to fit any diameter and can be installed on both poles and trees. Participants can move around the bracket by rotating their Kanhook connector over each path gate until they reach their desired course, at which point they can slide the Kanhook through the gate and continue down the course, all while maintaining lifeline connection.

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Build your fan base during the pandemic by connecting with your audience.


Grab your phone and open up Instagram, Facebook, or TikTok. Look through the last few things you and some of your closest friends posted.

If your social media feeds look anything like mine right now, you’re probably seeing smiles accompanied by gorgeous backdrops from recent adventures with loved ones, shots of homemade crusty sourdough bread or other newly discovered quarantine hobbies, and perhaps a shared post about something you or a friend found funny, inspiring, or just worth sharing. And then there’s the political gobbledygook, but we’ll scroll past that.

Each of these posts tell a story—your

story. This is why we open Facebook and Instagram, to share our stories, and learn from and be entertained by the stories of others.

Now take a quick look through the five most recent posts from your adventure company’s Facebook or Instagram. If it’s like many (most!) of the adventure parks I’ve seen, the approach probably falls into one of three camps:

• The Needy Camp: Companies that only post on Facebook when they need something—we’re hiring guides, we have an upcoming sale and want to drive purchases, we have extra spots on the 5 p.m. tour, etc.

• The Announcement Camp: Compa-

nies that treat social media like their website’s announcement banner— we’re closed for repairs this Sunday; here are some updates to our COVID policies; the season ends next Saturday, etc.

• The “I don’t know what to post” Camp: Then, there’s the company that will share anything and everything— we spotted a deer on our property!; here’s a funny cat meme; we’re so excited that Hamilton is now streaming on Disney Plus! etc. And sometimes, this company will go months without sharing anything at all.

There’s good and bad in each of these camps. But the core issue is the same for each: they’re not telling a consistent and engaging brand story.

Let’s look at how to tell your brand’s story in a way that’s engaging and aligned with the reasons your brand exists in the first place. But first, let’s ponder a few reasons why brand storytelling needs to be a core part of your digital marketing strategy.


There’s a massive opportunity to reach people (for free or low cost) with relevant, compelling content. Americans now spend more time on the internet than ever before. We spend an average of 2+ hours a day on social media alone. If you printed out what the typical American scrolls through on social media in a given day, it would cover nearly three football fields. And if that’s not enough, the average American office

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Telling your brand story, as Kerfoot Canopy Tour does in these examples, will build your audience.


worker receives more than 100 emails per day.

So, for better or worse, your audience is spending a lot of time on social media. With that comes a lot of competition. Consider:

• The average open rate for emails from “travel and hospitality” brands is right around 16 percent.

• The average click rate for opened emails from “travel and hospitality” brands is less than 2 percent.

• When you post something on Facebook, you’re lucky if 5 percent of the people who see the post engage with it in some way. Average engagement rates are less than 1 percent.

The reality is, every time you post something to social media or send out an email newsletter, you’re just a speck in the newsfeed or inbox. To make your investment on these digital channels worth it, your speck needs to stand out in the crowd. The best way I’ve found to do this is through brand storytelling.


“Brand storytelling is your company’s honest narrative that builds connections with your audience around shared interests and experiences,” says Blend Marketing creative director Matt Kempel. “Your brand story is your unique way to create affinity, trust, and long-term relationships with your fans.”

One of the hardest parts about being in the aerial adventure business is that a lot of people may consider your offering as a “once in a lifetime” experience. Communicating an effective brand story will keep customers talking before and long after their “once in a lifetime” experience, and will probably turn them into repeat visitors.


Social media posts, email newsletters, and websites that stand out in the crowd and resonate most with fans (and potential fans) focus on sharing content that lives at the intersection of

three things:

1. Who you are as a company (your mission, vision, and values).

2. The identity of your audience, including their (current) needs and wants.

3. What you can offer your audience to meet those needs and wants.

These are key elements of how you position your brand in the market. Any misalignment or imbalance here can quickly cause your story to fall flat, and even damage your brand.

How you position yourself in the market can have a massive impact on the return on your investment in social media, advertising, your website, and more.

Brand positioning is fundamental to any adventure business. Think of brand positioning as how you want to be thought of as a company. And it’s crucial that everyone on your team knows what that looks like.

If there’s any ambiguity in the mind of you or your team about your mission, your audience, and what you can offer your audience, you should pause and work through your brand positioning. With some research, it’s possible to go through a brand positioning process inhouse, but it’s usually worth involving a branding expert. Here are three books I highly recommend that will start you

down the right path:

1. Positioning: The Battle For Your Mind

2. Get to Aha! Discover Your Positioning DNA and Dominate Your Competition

3. Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message so Customers Will Listen


To illustrate the importance of full company alignment on the mission, the audience, and the offer, let’s look at Kerfoot Canopy Tour—a zip line tour and adventure park just outside of the Twin Cities in Minnesota.

Kerfoot Canopy Tour is owned by Lee Kerfoot, whose grandmother was a legendary Minnesota Northwoods pioneer. The stated company goal is “to continue Grandma’s legacy of connecting others to nature through outdoor adventure.”

The operation includes a zip line tour, high ropes challenge course, and a 400foot “ball run”—a wooden track that winds through the forest and carries each participant’s wooden ball through an epic series of obstacles.

How should a company like Kerfoot Canopy Tour build its fan base as it heads into its shoulder season in the middle of a pandemic? Start by answering our three questions:

1. Who is it as a company—why does the company exist?

Kerfoot Canopy Tour is about connecting people to nature through outdoor

>> continued

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best way to stand out in a crowded, sprawling social media world is through brand storytelling.


adventure. Importantly, it is not primarily about zip lining, thrill-seeking, or pushing limits.

2. What is the identity of the audience, including their current needs and desires?

Its audience is people who enjoy being outdoors in Minnesota, and/or who want to get themselves or their kids away from couches and screens, at least for a time. In the midst of COVID-19, those needs are heightened as people look for ways to enjoy the outdoors in household units (smaller groups) and without crowds.

3. What does Kerfoot Canopy Tour offer to meet the audience’s needs and desires?

Its three activities are about having fun in and near the woods, specifically in Minnesota, near the Twin Cities. The

team has done a good job of positioning their offerings as unforgettable experiences that enable guests to “escape outdoors”—which is well aligned with their mission.


With those answers in mind, Kerfoot Canopy Tour can confidently share its brand story in a way that uniquely builds connections and meets the needs of its audience through offers and products that further the brand’s mission.

For example, Kerfoot might:

• Solicit ideas from its fan base about how to enjoy the Minnesota outdoors (other than just going zip lining), and then share those ideas in a monthly newsletter.

• Share a short video about how to build your own backyard adventure as a way to connect with the outdoors in a new way.

• On the park’s website, refer to the experiences as the “cure” for indoor boredom or as an escape to the out-

doors, rather than flexing how fast, high, and long the zip lines are.

• Promote other activities during the winter when there’s less demand for zip lining.


Another example of a company that understands its mission and audience is Highlands Aerial Park (HAP) in Highlands, N.C. Answering our three questions helps jump start brainstorming what kind of brand stories it needs to tell.

1. Who are we, and why do we exist? HAP’s primary mission is to enable multi-generational families to create memories and experience adventure.

2. Who is our audience? (Including their current needs and desires) HAP’s audience is typically families— often multi-generational families— looking to create memories through an outdoor experience. Many of these families vacation regularly to the area or live within driving distance and are seeking out family day trips. >>cont.

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3. What do we offer to meet the audience’s needs and desires?

The combination of HAP’s three activities—a giant swing, a kids’ ropes course, and a zip line course—are approachable enough where most families can find something for everyone to enjoy. HAP is also looking to roll out scenic UTV tours as a way to better serve grandparents in particular.

With its mission and audience in mind, HAP might:

• Share photos and stories from grandparents and parents connecting with their kids and grandkids in new ways at HAP.

• Position its activities as something that people of all ages can enjoy.

• Share a message or video on why HAP feels creating multi-generational experiences and memories are so important.

• Post-pandemic, offer discounts for large family reunion events that bring multiple generations of the family together. Such discounts reinforce “affordable family adventures” as a shared interest that helps build connections with HAP’s audience.

Regardless of the kind of adventure company you are, you can tell a powerful brand story if you know who you are as a company, know the needs of your audience, and have a product or offer that can meet your audience’s needs in a unique way.


Keep these three ideas in mind as you tell your company’s story.

1. Be honest in your storytelling. Misleading your fan base can lead to unhappy customers. If your adventure is intense and challenging, it should look intense and challenging. If it’s great for families, you should share videos and images of families.

2. Be timely with your storytelling. If it’s November, and you’re located in New England, don’t post a photo of someone in shorts and a t-shirt zip lining. If there’s rain in the forecast for the next seven days, post a cool shot of someone zip lining through the rainy mist, and talk about how your tour sizes are typically smaller when it rains (if they actually are).

3. Stories are powerful. They give employees and stakeholders something to rally around. They give customers something to share and talk about long after they participate in your adventure. And they give potential customers something to dream about.

So, build your fan base for the long term, and start telling your brand’s unique story.

Blend Marketing has compiled some of its favorite examples of good brand stories from adventure operators who are crushing it right now. You can find it all here:

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Outfitting staff in branded gear can have many benefits. How well does it suit your operation?

For the price of a t-shirt, adventure parks can improve employee morale, enhance their marketing, ease communication between staff and guests, and boost compliance with safety instructions. Logoed, color-coded t-shirts project an image of organization and safety-consciousness—the latter especially important as parks cope with the challenges of operating amid the pandemic.

“Perception is really big. If you look neat, it makes it look like you have a plan,” says Rebecca Bleeker of Adventure Suppliers LLC, a full-service advertising specialties company that provides custom logoed staff gear to several aerial adventure operations.

Guests want to know if you care about the details, she adds, and a sharply dressed staff in branded gear helps give the impression that you do. “That’s

always important, but especially in this climate.”


“If the fire department showed up all willy nilly, how would you feel?” asks John Hines, owner of The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring in Maryland. “If everyone dresses in whatever they want, you’re not projecting the image that you have your act together.”

The Adventure Park has had employee uniforms for years, but the park’s approach to employee appearance standards has evolved dramatically.

“Five years ago, we would put out a box of t-shirts and toss one of them to new employees. If they lost it, they would just grab another out of the box,” Hines recalls. “We didn’t treat it with respect, so the staff didn’t, either.”

Now, Hines ensures employee buy-in— literally—by deducting the cost of the uniform from the pay that new employees receive for their training. It’s not a huge financial hit: For $28, workers get a drawstring bag filled with two shirts, a sweatshirt, and a pair of leather climbing gloves.

Psychologically, however, “That’s much more impactful than taking something from a box,” he says.

Psychology actually plays a huge role in the form and function of uniforms, says Michael G. Pratt, Ph.D., director of the Management & Organization Department at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College. “Uniforms create a sense of ‘groupness,’ of being part of something bigger than yourself,” says Pratt.

Plus, uniforms convey authority, which

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means people will listen. “[Uniforms] increase individual compliance—people are more likely to obey you if you look more legitimate,” says Pratt.

“If you’re not in uniform, especially in COVID times, if you say ‘pull up your mask’ you could just be some guy in a harness—you could be just another guest,” says Hines. And of course, the same rationale applies to critical safety instructions delivered to adventure park guests.

Pratt says all uniforms have three distinctive characteristics: construction (color, material, and style), homogeneity (the degree to which wearers look alike), and conspicuousness (how recognizable the uniform is). All are relatively simple, yet important, considerations when choosing outerwear for staff.

back, but Hines says the vibrant color scheme—which guests are briefed on during park orientation—is the most important element. “With a harness on you can really only see the color, anyway,” he says.

Hines cautions park operators that a uniform is only as good as the policies surrounding it. “If an employee shows up without it, do you make him buy one or send him home?” he says. “I don’t let him work if he doesn’t have his uniform, period. Doesn’t matter if it’s a newbie or someone who has been here for three years.”

