TRENDING # business_models # belay_systems # augmented_reality # kids_stuff # inspection_prep # and_more
Adventure Park Insider Guide Training in Covid Times Combine digital and in-person sessions to get the job done.
Opinion: Next Big Steps on DEI Introspection and culture change needed to broaden the industry.
WHAT DOES 2021 HAVE IN STORE FOR US?
ETTER FROM THE EDITORS
What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been Well, 2020, that was different! Let’s hope that 2021 brings more stability, to the world of adventure parks at least. Ten months into the pandemic, we’ve learned a great deal about our industry, and have accelerated its evolution in several areas. As trying and difficult as it has been, the signs for the post-pandemic era are favorable. More streamlined business models, smoother processes, and a growing market for outdoor activities all hold great promise. We are better informed about Covid protocols, and we have vaccines rolling out from several companies. There will still be some bumps in the road during 2021. Even with all we’ve learned about operating during Covid times, the course of the economy and the public mood is unclear. As our State of the Industry report in this issue shows, adventure park operators remain concerned about how Covid-19 will impact business. Check out more of the key takeaways on page 34, and be sure to order the full report to help inform your rebound in 2021.
We at Adventure Park Insider have shifted our business model, too, to help the industry adapt. We added our Huddles to help operators connect and jump-start thinking about operations during the pandemic. We shifted to digital publishing to reach you, our audience, wherever you might be isolating or working. (We will resume our print publication later this year. Watch for signs.) Most of us have come through the past year in better shape than we expected when life shut down last March. With creative thinking and a willingness to change, we persevered and, in some cases, pulled out some record breaking numbers last summer. Amazing! The good news is, whatever obstacles pop up in the future won’t seem as daunting as they might have previously. Run of the mill emergencies and disasters will seem tame in comparison. For that, we can all be grateful. —The Editors
See how you stack up against your peers in the state of the industry report 2020 look back. • Revenue • Expenses • Staffing • Visitation
• Pricing • Attraction mix • And more
available for pre-order now www.adventureparkinsider.com
3 Winter 2021
To aid our recovery, it’s important to adopt every available lesson that 2020 has taught us. We address many of them in this issue, both for operations that opened last year and those that didn’t. You’ll find ideas here for successful adaptations in staff training, managing crowds while boosting revenue, and activities for kids. See how proper training and nonpharmaceutical interventions can make camps worth opening. Plus, we look at developments in gear and activities that could help power business in the future, from the latest in belay systems to augmented reality.
VOL. 7 | NO. 1 |
ON THE COVER What sort of future do you see in your crystal ball? For these zip riders at Catamount Mountain Resort, Mass., it’s definitely looking bright. And that pretty much captures the spirit of the aerial adventure industry, and this issue—which explores how adventure parks, experiential programs, and camps adapted to Covid restrictions. Many operators managed to not only survive, but thrive.
Tackling Training in 2021
Cover photo courtesy of Catamount Mountain Resort/ Terra-Nova. Photo by Mike Stoner Photography.
How to prepare staff while social distancing and minimizing contact.
The Shape of 2021
Cover design by Joerg Dressler
By Bee Lacy
By The Editors
34 State of the Industry Report Aerial adventure operators fared surprisingly well in 2020, as our State of the Industry Report demonstrates. By Sarah Borodaeff
50 The Latest on Belays Recent and impending equipment evolutions are making gear more reliable and easy to use. By Peter Oliver
3 Letter from the Editors What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been 6 Park Briefs Tips for Attending the ACCT Virtual Conference A Staff Report 8 New Products Three new (non-Covid) products for park operators. By Sarah Borodaeff 10 Adapting Your Business Model Now’s a good time to examine what makes your business tick. By Paul Cummings 18 The Future of Adventure Parks? Augmented reality could make The Forge: Lemont Quarries a harbinger of the future. By Chris Rooney
24 Insurance During Difficult Times Rising risks put upward pressure on prices. By Peter Oliver EDITORIAL OFFICE P.O. Box 644 • Woodbury, CT 06798 Tel. 203.263.0888 / Fax 203.266.0452 Website: www.adventureparkinsider.com Publisher Olivia Rowan—email@example.com Editor Rick Kahl—firstname.lastname@example.org Senior Editor Dave Meeker—email@example.com Associate Editor Sarah Borodaeff—firstname.lastname@example.org Digital Editor Sarah Borodaeff—email@example.com Design Director Sarah Wojcik—firstname.lastname@example.org Graphic Design Consultant Joerg Dressler—email@example.com Production Manager Donna Jacobs—firstname.lastname@example.org
40 R amping Up Kids Stuff Growth in child’s play has been among the many changes wrought by Covid-19. Here’s a look at recent developments. By April Darrow 44 Less is More Three operators explain how they thrived despite Covid-related restrictions. By Bob Curley 47 Challenging Our Beliefs Diversity will take root in the outdoor industry only after we change our mindsets and evolve our culture. By Rachel Maestri-Hailey
CONTRIBUTORS Cameron Annas Scott D. Baker Katie Brinton Bob Curley April Darrow
Skip King Moira McCarthy Peter Oliver Paul Thallner Gina DeCaprio Vercesi
SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR Paul Cummings CIRCULATION / SUBSCRIPTIONS 70 Pond Street • Natick, MA 01760 Tel. 508.655.6409 / Fax 508.655.6409 email@example.com Circulation Manager Sarah Borodaeff—firstname.lastname@example.org Circulation / Marketing Manager Cole Lelli —email@example.com A subscription to Adventure Park Insider is COMPLIMENTARY to adventure park industry professionals. Visit our website,
A roundtable discussion ponders lessons learned and trends that will endure.
54 C amps Counsel on 2020 A look at how residential camps managed to operate successfully through the pandemic. By Gina DeCaprio Vercesi 57 Inspection Prep Take these steps to help wring the greatest benefit from your annual inspection. By Corey Wall
WAIT, THERE’S MORE!
Head to adventureparkinsider.com 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. www.adventureparkinsider.com, and click on “Subscribe” to get on our list to receive the publication and online content. ADVERTISING/MARKETING OFFICE 70 Pond Street • Natick, MA 01760 Tel. 508.655.6408 / Fax 508.655.6409 Advertising Director Sharon Walsh—firstname.lastname@example.org Marketing Manager Sarah Borodaeff—email@example.com ADVENTURE PARK INSIDER — Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2021, 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 2021 Beardsley Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
PARK BRIEFS Tips for Attending the 2021 ACCT Virtual Conference The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) Annual Conference and Exposition, Jan. 19-29, is going virtual in 2021. It will be different than the traditional in-person gathering, of course, but ACCT aims to make it equally as useful and beneficial for exhibitors and attendees. The key is how to best utilize the platform to learn, generate new ideas, and connect, even if we’re not face-to-face. Here are some best practices for attending virtual events:
1 CREATE A LIST OF GOALS IN ADVANCE. What are your goals for attending the show? Learning about new technology? Meeting with a new potential supplier? Networking? Whatever your goal may be, create a list of what you’d like to accomplish and learn. This will help you quickly identify sessions to attend and people to meet. Note: The ACCT workshops will be available for viewing for a full calendar year to registered attendees, so if you miss one of interest that isn’t on your goal list, you can always check it out later.
2 CHECK OUT THE LIST
OF EXHIBITORS IN ADVANCE AND SCHEDULE APPOINTMENTS. While there will be open trade-show hours, the best way to have meaningful conversations that meet the goals you set is to schedule time with the exhibitors you hope to talk with. Not only will this guarantee quality time with the rep, but it also allows the exhibitor to do their homework and prepare for the conversation with you. The vendor directory will be available for a full year, but if you want to chat, prepare to drop in or set up that one-on-one appointment time.
3 DECIDE WHAT SESSIONS YOU WANT TO PRIORITIZE. The ACCT conference workshops will be available for a full year, including pre-conference sessions. Unlike a live event, where attendees have to select just one, in the virtual environment attendees can register for, and attend, all pre-conference and regular conference sessions as you so choose. However, identify the sessions that will be of most use in meeting your goals and prioritize those during the conference week. You can always come back and watch other sessions later!
NEWS FROM AROUND THE AERIAL ADVENTURE INDUSTRY shops, and participate in networking events. Cvent connects with Zoom, which will be the tool utilized for meetings, live workshops, and networking sessions. We’ve all used Zoom at this point, but if you haven’t, you can learn how to join a meeting HERE.
6 SCHEDULE SNACK BREAKS! Block time on your calendar for snack and meal breaks. Virtual events can be just as taxing as in-person, and you need fuel. The best part? You get to choose your favorite snacks, and they’re always just steps away.
7 ATTEND NETWORKING EVENTS.
Workshop sessions will be available to registered attendees for a full calendar year. 4 BLOCK TIME FOR THE EVENT ON YOUR CALENDAR AND BE FULLY ENGAGED.
There will be several opportunities to network, virtually, with other attendees. Networking at a virtual event is certainly different than in-person—and it’s even easier in some ways. You can “look around the room” and check out who is there and open a chat dialogue with the people you are most interested in talking with.
8 SET UP TIME TO REVIEW AND RE-WATCH.
You may be attending from home and work never stops, but do what you can to block the time off and focus on achieving your set goals. Make sure your family and your co-workers know when you’ll be busy attending the conference. Make an effort not to check email, surf the web, or fold laundry while you’re attending sessions. One trick is to take notes on paper rather than typing them on your computer so you’re not flipping back and forth between screens. This helps you stay engaged.
Make sure to set up time with your co-workers to review the sessions you’ve attended and get the rundown on the sessions they attended. What are the takeaways? Did you achieve your goals? Follow up with exhibitors, rewatch sessions, and connect with new contacts after the show. Are you registered for the ACCT conference? Registration is open all the way up to the final day of the event (Jan. 29, 2021). See you online!
5 GET FAMILIAR WITH THE PLATFORM TO AVOID DAY-OF TECHNICAL DRAMA. The ACCT conference will be hosted on the Cvent platform, which has an attendee hub allowing participants to schedule appointments, view work-
Check out the Adventure Park Insider pre-conference highlights and tips at adventureparkinsider.com
NEW PRODUCTS _______________________________ Three new products for aerial adventure operators. BY SARAH BORODAEFF
Spectrum Cheetah Harness The Cheetah Harness from Spectrum Sports is made to fit
a wide range waist sizes and adjust quickly. According to the company, it is designed specifically for the amusement industry. The sit harness features an adjustable waist belt that expands from 20 in. to 45 in. Adjustable leg loops expand up to 35 inches and are color-coded to make it easier to put on the harness correctly (red = right leg). The pull loops on the straps allow for quick and easy adjustments. The Cheetah Harness also features double-ear, parachute buckles that have a visual indicator to confirm the buckle is closed completely. www.spectrumsports.com
Petzl EJECT The Petzl EJECT is a friction saver designed for tree care. The EJECT
allows the work rope to be set up without damaging the tree, even in narrow forks of limbs. It offers multiple setup configurations on one or two branches and can be adjusted to precise lengths. Rope ascents and movement in the tree are optimized thanks to the high-efficiency pulley, which facilitates rope glide at the anchor. The included retrieval ball makes the system easily retrievable from the ground. www.petzl.com
Adventure Solutions Ropeland Play Nets
The Ropeland Play Nets from Adventure Solutions are
made with a single- or multi-layer suspension web, allowing for a variety of different kinds of playâ€”including climbing, descending, jumping, hiding, swinging, spinning, rolling, crawling, and more. Individual netting components can be connected to one another to form different activities, such as a swing, tunnel, bed, or sleeve, and can be oriented horizontally, vertically, or on an incline. The netting is hand-crocheted in single or multiple colors. www.adventuresolutionsus.com
ADAPTING YOUR BUSINESS MODEL By Paul Cummings, Strategic Adventures
The pandemic is an excellent time to examine what really makes your business tick. Here’s a plan for that.
Facing a slew of challenges ranging from Covid to climate change, the recreation industry is in a state of upheaval. As a result, business models are—or should be—continuously evolving to meet the market changes that are affecting us daily. A business model isn’t a “set it and forget it” proposition. History is rife with examples of companies that did not adapt their business models and either shrank or disappeared entirely. The railroad companies that didn’t realize they were in the transportation business, or Sears—a catalog company that didn’t embrace e-commerce—are perfect examples of failure to update their business models. At Strategic Adventures, we use a tool called the Business Model Canvas to create new business models and rework older ones. We recommend that you re-examine your business model at least annually to identify changes in your marketplace or the economy at large.
to get to know others in a new environment. What is your current value proposition? Since we’re in the middle of a pandemic, a good value proposition right now will focus on two areas: How your product will help solve a problem that your customer has, and what you are doing to mitigate risk. Problems to help solve. Are you able to offer time away from screens? An opportunity to change up the routine? A chance to get the kids out of the house? Mitigating risk. Tell potential customers what you are doing to mitigate risk. For example, some operators have posted videos on their websites of how equipment is sanitized before use. Of course, be cautious about using the word “safety” in any messaging or in your value proposition. You cannot promise absolute safety in adventure recreation, even without a pandemic.
Here, we’ll explore the nine primary areas that make up a business model and how to adapt them to meet current conditions, whatever they may be. 1
The first area of a business model is your value proposition. A value proposition is your promise of what you will deliver to customers. Our businesses typically promise to deliver a fun, exciting time outdoors, a chance to push past personal limitations, or a way
A customer segment is a defined category of your clientele. Local school groups, corporate teams, camps, homeschooled children, birthday parties, or even adrenaline seekers are all examples of a customer segment. Your customer segments may change over time, either due to shifting recreational trends or more dramatic things like a pandemic. How have your customer segments changed since you started your business? What’s changed
since the start of the pandemic? Charles Park, with Louisville Mega Caverns, Ky., has noticed a dramatic shift in his customer segments. “Tourism throughout our area is way down this year, for obvious reasons,” says Park. He’s addressing this by creating themed events to bring back more of the local population for repeat visits. Another example: group business, which has all but evaporated across our industry. This may be a short-term change. Even so, it could take a few years to regain pre-pandemic levels. You may want to adjust your business model if you rely on group business or events. 3
Marketing should be continuously tested and measured, not just during a pandemic. With the new digital marketing frontier (I’m 49, get off my lawn …), marketing tools, metrics, and algorithms all change rapidly. What may have worked for you a few years ago may not work today. If you haven’t updated your website in a decade, it may even get blacklisted by Google! Don’t let that happen. Constant change. Marketing must adapt to your evolving value propositions and your changing customer segments. This may mean changing marketing platforms, updating Adwords and display ads, or even a whole rebranding effort. Keeping up with the multitude of changes in the marketing
world isn’t easy, but it is necessary. Changes may happen seasonally, or even month-by-month. Early on in the pandemic, for example, everyone was home, so billboards were essentially useless. Once people started to emerge and even unplug as summer progressed, billboards were once again effective. Being agile and pivoting from one marketing strategy to another can make your business more successful.
frequent information, a safe(r) place might be somewhere like Instagram stories. Customers have to work harder to get there, which may weed out some of your less avid followers. Just remember, no matter what you post, use some discretion. You may be excited to share on an hourly basis, but your clientele won’t be excited to hear from you that often. 5
What do you do to keep your customers coming back again and again? Sending a monthly or weekly newsletter, holding a photo competition on social media, or hosting a themed event are all ways to build customer relationships.
