Every operator of off-the-ground attractions and activities strives for a baseline of safety and compliance. Staff need to be trained, proficient, and detail-oriented to meet even basic safety standards as required by organizations like the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) and the European Ropes Course Association (ERCA).
“Competency in safety and compliance are primary,” says Tim Sissons, training executive for In2action, a UK-based training and recruitment consultant for adventure and leisure outfitters. Versing staff members in PPE, metalwork, ropes, cables, and safety compliance is the priority, says Sissons. Guests expect a minimum standard of care. Operators that train their staff to meet safety standards provide that. But does meeting safety training standards alone help to differentiate your adventure business so it rises above others? Probably not.
To rise above, an operation could, say, build bigger, better attractions every year to get a leg up on the competition, but that isn’t a very sustainable option. A more viable way to distinguish your operation from the pack may be to train staff in so-called “soft” skills. According to Sissons, investing in the development of guest service skills is the key to rising above—because not everyone does so.
“There is an opportunity within our sector to take experiences to another level,” says Ellie Websdell, executive director of In2action, which has been delivering soft skills training programs for two decades.
What Are Soft Skills?
Most managers of aerial attractions and programs understand that attitude, appearance, demeanor, posture, and confidence—in other words, the interpersonal habits that aid employees in interacting with guests—are foundational to good service. “Taking off your sunglasses when you greet guests, unfolding the arms, standing instead of sitting,” says Sissons, “these are some of the basic tenets.”
But not everyone knows this. And if you’re a manager who assumes your employees do understand these basics, you may be in for disappointment. “In many cases, no one on a young person’s journey has taught them these skills,” says Sissons. It’s possible that new employees in your company never got the memo that a positive attitude and neat appearance are part of the job. Often, they must be trained to understand this concept.
Understand your impact. Sissons, who delivered a TEDx Talk on motivational leadership in March 2022, is among the ranks of those who understand the power and importance of soft skills. He designed a training program called “Be on a 10” (a reference to the rockumentary “Spinal Tap,” in which a rock star’s amplifier volume knobs go from 0 to 11 instead of 0 to 10 to boost output). The program teaches participants to examine their attitudes and their effect on performance. “They realize ‘it’s about me,’” says Sissons.
In other words, employees take responsibility for their own experiences, the guest’s experience, and the outcomes they’d like to see.
Why Train Soft Skills?
Many employers view compliance and safety training as obligatory and soft skills training as a “nice-to-have.” But for Jof Gaughan, executive director of Camp Beaumont, a client of In2action that operates summer camps in 30 locations across England, training that emphasizes attitude is a critical component of safety.
“Providing guest experiences with the right attitude translates into managing risk and safety,” says Gaughan.
For example, “Be on a 10” training covers, among other things, stress management in one’s personal life. If employees can manage their own personal stress away from work, the benefits at work are obvious. Such training sets them up to deal with stressful situations that may arise on the job—an employee that has compartmentalized personal stress upon arrival at work may be better able to remain calm, make clear-thinking decisions, and react appropriately in difficult situations, says Gaughan.
Part of the success story. Risk management benefits aside, the real value of investing in soft skills is in the other ways in which they elevate an organization. Many guests on aerial adventure attractions are outside their comfort zones, pushing their limits, and, in some cases, feeling anxious. Those that are comfortable still place a great deal of trust in staff members to keep them safe. An employee that treats guests with compassion, kindness, understanding, and good humor becomes part of the guests’ success stories.
For example, a staff member with limited self-awareness might observe an anxious guest on a zip line or ropes course dispassionately, sunglasses on, chewing gum, and without speaking. Yes, all the safety requirements were met, but the staffer isn’t being of any additional help. The guest finally goes, without encouragement from the staff member.
Contrast that with the following guest experience: “I was scared; I was anxious. But the staff was patient, encouraging, and reassuring while I gathered myself. They told me to take my time. Then I finally went for it… and I succeeded!”
“There is potential for generating unique and extremely memorable connections with customers,” says Websdell. “Staff become part of the experience and, therefore, part of the stories customers tell and, more importantly, part of the memory.”
Gaughan says that soft skills training has made a difference in another important area: net promoter scores. Since shifting its focus to customer service training and the guest experience, Camp Beaumont’s scores went from above average to excellent across all locations. And growth—even at core, established sites—is at 7 to 8 percent instead of 1 percent, as in the past.
Guest service training can also impact staff recruitment and retention. Covid-19 has exacerbated the ongoing staffing crunch in the UK and across North America, and Gaughan uses training as one incentive to attract and retain employees, many of whom are young people.
“We want them to have the tools they need,” says Gaughan. And having the right tools—that is, the skills necessary to feel confident on the job—makes employees feel better about themselves at work, which often leads to staff retention.
Tools include training on how to talk to people, initiating personal interactions, coming to work with a positive attitude, and affecting positive change. Obviously, recruitment challenges aren’t going away. “But this sort of training can improve the employee experience and help with buy-in,” say Sissons. “It can minimize employee churn.”
How to Train Soft Skills
In2action’s training utilizes concrete examples and activities that resonate with the audience and ensure that people leave with definite takeaways.
Sissons recalls a woman who stood at one training and said her husband was in the military. “She said that when he’s home on leave and they go on vacation, they don’t know if there’s going to be a next time,” he recalls. That experience impacted Sissons in that he found himself wanting to treat everyone as if they were that woman and her family—not knowing if they were ever going to have another similar experience together. He tries to find similarly tangible and meaningful examples and experiences for those in his trainings.
“We try to match relevant activities, use the right music, show the right pictures,” he says. If you have an audience of young people, play Olivia Rodrigo and Adele, not Queen and the Police.
Power of influence. Finally, impress upon them the importance and power of their impact on the people they guide through an experience. Emma Bell, owner of UK-based training and consulting firm Vertex Training, thinks of rescue scenarios as opportunities to put soft skills into practice. Performing a rescue—that is, having a staff member go out to a guest who has “frozen,” disconnect the guest from the cable, and lower the guest safely to the ground using a rescue system—would demonstrate solid technical skills in action.
But that isn’t the ideal solution. “Even better would be talking to that participant and eventually coaching them down,” says Bell.
In these two scenarios, the end result is the same: The participant remained safe and eventually made it to the ground. In the first scenario, however, the participant had to be rescued. A harsh self-critic might view this as a personal failure (“I couldn’t do it and had to be saved.”). The second scenario has the participant realizing that it wasn’t easy and that he or she needed some coaching. “But I did it!” the participant could say. In this scenario, the guide’s people skills fostered an experience where the participant grew and eventually overcame personal anxiety and fear.
Safety and compliance are the priority when it comes to training staff. Companies that complement technical and safety training with guest service skills training can produce game-changing results, though: High-functioning employees who may be more inclined to stay in a job (or return for another season); staff with the skills to forge meaningful connections with customers; and customers who have experiences through which they stretch and grow.
“Would it change how you treated a guest if it turned out that this experience was their dying wish?” Sissons asks. It might change guest experiences if staff treated every guest as if it was.