Brand focused. Live Wire Park in Victoria, Australia, outfits its employees in uniforms created by Australian design firm Self-titled as a critical component of an integrated image and branding scheme. The uniforms include shirts,

green lettering—as opposed to green garment with black lettering—was also chosen with staff comfort in mind.

“While the hi-visibility green could have made staff stand out, we also needed them to feel good about putting on the uniform each day, so black was an easy choice and goes with whatever staff choose to wear on their bottom half,” says Smallman.

Helmet hierarchy. NLI Entertainment, which operates Alpine Adventures in Lincoln, N.H., has gone all-in with well-branded staff uniforms, which reinforces the brand and helps guests identify workers. But there’s one component of the uniform that serves a dual purpose.

“Everyone gets the same uniform,” says park operations director Steve Coppin, “but what identifies our fully trained


Color identification. At The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring, safety-related staff, aka monitors, wear high-visibility orange shirts, while other employees, aka hosts, wear bright green.

Previously, all employees wore the same color uniform, but that led to confusion among guests, according to Hines. “Hosts didn’t know about safety, so if they got a safety question they said, ‘Go talk to that other person in orange,” he recalls.

Now, uniforms at The Adventure Park have a logo on the front and “STAFF” printed in large block text on the

hats, jackets, and helmets. High-visibility green lettering is offset by all-black materials.

“Most branding for the adventure park industry feels generic, often incorporating human silhouettes, trees, or Tarzan-like lettering,” says Self-titled creative director Jake Smallman. “With our design for Live Wire Park, we wanted to achieve something completely different. Part of that was ensuring that all brand touchpoints, including the uniforms, aligned with the broader scheme. The uniforms reflect more broadly on the overall perception of Live Wire Park as a unique, high-quality experience that represents value for money.”

The black garment with high-visibility

guides are their red Petzl helmets.” The helmets make key staff easy for guests to spot.

The red helmet has also become a status symbol among staff. “It’s something for new folks to work up to,” says Coppin. Conversely, staff who make errors can also have their prized red helmets taken away for a period of time.

As for branding, at hiring, an employee is gifted a swag bag full of “New Hampshire Fun” branded gear, including a trucker hat, wicking Columbia PFD shirts, and long-sleeve logoed sweatshirts for when the New England weather turns chilly. >> continued

19  Fall 2020
Opposite page: The uniforms at Live Wire Park, Australia, were designed with style and staff comfort in mind. Below: Vibrant colors at The Adventure Park at Sandy Springs, Md., make staff easy to identify and differentiate safety-related staff, in orange, and hosts, in green.

The red helmets worn by fully-trained staff at Alpine Adventures, N.H., have become a status symbol among guides.

Opinions about uniforms are not uniform, and forced conformity is exactly what makes Sara Bell, CEO of The Gorge Zipline and Green River Adventures in Saluda, N.C., “100 percent against” uniforms for her 85 employees.

“If you have to define who your staff are to your customers by clothing, there is probably something wrong with your culture or your staff behavior,” she says. “If your employees and staff enjoy their jobs and are enthusiastic about them, it should be extremely obvious who works here.”


While cotton t-shirts are cheap and commonly used, many adventure parks choose performance-type materials that wick moisture and clean easily.

“These guys and girls are doing physical work outdoors all day, so they need to be comfortable,” says Smallman. Live Wire chose performance materials, such as waterproof and breathable Gore-Tex, and to partner with established outdoors brands, like Macpac for waterproof jackets and Petzl for the crew helmets.

“We’ve been doing Columbia shirts for as long as I can remember,” says Alpine Adventures’ Coppin. “On a hot day they keep you cool, and into fall they keep you warm, especially with a t-shirt underneath. And they look good.” In the past, the park has also issued The North Face waterproof shells and insulated Carhartt shirts for the fall season.

Cleanliness matters. While colors like black and brown may not be ideal to help staff stand out in a crowd, they have the advantage of hiding dirt. “Keeping uniforms clean is the hard part,” says Bleeker of Adventure Suppliers. She adds that many parks choose somewhat more formal collared logo shirts for supervisors and managers.

Bleeker says a typical staff t-shirt made from performance, moisture-wicking material, with a logo printed one color, one location, costs less than $10. Collared manager-shirts run $15-18 each,

she says. Costs can rise dramatically when incorporating multi-colored logos, or printing in more than one location. Going with a brand name, such as Under Armour, to start with “will also shoot the price up from the get-go,” says Bleeker.

It helps that The Gorge and Green River have a small staff-to-guest ratio. Plus, guests remain with their zip line or whitewater guides for the duration of their visit. All that makes Bell’s approach more practical than it might be at a park where aerial park staff assume more of a “lifeguard role,” she says.

Bell prefers an attitude of “laid-back professionalism” among her staff members. “We want people to feel comfortable expressing their personality,” she says. “Some wear stuff from the retail shop, but others whatever they want. It’s totally their choice.”

“You’re setting yourself up for more work in hiring and training and maintaining a culture where it’s cool to be a

Colors like black and brown may not be ideal to help staff stand out in a crowd, but they have the advantage of hiding dirt. Photo credit: Adventure Suppliers.

One once-popular uniform component that has recently waned in popularity is hats, says Bleeker, explaining that the face shields required at many parks due to COVID “are not a great mix with hats.”


There are downsides to uniforms, says Pratt, including research showing that they can stifle individuality and creativity. “For an adventure park [where safety is a primary concern], I don’t know how creative you want people to be,” Pratt concedes.

professional and also show your own personality,” says Bell. But, she maintains, “When people are comfortable in their own skin, they behave more professionally.”

Still, appearance matters. Tattoos and piercings are fine, says Bell, but she draws the line at armpit hair—male or female. “The rule is no tank tops if you have armpit hair—nobody wants that in their face,” especially when fitting guests into harnesses, she says.

The bottom line: The choice to outfit staff in branded gear depends on the type of operation, and the culture at that operation.

20  []


Adventure parks create programming for kids who are home from school.

Barefoot Academy programming is split into two parts: 1) A science-based STEM curriculum that’s focused on South Carolina standards; and 2) An outdoor adventure-based program geared toward teaching adventure and outdoor skills. The curriculum was put together using state standards, and the Barefoot team worked with an educator to make sure they had some checks and balances in place.

As educators across the country navigate an array of approaches to the new school year, adventure parks are amending operations to accommodate the “new norm” of remote school and work. Parks have come up with a number of creative responses, from providing quiet places to study to creating experiential science classes that meet state standards.


In upstate South Carolina, the Barefoot Acres adventure farm has created educational programming to complement home school. Co-owner Troy Prosser

says the science-based Barefoot Academy program is structured around helping traditional homeschool kids, as well as kids who are home this fall due to COVID, meet state requirements.

Barefoot Acres, a 52-acre farm as well as an adventure park with a high ropes course and racing zip lines, opened just three months ago. The original intent was to draw folks in with the adventure side and eventually use the farm for education. However, the pandemic brought that goal to fruition sooner than planned. “My wife and I have 12-year-old twin boys that were all of a sudden home from school,” says Prosser. “We realized we needed to do something, and do it now.”

The curriculum, which targets grades K-8, consists of 9- to 10-week semesters. Classes run three hours a day, and alternate between science and adventure programming. One day might be earth science and soil sampling, the next plant life and ecosystems. After four days of varied learning, the fifth is an elective day, where students decide what they want to do. Depending on kids’ school schedules, they can come every day during the week or float in and out throughout the semester. Parents are required to attend with their child or a group of kids so they can report back to the school that the requirement has been fulfilled.

The inaugural Barefoot Academy kicked off on Sept. 24, with classes taught by several staff members who have backgrounds in environmental education and natural resources. Twelve families were enrolled at press time, accounting for about 30 kids.

22  []


The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring in Sandy Spring, Md., has made a host of adjustments to help families with the school/work balancing act. “Everyone’s reinventing what their family entertaining and exercise looks like, and we’re reinventing the park to go along with that,” says owner John Hines.

Sandy Spring has added hours to accommodate kids in the surrounding school districts who are remote learning this fall. Since most schools have Wednesdays off, the park opened on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. as well as Fridays from noon to 9 p.m. in addition to its usual Saturday and Sunday hours. Hines estimates that 300-400 climbers have shown up between Wednesday and Friday each week and purchased full-priced tickets, which helps offset the loss of fall group business.

The park has also added a two-hour ticket—shortened from the typical 3.5hour—as well as a five-visit punch pass good on Wednesdays and Fridays this fall only. The option gives kids an easy window to exercise and get outside in between classwork.

To assist the school/work component, the park beefed up wi-fi and added electrical-outlet drops in its tented pavilion to create a free outdoor work space for kids and parents. In addition, more than a dozen picnic tables are spaced for social distancing.

Hines says everything is structured so families are encouraged to hang out all day. This includes a new food truck on premises that serves lunch and dinner. With traditional schedules out the window, he says, families are more apt to come to the park at 2 or 3 in the afternoon and hang out the rest of the day.


In August, staff at the Adventure Center of Asheville (N.C.) could see this would be a different sort of year. “When

schools were deciding what they were doing, we pulled the camp staff together to think about what we could offer in terms of fall programs,” says group sales coordinator Sarah Dickson.

In addition to the educational component, park staff was motivated to help provide some of the things kids were missing by not being in the classroom: socialization, exercise, and engagement.

The staff ended up reworking existing programs to focus on high adventure, low ropes teambuilding, and a handson science curriculum. They created two weekday afterschool programs designed to supplement an altered school day, says Dickson.

The first, Adventure Afterschool, targets kids ages 5 to 8 and 9 to 15 with immersive outdoor education, experiential science lessons, teambuilding, and outdoor wilderness skills. The program takes place three days a week. A typical day might include immersive learning in the form of plant identification or a

lesson about the laws of gravity using the treetop adventure park. The idea is to get kids outside to supplement, not take the place of, what they’re learning in school. “We’re not replacing school, rather trying to match what kids are learning in their online classes, but make it fun and exciting,” says Dickson.

The second program, the KOLO Bike Park Afterschool Bike Club, is an extension of the park’s popular summer bike camps, which teach kids and teens mountain bike skills. The camp, which runs three hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays, hosts 9- to 15-year-olds in the Big Senders group and 5- to 8-yearolds in the Little Rippers. Groups are limited to 20, and both sold out early with a waitlist.

Local Asheville kids were scheduled to head back to the classroom in October, says Dickson. Still, the park is brainstorming if—and how—to continue the programs, assuming kids will have limited extracurricular options for awhile.

23  Fall 2020
Opposite page: A student climbs at the Adventure Center of Asheville. Above: Students at the Barefoot Acres adventure farm discuss shelter building as part of their science-based Barefoot Academy program.


Here’s what you need to know about making your website ADA compatible. (Yes, that’s a thing.)

As adventure parks continue to expand adaptive programs and inclusive design of their physical spaces, operators must also consider the accessibility of their digital spaces. This is because websites and mobile apps are now recognized as “places of public accommodation,” and thus subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The growth in web-related ADA lawsuits has spurred many to take action—not just to avoid costly lawsuits, but to also ensure that the website experience works for all visitors.

So how do digital spaces relate to the ADA? It’s often things most of us have never considered: people with impaired eyesight or color blindness, cognitive challenges, hearing impairments, as well as those with physical mobility limitations attempting to use websites and mobile apps to learn, shop, connect, or be entertained. Things that many of us take for granted, yet would struggle to be without.

Here, we will discuss website accessibility, why it’s important, steps you can take to get your website in compliance, and the legal landscape that is driv-

ing businesses to invest in necessary changes. We aim to limit—but cannot eliminate—the technical terms in an effort to make this article accessible to all, of course.


Approximately 13 percent of Americans have a disability. Add in an aging Boomer generation, and it’s even more important now to consider the challenges that these populations face when using websites and mobile apps.

These persons use a broad range of assistive technologies, such as screen readers and magnifiers, voice recognition, keyboard only, pointing devices, and other tools to navigate websites. Unless a website is specifically designed and built to enable these devices, users inevitably hit barriers that can completely block them from accessing a website’s content and features.