Any business model review must focus heavily on revenue. If you want to increase it (I haven’t encountered a business owner who didn’t), you may need to add more sources of revenue. Relying on a single source of income is an unsafe business practice.
Practice restraint. That said, exercise caution in how frequently you communicate with your clients, especially by email. Too many messages, and your unsubscribe rate for emails may increase, or interaction on social media may decrease. If you do want to share
Gloves. Revenue can come from a variety of sources. Outdoor Ventures, among many this past year, created a new source of revenue with glove sales. “We produce our own gloves and sell them at several price points,” says CEO Bahman Azarm. “As a result, we
sell higher-end gloves to some of our guests, which has led to a 100 percent increase in per person retail sales.” Dynamic pricing. Many operators are using dynamic pricing—higher prices on high demand days, and lower prices when the business is typically slower— to drive more weekday business and boost revenue. This also helps manage Covid-induced capacity restrictions. Virtual gigs. Training Wheels team-building guru Michelle Cummings has adapted her revenue stream by providing keynote speeches to virtual events. “I was able to speak at four different conferences in one day, rather than having to pick and choose where I would present,” she says. She also adapted many of her in-person trainings to be delivered virtually. 6
Revenue is great, but you can’t get there without identifying and leveraging your key resources. These include employees, working capital, and your attraction
(zip tour, aerial park, camp, etc.). 7
Working capital. Ideally, a seasonal business should have a minimum of three months of operating expenses in reserve, and six months in reserve if you operate all year long. This reserve can keep you going through unexpected shutdowns or capacity limitations that prevent you from being profitable, and can also help you retain your best staffers in a time of crisis. Employee care. With enough working capital, you will have an easier time taking care of your most important resource—your employees.
John Hines, with the Adventure Park at Sandy Springs, Md., changed his employee structure due to Covid restrictions. “We’ve kept our salaried staff on board, and they take on more roles that our hourly staff used to handle,” says Hines. In addition, he notes, “While we are running with fewer hourly staff, they are getting more hours and being paid better than they were previously.”
There are several things you must do to keep your business operational: staff training, inspections and maintenance, and now, of course, cleaning and sanitization. There are many more key activities, but as you look to retool your business model, look first at those that are the most customer-facing. Training during a pandemic can become a wasteland of Zoom meetings and lectures. Screen fatigue is a very real problem in the learning environment. Since safety is paramount in our industry, you must find a way to keep staff engaged in the training process so they can be at the top of their game when interacting with customers. Gamification. Michelle Cummings has increased engagement for her camp staff trainings by creating online scavenger hunts using the camp’s employee manual. “The scavenger hunt process allows the staff to have fun during their training, and has led to much higher
retention of the policies and procedures of their camp,” says Cummings. Whether you gamify training or use other tools for engagement, be sure to include frequent tests for understanding. This may include written assessments, online demonstrations, or simply asking participants to type their ideas into the Zoom chat. These strategies will keep them on their toes, and show whether they are absorbing the content or not. Inspections and maintenance. While training is obviously essential, inspections and maintenance can easily be overlooked during the pandemic. Even if a course is idle, it still needs maintenance. You still have to deal with weather-related issues, and keep a paper trail of proper maintenance schedules for insurance purposes. This can also be a great time to do some course upgrades without impacting the client experience. Again, that working capital comes in handy. Cleaning and sanitization have become
top of mind for everyone. Follow your local jurisdiction’s Covid requirements and your manufacturers’ recommendations for cleaning and sanitizing equipment. Make this process visible to your clientele so they feel comfortable about the level of precaution you are taking. It helps to communicate both what you are doing and why you are doing it, especially if you anticipate any kind of pushback.
You and your key partners are, in fact, “all in this together.” Your partners include builders and insurance providers plus suppliers, government agencies, and even your competitors. Your builder can help you with maintenance schedules and cleaning protocols, and assist you in accommodating smaller group sizes, distancing requirements,
and reducing bottlenecks that cause participants to bunch up. Insurance providers can help you determine the right level of coverage for your new participant counts, staffing changes, and the suitability of any new coverages that become available. Any change in your business model should trigger a call to your insurance agent. Partnerships. Lastly, you may have developed informal partnerships with other complementary businesses, such as rafting companies or climbing gyms. They are likely going through similar struggles, so talk to them. Whether you share strategies for getting people in the door, or simply wish them well, people appreciate connection now more than ever. Never underestimate the value of these partnerships. 9
If you’ve come this far through the pandemic without examining your expenses—DO IT NOW! Over time, we tend to accumulate recurring expenses that once seemed valuable, but don’t add real value to your business now. John Hines calls this “nice to have” vs. “need to have.” “We sat down and went through everything in our accounts, and made some immediate changes,” he says. Take a close look at every expense category at least once a quarter to see if reductions can be made or if anything unexpected has cropped up. The places to look at first are: staffing, insurance, and subscriptions. All three have the potential for growth as time goes by.
CONCLUSION When reworking your business model, it’s best to focus on one section at a time, and in the order presented here. If finances have you concerned at present, move expense control further up the list. Will the industry look the same on the other side of all of this? I don’t think so. But that’s not necessarily bad. If we are intentional with our business models, perhaps it will be even better.
The Forge: Lemont Quarries has a lot to recommend it, but augmented reality could become its signature element.
THE FUTURE OF ADVENTURE PARKS?
By Chris Rooney
The site of The Forge: Lemont Quarries adventure park outside Chicago had several things going for it. The 300 acres in Lemont, Ill., offered proximity to hundreds of miles of mountain biking and running trails. It was easy to access via trains and highways. The area already drew adventure seekers from the entire metropolitan area. Unfortunately, the park’s creators also faced a challenge: the tract was a dilapidated industrial site in a notoriously industrial part of the county.
The site consisted of a retired quarry, bordered by Chicago’s historic sanitation drainage canal, and had been invaded by non-native plant species. It evoked thoughts of “Superfund” more so than “super fun.” But The Forge creators and friends Jeremie Bacon, Chris
Gladwin, and Bart Loethen knew they could make it work.
in fact, might be the most unique aspect of this most unusual park.
According to Bacon, the city of Lemont had believed for years that the park land was an “untapped asset.” From the first development meetings in 2014, the city and The Forge founders were aligned in their vision of the space as a place for campsites, boating, trails, public access, and adventure park assets.
But we’re getting ahead of the story, which starts with the adventure park itself.
The land would require significant restoration to achieve that vision, though. And as planning progressed, restoration became key in shaping the park’s mission. Educating visitors about the history and rejuvenation of the land is one of the park’s three guiding pillars. Every aspect of the park speaks to at least one of three founding principles: exhilarate, educate, and entertain. Some features of The Forge, like its nascent augmented reality (AR) offerings, hit all three pillars at once, driving education, entertainment, and exhilaration through virtual play and storytelling. AR,
EXHILARATE The park has many traditional elements and offerings, and these exemplify the “exhilarate” pillar. The Forge: Lemont Quarries hosts what it claims is the largest aerial challenge course in the world, Eight Towers Adventure. This challenge course sprawls across 10 acres. Hundreds of elements lead from five “hex towers,” bridged by a total of two miles of zip lines. The Two Towers Kid Zone, with lower, netted elements like climbing nets and balance beams, offers a less intense adventure experience for families with kids under 13. Located near the Cook County Forest Preserve, part of Chicagoland’s premier trail system, the park also boasts six miles of cut trails across its mountain
Above: Game players plot their course on the trail at The Forge: Lemont Quarries, using augmented reality. Left: Screen image of a safe full of valuables.
biking and BMX sections. “Twenty miles of trails is the goal,” says Bacon, with five miles of new trail coming this winter.
onsite in partnership with Pollyanna Brewery, a Chicagoland-based craft brewery.
The park is home to six quarry lakes, providing access for boating, fishing, and kayaking. There is tactical laser tag as well, set up like a paintball venue but without the paint. The laser tag offerings extend beyond standard shoot’em-up style games to include contests like team deathmatches, king of the hill, team snipers, and zombie apocalypse.
ENTERTAIN For more casual entertainment, The Forge serves up a series of events and a variety of food. All summer long, guests can catch movies and concerts at the park’s “The Mount” outdoor venue. Even during 2020, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the park managed to keep its event series active by instituting a grid-based social distancing layout for the venue. At its open concept restaurant, The Foundry, guests can sit down for a full meal or simply grab food from the market to fuel whatever they’re pursuing in the park. Guests looking to hang out can also throw back a beer, brewed
To make its educational content more adventurous, though, the park uses augmented reality technology to create experiences that keep guests moving through the park. The AR experiences tell stories that exhilarate, entertain, and educate. “Because we have this unique space and concept, we have an environment for guests to come and learn,” Bacon says. For many adventure parks, integrating features with the landscape can be simply a matter of using local materials and highlighting environmental features, such as treetops and ridgelines. For The Forge, the abandoned industrial site—a formerly “desolate wasteland,” says Bacon—presented more of a challenge.
Left: Operation Mindfall tracks players via GPS on a live map. Above, top to bottom: Characters and maps help guide players as they follow clues; tablets make it all possible.
19 Winter 2021
As an adventure park, The Forge: Lemont Quarries offers a lot.
The park fulfills its mission to educate in multiple ways. The overall design and how it integrates its offerings into the landscape—from the high-octane adventure park features to the food and beverage structures—help educate guests about the area’s ecological and industrial past.
Highlighting its heritage. The designers solved that not by painting over that industrial heritage, but by embracing it. That heritage informs the park’s esthetic. The adventure park towers are built from dark brown steel, in former times the predominant material of the area. “The towers look like they’ve been here forever,” says Bacon. “They blend into the environment.” From the air, the site might not look all that different from when the parcel was an active quarry. >>
As part of the clean-up effort, The Forge team undertook a number of conservation projects to nurture the land back to health. The park’s Friends of the Forge organization, a volunteer group, assisted in the removal of 10 acres of invasive species (mostly buckthorn and honeysuckle). Long-term, the group hopes to bring the ecology of the entire area closer to its pre-industrial, natural state. Players open a virtual treasure chest to reveal its secrets.
To emphasize the site’s industrial origins, buildings at Lemont Quarries are constructed from old shipping containers instead of more traditional materials. “It looks like a train crashed and the containers were scavenged to build the park,” says Bacon. “It all needed to look like it’s meant to be here.” That scavenged look highlights the background of the area and the impact industrial development had on the environment.
AUGMENTED REALITY AT THE FORGE Augmented reality helps visitors experience all of this. The concept, ironically, is to use personal digital devices—which tend to focus users’ attention narrowly on a small screen—to engage visitors in the world around them. “We are all tethered at the hip to our devices,” says Bacon. “I’m a believer that digital is eating everything.” He’s right, of course. According to the CDC, kids between ages 8 and 18 now
spend an enormous amount of time— the equivalent of 114 days per year— looking at screens. That’s almost a third of a year. The Forge: Lemont Quarries takes advantage of that predilection for screen time with outdoor, augmented reality escape-room-style adventures that turn the local ecology and industrial history into entertaining, and educational, activities. For the founders of The Forge, the growth of digital isn’t a threat to outdoor recreation, but an opportunity to engage visitors differently. Bacon saw a chance to bring tech into the physical experience guests have at The Forge, and he leapt at it. “We wanted to be the first park in the country to have AR outside video games, so we deployed them,” says Bacon. When The Forge opened last July, it launched two digital scavenger hunt games. These are based on the soft-
This type of tech deployment isn’t cheap, says Bacon. But the experience is a competitive advantage for the parks who can swing it, he argues. Taking games to the next level. The scavenger hunts are just a first step, says Bacon; the future is in true AR, he believes. “You should be able to scan a QR code to kick off a digital experience or game,” he says, “something that connects you to the park.” Digital and real-life problem solving keep players engaged.
ware platform by Cluetivity and include Magic Portal and Operation Mindfall. (For now, Bacon’s company Konverg Entertainment is the exclusive U.S. provider for Cluetivity’s AR games.) These part-digital, part-physical games invite guests to solve puzzles as they move around the park, using iPads to locate clues. As they do, participants interact with fellow guests, and compete against other teams attempting the same goal.
Three or five years down the road at The Forge, that something could be a more advanced AR scavenger hunt that has guests following the trail of an old prospector or quarry worker, while also learning how buckthorn got introduced along the way and finding examples of it. Or it could be a canoe race along the waterways, with your device showing you leaderboards with the times of other guests who followed the same route that day or week. The increased use of AR will develop Bacon’s vision of turning The Forge:
Lemont Quarries into an “outdoor recreation-focused platform.” With its content tie-ins, story-driven experiences, and opportunities for guest interaction, The Forge is an adventure park concept with big aspirations. “I want to build the Walt Disney of outdoor adventure parks,” says Bacon. Like Disney, The Forge will likely also have multiple locations in the future. The founders intend to develop several The Forge parks. Each location will share the same surface-level components that shaped the vision for The Forge: Lemont Quarries—entertainment venues, adventure park elements, outdoor recreational experiences. But every park will be unique. “They’ll be a function of their place and space and history,” says Bacon. “We want to take space that’s unusable for anything but this, and turn it into a restoration and education piece.” That strikes us as a vision with a future.
INSURANCE DURING DIFFICULT TIMES Rising risks for insurers have put upward pressure on
By Peter Oliver
pricing, and are forcing choices upon operators. Insurance is, literally, a risky business. It starts with identifying specific risks, proceeds into calculating the likelihood that any particular risk might produce an undesirable outcome, and finally seeks to monetize those risk calculations: how costly an undesirable outcome might be, and what kind of premium should be charged accordingly. While that sounds relatively simple, there are many risk factors—some real, some theoretical—involved in running an adventure park, and the details of any insurance policy can become confusing. What potential risks need to be covered completely, and what can be assigned a lower priority?
