Developing Devoted Employees


It’s the foundational need for any successful adventure park: A dedicated and focused staff willing to do what is needed for a safe, exciting, and memorable guest experience.

Has the pandemic made building that foundation more challenging?

Some experts think so. But they also see solutions—some think that higher pay and improved benefits are the key, while others firmly believe professional development is the answer.

The latter is perhaps a call to action that newer staff may have needed for some time. And that action (or actions) is providing staff with training, certifications, and more to develop their expertise. Setting forth a clear path to opportunity, advancement, and success, the experts say, could build a stronger and more permanent staff base, both for individual operators and the industry as a whole.

Intangible benefits have value. While raising pay rates is an obvious—and often successful—answer to staffing shortages, some believe the key with the new generation of workers may be more nuanced. Faced with a future in which home ownership (long a key motivator for workers) seems unattainable, young workers drawn to the industry want benefits less tangible than higher pay: passion, flexibility, and meaning.

“When many of us were young, we knew we could work hard and eventually get a house,” says Emma Bell, co-owner and director of Vertex Instructor Training in the UK. “Now, they can feel like they can never get that, and so they look for a better work/life balance.”

Add to that the pandemic’s impact on working in general: Some people had a year off to rethink their wants. Returning to low pay, long hours, and a public that, Bell says, “can be revolting at times” about Covid protocols and other things, lacks appeal.

“People came out of the pandemic suddenly finding they can find better jobs,” Bell says. “It’s been difficult to recruit as a consequence.”


One solution, Bell says, is the certification paths offered via the European Ropes Courses Association (ERCA) and other programs. These help outdoor adventure workers build their skills, develop expertise, and find that “meaning,” which she believes many yearn for now. “The idea is to create an outdoor instructor career path,” she says.

“It’s a big risk,” she concedes, for parks to foot the bill for training and certification that a worker could carry elsewhere. But she believes it is one the industry needs—in North America and the UK alike—to thrive.

“By offering awards recognized across the board,” she says, “we are bettering the whole industry.”


Inspired Learning (IL) in the UK is a group of outdoor adventure sites that focuses on outdoor education. They’ve been working with Vertex on setting up and encouraging trainings for staff. “We want, and need, a high-caliber staff,” says IL activity training manager Phil Page. “Better certification and training gives us better teams.”

Page senses a shift in the younger, newer people attracted to the field, and he sees it as positive. “We find they are really passionate about making a difference with kids, and being that guiding hand,” he says. “It’s not just a ‘it’s cool to work on a ropes course’ situation.”

Partnerships with a plan. Page has found working on training and certification via ERCA has been a plus. “We benefit well from partnering with governing bodies,” he says. Not only does that give IL access to good trainings, certifications, and materials; it also gives managers a chance to compare notes with other similar companies, and to garner “best practices” from others.

IL encourages employees to reach for higher and higher certifications, but with purpose. “We don’t just want them ‘badge collecting,’” Page says. “We don’t want them just going from certification to certification. We like to have each step bring meaning to them.”


At Adventure Playground in Costa Rica, proprietor Victor Gallo also finds that guides are motivated by the certification process. It helps, he notes, that this is a year-round industry there—and licensing is a requirement. But he also believes that guides take pride in the process and moving up through the steps. “It’s like a badge of honor,” he says. “They show it off for sure.”

Gallo has advice and warnings for those who consider adding certification to their process.

First, work in concert with other similar companies in your region. He believes ACCT should take the lead to make testing in the U.S. consistent across the board. “Don’t start a system [of your own]until all those pieces are in place,” he says.

He also warns that the process has to be attainable—it can’t take an overwhelming amount of time. In Costa Rica, Gallo says, certification used to be “crazy. It took like 500 hours, so you’d have to actually take time off from work [to complete it].” Now, the government-led licensing and certification takes less time.

Gallo believes that well-trained, experienced guides can often pass a level-one certification test without additional training, something that can cut down on training time and costs. “A proficiency and knowledge test would work well, like getting your driver’s license,” he says. “If you know how to drive already [and you need a license], you just take the test. It’s not rocket science.”