In the absence of clear regulations and requirements for website accessibility from both the ADA and the Department of Justice (DOJ), there is a de facto stan-

dard that is recognized by the courts— the Web Content Accessibility Guideline (WCAG). The WCAG was established by the World Wide Web Consortium, which is an international governing body of web standards.

The WCAG has three levels: A, AA, and AAA. WCAG 2.1 is the current version. In the U.S. and most other countries, WCAG A and AA levels serve as the standard to follow. If your website meets the criteria of this standard, it means users with disabilities should have unbridled access, and you are not at risk of legal action.


Years of case law have established precedents that strongly suggest websites must either comply with the WCAG (in the absence of specific guidelines in the ADA) or face an increasingly high risk of legal action. Trolling law firms have jumped on this opportunity and have established a cottage industry focused on website ADA compliance, just as they did for cases involving physical barriers and ADA.

Since the access in question is digital,

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though, the process for generating demand letters and legal complaints requires little effort compared to physical barrier ADA cases. Those involve sending a person out with camera, clipboard, and tape measure to assess a physical site. For websites, on the other hand, a trolling lawyer simply cuts and pastes your website address into an accessibility auditing tool, which produces a list of “violations” that is then cut and pasted into a lawsuit template, and out it goes. Easy money.

When you consider how prolific physical barrier cases have been, and continue to be, it’s easy to see why website owners want to update their websites and mobile apps.

The legal issues have been playing out in the courts over the past few years because the DOJ has not issued clear regulations. In that void, the vast majority of cases have ruled in favor of plaintiffs, affirming that websites are subject to the ADA. >>

In October 2019, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Domino’s Pizza regarding a lawsuit brought by a blind man from California who sued the company after he was unable to order food on the Domino’s website or mobile app. That let stand a lower court’s ruling in favor of Robles.

The two sides argued over a key issue: whether the ADA covers websites and mobile apps. In the initial ruling, the California district court judge agreed with Robles that the ADA covers websites, and also agreed with the Domino’s defense that this violated due process, as the DOJ had yet to issue guidance on exactly how a website or app should comply with the ADA. So the judge rejected Robles’ claim.

Robles appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reversed

the district court’s decision. Domino’s then appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear the case, thus upholding the 9th Circuit’s decision and allowing Robles to pursue his lawsuit. It is expected to settle out of court.

As such, this conclusion upholds the 9th’s decision that:

1. ADA Title III covers websites with a nexus to a physical place of public accommodation.

2. Even in the absence of website accessibility regulations, imposing liability on website owners does not violate due process.

This decision is an important win for digital accessibility advocates, and a setback for business groups that hoped a conservative Supreme Court would take the case and rule in their favor.

26  []
Landmark Case: Robles vs. Domino’s

However, most cases don’t make it to court. Defense lawyers know these cases are not winnable, and few businesses want either the legal costs or bad PR, so they settle out of court. Still, the number of cases that do make it to court has grown exponentially. According to annual studies by the Seyfarth Shaw law firm, 2018 saw more than 2,250 federal website and mobile app accessibility lawsuits—nearly triple that of 2017.

The number leveled off in 2019, which may be attributed to both the Domino’s case that was headed for the Supreme Court (see sidebar on previous page), and a shift in focus to ATM and gift card ADA cases. In the year of COVID, the number of federal cases is expected to be flat or decline due to court backlogs. However, according to anecdotal discussions with lawyers specializing in web-related ADA cases, the number of demand letters is on the rise. Exact numbers aren’t known—demand letters aren’t tracked like federal cases are. De-

A full website audit for WCAG compliance involves, among many things, an accessibility expert performing an assistive technology test.

mand letters cost much less to produce, yet typically yield similar results, since most businesses opt to settle.


There are hundreds of possible elements that can cause barriers to a website for someone using screen readers, pointers, keyboard only, or other assistive technologies. The most common failures of the WCAG standards include:

• Labeling: missing image labels, known as “alt tags,” that describe the image.

• Forms: column and row labels and how forms are coded.

• Non-sequential page structure: use of heading tags out of order (H2, H1, H3, etc.).

• Non-accessible third-party systems and widgets.

• Low contrast between foreground text and elements and their background.

• Interactive functions, such as drag and drop.

• Use of color as the only indicator of function (consider color-blind users).

These are just a few of the design elements that, if present, will be discovered through a website audit.

Unless your website was specifically designed to be ADA compliant, it likely isn’t. Plus, updates made to the website by designers, developers, and content editors via the content management system can all affect accessibility.

>> continued

27  Fall 2020


Given that the web today is an intrinsic part of life for all people, there is no question that your website should be ADA compliant. Plus, the cost of non-compliance is too great to ignore. So, what should you do now?

There are two primary paths: Fix your existing website, or build a fresh website. To help determine which route to take, perform an audit.


If your website is still fresh and you love it, then start with an audit to identify compliance issues. The more complete the audit, the better. Then, based on those results, you can pursue remediation to fix the issues.

The best way to audit for WCAG compliance is a three-step process. You might start with an automated test, since that’s relatively easy, but it’s important not to rely on automated testing alone.

Step 1: Automated website audit. An automated test is relatively easy. There are several automated testing solutions available. The software scans the entire site for WCAG violations. The software you choose needs to identify every issue and present them in a report that you can save for record keeping and use for remediation.

Step 2: Manual testing. Because the WCAG is nuanced and interpretive, automated testing only detects about 30 percent of violations. It takes a manual test by a qualified accessibility expert to uncover less easily detected issues. This step involves a review of the code of templates and unique pages for WCAG compliance.

Step 3: Assistive technology testing. An accessibility expert tests templates and unique pages using screen readers and tools that people with disabilities use to access websites and mobile apps.

When shopping these services, it’s important to focus on the resulting reporting. You want full-site documen-

tation of all WCAG violations, and then remediation guidance for each.

The cost for all three steps can easily go beyond $10,000. If that’s not realistic, consider a phased approach starting with automated testing. Remember, the trolls most likely use automated-only testing, so remediating what an automated test reveals will provide a basic level of protection. Just know that a three-factor audit and remediation is the only way to ensure your existing website is in full compliance.


Be wary of a growing number of providers who claim they can make your website ADA/WCAG compliant quickly and for little money. These typically take one of two paths, neither of which are effective:

Overlay solutions. These present as a little blue accessibility icon button that opens a toolbar for the user to adjust the presentation of the webpage. Actions include adjusting text size, colors,

28  []


spacing and alignment customization, add focus states to allow the user to see where their cursor is, magnification, and even screen readers in some cases. A few use artificial intelligence to interpret images and add alt tags.

At best, these are bandages. This path sounds good on paper to people without a disability. However, overlay solutions fail to serve actual users with

disabilities, and oftentimes actually restrict their ability to use their own tools. These solutions are also automated, so they miss about 70 percent of issues.

Separate “accessible website.” This is a poor solution, as it may open you up to additional discrimination liability for failing to meet the “full and equal enjoyment” clause of the ADA. Separate is not equal.


Typically, a website design has a shelf life of 3-5 years. If you’re anywhere near the end of that life cycle, find a web developer who specializes in accessible web design and build a fresh site. Choose carefully, however, as this is a new skill that many do not have yet. Expect to pay about 10 percent more to build a WCAG-compliant website, since it’s a relatively rare skill and it takes additional time to test each stage of the project.

When writing an RFP or assessing a potential vendor, ask a few key questions:

• How will compliance be tested? Will there be manual testing in addition to automated? Extra points for the developer who includes assistive technology testing (screen readers).

• Which automated tools will be used? Free vs. commercial products?

There are also a few requirements you should ask of developers:

• WCAG 2.1 A, AA conformity

• Examples of accessible websites. Spot test these using AIM’s WAVE page tester.


Good accessibility equals a good user experience that ensures all visitors have universal access to your website content. It also keeps your business out of the crosshairs of trolling law firms, which target businesses of all sizes. Any step you can take is a step toward inclusiveness and reduction of legal risk. Be proud of each step.

David Gibson is founder and president of Propeller Media Works. Propeller has been building websites and providing digital marketing since 1997. His Accessibility.Works team provides digital accessibility auditing and remediation consulting. Contact him at @ propDave,, propellermediaworks. com, or

30  [ ]


Answering phone: Automated message that goes into detail about COVID-19 protocols and when the session times are. Prompts people to make reservations online.

First contact: Female.

API: Stated question.

Staff: We don’t require masks outside; inside we ask that the clients use them. Our staff uses them while zip lining.

API: Ummm, OK. If I do need to go inside and I don’t have a mask with me?

Staff: We have some.

API: OK, do you know how much they are?

Staff: Honestly, I think they give ’em to you because they are the disposable ones. They might be a dollar, but I am quite sure they are free.

API: OK, and it looks like online there are just a couple times available for the adventure course?

Staff: That is correct. You are only with your group either on the zip line or adventure course.

API: Great. I like being with my group only. Thanks.

Staff: Thanks for calling, hope you have a nice day.

Score: 8

Comments: She was friendly, and answered my questions well. This



I’d like to come there for the day, but do I have to wear a mask? What if I don’t have one?

Facial coverings have become a bit of a lightning rod due to the politicization of the health crisis. The Spy purposefully didn’t call as an anti-masker, because we wanted to see how staff presented mask requirements, not get into an argument over the merits of wearing a mask.

Thankfully, none of the staffers let their feelings about mask-wearing come out in answering the question. All of them stated the mask rules, with varying degrees of empathy and thoroughness.

Send us a question for the Spy to ask! Seriously, do it. We won’t tell anyone the question came from you. Plus, if we use your question, your park will be immune for that issue! Send questions to

place has a great outgoing message to let people know what to expect.


First contact: Female.

API: Stated question.

Staff: You do have to have it when you are within six feet of our guides. You do not have to wear it on the zip line itself, when zipping from one end to another, but you will need to have it when the guide is putting you on and taking you off.

API: OK, great. And if I don’t have a mask, do you have any that I can buy?

Staff: We do not have any for sale here. You would need a mask, or a scarf, something that goes across your face.

API: OK, well, I might be coming in a couple weeks and just wanted to see what was in place.

Staff: Yeah, we will have these same rules in a few weeks.

API: Thanks.

Score: 4

Comments: She was pretty nice, but definitely left me wondering how serious this place is about COVID safety. Requiring masks and not having any available for guests isn’t OK nowadays. What if I wore a disposable mask and it ripped?

Would I get the boot since there aren’t any available on site?


Answering phone: Automated message providing all of the CDC rules, hours of operation, and letting people know to expect something different, with a CTA to go to the website for details.

First contact: Female.

API: Stated question.

Staff: Yes, you need to wear a mask. We were actually doing it before the state mandated a mask, but it is required at all times.

API: OK, if I don’t have one, do you sell them?

Staff: Yep.

API: OK, do you know how much they are?

Staff: They are just a dollar for the disposable ones.

API: Cool.

Staff: Yeah. We have the adventure course open, but the zip line is closed. The adventure course is open because we have so many harnesses that they go into a wash after an individual uses them. The zip line does not have as many harnesses, so we cannot sanitize them after each use, which is why it is closed.

32  []

API: That makes sense.

Staff: Anything else I can help you with?

API: Nope. Thanks!

Score: 8

Comments: Very friendly and provided good info. Comforting to know this place was already taking safety measures before it was mandated. Good to know that masks are available, and she did a nice job explaining why some adventures are open while others are not.


First contact: Female.

API: Stated question.

Staff: Yes, you have to wear a face covering.

API: If I don’t have one, do you sell them?

Staff: We have bandanas you can purchase, but you pretty much can buy a face covering everywhere! It’s a state mandate, so, like, literally you can go to Walgreens, CVS, Walmart—you can purchase one anywhere.

API: Yeah, I just ask cuz I am pretty forgetful with mine.

Staff: (laughs)

API: OK, thanks.

Staff: Sure thing. Goodbye.