With the landscape of risk forever in a state of flux—consider nouveau risks such as the coronavirus or the increase in natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires—how should existing policies be modified? What amount of coverage is sufficient? What measures can help to keep insurance costs down without risking exposure to potential financial catastrophe? What’s negotiable and what isn’t? KEY ELEMENTS An adventure-park insurance package usually starts with three key elements, according to Cameron Annas of Granite Insurance: general liability, workers’ compensation, and property insurance. For many, auto insurance is a fourth basic component. Premium costs can vary considerably depending on the nature
of the business; they tend to escalate as the risk rises. Start with property insurance. Property damage at adventure parks is typically not a major risk. In the past year, though, natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes grew more common, and any park in an area that might be exposed to such phenomena is likely to face higher premiums. The insurance industry, says Robert Monaghan of the insurance brokerage Hibbs-Hallmark, establishes “scores for natural risks in a local area, which can change premiums.” To buy or not to buy. Because of the considerable variability in the impact of natural phenomena from one park to another, a park operator needs to make an astute cost analysis, or risk assessment, of what is worth covering and what’s not. For example, First Flight Adventure Park on North Carolina’s Outer Banks is in one of the most hurricane-prone areas in the country. One might assume that wind insurance would be a must. But when First Flight owner Brad Carey saw wind-insurance premiums nearly triple, he determined that, despite the park’s location, its infrastructure was actually relatively windproof. He opted not to buy wind insurance. Carey’s decision points to another critical factor in determining property-insurance coverage: the quality of construction. Carson Rivers, VP of High Gravity Adventures, says that if a park operator
has chosen a reliable contractor for any construction project, any damage wrought by nature should be relatively small, and that minimized risk should be reflected in property-insurance premiums. Current construction standards contribute to both stability and safety. Thorough maintenance logs help create a low-risk profile. Cost factors. Annas says that carriers “look at a lot of different things” in determining property-insurance costs, including “who the course was built by, different belay systems, staff training, and even arborist reports.” A park or its broker should be prepared to present documentation of all this to describe how it has mitigated risk and reduced the potential for costly claims. Carey invests every year in a third-party inspection of facilities as well as third-party staff training. Those measures have been instrumental in not just reducing insurance inflation but, according to Carey, have actually resulted in “a decrease in our rates every year” since the park opened in 2014. An adventure-park-savvy broker—in Carey’s case, Granite—can help keep costs down by crafting a policy that best fits a park’s needs. Rivers says that hooking up with a “flexible underwriter” through an astute broker was critical in securing policies properly tailored to High Gravity. Granite switched from an insurance company that pooled the adventure park in with a variety of entertainment businesses to one more focused on adventure parks. The result
was a significant rate reduction, especially for workers’ compensation. Workers’ comp fee-setting. For workers’ comp, insurance companies charge either a flat rate for the entire company, or they charge according to each employee’s job responsibilities. “A universal rate,” says Rivers, “is usually based on the highest-risk job,” meaning that the same rate would apply to, say, clerical workers at a park and guides working at height. Assigning occupation codes to each position can result in “credit for low-risk jobs,” says Rivers, resulting in a significant reduction in workers’ comp costs.
General liability issues. With the rising costs of litigation and medical expenses, insurance companies are increasingly facing seven-figure pay-outs. (That’s true even though insurers continue to exclude the transmission of communicable diseases, as they have since the SARS outbreak of 2003.) Insurers will go to great lengths to avoid the big hit, and that process starts with taking into account the loss history of both
individual clients as well as the jurisdiction in which the client’s operation is located, according to Tim Barnhorst, senior vice-president for the insurance underwriter MountainGuard. Claim limits. A clean record can help a park negotiate a moderate premium for liability insurance. But the premium is only a part of the numbers game. The other big component is the claim limit. Should a park insure itself for claims up to $500,000, $1 million, $10 million? To help parks keep liability premiums within a reasonable range, insurers usually turn to larger insurance companies for reinsurance against exceptionally high claims. If a park’s liability policy tops out at, say, $3 million, reinsurance will cover any amount over that. As claim amounts increase, though, reinsurance companies “bump up the rates they charge insurance companies, and that ends up getting passed down to clients,” says Monaghan. “It comes down simply to what [companies] are paying out versus what they are charging,” says Barnhorst.
BEYOND THE BASICS Cyber security. A few other components should be considered in a full coverage package. Relatively new to the mix is cyber security, an especially fraught issue in a time when many parks, spurred by an effort to go as contactless as possible in the age of Covid, are doing virtually all ticketing online. A park operator has a custodial duty, often mandated by state law, to protect personal information exchanged in online transactions. About 10 years ago, cyber security became a hot topic in the insurance industry, and associated insurance costs were expected to rise rapidly. “It hasn’t caught on as quickly as people thought,” says Barnhorst. But that might well change. With many parks likely to rely heavily on online transactions in a post-pandemic era, the need for—and cost of—cyber insurance is likely to creep upward. Employment practice liability covers claims related to hiring and firing
Small liability coverage. Carey purchases relatively inexpensive insurance to cover small liability issues. The idea is to help a guest who incurs a relatively minor injury cover a health-insurance deductible. The policy payout tops out at $10,000, but the goodwill gesture in such a payout might well stave off the filing of a much more substantial claim. RISING COSTS, AND CONSEQUENCES Premiums to rise. The insurance experts we interviewed expect premiums to rise, in some cases substantially, in the foreseeable future. Monaghan says that “insurance companies are losing their shirts on property damage. They jack up premiums but are still losing.” This is at least in part because, “reinsurance companies have been hit hard by huge natural disasters,” says Annas. And eventually, reinsurance costs will filter down and impact park premiums.
Striking the proper balance between costs and coverage can be tricky. Increased regulation. Barnhorst notes that higher and more frequent claims are likely to produce increased industry regulation, and lead to additional expenses only peripherally related to insurance. Prevention is the best protection. How can a park keep insurance costs in check? “Keeping yourself from having claims is going to have a massive impact on premiums,” says Rivers. That comes down to best-business practices—well-constructed facilities, thorough staff training, smooth operational procedures, and so on. If a park can demonstrate that a large claim payout
is unlikely, the size of premiums will be reduced commensurately. Higher deductibles are a simple way to reduce upfront premium costs. Guest waivers. The utility of waivers varies, of course. But a waiver, like any risk management strategy that transfers the burden of responsibility from the park to its guests, helps reduce the chances of a major liability lawsuit. And the better a park’s loss record—or its avoidance of big insurance payouts— the more favorably an insurer is likely to treat that client. The bottom line, literally, is how much risk a park is willing to take on. A broker can help ensure that the essentials, some legally mandated, are covered and that excesses are excluded. (For example, a standard property-insurance policy might include hurricane coverage, clearly unnecessary for a park in, say, Colorado or Illinois.) Striking the proper balance between premium costs and coverage can be a tricky—and yes, risky—business.
27 Winter 2021
and, especially given the heightened sensitivities of the MeToo era, sexual harassment.
TACKLING TRAINING IN 2021 “Wash your hands! Six feet apart y’all! Put your mask back on, I won’t tell you again!” I shout above the din for what feels like the hundredth time. I know it is a lie; I will have to tell them again. Over and over, for the remainder of their time with me, I will be forced to remind this group of eager trainees to follow protocol. The threat of the virus is ever present. Added to the extensive list of other risks that inherently lurk in aerial activities trainings, Covid creates a recipe for headaches and trouble.
Ours is a hands-on industry, based in active participation and direct involvement. Historically, our trainings have mirrored this, with lots of close interaction with gear, course components, and human beings. Then came 2020 and a pandemic. Concerns about space and surface sharing, time spent in close proximity to others, and the threat of exposure created hurdles that trainers had to navigate with little warning. So, we put on our thinking caps, modified our programs, switched to digital learning platforms (when possible), cleaned gear, and employed giant sock monkeys and wood posts as rescue dummies to address Covid threats. The 2021 season is fast approaching. Now, to prepare for training in this new normal, we must reflect on what worked this past year and get creative about what could work for 2021. So, how do we navigate the new and changing currents of training in the time of Covid-19?
How to prepare guides and facilitators in an era of social distancing and minimal contact. By Bee Lacy, Ropes Park Manager, The Forge: Lemont Quarries
SET EXPECTATIONS AND STAY INFORMED One of the key steps in training is setting clear and informed expectations for organizations, trainers, and participants alike. This is now doubly true as we install new protocols to deal with the pandemic. Convey a consistent message. At West Virginia University’s Outdoor Education Center, assistant director of adventure C.J. Belknap worked with many different parties and organizations to assemble consistent and accurate messaging for students and staff.
High 5’s portable training element, called the A-Frame, modified with longer control ropes to maintain distancing.
Two key steps, “laying out expectations and discussing why it all mattered,” he says, gave his team some much-needed perspective. The training also set the foundation for a culture that views the new restrictions as tools to be used in facilitation and training.
According to Chris Damboise, director of training and team development at High 5, “These documents gave [everyone] confidence and set expectations for all parties involved. It told them that they could count on us to do it safely and vice versa.”
Set expectations early. Professional training vendors noted that setting expectations in pre-programming talks with clients led to smoother operation once trainers and staff were on site. For example, High 5 Adventure Learning Center created two documents around training to share with clients before trainers ever stepped foot on site.
Model good behavior. In addition, Damboise found that “when trainers model [the protocols], the facilitators feel they have permission to take care of themselves [in their programming] and that gives permission for participants to do the same.”
The documents included a Covid-19 strategies outline that listed the responsibilities of the client, the participants, the trainer, the company, and all others involved, plus a detailed description of the modifications to the adventure program and training strategies (which covered the actual Covid-19 protocols).
The ripple effect of responsibility and culture development has been noted by several industry professionals. “We get to have some influence as trainers,” says Kevin Trump, director of programming at Synergo. “We hold some responsibility,” he notes, for how trainees view the pandemic and the safety protocols surrounding it.
Left: WVU Outdoor Education Center’s training dummies. Below: Synergo zip rescue training at Glacier Ziplines, Mont.
“[We] have to impart the importance of Covid-19 precautions during training— it could save lives,” says Alex Moore, director of training at Synergo. “We require participants to wear harnesses so they don’t die. These [Covid] protocols are for the same reasons.” Stay current. Organizations are responsible for staying informed about and current with local regulations as Covid cases spike and ebb. Trainers, particularly third-party trainers, also need to know the local regulations and be up to date, Trump notes. But keep the big picture in mind, too. Tom Leahy of Leahy & Associates, Inc., encourages training professionals to regularly check the national numbers, and to use original source data rather than relying on media outlets and word of mouth. “This is science and a part of our risk management,” he stresses. WORK WITH WHAT YOU’VE GOT When considering how to move on in this new landscape, trainers are often unsure about where to start. Damboise says High 5 Adventure began by asking, “What can we do that will allow people to use existing programming?” Minor modifications. That question led Damboise to a realization: many
aspects of training could remain much the same as always. Leahy echoes that. “Lots of games and initiatives can be done at a distance with some modifications,” he says. “People will get into it. With a little bit of adaptation, you can do what you were doing before, with great results.” These modifications can come in many forms: moving programs outdoors to allow for more space; requiring masks during activities; using prominent markers to establish appropriate physical distancing; quarantining gear and equipment after use; and frequent handwashing and sanitizing. Damboise uses gamification to incorporate some of these modifications into existing programming. For example, at a verbal cue from the trainer, participants race to sanitize their hands (with small personal bottles kept in their pockets) and avoid being the last one to find their Purell. Sub-in dummies. The use of rescue dummies is another adaptation to come out of Covid-19 precautions, and it’s been a real boon, say Belknap and Leahy. The dummies require little modification to the program and have several unexpected benefits. “They are faster, since we don’t have to worry about a human getting back up to height, they generally don’t distract the trainee, and they eliminate some of the risk management concerns in the rescue,” says Leahy. His rescue dummy is an old wooden post, sporting a Sharpie-drawn face. Leahy named it Mr. Bill.
Belknap’s dummy is a human-sized sock monkey. “There is a bit of dark humor associated with it that can be fun,” says Belknap, such as when the sock monkey dangling mid-line is asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ during rescue practice. Think ahead. Modifying programming to suit the Covid training arena takes forethought and careful consideration of any additional risk to all involved parties. That said, creative adaptations of existing programs and structures can allow trainers to maintain individual styles and foster similar staff bonding and group dynamics while respecting the protocols and precautions for the virus. LET’S GET DIGITAL The digital universe has become a safe haven for information sharing and educating during the pandemic. Platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom have provided us with opportunities to teach and facilitate learning remotely. Applications such as Prezi, Mural, PowerPoint, and Jam Board help educators create tools and presentations to communicate key topics and concepts. When appropriately applied, digital learning can lessen a trainer’s time spent on site, can accommodate foul weather and trainee’s schedules, and can allow trainees the time to review materials and topics at their own pace. However, Zoom burnout, lack of handson time, and overall lack of engagement can prove insufficient, especially when the skills learned have to be applied in real life. >> continued
29 Winter 2021
Reinforce seriousness. Establishing early the importance and gravity of expectations related to Covid-19 precautions helped create good habits and confidence in future practitioners and guides.
Leahy says the integration of technology, like iPads equipped with drawing and shareable whiteboard programs, helps keep trainees engaged and staves off Zoom fatigue. “Having a visual that people can see while you are doing it is very important,” he says. Other engagement strategies involve breakout groups, quizzes, and live lectures with opportunities for trainees to ask questions. A High 5 trainer conducting a belay review with masking, distancing, and sanitizing. Be selective. Trainers must be discerning when deciding which topics can be moved online. “There’s only so much we can do in the Brady Bunch format,” Belknap from WVU points out.
Keep it engaging. “To make it meaningful, that’s the challenge,” says Belknap. The program at WVU utilizes both in-person and online seminar-style instruction on a bi-weekly basis. In both formats, Belknap says, they “have a great opportunity to be creative.”
Stay connected. Belknap says that his team stayed in “constant contact with staff in order to keep up momentum and create energy” when their program moved online. This contact also enables trainers to troubleshoot difficulties and share strategies amongst peers. As Leahy says, “we need to be physically distant but socially connected. That relationship is important still.” Plan and polish. Along with keeping communication lines open, it takes practice to build effective digital training. Leahy encourages his team to “get together and practice before trainings so that you have time to figure it out.”
Practice can also help those that are camera-shy prepare and allow time to identify problem areas early on in the training preparation process. There is nothing quite like a technical difficulty to start training off on the wrong foot. So, aside from learning how to operate whatever platform you are using, trainers should take the time to figure out what to do when something goes wrong. PLAN AHEAD AND ASK FOR HELP Damboise says, moving forward, trainers will have to be strategic with the ways they use equipment and resources. Training modification, he notes, “takes time and needs planning.” Consider modifications such as breaking into smaller groups; setting up training stations that rotate; cleaning, quarantining, and using schedules for equipment; creating digital materials; mandating hand sanitizing; scheduling additional trainers to accommodate physical distancing, etc. >> continued
It’s also important for trainers to “manage and mitigate those things that we can control,” says Belknap. Control sequencing. One of those things is the sequencing of information. Correctly sequencing skills and topics is key to the success of trainees, says Belknap. Trainers should, as always, be strategic in how they build on the learning of their participants, and adjust their sequencing as needed to accommodate Covid protocols. Trial runs. Certain protocols may require some getting used to, so teams should “get internal staff together early enough to strategize and make sure that, [for example], they can wear and teach in a mask for 8 hours,” says Damboise. “Start having the conversations with staff early. Start gathering again with them, so that you have the confidence and they have the confidence, before you start incorporating new tools and strategies [into training].”