Instructors needed. Another caution: make sure a sufficient number of instructors are available for the training. That has been a major challenge in Costa Rica. Guides are certified after passing a free course through the National Apprenticeship Institute (INA), and the Tourism Institute provides the physical licenses to those who have been certified. However, there aren’t enough instructors for the required course to meet the demand.

As a result, Gallo says that many guides have been working for as long as four years without a chance to get certified yet. “The law has not been reinforced and keeps getting postponed year to year due to the fact that INA does not have the capacity to certify in an efficient way all around the country,” he says.

The Health Ministry regulates aerial adventure operations, but it has been lenient with operators, allowing a percentage of guides to be certified/licensed.
“It’s a catch-22,” he says. “You need to be licensed to be a guide, but there are not enough teachers to license you.” His advice: get ahead of that challenge.


As program manager for the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) in Boulder, Colo., Heather Brooks has been pondering, and acting on, these challenges for some time now.

A former course manager, she says it “did seem the lifespan of our guides was around three years until they were ready to find another pathway.”

Passion and the cool factor. “I like the idea of making it a career,” Brooks continues. “Our industry plays more to people’s passion. It’s a passion career, not a paycheck career. We need to speak more to people’s passion and how to follow that.”

She says that zip tours and ropes courses definitely have the “cool factor,” but behind all the coolness can be some monotony. “The repetitiveness can be some of the issue” with retaining staff long-term. “It gets to a point,” Brooks says, “where you are like, ‘Clip, send. Clip, send. Clip, send.’”

Certification, for her as a former course manager, spurred her to make this world her career. “I was motivated by what came from it, like more responsibility, and I felt more of a sense of true purpose within a major operation,” she says. “I was being trusted, and that gave me a sense of responsibility and purpose I was looking for.”

ACCT is looking to develop and offer more training certifications, Brooks says, as well as to someday offer internships to help people find their place in
the industry, though that latter idea is still in its infancy.

Looking beyond certification. As she helps develop these ideas, Brooks hopes to build a program that provides rewards beyond just a pay raise, such as conference access, regional meet-up events, and special trainings. And she’d like to see those happen alongside other industries.

Another motivational perk she’d like to see: ACCT memberships after a certain number of years working in the industry.
“So they’d get the benefits of that,” Brooks says. “They could do—and their work could support—panels, task forces, and more. ACCT likes to keep those things diverse, with all levels of workers on them.”

Casting a wide net. This is not just about young adults. “Looking for more meaning isn’t just for Millennials,” she says. “We have workers out there from 18 to 64 and older, and each person is looking for something different.” Older workers often “want to feel young again,” or connect outside their normal workforce.

Understanding all that and helping people grow into their jobs and find meaning in it is a smart investment, Brooks believes: “Your staff are the ones doing the work day in and day out. They set the tone. If the staff is unhappy, it’s going to reflect on [your bottom line].”


Develop certification programs. In the UK, Vertex is working with Kingswood, one of Inspired Learning’s sites (along with other sites of theirs) on a recognizable ropes course accreditation, as well as some others. They’re building the program so that eventually the group will have its own trainers in house.

It means a large investment now ($50,000 with work spread across IL’s many locations), but, Bell notes, “The cost of training, in theory, should be reduced over time. Three to five years from now, they will see the benefit. It may seem like a risk, but it will pay dividends.”

Write bigger paychecks. Dylan Burt, founder of Adventure Operations, recently secured one of the first ACCT operation accreditations. He clearly believes in the value of certification. But he also believes that paying more is the top priority for keeping staff on board. “I don’t think certification is as big a deal as others do,” he says.

Across America, he says, the average starting pay for a guide has not increased much in 20 years. That will change, he believes, due to either market demand or government requirement. For example, in California, where he is located, minimum wage will increase to $15 per hour in 2022.

“Pay is essential,” Burt says. “I don’t think that a guide is necessarily going to be super motivated by a certification. I think what will motivate is higher pay, flexible schedules, and better benefits.”

If the job pays well, he says, retaining workers is easy enough. “We’re out there helping people to have fun,” he says. “Our job is to make people smile.” Job satisfaction flows naturally from that.

At the same time, he recognizes the value for committed employees to have a clear pathway to professional growth. So he sees value in funding certifications as well as paying more.

“Don’t have sticker shock,” he says. “Everything is getting more expensive. You may need to up your admission prices. Figure out how to make it work.”


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