Score: 4

Comments: I wasn’t trying to be funny. And she wasn’t interested in elaborating on, well, anything except where I could buy a mask. Seems she wanted to get off the phone with me pronto.


First contact: Female.

API: Stated question.

Staff: You will need to wear a mask. They are required throughout the tour until you can safely social distance.

API: OK. So, I need to wear the mask for the entire zip line?

Staff: Yeah, you have to wear it in the shop, in the van, and then when you are on the platforms. While you are on the actual line itself you can pull it down, and when you are on the ground and can distance from other groups you can pull it down as well.

API: Got it. And if I don’t have one?

Staff: We have extras. We have free, single use face masks, and then have the ones that go around your neck and nose that cost $8.

API: Oh, cool. So, in the van, will there be other people with me or my group only?

Staff: Our group sizes go up to nine, so if you are a group of two, chances are there would be seven other guests, plus two guides.

API: Oh.

Staff: Awesome.

API: Alright. Bye.

Score: 3

Comments: She was a bit short with her delivery, for one. And lots of people wouldn’t be comfortable cramming into a van with a bunch of strangers during a pandemic. Her take-it-or-leave-it approach to that situation makes me want to take my business elsewhere. A little empathy goes a long way.


First contact: Male.

API: Stated question.

Staff: While climbing, you do not need to wear a mask, but while getting harnessed up and near our summit center, you do have to have a mask on.


Staff: But, again, while you are climbing you can take it off, and as soon as you zip down to the ground you have to put it back on.

API: OK, so I have to have it in my back pocket?

Staff: Yeah, yeah.

API: And if I forget my mask, do you guys sell them?

Staff: We have paper masks. We will just give you one. We do have these— are you familiar with what a buff is?

API: Ummmm, sorta. I think I used that for snowboarding.

Staff: Exactly. We actually have (company name) adventure buffs out here for 10 bucks, they’re kind of cool!

API: OK, that is cool. Branded to you guys and everything?

Staff: Yep.

API: And staff will be wearing masks?

Staff: Yes. Any time they are near a customer they will have a mask on.

API: OK, cool. Sounds like you guys are taking things pretty seriously. That’s great. Staff: We are! Anything else I can help you with?

API: No, hope to see you in a few weeks!

Score: 9

Comments: He politely answered all my questions and provided a couple options with a free mask or the upsell to the buff. He could have gone into a bit more depth about COVID-19 protocols and other safety measures, though.

Identity revealed:

Bristol Mountain

Aerial Adventures


If your operation has an automated answering system, include information about your COVID safety measures, hours of operation, and direct callers to your website to find additional information. This can expedite calls from folks who have common questions, and sets the tone for what to expect.

When guests call to get information, they do not always know the right questions to ask. That applies especially during our current COVID era. Train your staff to ask before ending the call, “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Or, in this scenario, “Do you feel comfortable coming with our mask rules?”

It’s a little odd that not a single person asked me if I’d like to book a reservation after answering my questions. When someone calls, he or she is most likely inclined to book, and just needs some additional info before committing. No need for a hard sell, but politely offering the option will convert more people than just letting them hang up.

When it comes to masks in the age of COVID, it’s smart (if not essential) to offer free or inexpensive masks on site, and good business to upsell to a branded mask, buff, or bandana.

This is a new age of doing business. Have empathy with your customers, train your reps to be excited to share your new safety protocols, and, most of all, make your guests feel comfortable about coming to visit! Everyone has a different comfort level, so do what you can re: shuttles, group sizes, etc., to help put everyone at ease

33  Fall 2020


Do changes in industry standards make course design upgrades necessary?

Have you ever wondered whether your aerial adventure course must upgrade its safety systems or components when industry standards change? For example, if your course is 10 years old, are you required to upgrade the course to comply with the newest standards? If so, how often and how large of a change must you make? How flexible are regulators when it comes to upgrades?

There are few simple answers to these questions, but understanding how the main standards consider and define safety systems is a good place to start.

The following definitions for safety systems from the ANSI/ACCT Standards provide some context.


Life safety system: A configuration of components including lifelines, belay beams, and anchorages that support fall restraint and arrest systems, personal safety systems, belay systems, and/or rope rigging systems.


Personal safety system: A system of equipment that connects a person to an anchorage or lifeline with the intention of limiting fall distance and impact force to a predetermined maximum. Used in situations where the individual is likely to regain footing and positioning. Operational requirements for personal safety systems vary across jurisdictions.


In this article we will focus on life safety systems and the industry standards related to modifications of them. To many of you, this topic will seem “structural” in nature instead of product or equipment related, which typically applies for personal safety systems. We hope to provide you with a foundation of understanding when exploring the differences between applicable standards.

Standards, codes, user manuals, and jurisdictional requirements are constantly changing. It’s difficult to keep track of all the changes for those of us who watch for them constantly, and even harder for those who own, facilitate, manage, train, and otherwise supervise aerial adventure courses or components. When the changes come, and nothing has changed on our courses (both operation and structure), there can come a gap between what the “rules” say and what is happening at your operation. So the questions arise:

Is my course out of code compliance?

Does my operation no longer meet the standard?

What requirements can force me to change?

Are there ways to keep doing what we are doing?

While most of us would like to have the latest and greatest equipment and structures, and we’d like to follow the best practices available, there can be significant expense to doing so. If you have had relatively good success in what you are doing and the cost is high to change, when does practicality take a back seat to a changed standard?


We looked at common standards that affect our work (mostly in the United States) to see what they tell us we “must” do. What follows is a high-level analysis of how revisions to certain standards and laws may affect your course. We reviewed the following:

ASTM F24 Standards (F2959-19 Standard Practice for Aerial Adventure Courses and other referenced/ related ASTM standards)

Association for Challenge Course Technology’s (ACCT) Standard (ANSI/ ACCT 03-2019)

International Code Council’s Existing Building Code (IEBC 2018)

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA 2010)

Existing courses may be required to follow one or more of these standards, depending on the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) at their location, as well as others beyond those listed here. Further, the Professional Ropes Course

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Association’s ANSI/PRCA 1.0-.3-2014 Standard has not been through a revision, so how future revisions may impact operators following it is unknown.


F2959 Standard Practice for Aerial Adventure Courses is a relatively new standard (2012) in the well-known ASTM F24 family of standards. Committee F24 is designated for Amusement Rides and Devices, and aerial adventure courses have been placed in this family. The 2019 (F2959-19) version is more of an evolution of the standard than a simple revision to longstanding text. This new document references many of the F24 core standards, which are much more well established than F2959.

ASTM tends to publish revisions to the standard on a relatively frequent basis compared to other standards, and as such understands that even minor changes might have big effects on the

status of existing operations. Therefore, service-proven operations are often exempted from the latest revisions.

Service-proven exemptions. For example, the F2959 Standard references the F2291 Standard Practice for Design of Amusement Rides and Devices for design components. F2291-20 section 1 refers to the course potentially being “Previously Compliant” (i.e., the course’s design team can show that it met a previous version of F2291). After the course has been in operation and unchanged for five years from the date of opening, the course is designated as “Service Proven” so long as it doesn’t have any “significant design related failures or significant design related safety issues that have not been mitigated.” Service proven courses would need no other changes.

However, modifications to the course would need to meet current standards. Just how much a modification changes the service-proven operation is a judgment call, and such determinations are beyond the scope of our current discussion.

ANSI/ACCT 03-2019

The Association for Challenge Course Technology Standard is an older aerial adventure (referred to as challenge course) standard that, until recently, was more in maintenance mode than establishment mode.

ln 2016, though, ACCT became an ANSI Standard. ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, requires that the standard passes a process of public review and comment, and establishes requirements of fairness and consideration to the entire generally-affected community.

The 2016 standard was updated in 2019 with some initial fixes and a reorganization of the “Operations” chapter. The ANSI/ACCT Standard should return to maintenance mode, and ACCT is exploring a five-year cycle to keep the standard relevant while also assessing its effectiveness over a relevant period of time.

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ANSI/ACCT 03-2019 tilts toward requiring upgrades to structures. The standard refers to an existing course as “pre-existing.” Chapter 1 Standard A.4.2.1 provides a “grandfathering” grace period of 24 months for course materials and techniques that do not comply with the strength and performance requirements of the newest edition of the standard.

Chapter 1 also addresses requirements for modifications to pre-existing courses (i.e., modifications must meet the current edition of the standards) and professional inspections, which are required annually or at whatever more-frequent interval a manufacturer may deem appropriate.

Latitude for inspectors. The professional inspection process allows for latitude in the inspector’s opinion regarding existing conditions. Professional inspectors may require verification from other professionals to show that the course meets current standards when there is a lack of documentation that already shows such.

For example, an inspector may require a qualified professional to complete an entire structural analysis if there is not documentation to show that such an analysis has been done. This means that an otherwise long-standing course may need to meet current strength of material standards even though it may have met those standards at the time of the original build, but no proof of that can be provided.

In addition, an inspector has latitude in passing or failing the operation of a course and potentially requiring changes, with or without specific language within the standard. This appears to be a situation that can change independently of when, or if, the standard requirements change.

At present, such decisions seem to depend on changes in our industry’s legal liability and insurability environment. That is, an inspection company may have “passed” an element/operation for years, but now may be hesitant to do so or even fail something, simply because passing such an element may

add liability that the inspector or the inspection company felt was not there in a previous legal environment.

2018 IEBC

The 2018 International Existing Building Code (IEBC) is definitely NOT written for the aerial adventure industry, but it can hold significant weight with an authority having jurisdiction. That’s because virtually every jurisdiction in the U.S. has adopted it, in some form, as have many jurisdictions outside the U.S. This code covers existing buildings and is updated every three years, though it changes little from code cycle to code cycle.

The IEBC basically “grandfathers” everything that is not considered “dangerous.” Much like the ASTM standards, it basically accepts that structures that met code at the time of construction are essentially service proven (although that language is not used). The definition of “dangerous” in this code relates to a site’s structures, not its operations. >> continued

37  Fall 2020

Often, the best way to deal with jurisdictional issues and code updates related to your course and structures (assuming they have been there for a while) is to hire a local architect or structural engineer with knowledge of the code.

2010 ADA

We mention the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) because it is becoming more of an issue in both existing and new construction. This is not a standard, but the law in the U.S. It was created in 1990 and updated in 2010.

It’s notable that the 2010 law allowed compliance with the 1990 law for most facilities, but not amusement rides. Essentially, existing structures are required to meet all 2010 ADA requirements that are “readily achievable.” That means “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense” (42 U.S.C. Section 12181(9)).

The law does not define “easily,” “difficulty,” or “much expense,” but does list factors a court should consider. That includes things like how much a facility makes, its resources, number of employees, and how it affects operations. There appear to be a lot of gray areas, but experience shows that facilities that make an effort toward reasonable accommodations help their case in defining these factors. If you upgrade some components to make them ADA compatible and list other possible upgrades as “too expensive” or “too hard to accomplish,” there is some leeway for having already defined some items as feasible and performing that work.


As 2020 has reminded us, we live in an ever-changing world. It can be a challenge to keep up with it all, including rules and regulations. And remember, there are other decrees that apply to more than the structure and operation of your course—employee laws, taxes, and insurance, for example. All may

have severe consequences if you don’t keep up.

We hire professionals to keep up with a lot of these changes (accountants, HR professionals, etc.). We should do the same for our structures and operations.

Generally speaking, an existing facility can continue to operate much as it always has. The extent to which you may have to change is hopefully minimal. If you can show professional inspectors and AHJs that you are actively involved in the understanding of the dynamic world around you, that is evidence of your efforts toward maintaining compliance (even through grandfathering) of your facilities.

While we cannot promise that inspectors or regulators will be as flexible as you hope, experience shows that working with your AHJ from a place of mutual understanding is more effective than arguing a point or perspective. If you must make a change, keep an open mind, stay positive, get creative, and when in doubt, get outside help.