Ask for help. Belknap says that another vital part of training planning for 2021
is reaching out for help when you get stuck. “Tons of operations have figured this out,” he says. “There are tons of resources. Policies and procedures exist. Work with a vendor or someone else who has gone through this.” Leahy, Damboise, Moore, and Trump all agree with that. The number of conversations going on within our industry is at an all-time high. Professionals are being more open and vulnerable than ever before. So don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help—it is how we all grow and become better. NEW NORMAL As we roll into the new year, our industry will find itself better prepared than it was in 2020. We have had time to rebound, reconsider, and regroup for 2021. We have a better sense of what things have changed, and what things haven’t. Leahy encourages trainers to “look back into your skill set and focus on what really matters. Focus on interaction and the other risks of training.”
“We can create a new sense of norms,” says Belknap. “We are part of the public health initiative now. We can teach that masks aren’t taboo, we can make social distance just another part of the story, and we can subtly shift the needle for folks to be accepting, understanding, and comfortable with what is being asked of them on a daily basis.” He also encourages trainers to take a deep breath. “Don’t fret about the difficulties,” says Belknap. “The difficulties are always there; the variables just change a bit from year to year. We can’t predict the future. Worry about the time that is in front of you.” “Perfect isn’t real,” remind Moore and Trump. “We’re going to plan, and we’re going to mitigate risk. But it won’t always be perfect. And that’s OK.” What works for some will not work for others. We will try, and sometimes we will succeed. Other times, we will fail. What matters is that we are still here, we are still fighting, and we are working together to find a new way forward.
Despite the monumental challenges faced by aerial adventure operations during the pandemic, many fared
2020 was a bummer in so many ways. Murder hornets, wildfires, not to mention a pandemic that impacted nearly every aspect of everyday life. However, there were some silver linings, especially for outdoor adventure operators, from heightened activity from newcomers to new models for doing business.
Despite local and state regulations that may have limited operating days and daily capacity, more than 80 percent of respondents to the fifth annual State of the Industry survey conducted by Adventure Park Insider in the fall of 2020 were able to open in some capacity. More recreational respondents (87 percent) were able to open as compared to traditional respondents (65 percent). Many of those reported sold-out days. More than 190 aerial adventure operations responded to this year’s survey, providing comprehensive business and operations data, which we aggregate and analyze to produce the annual State of the Industry Report. The data, along with other insightful resources, can help aerial adventure operators make informed decisions about every facet of their business.
COVID-19 IMPACTS The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic were far-reaching. Many operations
BY SARAH BORODAEFF
were preparing to ramp up in early March in advance of school spring breaks, starting annual hiring cycles for the busy season, and kicking off staff training. Much of that ground to a halt throughout North America as the pandemic took hold and businesses were forced to shut down. During this downtime, operators scrambled to determine what operations would need to look like when they were able to reopen. Many purchased additional PPE for both staff and guests, changed booking policies, and reimagined operational procedures. These last-minute additions increased bottom-line costs for the shortened season. Shutdowns shortened the season. On average, respondents indicated they operated 180 days in 2020, 27 percent down from an average of 248 days in 2019. Year-round operations averaged 221 days, while seasonal operations averaged 133, down from 302 and 186, respectively, in 2019. Reduced capacity. Reduced operat-
ing days were coupled with reduced capacity. On average, operations reduced capacity by 48 percent. Small operations, those with visitation of under 5,000, reduced by the largest percentage, 58 percent, while medium and large operations reduced by an average of 42 percent and 37 percent, respectively. This is likely due to the fact that many traditional operations, which had a harder time adjusting for Covid this season, tend to be smaller in terms of visitation. They also tend to have a smaller physical footprint compared to larger operations with higher visitation, creating less opportunities for social distancing.
Reduced visitation. These two realities of 2020—reduced operating days and reduced capacities—unsurprisingly combined to equal reduced visitation throughout the season. On average, vis-
With the decrease in operating days and capacity, revenue also decreased, by an average of 24 percent—from an average of $794,207 in 2019 to $603,560 in 2020. The largest decrease was for small operations of less than 5,000 visitors, which saw an average decrease in revenue of nearly 70 percent.
SILVER LININGS So, where is this silver lining? Profitability. Most importantly, operators were able to keep overall costs in line with revenues, and reported an average profit margin of 25 percent—in line with previous years, and far better than anyone could have hoped at the outset of the pandemic.
Distribution of visits. One key to this success: Despite the restrictions put on operators in 2020, respondents averaged 41 visitors per day, only four less
visitors per day as compared to 2019. This was a significant accomplishment. This suggests operators were able to reduce demand at “peak” times and spread visits across the week. While the remote work environment and virtual schooling taking place in 2020 enabled an increase in midweek visits, these trends are likely to continue to some extent into 2021, and operators will have an opportunity to create ways to continue capitalizing on this trend. Capacity management. Anecdotally, some operators who reduced capacities are indicating that they will keep lower capacities in place in 2021 to improve the overall guest experience. Considering the relatively small reduction in average daily traffic, this decision will likely either maintain, or improve, the bottom line as operators streamline costs. Diversity. Anecdotally, too, respondents reported an increase in the diversity of their guests— racially, socio-economically, age, as well as an increase in guests from more urban locations venturing outside of city limits to get outdoors and try new experiences. Several respondents reported seeing a surge in visitation from markets that may not have traditionally had the discretionary spending, but did following the first round of stimulus checks. Concerns for 2021. As we look toward 2021, respondents are unsurprisingly most concerned about the continued impacts of Covid-19 on the upcoming season. While many hope that the new year eventually allows for a return to a somewhat normalized economy, it’s likely that many consumers will be feeling the impacts of 2020 for years to come. As a result, some operators report looking for lower-cost activities in order to entice those consumers who may have more moderate discretionary spending budgets. Regardless of what 2021 brings, the aerial adventure industry has shown that it is capable of weathering the storm and operating in challenging conditions.
Wait! There’s More—Much More This topline report is just a snapshot of the data available in the complete State of the Industry Report, which combines proprietary research, third-party data, and expert insight to take a comprehensive look at the marketplace and the broader activities landscape. In the complete report, we take a deep dive into trends, revenues, visitation, and other important metrics for the various types of operations. We also a take a look at broader industry implications by segmenting the respondents into two general groups: recreational/ recreationally focused businesses, and traditional programs. Plus, Adventure Park Insider is presenting a more in-depth look at the survey results in a session during the virtual ACCT Conference. To order the complete State of the Industry Report, visit: www.adventureparkinsider.com.
35 Winter 2021
itation was down 34 percent compared to 2019.
Susan Hilde, Camp Merriwood
Vernon West, Go Ape
Seven experts weigh in on where aerial adventure is headed in 2021.
By The Editors
Jana Dean, High Life Adventure Park
Robert Kemp, WIldPlay
Scott Andrews, ACCT
Rohan Shahani, Challenge Works
Paul Cummings, Strategic Adventures
It’s likely safe to say that no one is sad to see the end of 2020, and we don’t need to rehash what went down. (For that, check out the “State of the Industry Report,” p 34.) Instead, we gathered a roundtable from across the industry to talk about what we learned and where we go from here. This conversation, which took place in early December 2020, included Paul Cummings, Strategic Adventures; Rohan Shahani, Challenge Works; Jana Dean, High Life Adventure Park, Ore.; Robert Kemp, WildPlay Adventure Parks, with operations in British Columbia and New York State; Susan Hilde, Camp Merriwood, N.H.; and Scott Andrews, ACCT policy director. We had a separate conversation with Vernon West of Go Ape, which owns 14 adventure parks across 12 states, and we’ve included his thoughts and observations here as well.
local, state, and federal government, if any were provided at all. Booming business. In Oregon, High Life Adventure Park and its sister operation, High Life Adventures Zip Line Tours, saw strong visitation. “Our first season at the adventure park was insane, business has been booming,” said Jana Dean. “As for the zip line, we’ve had that for over eight years, and this has been our best season yet. I think it has a lot to do with folks staying closer to home and doing more local travel.” High Life’s locations are within an hour or two of Portland.
CLEAR AND PRESENT GUIDELINES
The 2020 season was a mixed bag for the adventure industry with some operations not opening at all and others reporting booming business. A key factor in whether operations were able to open was the guidelines provided by
Camp Merriwood did not open this past summer as the guidelines for camp operation were not provided by New Hampshire health officials until midJune. “We decided in early May, before the guidelines from the Governor came out, that we just weren’t going to be able to keep our local community and
our camp community safe. So, we made the very difficult decision to close [this season],” said Susan Hilde. “We can’t wait until mid-June to find out what the guidelines are, when we open a week or two later. So, we’re hoping to have those guidelines in place by sometime in February or early March at the latest.”
uncertainty moving forward regarding vaccine implementation, there is confidence that local organizations are making headway in trying to help guide policy, develop public policy, and lobby states in terms of creating operational guidelines that are both effective and feasible.
Lack of guidance was decisive. Rohan Shahani of Challenge Works added that the lack of consistent messaging had major impacts on the development of operational policy. “Among my clients last year, maybe 5 percent opened and most of those opened in a day camp capacity. The biggest issue and the big complaint was a lack of consistent messaging at the local, county level, that interacted with the state level, that interacted with the federal level. We don’t need something from the federal government that says, yes, you’re cool to open, but it is important to be consistent across levels when we’re setting up how we craft our own polices.”
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Go Ape, with 14 locations across the U.S., tracked differing state and local regulations closely. “I think the West Coast, in particular, by seeing quite a different pattern of Covid and quite a different pattern of policy response through the summer, was more negatively affected,” said Vernon West. WildPlay, which is primarily based in Canada and also has two operations in New York, was able to operate as a result of clear guidelines from the government. “Hearing talk about the mixed messages and the lack of clarity certainly makes me feel lucky that we’re in the jurisdictions we are because Canada’s a totally different beast here,” said Robert Kemp. “We have very clear mandates from the government. We know exactly what is going on, we know exactly what is changing, and it’s not as much of a moving target.” Despite the lack of clear guidance at the beginning of the pandemic and
While much about 2021 remains unknowable, Go Ape’s West believes that the next year will probably look pretty similar to the way we ended the season in 2020 in terms of Covid restrictions, sanitization protocols, and customer behavior and expectations. So he and other operators are looking at what worked and what didn’t in 2020 as they prepare for the coming year. Customer focus. The biggest change, however, is in customer service. “The industry tends to put people in groups because it makes it easier to facilitate putting on a harness or giving them some sort of safety briefing or whatever else. While it’s convenient for us, it’s certainly not the best guest service,” said Kemp. Fewer touchpoints. “We’re seeing customer behavior change in a way that I think is positive for their experience and positive for our business that we wouldn’t have otherwise, even if we’ve chit chatted about it in the background,” said Kemp. One of those changes? Getting rid of shared devices, like iPads. “Our Apple lease bill was huge,” he said. And unnecessary. Guests who had not filled out the waiver in advance had no trouble completing the form on their phones instead of using shared devices and creating additional touch points.
High Life Adventure Park and High Life Adventures Zip Line Tours limited check-in to one family group at a time, improving customer service by allowing staff to focus on the guest in front of them rather than on the line behind, noted Dean. These groups then proceeded onto the course. WildPlay adopted a similar continuous flow model with groups as they arrive. Kemp believes it not only feels better for the guest, but also makes the course function better. DIY harnessing. To reduce contact between guides and guests, most operations had guests put on their harnesses themselves, with guides talking them through the process. That is something that many commercial operations had struggled to adopt in the past.
Cleaner equipment. One high-touch item that was at the forefront of many a conversation this past spring was gear, harnesses in particular, and how best
Shahani believes it’s a silver lining to the pandemic, as more operations focused on facilitation skills to enable no-contact harness fitting. “I think back to the Huddles in April and John Hines was talking about the three-legged stool. (Operating in
37 Winter 2021
He added, though, that guidance is starting to come together for the 2021 season and, as a result, operations are beginning to put together decision timelines in terms of if they can open, and if they do, what it might look like.
to clean it. Regardless of manufacturer protocols or any particular opinion on the effectiveness of various cleaning methods on mitigating virus spread, Shahani believes that it’s a good thing and one that consumers are going to continue to expect. “It’s a big win getting people to actually clean their equipment, so it doesn’t smell like sweat and sunscreen,” said Shahani. “I will posit that a clean harness is just better for so many reasons that I don’t need to list.”
the New Normal) Mitigations have to feel effective, and [facilitation] feels effective and it adds the personal touch, it builds connection. So much of risk management is just pure facilitation, and it’s easy for us to forget that,” Shahani said. More dynamic scheduling. Paul Cummings of Strategic Adventures believes that the lasting change as a result of these modifications is going to be in terms of staffing levels as operations look at more dynamic staffing schedules in order to limit down-time. “The folks who have been able to adapt and adopt family models or flexible scheduling models or smaller pod models have had fabulous seasons. They’ve been really clear that they’re not going back to prescheduled tours with staff sitting around waiting,” said ACCT’s Scott Andrews.
Operations also identified new revenue streams. Dean of High Life Adventure Park, speaking for many operators, shared that, “We offered gloves and they sold like hotcakes.”
Many operations that had previously offered gloves as an upsell saw a significant increase in sales this season with a little strategic marketing, said Cummings. Others saw increased retail sales as a result of implemented capacity reductions—the additional breathing room in the retail space allowed for more time to browse and increased per customer spend. NEW HABITS FOR CUSTOMERS
Operations changed, and so did human behavior. More people are spending more time outdoors, and discovering they really enjoy it. “They say it takes six months to actually change human behavior,” said Kemp. If that’s so, people have had time to instill a new outdoor habit.
Getting outside. WildPlay had not traditionally operated year-round, but as a result of the changes in customer behavior, they’re giving it a go. “Even though we’re in B.C., in the Northwest, where people aren’t supposed to be made of sugar—you know, if it starts raining, everyone wants to go to the movies or go inside—and they can’t do that, so they’re putting the rain gear on and they’re going and playing, and it’s working out pretty well,” said Kemp.
Seasonal changes. All walks of life is right. With the loss of school and corporate programming, WildPlay saw an entirely different clientele during the month of September. “Those people who had more flexible work schedules, whose kids may have delayed starting school or were going into independent learning pods. Our September business was a completely different business than it has been in the past,” said Kemp.
“Our September business was a completely different business than it’s been in the past.” Night life. High Life is implementing a similar model, now offering “Twinkle Tours” on its zip line and “Glow Climbs” at its adventure park with a focus on getting families outside. “They can’t go to the movies, so let’s get them outside to play at night and do something different,” said Dean. Diversity happens. The customer behavior changes are not just taking place among the existing clientele; operations are seeing an entirely new customer base show up as they try and escape the house and get outside. “I do a fair amount of DEI facilitation, and a big obstacle for us has been, ‘these people don’t go outside,’ ‘this isn’t for those people.’ It could be anybody, right? It’s not really a valid statement,” says Shahani. “A lot of that perception has disappeared with the variety of people, the diversity of people that we are seeing from all walks of life.” (For more on diversity in the outdoors, see p. 47)
Health benefits. “It’s just one of those things we’ve known for a long time, right? Shocker, getting outside, being with people, and being active is good for you,” said Shahani. “We’ve spent a lot of time and money trying to prove that in the past. I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t read an article in the past nine months about rising suicide rates, rising domestic violence rates, rising problems, just from not being able to do those things. We have this data and I’m hoping that we can reframe this data to show exactly why what we do is worth what we’re asking for it.”
West echoed this. “We know from the research and from our own personal experiences that being out in nature is just wonderful, it’s a balm,” he said. Screen-time overdose. It’s a benefit and a behavior change that Cummings thinks the industry can capitalize on. He likened the additional screen time we are all getting these days to a kid who
got caught smoking and so his parents make him smoke the whole pack. We’ve had the screen time, now it’s time to go back outside.
Sound area in the next 18 months,” said Andrews. “If you’d asked me a year ago if we’d see any new adventure parks, I would have said no—and now it looks like we might have three. I wasn’t expecting new parks because we were seeing a steady downward trend in use over the past four, five years, at least here in the Northwest. Now we’re seeing that go back up, which is a real plus.”
lieves the industry is gaining the critical mass and visibility needed to attract a new level of investment. Cummings agreed, but believes we’re still a little bit away from seeing that level of funding coming to play in the trees. He expects investors will wait until there is a bit more year-over-year consistency in the industry. REGULATORY CHANGES
While camps are determining their plans for 2021, some operations are making the decision to close for good or plan for grand openings.
“People are getting hopeful. People are seeing that there are a lot of people that want to get out there and climb.”
Permanent closures. “We’ve seen some very traditional, very old programs fold because their client base has evaporated and it’s not coming back. The folks who are dependent on school programs have closed. The folks dependent on corporate programs are gone,” said Andrews of operations in the Seattle area.
Consolidation of ownership. There may also be a trend of consolidation, said West, as more profitable operations look to strategically expand their footprint, and as some operators coming off a tough year may make the decision to take some cash off the table and retire.
New beginnings. Still, there are other operations that are set to launch. “There’s a rumor that there could be three new parks opening in the Puget
This may also be mirrored by outside interest, West added, in the form of private equity, which has not historically been a player in the sector. But he be-
Camp outlook. Are camps and other adventure operations going to require participants to be vaccinated? Probably not, said Hilde. “That’s something we have talked about, and the concern there is that kids have not been included in the trials. So therefore, they don’t really know the effect on kids, and it sounds like kids will be the last ones to receive the vaccine.” (Editor’s Note: As of press time, the Moderna vaccine had been approved for ages 18+, while the Pfizer vaccine had been approved for persons ages 16 and over.)
Increasing activity on the regulation front. Most regulatory activity was put on hold in the spring, as most jurisdictions focused on the Covid-19 response. However, now discussions are ramping back up, and Andrews is anticipating lots of new regulation coming out for public comment in the new year. Virtual participation. One change that he hopes will stick? Virtual meetings. “I was in a Tennessee meeting where there’s normally 12 people—there are 11 board members, by the way—and this time they had 25. They’re admitting that people come to the meetings because they don’t have to drive. Why would you change this? Why would we go back to face-to-face?
“This, it seems to me, is a plus. You get a better mix of voices, and sometimes you hear opinions that you wouldn’t otherwise. It speaks to a more robust public process, which I think for regulation is almost always a benefit.” As with many of the adaptations undertaken during this Covid-19 year, this has been a change for the better. No one would ever wish for a pandemic, but the aerial adventure industry has evolved and could well emerge stronger than before, with a customer base more firmly committed to the outdoors. And that’s a healthier outcome than anyone could have anticipated last spring.
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Fun is habit-forming. “I think the role of the outdoors within the disposable dollar is going to be up structurally,” predicted West. “Clearly there’s some short-term switching because it’s safer to be outdoors than indoors. But actually having consumed the outdoors, many consumers will conclude that this is actually a pretty fun thing to do.”
Cummings echoed this, noting the increase in requests for feasibility studies his company is receiving. “People are getting hopeful. People are seeing that there are a lot of people that want to get out there and climb,” he said.
UP KIDS RAMPING
STUFF 40 [www.adventureparkinsider.com]
BY APRIL DARROW
Photos, left to right: Outdoor net-play from Adventure Solutions; Tree-Mendous vine arch at a Nature Playground; Playground builds grew in popularity for Experiential Systems.
Park suppliers enter 2021 with new products
“so now we’re seeing more interest in installations for 2021.”
and an eye on emerging trends.
As the socially-distanced world begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel, adventure parks anticipate a gradual return to normal later in 2021, albeit perhaps a new normal. Park builders predict an uptick in installs at commercial operations, which many postponed in 2020, as focus shifted to simply getting—and staying—open. Suppliers are answering with new products, boosts to some existing products, and an eye on some emerging trends.
“Parks are saying they want to add more stuff outdoors, because that’s where people want to be.”
One key trend: The pandemic has driven more activity-seeking families outside, which will likely influence some decisions moving forward. “There’s more interest in building outdoor stuff now, where indoor was the trend for a while,” says Scott Hornick, CEO at park builder/designer Adventure Solutions.
Jacobs says after a slow 2020 at adventure parks (the private market was quite busy, he says), Experiential Systems has a “fair amount” of proposals for expanding and/or adding adventure programs. “Most parks made investments in equipment, staffing, and marketing if they opened in 2020,” says Jacobs,
Keith Jacobs, president of Illinois-based Experiential Systems, agrees. His company, which focuses on challenge course design, construction, and risk management, has been building to accommodate people outdoors. He’s been focused on spreading out guests when they get there, often to meet county and state health regulations.
The pandemic has spurred a resurgence of simple pleasures, even for kids. Playground structures, for one, saw a big uptick in the private market this year, says Jacobs. He says Experiential Systems has “always done playgrounds,” but never pushed it before. “Playgrounds were what we sold the most of this year,” he notes. “People were saying, ‘We need more stuff outside, and we need to keep kids farther apart.’” He cites one build for a school that needed to separate elementary and middle school kids as part of its Covid plan. Upstate New York-based designer and builder Tree-Mendous saw the same trend. The company diversified and grew its original line of custom playground structures this year in response to Covid, says CEO Gerhard Komenda.
Tree-Mendous has been offering playground structures since 2012, mostly to summer camps.
Now, Tree-Mendous has really started to push the playgrounds, which are designed to be multi-functional, says Komenda. For example, a swing set can be a swing set, but can also be used for climbing. Natural look and feel. The playgrounds are a traditional counterpart to the Tree-Mendous Nature Playground family of sustainable wooden play structures, which are designed to blend in with nature while offering fun for kids as young as three. The organic, “Tolkien-esque” creations are somewhat primitive—not the typical level, square builds—which Komenda says is a big draw. “Kids take to them like a fish to water,” he says. “Those organic shapes speak to them.”
Tree-Mendous has installed Nature Playground structures at ski resorts, adventure parks, zoos, and even orchards. At the Bronx Zoo, a “total experience exhibit” called Nature Trek utilizes Nature Playground features combined with kid-friendly netted bridges, walkways, and towers. It showcases a
Rolling with it. Georg Dobler, product manager at Austria’s Sunkid, says a variety of projects at North American parks and resorts were rescheduled from 2020 to 2021, and the uptick in more natural, simple attractions for kids has created interest in some historically obscure areas. For instance, Dobler
The pandemic has spurred a resurgence of simple pleasures, even for kids. host of rustic and interactive features: a ninja track in which buried logs stick out at angles; living tunnels covered with willow plants; and tree houses perched atop poles instead of trees, to name just a few.
says that more North American operators are looking at Sunkid’s Wooden Ball Tracks, a newer offering in the company’s Wood’n’Fun family of games, which caters to kids aged 3-12. The Ball Tracks are constructed with un-
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Komenda says that when Tree-Mendous placed a few playground prototypes in the front yard of its office early this summer, it was inundated with calls from folks just driving by. The town, filled with second homes and typically somewhat quiet, was brimming with families who had relocated for the summer and were looking for something to do.
The attraction is popular. In an average year, says Komenda, about 20 percent of the zoo’s two million guests visit Nature Trek, a number that bumped to 21.5 percent in 2020. In comparison, the zoo’s popular butterfly house attraction saw 9 percent of visitors.
treated wood to blend into alpine landscapes. The simple concept offers wooden balls—just like you’d picture—for purchase from on-site vending machines. There are three options for how to use the balls: a free-standing wood ball track with various routes, even a race track; a wood-ball game; and a woodball tower.
Dobler says the tracks were wildly popular this summer at European resorts that wanted to increase capacity and the amount of time guests spend outdoors. In 2020 alone, Sunkid completed track installations there totaling more than 600 meters (nearly 2,000 feet) combined length.
elements like peg mazes, tunnels, twists, and turns when the wooden ball is dropped at the top.
ment via income from the wood balls,” says Dobler. With interest in the wooden attractions on the rise in North America, says Dobler, Sunkid expects more Ball Track installations in 2021. However, “It will be a challenging winter season due to Covid for the ski resorts, who are an important customer base for us,” he says.
“Taking hikes is not really a favorite activity for kids, but climbing they’ll do all day long.”
Tower variety. In 2017, Sunkid added Wooden Ball Track Tower attractions, which use the same basic principle—a wooden ball traveling down a track— but on a centralized structure with various shorter tracks descending out from the top. The towers can be themed individually. Multiple versions of the play equipment are now being offered: Wooden Ball Track Tower Premium and Wooden Ball Track Tower Soft, a smaller version for a smaller budget. There is also an XL version. A father of two young kids himself, Dobler says he appreciates the “two functions” of wooden playground equipment: To make them stay, and make them go. For instance, attractions along a hiking path can offer little goals for kids to accomplish. “Kids want to explore them, want to know what’s next and get to the next station, so you get your kids to walk without getting bored,” he says.
EXTREME PLAYGROUND-ING Money ball. Thousands of balls, typically featuring a park’s logo, were purchased through the vending machines over the course of just a few weeks, creating not only a merchandising outlet but a source of revenue. “The operator finances the invest-
Only one Sunkid Wooden Ball Track is currently up and running in North America, at Ontario’s Blue Mountain resort. There, the “Chutes and Lumber” Ball Run offers 30 meters (about 100 feet) of track built into the side of the mountain. Kids enjoy interactive
Adventure Solutions is taking “playground” equipment to the big-kid level. The company recently introduced several models of souped-up slides that will be up and running in spring/summer 2021.
Photos, left to right: Tree-Mendous spiderweb net; Experiential Systems web; SunKid Wooden Ball Track Tower; Tree-Mendous buoy seesaw; SunKid Wood’N’Fun play structure.
Oberstdorfer Bergbahn AG
Hornick says the slides fit well with a multi-attraction facility, albeit not necessarily for younger kids. They are one of several new Adventure Solutions products that focus on the company’s ongoing mission to create diverse parks. “This has been a trend for a while—to diversify and create multiple attractions, so you have more than just a zip line park,” says Hornick. The company has also added outdoor and indoor netted products to its offerings, signing on as the exclusive U.S. distributor for the Bulgarian company Ropeland. Plus, it is in the early stages of developing a unique new bungee product that’s essentially a zip line combined with bungee cords and a bike (or skis). “Imagine biking or skiing off a ramp 60 feet in the air and flipping endless-
ly while attached to bungee zip-line cords,” says Hornick. The product, which Adventure Solutions is designing and engineering, is ready to be built and is available for release.
A PERMANENT SHIFT A pandemic silver lining for the adventure park industry is that kids have discovered a host of new ways to fill their time. Operators now have an opportunity to cater to a new demographic of user—more families, more people, more first-time visitors, more indoor-kids-turned-outsiders.
That realization could spark a whole new generation of park visitors and launch a growth spurt for adventure operators.
SUPPLIERS The following companies offer fun, unique installations of all shapes and sizes for kids to enjoy: Adventure Solutions www.adventuresolutionsus.com
“It’s not as much that parks are just building a zip tour,” says Jacobs, of prospective 2021 installations. “It’s that they’re looking differently at who’s on their land.”
Beanstalk Builders www.beanstalkbuilders.com
People who were forced outdoors because of Covid changed their patterns and realized, “This is more fun than a computer game,” adds Komenda. He predicts the shift to outdoors will be permanent—so long as kids were exposed to fun new activities last year.
“Taking hikes is not really the favorite activity for kids, but climbing they’ll do all day long,” he says. “As long as you can provide the right activity—if you provide real exciting play—then that’s what they’ll want to do.”
Experiential Systems, Inc. www.experientialsystems.com
Sandy Creek Mining Company www.sandycreekmining.com SUNKID GmbH www.sunkidworld.com Tree-Mendous www.tree-mendous.com
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The dry slides, made for adults perhaps more than kids, employ a sort-of waterpark concept. Made from patented polymer surface materials, they produce less surface friction than a water slide, which allows riders to go fast— think extreme sliding. The technology ensures that slider’s ride paths are equal to one another, i.e., a 300-pound slider will travel the same speed and distance as one who’s 60 pounds. Slides can be configured off a main tower or utilize an existing mezzanine as a platform.
LESS IS MORE
How social distancing requirements improved park efficiency and revenue. Adapting to the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic has been an unexpected challenge for everyone in the adventure park industry. But some parks have been able to leverage social-distancing requirements into more efficient and profitable operations. As we plan for another season amid the ongoing pandemic, the following examples can inspire more operations to turn challenge into opportunity. One recurring theme: Operational limitations can translate into improved capacity management and a better guest experience in the long term.
LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY “Parks used to try to max out capacity,” says Megan Langer of reservation software provider The Flybook. “What we found with Covid is that they’ve had to spread out and force people into fewer [and reserved] start times. That result-
BY BOB CURLEY
ed in less chaos at check-in and to parks selling out available start times.” More options. Reducing capacity and tweaking reservations for aerial parks and zip lines to comply with social-distancing requirements also accelerated the trend of parks adding or expanding other activities. Historic Banning Mills in Whitesburg, Ga., for example, expanded its mountain-biking and hiking trail networks to spread more people out. This trend has a variety of benefits, says Langer. “It helps keep locals excited,” she says, particularly important at a time when most travel is close to home, “and helps with repeat business.” Of course, supportive locals and repeat business are beneficial in normal times, too. A diverse menu of options also gives parks more opportu-
Above: Reservation slots help space out Royal Gorge zip-line tours; Right: Transportation at Royal Gorge was by group only.
nity to upsell when tickets are booked. “You can make each activity reservable and pick a time for each,” says Langer, pegging reservations to the (Covid-reduced) capacity of each attraction. Wearables. In addition, scannable wristbands issued to guests can be used to restrict access to different parts of the park and reduce crowding. “From a technology standpoint, as parks add more things to do and people spend more time at parks that are destinations, wearable media is what’s coming,” Langer says. Wearables can also be associated with a guest’s record and payment method, and used as a means to upsell on-site. For example, with this technology, if a
guest wants to buy anything from a bottle of water to a reservation for another activity, staff can simply scan the guest’s wristband and it charges the credit card on file—contactless, secure, and easy.
The good news? Attendance exceeded expectations despite a Covid-related 25-percent reduction in the park’s design capacity, says general manager Byron Bell.