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When clocks were pushed forward in March of this year, it seemed as if the world skipped over daylight savings and jumped right into the Twilight Zone. In the early spring days of the pandemic, many park operators no doubt envisioned the upcoming summer season as a dystopia right out of the Rod Serling playbook, with customers and staff needing to engage in all sorts of convoluted behavior to avoid the infective scourge of the pandemic. Business would be restricted at best, and possibly shut down.

To be sure, business as usual was not the order of the day in the summer of 2020. Yet after pre-summer anticipation of a possible onslaught of misery and red ink, many parks were, perhaps surprisingly, able to run relatively smoothly, successfully, and even profitably. That, at least, was the scenario painted by a select panel of park owners and operators in an Adventure Park Insider Huddle conducted in early September, “The Good, the Bad, and What We’ve Learned” (Episode 47 on the PodSAM list).


Destination decline. Start with the Bad first. Parks hit hardest by the impositions of the pandemic were those whose customer base comprises primarily destination travelers, as air-travel-reliant destinations declined precipitously. Nick Thompson, owner of ClimbWorks, which operates parks in

the Southeast U.S. and Hawaii, reported a 70 percent drop in visitation at the Hawaiian location. With Hawaii closed to outside visitors, the park slashed prices and relied on local traffic to (hopefully) meet a baseline of financial viability. Thompson conceded that the whole idea of making money had basically been tossed out the window. “We weren’t trying to make a profit, but just trying to take care of our support team,” he said, in an effort to retain valuable talent for future operations.

Staff shortages. In fact, one of the biggest challenges for park operators as they slowly began opening in spring was staff retention. Generous unemployment benefits, said Rachel Maestri-Hailey of Zoar Outdoor in Massachusetts, discouraged some staff from returning. “We were starting with fewer guys than we had originally counted on ... We’ve been chasing the staffing a little bit this season.”

Lori Pingle, owner of ZipZone Outdoor Adventures in Columbus, Ohio, had a similar experience. In a typical year, ZipZone might expect about 80 percent of the park’s staff to return from one year to the next. Not so in 2020.

Pingle said that of the 14 staff members who agreed in March to return for the summer, just four were still on board by the middle of May. One reason for the decline, she said, might have been that people for whom working at the park was a second job “didn’t want two

exposures.” Whatever the reason, the bottom line was that “staffing has been extremely challenging,” with Pingle herself filling in from time to time and staff training being an ongoing process throughout the summer. “It’s just been endless frustration,” Pingle said.

Managing the mask mandate. Finally, there were initial issues with customer acceptance of new protocols either imposed voluntarily by park operators or mandated by state or local authorities. Upon opening in the spring, said Kurt Damron, CEO of Highlands Aerial Park in North Carolina, “no one showed up wearing a mask.” That presented a “delicate situation” in trying to con-

Communication with guests about rules and restrictions was daunting at first, but became easier as attitudes and expectations evolved.

Shown here: Zoar Outdoor signage.

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Despite the stress and reduced capacity brought on by the pandemic, adventure park operators found a lot of silver linings during this summer season.

When face coverings finally became the norm, they also became a profitable opportunity. Highlands Aerial Park in North Carolina sold protective, branded bandanas—with a few going to canine clients.

vince everyone to comply with a mask requirement, especially given that some of Damron’s customers were “in the 100 percent dedicated no-mask camp.”


Masking up and marketing. Yet masking turned into one of the positives of this past summer, as customer attitudes evolved to a widespread willingness to abide by and even appreciate the safety measures taken by parks. John Hines, owner of The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring (Maryland), said that, of the thousands of park visitors this summer, just three were sent home for not masking. The park made its stand on masks very clear, and that helped earn the trust of

the vast majority of guests.

Others echoed that sentiment. Damron reported that by mid-July, 95 percent of park arrivals had face coverings, and that resistance to masking was essentially non-existent “as mandates became more widely accepted.”

Logoed face coverings, of course, produced a new marketing opportunity. Damron ordered 2,000 logoed bandanas to pass out to customers who arrived maskless; the supply was exhausted in a four- to six-week period.

A love of gloves. Several park operators said that the sale of gloves actually produced an unexpected windfall. Hines offers guests an inexpensive glove for free,

though it was not prominent in the park’s marketing. What was prominent was an upsell for a few different types of gloves. Hines reported “selling four times more gloves than I sold last year,” which more than paid for the free gloves the park handed out. “My bottom line is improved as a result of it. We’ll never go back to community gloves,” Hines declared.

Pingle offered a glove for $5 and had no resistance from guests; she buys the gloves from Amazon for $1.70. “People love the gloves,” she said. “They are much more form-fitting than the gloves we were using, which were a partial finger glove. And this is a full finger glove, so we have fewer injuries on people’s hands.” Like Hines, she plans to make the glove switch permanent.

41  Fall 2020

Online booking gains acceptance. Another positive development brought on by the pandemic was customer acceptance of the shift to online booking. Damron reported that “online bookings skyrocketed,” and Hines said that online sales were so successful that “we’ll never go back to cash again.” Cashless operations, he said, resulted in enormous savings both in time and headaches.

Attendance better than expected. All of the panelists reported declines in customer capacity, driven largely by mandated limits on gathering sizes. Maestri-Hailey said that Zoar operated at about 50 to 60 percent of normal capacity, with Pingle citing a similar figure. Hines said that the 800 to 900 people he might normally expect on a Saturday was reduced to about 350. On the upside ...

Weekday business grows. While capacity limits might have reduced weekend business, weekday business, typically much slower, thrived. Hines noted that weekday visits in July and August were stronger than ever before. Thompson saw a longer season into late August, with a slower drop-off than in past years. Pingle noted that even though maximum capacity was 50 percent of normal, overall visits had declined just 27 percent for the month of July.

Pingle said that her midweek business was constrained only by staffing shortages as well as the time needed for facility and gear cleaning. Thompson,

for one, addressed the second issue by simply ordering more gear “so we didn’t have to rotate it so quickly.”

Combining work and play. One of the creative ways that operators were able to make the most of limited capacities was to build work stations, where

reviews, and showed us another way we can run the adventure park” when it has fewer visitors or reduced staff, he said.

Pricing power. To counteract weekend shortfalls, some parks upped their prices, only to encounter minimal customer resistance. When Hines raised

it turned out, the Twilight Zone of 2020 might actually have turned into an opportunity zone.

parents could work while kids were engaged in an activity, then kids could do schoolwork as parents went off to play. In some cases that meant bringing electricity to picnic tables and cranking up the wi-fi, but the investments enabled larger overall participant numbers by offering a needed convenience to make the most of capacity limits.

Guided tours. Thompson also found guided tours at his Lumberjack Feud operation were a hit with guests. “We had two guides take guests around to everything that we were doing. It was a way that we could still run all the different activities with a low staff. That location had only opened in September last year, and people really liked that guided experience. It got us great

prices, “nobody blinked,” he said, so he instituted a second price increase. Some weekend customers expressed appreciation for the lack of crowds, suggesting that the combination of higher prices and lower participation limits might be a sensible long-term business model, maintaining overall revenue while improving the guest experience.

Thriving drive markets. Operators of parks relying on drive traffic benefited from the various COVID mitigations.

“We saw [increases] in our summer numbers at all three of our attractions in the Smokies,” said Thompson, mostly due to the boom in weekday business. The demand was sparked by the steep decline in air travel and the allure of fresh mountain air (“We need to get to

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(Left) The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring added power and wi-fi to its covered picnic area. (Above) The park sold four times more gloves this season than previous seasons.

the mountains, because COVID doesn’t live there,” is the way Damron described the prevailing attitude) as well as COVID-driven slowdowns of other recreational activities, such as youth sports leagues and summer camps. Parks weren’t the only outdoor-recreation game in town, but there were fewer competing options than usual.

Diversifying the customer base. With the increase in regional demand also came an interesting broadening of the customer base. Several operators reported a significant shift in the diversity of their clientele.

“The diversity of the customer base has profoundly changed,” was Hines’s summary. He added that many of the newcomers returned for a second visit, and relatively close to the first visit, compared to previous years.

“One of the things we saw as a positive was an increase in diversity,” echoed Maestri-Hailey. “We talked a lot about diversity, equity, and inclusion for these new folks coming in.” While more diver-

sity might have been a social positive, it also presented a significant business opportunity, with the adventure-park net cast across new audiences.

First-hand experience with staff. One benefit of being short-staffed was spending more time with guides and observing operations up close. “I haven’t been running tours in like five years,” said Pingle. “There’s a ton of value in somebody at my level getting out there and being in the adventure park for three hours and watching what the staff are actually doing.

“There was a lot of stuff that I got to do, guiding tours again and chatting with guests. It’s all stuff that I do not want to do, but being forced into it has given me a new perspective, and I get to have some comradery with staff that I don’t always get to have. It’s been great to kind of get back in the trenches with everybody.”

Cross-training of staff. Maestri-Hailey highlighted the need for, and benefits of, cross-training, which helped Zoar

meet demand with limited staff. This also gave staff a chance to take on more of a leadership role, which prepares the park for the future.


Whatever impact COVID-19 might have had on a park’s bottom line, the jolt of this summer’s changes has spurred many operators to seize it as a cathartic opportunity to review all aspects of the way they do business. Operational procedures, staffing, retail sales, marketing, etc. “It really made us look at every part of our business,” said Thompson.

As it turned out, the Twilight Zone of the summer of 2020 might actually have turned into an opportunity zone for many. It opened new markets, enabled price increases, and introduced operational efficiencies that will outlive the pandemic. In other words, the Good appears to have outweighed the Bad, and, for the long term, parks should be the better because of it.

43  Fall 2020
Increased demand for outdoor recreation led to a more diverse customer mix at Highlands Aerial Park in North Carolina (above) and ZipZone Outdoor Adventures in Ohio (right).


As the end of the 2020 season fast approaches, adventure operators face the inevitable staff turnover that comes each year. COVID-19 may exacerbate that. Staff members, especially, are feeling the brunt of the unexpected challenges we have faced while operating amid a pandemic, driving the need for us to reassess how we care for staff so we can mitigate turnover and set ourselves up for success come spring.

What can we do, though, when budgets, additional staffing, and hours have been slashed to accommodate for lost revenue?


Let’s start with the basics. Clear, transparent communication with staff is always critical, but has been extremely important this year. With the uncertainty and volatile nature of the 2020 season, staff have been left rattled and anxious about what the future holds. Leadership must keep their employees

in the loop in this fast-changing environment. Staff who feel they are being kept in the dark or are the last to know important information may become mistrustful and detached.

Staff should always be informed of operational changes—particularly those with direct impact to staff. This may include temporarily reduced hours, different staffing models, limited capacities, and the potential for any cessations of operation.

Communicate year-round. Continue this communication during the off season so that staff feel included and not left out in the cold. Give staff the opportunity to ask questions, voice concerns, and even offer potential solutions for challenges. Even if site leadership is uncertain as to whether or not staff is returning, including them in email chains, group chats, and the like will make it easier when spring rolls around to determine which staff members plan on returning.

Technology can help keep communication lines open. Many sites have utilized applications such as Slack, When I Work, Homebase, etc. Others have created group chats, Google documents, email chains, or notice boards.

Ideally, these communication tools are updated regularly by leadership and are easily accessed by staff when they are not at work. These communication tools can be introduced at any point during the season, but are especially helpful in the off season when the entire team is not present on-site.


A strong sense of community has been central to the success of many organizations this year. Several of the sites I work with on a regular basis refer to their staff as a family (dysfunctions and all). This “family community” has offered support, encouragement, and reprieve for staff during this extraordinary year and has aided in staff retention.

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With all the turmoil of the past season, it’s more important than ever to communicate with and develop staff.

Build your culture. If operators want staff to dive in head-first and be a positive, contributing member of the community, they must create and foster that culture. “All for one and one for all” attitudes generally don’t happen all on their own. Leadership must actively tend the culture of their operations, particularly in these challenging times.

Fostering a sense of “got your back” between management and staff, cultivating and modeling responsible and appropriate behaviors, and weeding out toxic and complacent attitudes are keys to creating a positive staff community. Yes, there will always be cliques and individuals who rub each other the wrong way—but when the overall employee community is strong, people feel supported, cared for, and want to stick around.