Here’s a look at how three parks managed to benefit from social distancing requirements.
Guests are required to make advance reservations, and reserve for specific start times. Over the summer, reservations times began at 8 a.m. for guests in the park’s membership program, and 9 a.m. for the general public. The park closed nightly at 10 p.m. “Everything we put up sold out immediately,” says Bell.
Bruce “Coach” Brown, director of operations and training at Colorado’s Royal Gorge Zipline Tours, says that the park’s two tours experienced record visitation in 2020. To prevent crowding and make transportation and staffing as efficient as possible, Royal Gorge changed its start times—all reservations on the “Classic” zip line started on the hour, and all “Extreme” zip line reservations on the half-hour. To encourage advance purchase—and to upsell—deals were offered to combine zip-line tours with the park’s whitewater rafting trips. Reduced crowding. Reservation slots for the zip-line tours were available from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, and sold out in advance most days via online bookings. Walk-ins, which might have increased crowding, were sharply reduced as a result. At check-in, only one person per group was permitted to enter the reception area. Crowding was further curtailed by allowing guests to access and sign liability waivers by scanning a QR code with their smartphones, rather than passing paper and pens from one person to another. Since both courses require a van ride from the check-in center, vehicle departure times and capacity also were altered. Different groups were placed on different vans, says Brown. UNUSUAL OPENING The bad news for The Forge: Lemont Quarries was opening in the middle of a pandemic. The massive Lemont, Ill., adventure park debuted in mid-July 2020 (for more on The Forge, see “The Future of Adventure Parks?” p. 18).
A virtual queuing system using smartphone notifications allowed guests to show up right when their session began, rather than waiting in lines. Operational tweaks. Because the aerial adventure course is so large—it has more than 300 individual elements and 24 zip lines—The Forge was able to increase from two to eight entry points to prevent crowding. Social distancing was further enhanced by allowing only one guest at a time to occupy course platforms.
Above: The aerial course at The Forge, which increased entry points to help people spread out. Below: Masked up and moving on at The Forge; The park’s diverse activity options include hiking, mountain biking, laser tag, and more.
Rather than having more than 100 guides stationed around the course, The Forge switched to a fully guided model, with each guide leading a group of four to 10 guests. The change reduced the number of guides needed to operate the course at any given time to 80. The Forge, part of a 300-acre public recreation area, offers guests a wealth of activities in addition to aerial adventures. There’s also mountain biking, outdoor laser tag, hiking trails, and much more. Additional hiking and biking trails, along with an ice-skating venue, were added at the year-round park specifically in response to Covid-19. Because The Forge is located on public land, it does not have the authority to restrict the number of people on the property. However, Bell says, visitation was effectively controlled by limiting the number of spaces in the parking area to 350 vehicles. “We did not use the auxiliary lot, so that’s where we had traffic control,” he says. Bell says that much of what happened this summer at The Forge reflected
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the original business plan, with about 10 percent being the result of creative responses to Covid-19. “We realized that if we reduced capacity, we’d have people waiting a long time for things, so we needed to increase our downtime activities,” he says. “It transformed the way we had to think about the guest experience.” CHANGE FOR THE BETTER A similar transformation took place last season at Treetop Adventure at Snow King Mountain in Jackson, Wyo. “For the past four years we’ve said, ‘Come one, come all,’ believing that if we turned anyone away, we’d lose business,” says Snow King chief adventure officer Sue Muncaster. “At any one time there could be 100 guests on the course or seven, but the same number of guides.” Pre-Covid, 25 guests could enter the course every half hour. To ensure proper social distancing while operating during the pandemic, though, the park limited course entry to 15 guests per hour (later increased to 20). The strategy paid off in a variety of ways. “We sold out all day, every day,” says Muncaster. Park revenues increased 10 percent this summer, as did the total number of paid guests. Meanwhile, staffing expenses declined, with six to eight guides operating the course rather than the 10 to 12 that had been scheduled in past years to accommodate surges.
Sometimes the most difficult situations yield the most successful solutions. Broad acceptance. Snow King expected some guests to chafe at the increased regimentation, says Muncaster. Instead, guests seemed to embrace the new processes and appreciate the increased Covid safety measures. Revenue growth at the ropes course and zip line was greater than the park’s other attractions, which include an alpine slide and mountain coaster. “I think people knew that the adventure park would be the one thing that was controlled,” she says. Likewise, the park experienced little pushback against other pandemic-related safety measures, such as masks being required in lines, inside facilities, and on the harnessing deck. “We thought our customers would be a lot more concerned about the Covid protocols than they were,” says Muncaster. “We have a lot of rural folks here, but those willing to come didn’t blink an eye. I think people were so happy to just be doing something that they did whatever you told them to do, whether they believed in it or not.” Long-term changes. The resort also experimented with offering private time slots for Treetop Adventure, charging $699 for groups of 15 and marketing
the deal not only as Covid-safe, but bespoke—a good fit for the park’s wellheeled Jackson Hole clientele. “We didn’t have those big 75-person groups coming in this year, but we were able to make up for it by offering these exclusive experiences,” Muncaster says. Rather than being a short-term solution to a crisis, though, Muncaster says many of the changes are set to become a permanent fixture. “We’re going to go forward with the model of fewer people and more time slots,” she says. The new policies are also likely to carry over to winter operations, which include a snow tubing park. Muncaster says the model is not unlike ski areas that limit lift tickets to shorten lift lines, or national parks that have toyed with the idea of capping entry to protect the environment. At Snow King’s Treetop Adventure, the reductions in the number of people on the course made for a better guest experience for everyone, says Muncaster, not just those who could afford to pay for a private tour. After all, she says, guests are paying for an adventure among the trees of the Grand Tetons, surrounded by nature— not a crowd. “You don’t want to be up on the course with a whole lot of other people, Covid or not,” she says.
THINKING DIFFERENTLY For the three operators profiled here, pandemic-induced limitations forced a rethinking of the guest journey and on-site experience, oftentimes resulting in a better overall product and more revenue. Sometimes the most difficult situations yield the most successful solutions.
Masked up and enjoying the Snow King Coaster.
CREATING DIVERSITY IN THE OUTDOORS- PART 1 :
CHALLENGING OUR BELIEFS diversity in the aerial adventure industry. “Black people don’t do that.” There are many blockers to creating diversity in the outdoor industry, and this is one I have heard all my life. But this is perhaps the core blocker, and it plays a role in many of the others. We all know there are blockers to creating diversity in the outdoors, such as accessibility, i.e., getting to and being able to afford outdoor pursuits. Another is the outdoors culture being affected by systematic racism and resignation. Then there’s the old adage, “It’s just always been this way.” Another is the question of how do rural operations reach more diverse, often city-based populations.
IN INDUSTRY TERMS, THINK OF OUR BELIEFS AS OUR STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES. THE RULES UPON WHICH EVERYTHING ELSE IS BUILT.
Every grand undertaking has blockers, and creating a more inclusive, diverse, physically and emotionally safe, and welcoming outdoors is no exception.
There is another blocker that doesn’t get as much attention, though. It is a deeper conversation than making the outdoor industry one in which people flourish. It can, to some, feel like a scarier conversation, because it looks at challenging our own beliefs. Challenging our own cultural norms. Challenging our very identities. And that applies both to aerial adventure operators and to members of diverse communities.
Where Change Begins
We have the opportunity to take a look at ourselves and our industry and decide what it is that we really want to do, and not just what we believe we should or shouldn’t do or are capable of. Challenging one’s own cultural narrative and norms can be frightening, because it’s who we believe ourselves to be. Try this little test: Fill in the blank. “I am a____.” Woman. Man. Catholic. Black. White. Jewish. POC. Mom. Sister. Uncle. Caregiver. Brother. Operator. Guide. Outdoor professional. Facilitator. Builder. Trainer. We have belief systems centered around these identities. For the outdoors to become more diverse, we must ask ourselves a valuable question: Despite what I’ve been brought up to believe is true about me, and what I’ve decided is possible, what do I actually want?
By Rachel Maestri-Hailey
We get our beliefs from many places: our parents, our friends on the playground, our media sources, our town, city, state, country, religion, our culture. We are belief machines. Then we choose, consciously or not, how we live, act, and engage with others, all based on those beliefs. We put ourselves in our own self-defined boxes or bubbles and live our lives from there. In industry terms, we can think of our beliefs as our Standard Operating Procedures. The rules upon which everything else is built. When we challenge these beliefs and really look at what’s underneath and where we want to go, we can truly start to create change in our industry.
Growing Up Black
I know from personal experience how challenging this process can be. I am an African-American born and raised in Roxbury Boston, which was then a low-income area in a primarily Black neighborhood. My brother and I had more experience reading the MBTA subway system maps than topographical ones, and trees were few and far between. I was brought up with a very strong cultural center. While living in the city, I attended an all-Black parochial school whose philosophy was based on Nguzo Saba, the Swahili word for
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It takes a concerted and conscious effort to increase
WITHOUT BEING FULLY AWARE OF IT, I DEVELOPED THE NARRATIVE THAT IT WAS WEIRD TO WANT TO BE OUTSIDE—I WASN’T MEANT TO BE IN THE OUTDOORS BECAUSE I AM BLACK. BECAUSE I AM A WOMAN. BECAUSE AD NAUSEUM.
‘’seven principles.’’ We studied the seven principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). These were principles that I knew and heard on a daily basis. Then, at age 8, we transplanted to a town with little to no racial diversity, with miles between houses, and two other families in town that looked like us in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. My new surroundings challenged my cultural beliefs, and that experience had a profound impact on me. In the country, I saw the seven principles in a new light. I saw them on a challenge course as a 10-year-old at a YMCA summer camp, where I got my start in the outdoor adventure world. And again as a 20-something adventure education facilitator of youth and college programs, and again as the canopy tour manager for an industry leader. Now, I strive to re-create those values over and over again in my new line of consulting work to make the outdoor industry more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible.
Your People Don’t Do That
Despite going to an amazing summer camp that had a diverse staff in an otherwise racially desolate town, and during the many times that my parents attempted to get my brother and I outside, I heard “Black people don’t do that” repeatedly—from family members and others, including a kid in my 4th grade class. When it came to swimming, hiking, backpacking—it was too dirty, messy, and “out there with the bugs,” as my Mom would say. The advertisements I saw in magazines sent the same message: People going on amazing outdoor adventures never looked like me.
Without being fully aware of it, I developed the narrative that it was weird to want to be outside—I wasn’t meant to be in the outdoors because I am Black. Because I am a woman. Because ad nauseum. Luckily for me, I made a choice to go against what was understood or expected and decided to go for it anyway. I adored being out in the wide spaces after being in the city. Outside, it didn’t matter that I had curly hair, or full lips, or was the only one that looked like me. I was going to climb anything that stood still long enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has some version of this. “Women don’t do that job.” “That’s white people stuff.” “That’s a man’s sport.”
Bursting Past Our Limits
Everyone has his or her own cultural beliefs about the outdoors, and those often limit what we allow ourselves to experience. Occasionally, though, we burst past those limits and decide to take a leap into the unknown—oftentimes thrilled by what we find. Whether it be on a challenge course, on a whitewater raft trip, backpacking with friends, or on a ski mountain, many of us have had that moment of discovery where we realize what we’ve been brought up to believe about the outdoors—and ourselves—may not be true. We see it so much in the programs we run. Think of the kid on the challenge course or the adult on the zip line who just know they can’t step off of the platform into thin air—and then prove to themselves that they can. Building diversity in the outdoors requires that same leap of faith from us.
If I had chosen to live from the narrative and norms associated with a young, cisgender, Black female, I would not be doing the work I am today. It takes effort to challenge what we believe to be true about ourselves. The outdoor industry can be as accessible and welcoming as ever, but it’s up to the people in it to say, “Maybe instead of what I’ve made up about myself, here’s what can be true for me.” Creating diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors is an industry-wide issue. We all get to look at it as professionals and ask, “How we can be more welcoming and inclusive? How may we better serve and provide access?” We can look at how to increase representation in our leadership. We can have scholarship programs, and funding to make the industry approachable and affordable. We can create programs that allow folks of varying backgrounds and life situations access to the outdoors early on in life so that they may see, in their most formative years, a new way from the outset. And, yes, we also can do the work of eradicating systemic racism in our industry and country.
OUTSIDE, IT DIDN’T MATTER THAT I HAD CURLY HAIR, OR FULL LIPS... I WAS GOING TO CLIMB ANYTHING THAT STOOD STILL LONG ENOUGH.
The final piece, and perhaps the most valuable, is encouraging others to take a look at the self-defined limiting beliefs that keep them from engaging in the outdoors. (Spoiler alert: This self-awareness can also work for many other aspects of our lives.)
Changing the Industry Mindset Here’s an example of the challenges we face. A client of mine saw a huge upswell in participation from local driveto areas as a result of the pandemic. Folks were hungry to do something— anything—outside of their homes. This included guests from a city-centered life who wanted to enjoy the outdoors and engage in outdoor recreation, and an atypical swell of racially and ethnically diverse guests. The river and surrounding parks saw more tubers and hikers of color and of varying socioeconomic statuses than in recent years. The upswell created tension in the community for several reasons, including a shortage of resources. From parking spots to trash pickup, the community struggled to minimize the impact of the increased population. Clash of cultures. More notably, the influx of people of color and different socioeconomic statuses created some tension due to a clash of cultures. It was a game of “rural vs. urban.” The cultural assumptions and outdoor awareness of both groups was seen as dissonant. There was an unspoken expectation that “those people” should know to clean up after themselves or that parking outside of access areas is prohibited. What we discovered in all of this is that sometimes we, as operators, have difficulty in dealing with different cultures. It’s easy to feel annoyed when guests don’t conduct themselves the way we expect them to. It is important to understand that our guests may simply lack the cultural experience to “know the ropes,” and that our expectations about acceptable behaviors are too limited. It is we who get to expand our horizons. If we accept these ideas, stewardship and outreach can replace annoyance and struggle.
What we are seeing in our industry now more than ever is an influx of folks who are finally deciding that, despite their own narratives, the outdoors is a place for them. Unfortunately, what we are also seeing is an industry and community that is not yet ready to receive them. Any number of solutions exist to make our industry more accessible: Leave No Trace training, outdoor liaison internships, river accessibility curriculum for the general population, etc.
and inclusion for folks who make the jump from other ways of living to engaging in outdoor recreation and adventure? As operators and owners, imagine what would be possible for our industry and businesses if we all examined our own beliefs, identified self-limiting narratives within ourselves and in our company culture, and came up with actionable systems to remove those blockers from our outdoor paradigm. I challenge each of you reading this to do that.
Take a Look Within Challenging our beliefs. But the really difficult work comes in looking at ourselves as both participants and providers, and looking at the beliefs we are living out of.
THE STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURES WE LIVE BY ARE ALL JUST THE SEAS AND OCEANS AND RIVERS THAT WE SWIM IN. AT ANY MOMENT, THE TIDES AND CURRENTS CAN SHIFT, AND WE CAN CHOOSE SOMETHING NEW. IT’S UP TO US TO DO THE WORK. Have people of color just decided not to be a part of the outdoors out of habit— just an automatic reaction based on beliefs? Have we, as operators, decided that we don’t have the bandwidth or resources to take on diversity work based on our habitual decision-making process? Can we look at the issue from an open and aware place of wanting to create an outdoors for everyone? It’s time for all of us to take a look. Inclusion starts with us. So, the challenge here is industry wide. How to make the industry more accessible? How do we create systems of support
It is also a very personal challenge for each and every one of us. A challenge that involves us looking at our cultural norms, our self-definitions, our limiting beliefs and conversations, and then deciding what it is that we actually want. The standard operating procedures we live by are all just the seas and oceans and rivers that we swim in. At any moment, the tides and currents can shift, and we can choose something new. It’s up to us to do the work. We, as an industry, are well on our way. Many of us are doing the soul searching as companies on how to be more inclusive. I’ve seen many businesses in the waves of transformation around how to approach their white-ness, their maleness, their privilege, and the exclusive paradigms within the institution itself. It’s a bold new adventure to approach the sometimes-tough conversation about making the outdoors a more welcoming and diverse space. Luckily, there are some guides along the way—folks that are working every day to come up with new systems and ideas to take action and move the needle. We get to reevaluate and redesign the systems and beliefs we have all been operating from, so that we make it easy for new populations to engage with the outdoor industry, and for us to retain them. It is within us that the real work begins, though. It starts with letting go of beliefs that do not serve us or others. Only through the work of challenging our beliefs can we begin to create a more diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and accessible outdoor industry. And world.
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Then, after we do all that, we as an outdoor industry can be ready. We can be an industry that is focused, clear, and giving. We can have our ducks in a row and our industry ready to receive those folks who have the audacity and the courage to make the jump, despite their beliefs.
THE LATEST ON BELAYS Belay systems for aerial adventure parks continue to become more reliable, durable, and easy to use.
To explain the evolution of belay systems at adventure parks, Jacques Christinet, CEO of Kanopeo, turns to a pyramid analogy. In the early days of adventure parks—i.e., the top of the pyramid—belay systems were taken directly from the alpinist world, where lifelines and carabiners had been used for years.
When adapted to adventure parks, basic alpinist hardware was adequate, but not necessarily foolproof—an adventure-course traveler could completely unclip from the lifeline or mistakenly clip onto a line (e.g., a guy wire) other than the lifeline. Yet, given the relatively small and relatively adventure-savvy audience of the early days, alpinist belay systems often provided a sufficient safeguard. As park popularity spread, the pyramid widened, with the customer base expanding to include people less adventurously inclined. Relying on participants to manipulate alpine hardware, possibly in error, became an iffier proposition in assuring safety. The solution: create belay systems that would provide security even for folks who couldn’t tell a lifeline from a punch line. In short, create idiot-proof systems that were both secure and easy to use. Enter smart belay systems and continuous belay systems. As the pyramid of park visitors has ex-
By Peter Oliver
panded even further toward an everyman base, modifications of both smart and continuous systems have enhanced customer friendliness and advanced safety technology even further.
OPERATOR PREFERENCE There are now, of course, many players in the belay field, about evenly divided between makers of smart belay systems and makers of continuous belay systems. All can claim commendable records of reliability, so choosing a particular system for a new installation, or changing from one system to another, doesn’t necessarily mean a move toward greater security. Accidents relating to belay systems are rare, regardless of the system in play. Smart belays, based on a dual-lanyard, dual-clip design in which one clip automatically locks when the other is open, are touted by designers primarily for engaging users in the belay process— thus providing a more fulfilling customer experience—and for their versatility in navigating through complex junctions connecting course elements. Continuous belay makers tout the ease of use, simple guest orientation, and the reduced cost of and need for maintenance as principal benefits. There are many choices to sort through. The choice might be all but predetermined by a close business relationship
between a park builder/designer and the distributor of a belay system. (They might well be entities within the same company.) But before committing to any installation, a park operator would be well-served in knowing all the options available. The last time API reported on belay systems was two years ago. Although no new companies or radical new designs have emerged since then, there have been numerous refinements on existing systems, as described here. In general, these refinements have focused on four areas: enhanced safety, enhanced simplicity, operational efficiency, and reduced maintenance.
SMART BELAY SYSTEMS
LOCKD CLIPS (FORMERLY BORNACK)
The main components of the widely used Bornack system, the locking clips at the end of the dual lanyard, have been overhauled to simplify both use and maintenance, according to Bahman Azarm of Ropes Parks Equipment, distributor of Bornack products and now the redesigned, renamed LockD Clips. The LockD Clips are compatible with existing Bornack systems and will be available starting in April, he adds.
Above: New Edelrid Smart Belay X system.
Left: The new LockD Clips, formerly the Bornack smart belay; Right: CliC-iT’s updated, more durable U hooks.
The resulting clips are lighter and “a lot more dependable, with much less chance of malfunction,” says Azarm, who was a co-developer of the new clips. That should mean the clips will require much less time at service centers and little staff training for maintenance. Azarm continues to promote the system’s customer experience by giving guests a belay product that is “safe and easy to use, but also a product they can think they are in control of.” The system continues to use the unique tweezle to lock/unlock the clips. The use of the tweezle also ensures that participants only clip onto belay lines and other intended components, and not onto support wires or other lines. CLIC-IT
CliC-iT has beefed up its U hooks to improve durability. Functionally, its dual-lanyard smart belay system, which uses magnets to open/close the hooks, operates as it has in the last couple of years. One hook locks when the other is open and vice versa, meaning that, in classic smart-belay design, one hook is always securely attached to the lifeline.
Only magnets at safe entry and exit points open both hooks, to allow a course traveler to engage or disengage entirely from the lifeline.
on site, we discovered the belays didn’t need [annual inspections].” The result: a three-year interval in sending the belays to a service center.
For courses that include zip-line segments, a trolley is also part of the basic belay package. CLiC-iT’s new C-PASS is a safety mechanism that blocks zip-line access if someone is already engaged on the line, assuring only one person can be on a zip at any time.
Another noteworthy feature of the Edelrid system is that a pulley is built into the top of each hook. That enables the hooks to be used on zip lines, with no need for an additional trolley device. Finally, says Williams, the system makes it easy to overtake other course travelers, virtually anywhere on a course, making this one of Edelrid’s strong selling points.
Updates to the CliC-iT system, says a company representative, have improved durability and hence made maintenance easier. “It’s obvious how it works,” says the company rep. Ease of installation is another touted plus. The CliC-iT smart belay system comes in both adult and kids’ versions. EDELRID
Edelrid’s new Smart Belay X system comes with two significant advantages over previous editions. First, the opening and closing of the safety hooks is controlled by magnets that communicate with one another via radio frequency. This comes closer to automating the opening and closing process, ensuring greater safety. The second advantage is a considerable reduction in regular servicing requirements. Many belay systems require annual service inspections. But according to Edelrid USA vice president Blair Williams, “except for fine tuning
In some ways, the ISC SmartSnap is something of a hybrid between a smart belay and a continuous belay system. The lifeline attachment is a kind of double carabiner on a single lanyard. The system keeps users constantly attached—a la continuous belay—to the lifeline or ring key, and actively engaged in the connection—a la smart belays. At any transition between elements, there’s a ring key—a metal ring with a prong extending from it—that allows the user to unlock the side of the carabiner that’s attached to the lifeline as the other side locks to the ring. To reattach to the lifeline, a wire key—same prong as the ring, but attached to the lifeline—unlocks the side attached to the ring and locks on the lifeline. The system requires some “extra user
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Azarm says the Bornack SSB clips “have been completely reinvented,” coming out on the other side of the reinvention as LockD Clips (pronounced “locked”). The new clips have just 30 parts, relatively few of which are moving parts, compared with the 60 parts in their predecessor.
three lines come together. The Swapper allows a course designer to give travelers a choice of elements as well as to provide “rest areas,” where slower travelers can pull off the main line to allow faster travelers to pass. The Y Swapper can be installed, removed, or replaced with a new one without cutting the wire rope. Miller says a trolley system, in general, requires less maintenance than other systems. That’s because trolleys, whose rollers create less friction than other types of systems, incur less wear and tear. He also notes the ease of use for participants, since once the trolley is attached to the lifeline at the start of the course, they don’t need to do anything but climb. ISC SmartSnap continues to use its ring/key locking and transfer system.
engagement,” says ISC’s Carly Jones—a selling point for park operators seeking to keep users actively involved in their own belay. That might be of particular interest to parks with a kids’ course designed to promote outdoor learning.
start of a line stays closed until a signal from the end confirms that a participant has reached the finish before a second participant can start. This assures that there are never two riders on a line at the same time.
Side note: For aerial courses that incorporate zip lines, ISC is offering its new ZipSpeed Noise Reduction Trolleys, fitted with nylon wheels. A new Zip Handle Bar allows zippers to orient themselves in the direction of travel.
The second product, in the final stages of testing as of press time, is the zipBRAKE. A special zip-specific cable is central to a design intended to improve zip-line speed control.
CONTINUOUS BELAY SYSTEMS
Kanopeo introduced its Saferoller V3 continuous belay trolley in 2019, with some notable improvements from the previous version. Among the changes: the connection anchor is now hot forged for increased strength and durability, and a new Dyneema/nylon blend connection strap has a 360-degree swivel system that makes it easier for guests to move through the course. Plus, the trolley is 30 percent more compact. Two other new products being introduced to the Saferoller trolley system are aimed at improving zip-line safety. The first is zipEYE, operated by an electronic signal between the beginning of a zip line and the terminus. A gate at the
In any retrofit, the zipBRAKE cable would need to replace existing cable. Otherwise, says Christinet, replacing a nonKanopeo system with a Saferoller system is relatively easy, in which existing cables in good condition can be reused. Kanopeo’s Speedrunner clip-based system is a second option for a continuous belay. It remains little changed, aside from the addition of more junction and hub options, to enable a wider range of course designs and compatible features.
Miller adds that “Koala really thought about kids as well as adults.” One notable feature of the Pouliz system is an optional trolley handle that “assists children and enables them to move more smoothly on the activities,” according to Aerial Adventure Tech’s website. KONG/COUDOU PRO
“A linear course is certainly easier for a continuous belay system,” says Kenny Brodin of Kong USA, meaning a single series of elements in a course design. “The bigger challenge is when there is more than one option”—perhaps as many as five. To address multiple-choice junctions, CouDou Pro (a partner company of Kong) has developed plates that allow participants to diverge from one element to another without disengaging from the lifeline. The newest plate is the Switch, a “bifurcated” plate that gives course travelers a choice of two routes. The Switch joins the Paig, which essentially forms an X where elements converge, and the Swivel, a rotating device for junctions where several routes come together.
Koala’s Pouliz continuous belay system is based on a two-wheeled trolley that Andrew Miller of Aerial Adventure Tech, U.S. distributor of Koala, touts for its simplicity and efficiency. New hardware for the system includes the Y Swapper, for junctions where
The CS hook is “the heart of the system” for CouDou Pro’s continuous belay, says Brodin. The CS hook attaches the lanyard to the lifeline. The hook’s opening is smaller than the 12 mm diameter of the cable, but larger than the thickness of the aforementioned plates. That’s how the CS is able to travel over the var-
ious plates that the lifeline is connected to along a route.
On, with a belt cinched around a tree’s trunk to secure the connection.
The CS hook’s design also makes it easy to overtake slower travelers, or for rescuers to pass several travelers to reach an emergency scenario. To visualize how it works, form circles with the thumb and forefinger of both hands, leaving a small gap between thumb and finger. Overlap the two circles, then turn one hand more or less at a 90-degree angle to the other and align the gaps, allowing the two circles to pass through each other.
Roperoller has also come up with two variations on its new Switch, a line component that facilitates overtaking on a platform or for creating junctions to connect divergent course elements.
Vertical Trek has also improved its Mac series of anchorage components, each varying according to the length of the cable it is anchoring as well as its overall strength. Similarly, the Angle T, which allows a lifeline to track around obstacles to improve fluidity, has seen a makeover. For what it’s worth, the new components look cool—Mike Holder, founder of American Adventure Park Systems, which is the U.S. distributor of Vertical Trek, calls them “sight-pleasing and smooth.”
The company has come out with a couple of new products for anchoring a lifeline to a tree. One, the RR Bolt-On, relies on the standard practice of using bolts to attach to a tree. But in places were bolting might not be feasible or permitted, Roperoller offers the RR Belt-
Vertical Trek is replacing its current Seven hook with the new Ocho hook in its hook-based continuous belay system. The Ocho hook will be on the market in summer 2021.
Vertical Trek’s new Ocho hook
Durability, says Holder, is also a selling point. He claims that “I haven’t seen one part wear out,” and that only the safety catch that opens and closes a hook requires regular inspection. Otherwise, there are no moving parts. A friction plate at the top of the hook, where the hook is in contact with the lifeline, needs occasionally to be replaced, but Holder says that replacement is “cheap and easy.” For zip lines, an additional, third-party trolley is a necessary part of the hardware package.
Clockwise starting left: Roperoller’s Slimroller; Kanopeo’s strengthened, more compact Saferoller V3 continuous belay trolley; Koala’s new Y Swapper three-line junction switch.
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Roperoller is a trolley-based continuous belay system that also comes in a smaller, lighter version, Slimroller, for kids’ courses. The trolleys can be used on zip lines as well as other course elements.
CAMPS COUNSEL ON 2020
By Gina DeCaprio Vercesi
The resident-camp industry is using what it learned in 2020 to prepare for 2021.