As the summer winds down, operators can begin planting the seeds of this culture for the next season. Debrief with current staff about how they feel the season went and what they would like to see happen in the future. Ask them what they are worried about, what they think went right, their hopes and goals for next season, and what they want to see from leadership moving forward. These debriefs can help in goal setting, program implementation, and planning for next spring.

Listen carefully. An important element to a family-community culture is being an active listener, and taking action on staff concerns or suggestions. Operators who listen to staff and implement suggested changes whenever possible will be rewarded with greater staff loyalty and commitment.


With support staff another casualty of budgetary constrictions at many sites this year, remaining staff members have been stretched thin. Since we may open in the spring under similar circumstances, it’ll be important to plan for operating with a smaller staff.

Cross training is a great way to compensate for a limited number of available employees. In preparation for the springtime, operators should con-

sider cross training during the slower fall days for standout staff. This will give valued staff members additional experience as well as something to look forward to next spring.

Time for cross training should also be worked into pre-season planning for 2021. Refreshers, new staff trainings, and cross training opportunities are all important pieces to a well-executed pre-season training regime.

Aspen Snowmass’ Lost Forest Treeline Trail Challenge Course and Canopy

Run Zipline Tour, points to as being beneficial for all. “Higher-level certified individuals are paying dividends this year, as they can handle more complex and stressful situations,” says James. “They are more serious about their jobs and the survival of the site, and it gives our Level 1 [guides] something to look up and forward to.”

Keep it simple. Identifying simple, straightforward tasks that staff can learn quickly in other areas allows for a greater distribution of responsibility. If one part of the operation gets bogged down, staff can jump over and provide extra support.

Keep staff engaged. Cross training also increases staff engagement, as it can break up the monotony of doing the same tasks day after day, and will often inspire staff to pursue further training in that area. Team members that wear many hats are also easier to schedule, more likely to return the following year, and can be extremely helpful in case of an incident as they can fill in roles and assist in the response process.

Develop careers. Cross training and higher levels of training for qualified staff also provide career development opportunities, something Connor James, guest services supervisor at

James also says that staff with advanced training can assist management in areas such as maintenance and incident response, and they can multitask more effectively.

Moreover, providing career development opportunities for staff has been proven to lead to greater staff engagement. Educating your staff on opportunities within your company and in the industry, the resources available to them, and where they can find more information all aid in staff retention. Assisting employees with opportunities for development is good for everyone— employees, operators, and the industry as a whole.

As Richard Branson once said: “Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

That said, due to staff turnover,

45  Fall 2020
Left-hand page: A staff member at the newly-opened The Forge: Lemont Quarries. Above: A staff member at Aspen Snowmass Lost Forest leads kids through day camp activities.

advanced trainings are generally better suited to springtime. It can be gut-wrenching to invest time and money training individuals only to see them leave the company ranks over the winter. However, talking to staff now about career development opportunities in the spring will give them something to strive and return for in 2021.


When compensational benefits are scarce, as they have been for many operations this year, fringe benefits can serve as a useful alternative for building staff morale. Discounts and pro deals with gear manufacturers/distributors, trades with other local businesses, and access to extra activities within the operation are all examples of fringe benefits with little or no cost associated with them.

Offer pro deals. It is simple to set up a pro deal (or direct your employees on how to set it up for themselves), and everyone loves gear! Companies such as Outdoor Pro-Link and Expert Voice allow employers to set up pro deals for employees with a variety of brands. Petzl and other manufacturers offer pro-purchasing programs and pro deals for industry professionals that individuals can set up online with proof of employment (pay stub, business card, etc.). Making fringe benefits available to staff can help them realize direct advantages from their employment with your operation and make them feel more valued.

Little perks boost morale. When it comes down to the day-to-day, James says, “It’s the small things that have made the difference this year. Things like coffee and candy in the afternoon of a hard day go a long way in helping morale.”

At the Lost Forest, James says they have hosted popsicle days, procured a coffee machine for HQ when staff requested one, and did some social-distanced teambuilding that had everyone involved and laughing. “Things like that got our staff excited and recharged,” he recalls. Those small gestures of food, activities, and support can make the

difference between happy staff and disgruntled employees.


All that said, when it comes to caring for and helping staff to succeed, few things will reap greater reward than man-


Hard lessons were learned across the board this year. Looking to the start of 2021, the most successful programs will be those that identify and implement methods to better care for their staff and adapt to changing times.

Value your vets. Recruitment and hiring will be more challenging next year due to the reduced number of staff this season. Operations that retain personnel from this year will have less work in the spring. Returning staff save us time and money in training, and the veterans can help mentor, inspire, and monitor new team members.

agement developing strong personal connections with employees. This is especially important in the time of COVID. Listen to your staff and be empathetic to what they are going through, both at and outside of work. James’ advice is to “know that everyone is going through a weird time right now, and your staff isn’t always going to be OK.”

Take the initiative. The onus is on leaders to ask the hard questions and listen to the answers, whether it’s something you want to hear or not. A manager’s purpose is to support his or her staff in a manner that allows the staff to be more effective in their roles. This may mean jumping up on course to give a hungry staffer a break, or taking the time at the end of the day to check in with employees about how it went and how they are feeling.

The ethical line between “how hard can I push my staff” and “how hard should I push my staff” is a fine one that must be tread with care. We can only know the answer to such questions if we have a relationship with those we work with and understand their emotional and physical limits.

Veteran employees are also (generally) more dedicated to the site and more engaged, which helps to maintain and grow the culture of the site. These experienced team members are often the pillars on which our operations stand. Operators would do well to try to gain understanding now of what will motivate their staff to return next spring and use this information to create a plan for staff retention.

Anticipate change. In planning for next year, sites should have several strategies for staff care outlined in advance because, as we’ve all seen, challenges relating to COVID have a habit of appearing and changing rapidly. Adaptability has been, and will continue to be, key to survival.

Share with, learn from your peers. Shared experience can make this process easier. Concepts that succeed at one site may very well work at others. The proverbial “staff care” wheel does not need to be reinvented at each operation. Conversations between industry professionals have become wonderfully prolific this year, and our industry as a whole will benefit tremendously if these lines of communication remain open.

It’s been a tough year, but the determination and enthusiasm of our employees and leadership has kept us going. We will persevere, and with the help of our staff, climb higher in 2021.

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Above: Staff work their way through the course at The Forge: Lemont Quarries.


Adventure park and challenge course operators are not only rising to the coronavirus challenge, but forging creative recipes for success.

To say that 2020 has been a challenging year would be a wild understatement. The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic repercussions sent most recreation-oriented businesses into a tailspin. Figuring out how to keep these businesses afloat during these unique circumstances has required extraordinary effort and imagination. Many adventure park operators have not only risen to the challenges, they’ve succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations.

While there’s no shortage of creative ideas in the outdoor recreation industry, Adventure Park Insider uncovered three operations that have adapted extraordinarily well to the crisis. Through ingenuity, thoughtfulness, and even

sheer luck, these parks are keeping their bottom lines viable, their guests happy, and their staffs engaged.


North Shore Adventure Park in Silver Bay, Minn., is only in its second year of operation. It relies on its location, along scenic route 6, to keep business humming along. North Shore enjoys a fair amount of traffic under normal circumstances—nearly 10,000 cars pass by the park on peak days, most of them occupied with families and visitors from the Twin Cities and Duluth metro areas.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the park

suspended operations, like nearly all businesses nationwide. When local and state regulators began to slowly allow businesses to open up again at the end of May, owners Phil Huston and Alice Tibbetts sprang into action to meet what they hoped would be pent-up demand for recreation.

Of course, they knew they would have to limit operations under new guidelines. “Last year we hosted 250 to 300 people a day, but this year we’ve capped our daily count at 200,” says Huston.

>> continued

Above: Guests at North Shore Adventure Park enjoy the new picnic areas that can be reserved for a fee, allowing for social distancing and privacy.

47  Fall 2020

With the lower numbers, the park now has 10 to 12 staff versus the 20 it had last season. That proved sufficient for successfully guiding guests through the 75 treetop obstacles, which include 10 zip lines.

Social distancing. To comply with social distancing guidelines, North Shore used the shutdown to make a few changes. First up was widening the 500 feet of trail that leads from the parking lot to the adventure park. Not only did the park widen the trail, it divided it into two separate one-way trails to and from the base area, to keep the traffic dispersed and flowing.

To ensure that guests use the trails as intended, the team at North Shore installed plenty of wayfinding signage that clearly guides guests along the beautifully mulched and landscaped paths. In addition to its own signage, North Shore adopted some other locally developed signage, including the innovative “one moose apart” distancing instructions created by Cook County.

“We’re lucky in that we have a fair bit of land to work with,” says Huston. “So, we carved out areas in the woods that are both part of the action, yet private, and added picnic tables, garbage cans, and lockers at each site.”

Guests can reserve these tables (three hours for $25) at the same time as they book their two-hour adventure packages online ($54 per person). After each party departs, staff come through to sanitize the tables before the next group arrives.

“There’s been no price resistance to this added feature, and guests really enjoy having their own, safe area to relax in,” says Huston.

Added revenue. While the picnic tables have made up for some of the lost revenue due to lowered capacity, another area that took the owners by surprise was glove sales.

“When our guests book their visit online, they have several add-on options,

in-house gloves are nearly covered,” Huston says.


Also in Minnesota, Kerfoot Canopy Tour in Henderson and its sister company Brainerd Canopy Tour in Brainerd, about three hours away, have responded to COVID-19 in innovative ways.

Owner Lee Kerfoot says that social distancing and touchpoints prompted both parks to rethink operations. For example, prior to COVID, the arrival process was typical. Before guests began their aerial adventures, they needed to sign waivers, oftentimes on site—an action that has become a contact concern. That process has changed.

“We used to have waivers that could be signed on paper, on tablets, or online,” says Kerfoot. “We’ve now created a sign with a QR code allowing people to use their own phone to sign the waiver if they didn’t sign it in advance of arrival.”

Shorter time slots. While adding sales is key during these times, Kerfoot recognized that the pandemic has had a profound economic impact on many of their guests. So he now offers less expensive, one-hour durations in addition to the standard two-hour time slots.

“The lower price option is making it more affordable for the people who are really hurt by the economy,” says Kerfoot.

The cabana approach. Back in the carefree days of 2019, North Shore had put out a few picnic tables around its grounds to help make guests comfortable. This summer, the park took this idea a step further: It added more picnic tables, which guests can now reserve in advance. All tables provide plenty of social distancing, even privacy.

including purchasing their own sets of gloves,” says Huston.

A positive byproduct of sanitization concerns is guests are snatching up the gloves in droves. “Even guests who order 10 passes are buying 10 sets of gloves, which we sell for $7 a pair. Thanks to these sales, the cost of our

Income from kids. The parks also looked to kids to generate added income. “We heard that families with kids younger than seven—our minimum age to go in the adventure park—were not coming until their youngest was old enough,” says Kerfoot. “So, it made sense for us to add something for younger kids, too.”

The activity Kerfoot settled on? The Great Minnesota Ball Run, where guests roll wooden balls down a 400-foot-long track with various elements and obsta-

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To ensure that guests used the one-way trail system as intended, the team at North Shore Adventure Park installed wayfinding signage along the paths.

cles. The track meanders down through a forest slope and is low-impact entertainment for the whole family. At the end, guests can run their ball through the track again or pocket it as a souvenir and call it a day. The new activity costs $8 as a standalone or $5 as an add-on.

Retail in the outdoors. Management at the parks also realized that guests were reluctant to head indoors in the current environment, which would have a considerable impact on their retail sales. So, since they offer outdoor adventure, they decided to move some of their retail outside, too.

“We created a rack to move the merchandise outside,” says Kerfoot, “which we believe has contributed to an increase in t-shirt sales per rider, and an increase in overall shirt sales.”

To put some numbers to the increase, t-shirt sales were up 33 percent, which translates to an additional $1.10 per participant, in July 2020 compared to July 2019.