On July 17, 2020, Maine camp director Ephram Caflun stood in the middle of Camp Wekeela’s vast post-and-beam dining hall and made an exciting announcement. After two weeks of pre-camp quarantining followed by an on-campus protocol that included daily health screenings, temperature checks, and hunkering down with their assigned cohorts for 14 days, the entire camp community had tested negative for Covid-19. Cheers reverberated throughout the hall as masks were tossed, commencement-style, into the air. “That was one of the most emotional, most amazing moments,” says Caflun, noting how challenging social distancing was prior to that moment in such a typically hug-friendly environment. The months of careful planning and strict adherence to state and CDC
protocols paid off, though. For the rest of the five-week session, Camp Wekeela campers and staff were able to enjoy an almost normal summer in the security of the Covid-free bubble they’d worked together to create. OPENING DOORS When the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, 2020, summer camps, well into their planning and recruiting for the upcoming season, suddenly faced myriad unprecedented challenges. State-mandated shutdowns meant some camps would not be allowed to open at all. For many of those who were permitted to open, stringent health and safety measures, testing requirements, space considerations, and occupancy limits made opening unfeasible. What’s more, without comprehensive federal or state guidelines,
camps found themselves flying blind. “It was a patchwork,” says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA). “No two states had the same rules, and the CDC, dialing back to March, was trying to write guidance for thousands of industries at one time, including camp.” The field guide. In mid-May, in lieu of consistent state guidelines, the ACA released its “Field Guide for Camps.” Developed in collaboration with YMCA of the USA and Boston-based consulting firm Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. (EH&E), the field guide was designed to help camps create their own Covid response plans and navigate operational concerns. Above: Masked campers hang out around the bonfire at Camp Wekeela in Maine. Photo credit: Camp Wekeela
A time crunch. “Camp is a year-round business,” explains Bud Copeland, director of membership and engagement for ACA New England. “As we got deeper and deeper into last spring, decision makers just didn’t realize the timeline it takes for camps to open. That timing was probably the biggest enemy of camping last year.” The damage was significant. According to the ACA, 80 percent of overnight camps and 40 percent of day camps did not open for the summer 2020 season. Subsequently, 19.5 million kids did not get to attend camp, and the camping industry lost more than $16 billion in revenue. Success stories. The good news is that the vast majority of camps that did operate— both single and multi-session programs— were able to do so safely and successfully. “Last summer was the most challenging summer I’ve ever experienced in 33 years of running camps,” says Mike Stillson, executive director of Valley Trails Summer Camp in California and co-founder of Save Next Summer. “But I also have to say it was the most rewarding summer I’ve ever had. “I have campers who it took two to three days for their anxiety and stress levels to drop enough for them to really
get into camp,” says Stillson. “But once that happened, you saw them being kids again. I have parents who said that we not only saved their summer, we saved their child.” Looking ahead. Camps have a lot of work to do ahead of the 2021 season. Fortunately, the industry is far better prepared than it was last March, and the lessons learned during summer 2020 offer a solid blueprint for the future. “We’ve been working really hard at the ACA to harvest all the learning we can from last summer,” says Rosenberg. The ACA field guide underwent a significant revision following the 2020 camp season, and an update was released in October. A third version is expected to be published in January 2021. “Our goal, right now,” says Rosenberg, “is to finish collecting all that data, share what we’ve learned with the state public health authorities and with the CDC and, from that, help everyone develop more consistent rules around how to operate camp as safely as possible next summer.” “In an ideal world,” says Moeschberger, “state guidelines would look like the EH&E guidelines. But the fact is, resident camps can’t wait until March or April for guidance, because that’s too late.”
what campers and staff should expect from a pandemic-era camp experience. Camp in the time of Covid isn’t going to look like it normally does. Preventing an outbreak requires modifying everything from drop-off procedures and visiting days to programming, staff days off, and bunk configurations—and everyone needs to be on board. “Staff and community buy-in is paramount,” says Copeland. “Camps that ran successfully last year were very transparent with their staffs and families. Camp is a place where people are used to rolling with it. It rains some days, you get a bug bite, you twist an ankle—and you push forward. That same camp culture really helped people buy in.” One of the most critical pre-camp Covid protocols requires everyone to quarantine at home for two weeks before coming to camp. “Camp starts way before anybody sets foot on campus,” says Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician and medical director at Camp Winnebago in Maine. “Campers, their families, and staff need to understand what we mean by quarantine. That means not going off to a day camp before you come to your residential camp. It means that, yes, you’re going to have to cancel the Fourth of July barbecue.” GET THE 411 ON NPIS
So, what are some of the keys to ensuring a safe and successful summer camp experience in 2021? CLEAR COMMUNICATION Camps need to be very clear about
Also crucial to operating safely is implementing various nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), and understanding how to layer them for maximum benefit. For example, a CDC study released in September spotlighted four
Left: Campers at Camp Wekeela gather following quarantine. Middle: The cohorts each had a theme. One camper from the “Cowboy” bunk announced, “The masks make us outlaws.” Right: Campers participate in a talent show. Photo credit: Camp Wekeela
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“The field guide is a tremendous resource,” says Andy Moeschberger, camp director at Gold Arrow Camp in central California and co-founder of Save Next Summer, a campaign advocating for cohesive, state-specific Covid guidance for camps.
Ephram Caflun shares Covid news with campers at Wekeela.
Many camps also employed testing as one of these interventions, requiring campers and staff to have a Covid test 72 hours prior to their arrival at camp, often following a 14-day quarantine at home. Campers and staff were then tested again approximately four or five days after arriving at camp. Keep in mind that testing is just one of many NPIs that can be employed as part of a Covid operating plan. Camps should not rely on testing alone as a prevention strategy. “The idea is that every one of these NPIs has their limitations,” says Rosenberg, “but when they’re taken together consistently and diligently in a cohesive plan, that has proven to be successful.” BE FLEXIBLE
Maine resident camps with a total 1,022 campers and staff that successfully implemented NPIs, including masking, physical distancing, cohorting, hand washing, daily health screenings, and testing, to prevent, identify, and mitigate the spread of Covid-19. “Public health works,” says Blaisdell, who co-authored the study. “When you’re diligent and multilayered and consistent, you can have a safe environment. Camps manage infectious disease. Camps manage risk. We’ve been doing this for generations.” Camps that ran successfully last season, including the four in the study, diligently and consistently utilized a range of nonpharmaceutical strategies. They also trained their staff on how to implement NPIs prior to campers arriving, and sent information home to families ahead of time to familiarize campers with the necessary precautions.
For many camps, tradition runs deep. Summer 2020 required camps to take a close look at their traditions and figure out ways to adapt them in order to keep things safe while staying true to their camp philosophies. Doing so wasn’t always easy, yet many camps found that things they worried about before camp ended up not being a problem in the long run. Connection over tradition. “We spoke to camp directors who said that if the kids had to wear masks that they weren’t running camp, because that’s not camp,” says Susie Lupert, executive director of ACA New York and New Jersey. “But the children were actually quite happy to wear masks if it meant they were allowed to do activities. The idea of socializing and having fun and being together outweighed almost all of the inconveniences that we thought were really big deals. I’m fairly certain those camp directors don’t feel that way anymore.”
So maybe color war won’t be as dramatic as it usually is. Maybe you don’t have off-campus trips or outside performers this year. Maybe traditional, wholecamp activities will have to be dialed back to include smaller groups instead. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t do the thing that you’ve traditionally done for 100 years,” says Blaisdell. “It’s being at camp and being together that makes camp, and the pandemic gave us an opportunity to really prove that.” “At the end of the day, summer camp requires people to be adaptable and flexible—and that was true this past summer especially,” says Caflun. “The one thing I could tell you that we learned is that less is more, and kids just wanted to have fun.” FUTURE FORECAST The December approvals of coronavirus vaccines and the beginning of their distribution is encouraging, but there’s a long way to go before the pandemic is over. At press time, it’s still unclear what a vaccination timeline will look like for healthy kids. As a result, Covid prevention protocols are likely to remain in place for quite some time. Still, the successes camps saw in 2020 are a strong indicator of what campers can look forward to in 2021. “Here in the camp world, we’ve been talking a lot about the ‘culture of compliance,’” says Rosenberg. “We know from the data that we can do this. Everyone needs to work hard and pull together. And once that happens, it can be an amazing experience. Campers and staff will be talking about their Covid summers for the rest of their lives.” Copeland agrees. “The silver lining is that camps are resourceful. Camp people know how to deal with challenges and pivot on a dime. Summer 2020 was a master class in flexibility and resourcefulness. When challenged, camps will come out on top.”
INSPECTION PREP How to get the most out of a professional inspection. By Corey Wall, President, Challenge Design Innovations
Whether your course is on an annual or more frequent professional inspection cycle, it can be an expensive and time consuming (but valuable) process. A little preparation and foresight can help you get more out of the experience. BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING Know what you need before you book your inspection. Check with your course manufacturer, insurance provider, and/ or any applicable regulatory agencies to learn the inspection requirements for your site. The ACCT regulations map can help. Hire the right person for the job. Do they have the necessary certifications
SET CLEAR EXPECTATIONS Most inspections include a structural assessment of the physical course and an assessment of operational equipment, but don’t assume that is the case. Confirm what items will be inspected, what will be excluded, and how and when you will receive the findings. Remember, when you are exploring your options for an inspector, price and value are two different things. You’ll be much happier if you are paying for— and get—the services you really need. Here are a few important items to ask about and understand when engaging with a prospective inspector: • Scope: What physical components and equipment will be included? Are there specific exclusions? • Process: What is included in the inspection process? What tests or mea-
Price and value are two different things. You’ll be much happier if you are paying for–and get–the services you really need. and qualifications? Do they have experience with and understand the systems installed at your site? Review the scope of work so both you and the inspector know what will and will not be included in the inspection process and what standards will be applied.
surements will be performed to verify the course is in good condition? • Maintenance: Will any maintenance be performed during the inspection? If so, are there limits or separate fees? • Repairs: These are typically excluded from inspection services, but small re-
A professional inspector will spend a lot of time off the ground. pairs might be an added service option, or the inspector might be able to take the appropriate measurements for future repairs. • Documentation: Will the inspector review any of the written records for the course? If so, to what extent? • Operational Review: Most annual inspections exclude an assessment of operations, but if that is something you need or want, consider asking about these services. • Reporting: What reports will you receive, and when? Will the inspector complete and file state forms on your behalf? Let the inspector know what you need and when you need it. Finally, find out if the course must be closed during the inspection, who needs to be present, and if any additional conditions must be met for the inspection. For the foreseeable future, this includes informing the inspector of any local travel restrictions due to Covid-19. The inspection process is generally distancing-friendly, but take the time to make a plan with the inspector for how you will both reduce the risk of exposure. >> cont.
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It’s that time of the year again. Some of you may be filled with excitement and anticipation, others may be plagued with dread. Nevertheless, it’s time for your professional inspection.
you anticipate and address issues. Also, make sure all your records are complete and up to date. When inspection time comes, set aside any records your inspector has specifically requested. Make sure the person responsible for meeting with the inspector has access to these and any other information that might be needed on inspection day.
equipment is anchored and its compatibility with your course. Also, time your inspection around operations so the inspector can assess all the equipment together in one place (i.e., equipment is not actively being used by patrons or stored off-site). Inspectors can usually work around some programming, but that requires planning and communication to make sure nothing is missed.
PREPARE THE COURSE
Some annual inspections, like those for zips and brakes, need to be scheduled around operations to prevent interruption.
Conducting your own detailed periodic inspection well in advance of the inspector’s arrival can help make more efficient use of the inspector’s time on site. You may be able to identify areas of concern to discuss with the inspector or anticipate repair needs. Some professional inspection companies also provide repair and maintenance services. If you communicate these needs ahead of time, you might avoid operational downtime or paying for a separate trip later.
PREPARE THE PAPERWORK
While not all inspections include a documentation review, many inspectors will ask to see copies of some key course records to either verify the records exist, or to use them to answer questions he or she has about the course. Such documents may include: • commissioning documents (may include drawings, geotech, surveys, acceptance inspection, proof testing, etc.) • engineer letters or drawings, arborist inspections, or other professional reports • original equipment manufacturer (OEM) manuals • local operating procedures • maintenance and repair records • specialty device servicing records • accident, incident, and near-miss reports • operator training records (in-house and professional) • pre-use inspections and previous professional inspection reports • equipment inventories and use-logs Don’t simply organize your paperwork—read it! Take a close look at the maintenance reports, equipment logs, and previous inspections. This will help
Prior to the inspector arriving on site, verify the course is accessible. Ensure that ladders, keys, equipment, gates, and roads are clear and ready to use. Check the weather forecast and alert the inspector if there are concerns during the inspection period (snow/ice, heavy rain, storms, etc.). If your inspector is traveling from a distance, he or she may be unaware of the conditions in your area. PREPARE THE EQUIPMENT Review your equipment logs and inspection reports to identify any equipment you know is set to expire. Decommission equipment you know will not pass inspection, and make sure you document it and dispose of it appropriately. If there are items you are uncertain about, pull them aside and label them for the inspector to review. Are there specialty devices, such as auto belays, that require periodic servicing by the manufacturer? If possible, try to coordinate servicing schedules around inspections so the equipment is on site and ready to use, which will allow inspectors to assess both how the
Shortly before the inspector arrives, organize your equipment. Separate lanyards, tethers, harnesses, and hardware from each other, and pre-sort the gear by make, model, and year. Remember all your well-organized records? Ensure the equipment log has the manufacture date, in-service date, and manufacturer’s retirement criteria for each piece of equipment. You’ll end up with a much cleaner, more complete inspection report if all the data is at hand. Finally, make sure at least one decent set of patron equipment is available for the inspector to use for function testing. BE PRESENT AND ENGAGED Before the big day arrives, ask the inspector what he or she needs from you during the inspection, and discuss what you want out of the day as well. If you don’t have other responsibilities that require your attention, you may want to stick around and observe or even help. Most inspectors are amenable to having an experienced manager or operator shadow them during the inspection. You can answer questions about how the course is being used and learn about the inspection process. When the day arrives, meet the inspector and show him or her around your property. Make sure the inspector knows where all the course components are located and has access to everything he or she needs. If you can’t be present throughout the inspection, make sure the inspector has a way to reach you or another knowledgeable person. Before the inspector leaves, meet to discuss the initial findings to determine if there are any repair recommendations, provisional passes, or critical failures.
a certain period of time, or if the risk can be mitigated through specific limitations of use, such as decreased capacity or a change in operational procedures.
TAKE ACTION If you receive an initial report summarizing the time-sensitive findings from the inspector, begin by making a plan to resolve those issues. Next, incorporate the detailed findings from the full report into your response plan. Critical failures must be resolved before the component or item can be used. Immediately notify your operational staff of any failures and implement lockout procedures to ensure failed equipment and components are not used until repaired. Determine how the critical failure affects course operations; sometimes a portion of the course can be isolated or bypassed until the repairs are completed. Some inspectors will issue a provisional pass or provisional use recommendation if an issue needs to be addressed within
Recommendations for repairs or monitoring typically refer to parts of the course that are currently functioning, but repairs may prevent damage or improve the design. These suggestions are usually intended to increase the function and longevity of the equipment, reduce operational risk, or improve the customer experience. Make a list and prioritize each action item. Determine what repairs can be addressed in-house and what will require a professional. Develop a budget and a timeline, then schedule the work. Finally, document everything—write down who did what and when they did it. Add this to your course records and know you just rocked your professional inspection.
INSPECTION RESOURCES Here’s a list of ACCT credentialled inspectors. They are qualified to inspect to both the ANSI/ACCT standard and the ASTM F2959 standard. Some states also maintain lists of certified or licensed inspectors. The state lists are a good place to find inspectors certified by the National Association of Amusement Ride Safety Officers (NAARSO) and AIMS International, which are sometimes referenced in state regulations. AIMS offers a list of certified inspectors at aimsintl.org. The Professional Ropes Courses Association (PRCA) also certifies inspectors for its ANSI/PRCA standard. Here’s a list. For more on inspections, see “Challenge Course Pro Tips! What Course Inspections Do I Need?” from The Adventure Guild.
59 Winter 2021
Take the time to ask questions and clarify the initial results so you know what you need to open the course safely.
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