The rack is positioned where guests wait to zip line, which gives them plenty of time to peruse the options. “We also had a better selection of t-shirts,” points out Kerfoot, “which might have helped move the needle some. The only thing we would consider adding are hats.”

Glove love. Rounding out the added revenue opportunities, as with North Shore Adventure Park, Kerfoot reports that buying gloves has been more popular this year than in the past.


At Louisville Mega Cavern in Louisville, Ky., operations were shut down between March 17 and June 17, which allowed management to take a good, hard look inward.

The value of company culture. “COVID-19 shows us how critical work culture is,” says Charles Park, executive VP. “In the past, I would walk into an area of operation to find 12 staff, 10 of whom weren’t doing much of anything while the other two were working hard.”

During the three-month shutdown, on the other hand, Park was thrilled with the response of his reduced staff. “It was amazing to me to see how staff stepped up during the crisis,” he said. “No job was too small. Our staff worked tirelessly across our four operations doing whatever was necessary, from cleaning bathrooms to operating forklifts. The best way to put it is that our staff is now battle-tested, and there’s nothing we won’t do for one another.”

When Louisville Mega Cavern re-opened its doors to the public in mid-June, it did so with 50-60 staff, down from the 80-110 typically employed during the summer months.

“When we re-opened, we increased our hourly wages, because employees would be working in much smaller teams, and we wanted to reward them better,” says Park. “We’ve also introduced a type of meritocracy—if you work hard, you get a raise.”

And the gamble is paying off—Mega Cavern routinely sells out, though at a reduced capacity, and both guests and staff are happy with their experiences.


“I have a poster in my office of a quote by Jeff Bezos,” says Park. “It reads: ‘What’s dangerous is not to evolve.’” For adventure parks across the country, this sentiment couldn’t be more true.

49  Fall 2020
Both North Shore and Kerfoot added gloves to their retail operations, something that has been more popular than in years past. Kerfoot Canopy Tour introduced the Great Minnesota Ball Run to capitalize on families with younger kids who may not have visited the park otherwise. Mega Cavern reduced capacity, reduced staff, and increased wages. As a result, both guests and staff are happy with their experiences.

With all the upheaval in the world and in the aerial adventure industry right now, we wanted to highlight a few of the young pros who are making an impact at their operations. Nominated by their bosses and peers, we are calling these up-and-comers “Guiding Lights” because they help their teams, parks, and customers maneuver through challenges with composure and creativity. From Colorado to Georgia, and from Essex, England, to Edmonton, Alberta, these Guiding Lights shine across the globe.

Their pathways into the industry have been varied. Some hold degrees in outdoor education or recreation, while others took a more circuitous route— working first as a professional chef, studying to become a teacher, or taking an adventure park job to make a little pocket money.

Regardless of how they got involved, the Guiding Lights are all highly valued team members. And, this year, their skills were applied in unique ways, as

they played important roles in helping their companies and crews navigate the uncertainty and upheaval brought on by COVID-19. We hope their examples inspire you, and help you to recognize and value your own Guiding Lights.


Adventure Designs & Operations Manager, American Adventure Park Systems/ Vertical Trek USA, Ga.

A spontaneous detour to Historic Banning Mills while en route to a job at a wilderness therapy camp changed Patrick Avery’s career plan. Owner Donna Holder invited Patrick to come check out the zip line and see how he liked being a tour guide. “I joined the next day,” Patrick laughs. Ten years later, he’s still with Banning Mills, albeit in a different branch. Patrick now manages operations for American Adventure Park Systems [AAPS], the company’s business-to-business arm. He also holds a degree in outdoor education, is a Level 2 ACCT Professional Inspector, a Wilderness EMT, and is OSHA certified in a number of areas—all indicators of his commitment to the industry and passion for continuous learning.


It’s gone by so fast, all gas and no brakes. Every season is just so interesting. One of the moments that spurred a bunch of change for me was when we [AAPS] decided to become a PVM with ACCT. I had more of an opportunity to foster relationships with other builders and peers. And it’s nice to have systems

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Profiles of a few young men and women who are making an impact in the aerial adventure industry.

that you helped put in place be looked at, critiqued, and fine-tuned by that community.


I’ve done NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) classes, and one of the things that sticks with me is from Wilderness First Aid. My EMT instructor said, “We can sit around and ‘what if’ all day, or we can step back and do the best we can with the resources that we have.” That comes up more than you’d think when I am talking about operations or training people. This is an industry with a ton of variables and there are lots of questions that always arise. So, one of my answers is always that—do the best you can with the resources you have.


Overall, my strategy and approach of getting clients what they need hasn’t changed. I have had to have discussions

with clients and peers about things like line rescues, disinfecting gear, personal protective wear, and the recommended strategies for dealing with all of that. Being able to have those open conversations about operational changes has been important for us to provide the best service we can.


While Phil Brown didn’t become a teacher like he initially planned when he was studying English literature and sports science at the University of Gloucestershire in England, he’s still a proud educator. “All of the stuff that we build is just a tool for educational learning,” says Phil, talking about his work with High 5, an experiential education organization. He’s been a trainer with the company for five years, and worked year-round at an adventure program for seven years before that. A Level 2 ACCT trainer, Phil now travels the Northeast, teaching operators how to incorporate adventure activities into their programming.


I came over to the U.S. through a summer camp. The camp had a relatively small static course with a zip, and I was picked for advanced zip line training. The instructor, Leo, liked that I asked loads of questions. I fell in love with facilitating. The camp had an outdoor ed center, and I ended up working with

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Lead Trainer and Facilitator, High 5 Adventure Learning Center, Vt. All part of the job: Patrick Avery checks out a zip line ... ... Sam King performs a course repair.

them year-round. The pull for me, the reason I didn’t go back to England and teach, was that we were making better human beings, teaching people how to stretch themselves, instead of teaching Shakespeare.


The podcast is called Vertical Playpen. The initial point was to stay connected with our clients. We train a lot of students, and people are curious about building a career in the industry. It is not a straight line. So, I wanted to interview everyone who works at High 5 and ask them that question—how did you end up here? The podcast gained traction quite quickly. There wasn’t another podcast about our industry out there, so I decided to keep it going. We’ve added many different topics in the process and have 59 episodes. It’s a free resource for people, and something I wish had been around when I was just getting started.


I do team development stuff, and we always talk about being more vulnerable in front of the group. And I think this moment has created some forced vulnerability. Owning our anxieties is really helpful. I also think this pandemic brought the community together. We are having to be innovative, and there have been a lot of connections made.


Aerial Park Guide, Snow Valley Aerial Park, Alberta, Canada

University of Alberta student Joni Hyland has been with Snow Valley Aerial Park since its inception four years ago. “Guiding at the aerial park has taught me so many skills that I hope to bring to my future work,” says Joni. An outdoor enthusiast, she is also a ski instructor at Snow Valley when she is not studying for her library and information studies degree. Joni grew up going to the mountains with her family, and those childhood experiences inspired a lifelong love of nature. Keenly aware of the need to balance safety and fun, Joni was a key player in revising COVID-19 protocols at the park amid evolving government recommendations.

diabetes and ADHD, exercise has had a big impact on my mental and physical health. So, I find sharing these benefits with people to be super rewarding.


The pandemic has obviously created a lot of uncertainty. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to push for as many precautions as possible. We were encouraging social distancing when the park opened, but I felt that there were many places in our aerial park where it was difficult to maintain that distance. I pushed for masks. I feel really happy to have been a part of that change. Keeping guests safe is such a big part of being a guide.


I’m hoping the frequent cleaning practices will be implemented long term, as well as the smaller orientation groups. It gives guests a more intimate experience and allows them to ask questions.



I ended up at the aerial park because my mom saw it was opening and encouraged me to apply for a summer job. I had been zip lining in Costa Rica once, but other than that I had no experience. I really like coaching people through difficult things or encouraging them to do things that they don’t believe they’ll be able to do. Helping them gain confidence is super cool to see every day. And, as a person with type 1

Course Manager/Guest Services Supervisor, Aspen Snowmass, Colo.

After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in recreation, parks, and tourism, Connor James stayed at WVU as a facilitator on the university-owned canopy tour. Simultaneously, he pursued a graduate degree in parks and rec. That post-grad education prepared him to join Bonsai Designs as a course installer and trainer for ACCT Level 1 candidates. While with Bonsai, Connor worked on the Lost

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Left: Phil Brown leads a training, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors Splits. Right: Joni Hyland masks up.

Forest installation at Aspen Snowmass. A summer later, he returned to Lost Forest as a facilitator. “I love that I am able to facilitate and manage a course that I helped build,” says Connor.

managing, I do a lot of the maintenance and deal with things people don’t necessarily think about, but that have to be done every day.


We have been washing our harnesses every day, and I think it looks good overall. We will be keeping our new reservation system—that’s been a huge help. Also, we rerouted our main office and ticket area, and that improved the entire flow and experience.



One of the first people that got me going was my boss at WVU, C.J. Belknap. He is the one who gave me a graduate assistantship and first recognized my work. He really pushed me in a positive direction. My other big mentor would be my boss at Bonsai, Leslie Sohl. She put me in a position to thrive and put a lot of responsibility on me. She helped me to be more confident in myself and what I do.


I am always reflecting upon what I’ve done in the days past so that I don’t make the same mistakes the next day. As a manager, you are always learning, whether that’s about your people or your industry. We all make mistakes, but as long as I can learn from those, I feel like I am contributing to my growth, well-being, and career.


Most recently it’s COVID-19. We are one of the only zip line/aerial adventure places open around here, so everyone has been coming to Snowmass to get on the challenge course. We don’t have as much staff right now. That means some days I’m on course, some days I’m doing orientation. Everybody has multiple jobs every day. When I am

Sam King’s initial foray into outdoor recreation was through paintball, which he played all the time in high school. Becoming an aerial adventure instructor with Go Ape allowed him to enjoy all the things he loved about paintball—without the projectiles, he wryly observes. After six years of working his way up through Go Ape’s ranks, he moved on to Tree Trekkers. As the assistant course manager at Tree Trekkers, Sam has served as a mentor to young staff, and his recommendations have been key to making COVID-related policy tweaks.


The director I used to work for would say, “You can only control what you can control,” and that really resonated with me. Like, if it’s raining, we can’t control the weather, but we can control our marketing. Or large groups often show up late. Maybe they are stuck in traffic. I can’t change the traffic, but I might be able to give them more climbing time.


I like to equip everyone with a tool box of knowledge. In the past, I’ve done book clubs with staff who wanted to learn more management techniques. Right now, with Tree Trekkers, I do more one-on-one mentoring, finding out what each staff member needs and helping them play to their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses.


In the early days, we didn’t really know what to expect. My wife has an autoimmune deficiency, so I was just trying to follow all the guidance and precautions. I was nervous to work with guests and worried if I would have a job. But it’s been really cool seeing the technology and information come out. In adversity comes a lot of ingenuity. This is an opportunity to figure out better data on UVC lights and how washing affects harness breaking strengths. I’m hoping to see innovations coming from vendors.


Zip Line Canopy Tour Manager, Zoar Outdoor, Mass.

Rachel Maestri-Hailey is a Johnson & Wales-educated chef, but after 10 years in the food industry, she was ready for a career outside. Rachel led youth programs for Project Adventure before jumping at the chance to join Zoar Outdoor in 2008. “It’s been pretty amazing to work with a company whose values so closely align with my own,” she says. Rachel has been a champion for diversity in the industry, even serving as a keynote speaker at last year’s ACCT conference. Her talk: Diversity

53  Fall 2020
Assistant Course Manager, Tree Trekkers Frederick, Md.

in the Outdoor Industry: It’s not just Black and White.


I’m from Roxbury in Boston. It’s very urban, not a tree in sight. In grade school I moved to Middleboro, Mass., which is very rural. I found comfort amid this really unfamiliar lifestyle at a YMCA camp. My first day on the ropes course was a total life-changing moment for me. There were one or two facilitators of diverse backgrounds like me, and I felt home. I was a total dirtbag climber for a long time. When I decided to leave the chef game, I decided I wanted to do this work for the rest of my days.


Bruce Lessol, the former president of Zoar, was a really big advocate for gender diversity in the whitewater paddling industry. I took up the standard from him and said, “Diversity looks so many ways: gender identification, ethnicity, socio-economic status.” I’ve been actively working to use our industry as a tool to create DEI. I’m very lucky in the way I grew up, walking the line between rural and urban, Black and White.

I was able to work with the management team and set up bi-weekly meetings with our staff to create ownership at the ground level. We are looking at a subsidized day education program. We’ve implemented a donation link for all of our guests who book at Zoar to expand access to programming locally.


The glaring one is how to re-create our program from the ground up due to COVID-19. One of the ways that we’ve been able to navigate the challenge is to create a culture of learning. Our staff is amazing at taking a look at what’s working and what isn’t working and adjusting as necessary.


General Manager, Kidspace Adventures, U.K.

It was a challenge to change from a team member into management. As much as I knew the “front of house” end of the business—the guest services side—the back end—health and safety, training—that was all new to me. I was motivated to put my whole self into the business. I wanted to be a Rafik to the new team. I see all of these 16-year-olds and know that I was them when I started. It’s a first job for many, and I want them to have fun. I try to be open-minded. It’s an ongoing challenge, which is good.


You look after your team first, and they’ll look after your customers. I want my team to feel comfortable coming to me with anything. We all take things into work sometimes, and as managers it is our job to make sure our staff are OK before they start their shift. They call me a mum-ager, part mum, part manager. Mutual respect is key.

Keeley Roper joined Kidspace Adventures fresh out of school at age 17. She started in food and beverage service at the Essex-based indoor facility—which has five climbing walls, a Sky Trail, and a gokart track—and worked her way through different departments until she eventually became GM of the operation. “I’ve never been the outdoorsy type,” says Keeley, but she enjoyed learning about the aerial elements on the job. When the pandemic hit, Keeley was instrumental in inventing and implementing new COVID protocols across the 800-person operation.



I always think communication is so important. Just before lockdown, I started a WhatsApp group for all of the teams. Every couple of days I would check in to make sure people were OK. We were all on furlough, and I didn’t want people to feel like I had just up and gone away. When the government announced that play centers could reopen, I woke up to god knows how many messages—people were excited to come back. And the team worked so hard cleaning. It was inspiring. We wouldn’t have been able to reopen without them.

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Rachel Maestri-Hailey jumps for joy over guiding this group.


Monitor signs of stress to catch problems early.

Hasn’t 2020 been stressful? Your trees may also be a little stressed right now, just for different reasons, of course. Since trees can’t tell us what is bothering them, we need to look for the signals they offer. Sometimes these signals are obvious, but oftentimes trees give us only very subtle signals. So eye your trees carefully.

Practicing good arboriculture will promote healthy and vigorous trees. Healthy trees are better suited to withstanding environmental or usage stressors. Remember, our adventure activities are new for trees, and are a source of stress.

Canopy tour and adventure park guides have a unique opportunity to observe trees very closely. They get to visit the trees in all conditions—early mornings when nature is uninterrupted by human activity, midday when the trees are crawling with guests, and in every type of weather Ma Nature can muster. While guides’ first responsibility is guest safety, keeping one eye on the trees whenever possible will benefit the entire operation.

Here we outline some specific stress indicators guides—and other employees—can look for. However, sometimes simply noticing something has changed

from the last time we looked at a tree is more important than looking for or noticing a specific symptom.

To start, staff should observe trees in three areas as they look for stress signals: the soil, the trunk, and the canopy (limbs, branches, and leaves). Each area shows stress differently.


Have a good understanding of the kind of weather your trees are experiencing. Is your park having a single season drought or a multi-year drought? Has this year been exceptionally hot, cold, or wet? Was there a hard freeze after your trees flowered or budded? All are stressors.

It’s a good idea to keep a daily weather journal for your park. Weather is very local—one valley can get a completely different amount of rain than the overall region or even the valley next door, for example. Looking back at your weather journal will help you understand if weather conditions are impacting your trees.

The wilted leaves shown here show signs of scale insect damage. Upon investigation, the cambium layer of the affected branches was alive. This tree was treated with an insecticide and recovered.

In addition to weather, there are other general stressors to consider: Is there an invasive species moving through your region? Are there insects that your trees are a host to? Was a harmful herbicide spilled upstream from your park, or did a nearby farm fertilize its crops improperly, causing your trees to be over-fertilized? All these conditions are important because, like us, trees that have multiple stressors are more likely to struggle or succumb to disease. >>

55  Fall 2020



The soil is a good place to begin looking for signs of stress. Guides are often assigned to patrol an area of the adventure park from the ground. In times when guests are not requiring all of a guide’s attention, he or she should keep an eye out for signs of stress.

Deep cracked soil is a signal that the area is in drought and the trees are in need of water. Watering a forest may seem to be an exhaustive measure. However, there are techniques to water only the trees associated with the adventure activity, or only trees that are signaling the lack of water is affecting their health and vigor.

Fungi on the soil around a tree can also be an indication of stress, as can standing water in areas that are typically dry. Trees can drown if they are too wet.


Signs of loss of health and/or vigor can include discolored leaves or wilting leaves in the canopy of the tree. Changes in leaf color or appearance are often associated with either too much or too little water. That said, other stressors—

including insects, fungus, too much sun, and bacteria—can cause a tree’s leaves to change color, develop spots, appear scorched, be smaller than normal, or become brown and brittle.

Keep an eye on the tree canopy as the summer season changes to autumn. A tree or trees that are changing color or dropping leaves earlier than other trees of the same species in the area is a sure signal of stress. Premature fall coloring or leaf drop can be an indication of stressors including water, mineral or nutrient deficiency, pest, disease, compacted soil, or root restriction. Trees can also drop a few of their leaves prematurely because they have made too many and need to reduce the number of leaves in the canopy.

It is important to notice these changes in your trees and investigate what is causing the change. A skilled arborist or naturalist can help uncover these causes and offer solutions. Your state’s agriculture department may also have online resources to help diagnose leaf changes.

Another stressor in the canopy is damage. Breaks, splits, or cracks to limbs and branches, regardless of the cause, force a tree to expend resources to repair those defects. It is good practice to clean up larger broken or torn limbs with good pruning.

The proper way to prune trees is the three-cut method:

1. Cut one is an undercut on the bottom of the limb.

2. Cut two is on the top of the limb, outside of, or up from, cut one.

3. Cut three is between cut one and the branch collar of the limb, to tidy up the previous two cuts.


Similar to broken or torn limbs, damage to the trunk will force the tree to send

resources to the damage and away from life-sustaining activities. Examples of these stressors include bark damage from guests, bark damage from course equipment rubbing the tree, machinery striking the tree, and construction. Lawnmowers and string trimmers can also cause damage to roots and trunks.

Limit these stressors by practicing good construction techniques, limiting how course equipment contacts the trees, and preventing machinery from striking the trunk or roots. Mulching around a tree to protect its bark and roots is a good practice.

After damage occurs, it is important to monitor wounds to confirm the tree is producing reaction wood around the injury. Reaction wood is necessary for the tree to compartmentalize an injury. Compartmentalizing the wound will limit the spread of decay. Healthy trees will compartmentalize injury and decay effectively. However, older or stressed trees will struggle to complete this process.


Fungi can appear in all three areas of a tree: the canopy, the trunk, and the soil. It is important for guides to pay attention to fungi when they notice it, because most fungi are only visible for short periods of time. The fruiting body that is visible is the predominant indicator that fungus is present in a tree. Take note of its appearance when you see it, because it may not be there when an arborist visits the park to assess the trees.

Not all fungi are harmful to your trees, though, so it’s important to identify the fungus before making any assumptions. It is also important to consider the tree as a whole. The presence of a detrimental fungus does not necessarily mean a tree is in immediate danger.

Spots on trees, such as this fungal leaf spot, can indicate many possible stresses. The stresses can range in severity, so it is wise to consult an arborist if a tree has abnormal spots on its leaves.

For example, Grifola frondosa, or “hen of the woods” mushroom, is a fungus that causes rot in oak species. The presence of G. frondosa alone is not enough to condemn a tree, but it is an indication the tree is stressed. The tree may eventually die, but trees with this fungus often live many years after the first signs appear.

Bacterial wet wood or slime flux may indicate internal rot in trees. It can be seen oozing from wounds in the tree, such as the entry point of course hardware, and it can smell unpleasant.

Conditions referred to as “wet wood” are unsightly—and often smelly—but are not necessarily harmful to a tree. Wet wood refers to situations in which a liquid leaks from a wound in the tree. The liquid is often discolored, and can have various odors.

While some wet wood is infected with bacteria, the major concern is the loss of structural material caused by decay. The liquid leaking from the tree can kill grass or other plants because of the alcohol, acid, or salt present. The liquid will also stain course platforms.


Trees are very resilient organisms. We are just now beginning to learn about them as a whole. Overall, we really know very little about them.

More importantly, we have only just begun to study how using trees for recreation affects them. Therefore, it is good practice for adventure park and canopy

tour guides to always keep one eye on the trees, looking for subtle and not so subtle indicators of a tree’s health.

So, examine a tree’s bark, and make sure it is a consistent color and intact. Watch the leaves for changes. Look out for fungi growing around or from trees. Watch for and then clean up any damage to limbs, branches, bark, or roots. It is also good practice to communicate with an arborist or other tree care professional when guides or operators see something out of the ordinary. All these observations and reactions will certainly help trees to stay healthy and strong.

Trees are a huge part of the infrastructure of many adventure parks and canopy tours. The trees are also a significant draw for guests looking to connect with the natural world, especially as we all step out after the COVID-19 pandemic. So, take some time each day to stop and notice the trees. Your guests, your park, and your trees will thank you.


There are also a few conditions that appear unsightly but are not always harmful to a tree. Small bumps on leaves or twigs, called “galls,” are typically caused by the tree reacting to insect eggs. Gall size can vary from as small as a pencil eraser to as large as a golf ball or even a grapefruit. Galls in small numbers are not harmful to healthy trees.

Another common condition that similarly affects trees is burls. There is no known cause for burls. Trees with burls should be monitored, because burls can limit lifespan and health of trees. Building in trees with burls is not recommended for this reason.

Lichen and moss are often present in trees and not harmful. Smooth patches on the bark are often caused by a fungus living in the bark. The smooth patch is the result of the bark dying and new bark growing. These smooth patches are not harmful to the tree.

A variety of insect infestations can result in defoliation. The wilting leaves in this photo are caused by scale insects feeding on the twigs.

57  Fall 2020
58  [] ACCT ............................................................ 31 303.827.2432 Adventure Park Insider ............................. 35 203.263.0888 American Adventure Park Systems ............ 5 770.214.1390 Bolt Depot ................................................... 28 866.337.9888 CLIMB Works Design ............... 2nd Cover, 11 615.418.3785 Experiential Systems, Inc. ............. 4th Cover 877.206.8967 FrenchCreek Fall Safety ............................. 37 877.228.9327 Granite Insurance ...................................... 21 828.212.4552 Head Rush Technologies ................. 13, 15, 17 720.565.6885 Hibbs-Hallmark & Co. / K&K Insurance ..... 14 800.765.6767 Idaho Sewing for Sports ............................ 38 208.983.0988 KristallTurm ............................................... 16 785.551.8272 MBS by MND Group .................................... 26 866.220.6801 Nature Outfitters ....................................... 39 678-556-5729 Revl ............................................................. 25 Star Lifts Summer World ........................... 28 603.863.0241 Strategic Adventures ................................. 27 888.553.0167 Terra Nova LLC of Utah ............................. 29 435.336.8800 Tube Pro ...................................................... 30 1.866.882.3776 Wiegand Sports USA ....................... 3rd Cover 406.777.9900 Worldwide Enterprises, Inc. ...................... 36 888.297.3900 AD INDEX FALL 2020
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