The principle of working smarter and not harder has become more important than ever for adventure operators during the past two years. Pandemic woes and what is being called the “Great Resignation” have resulted in staffing shortages industry wide, leaving us scrambling to figure out how to do what we do, only better and with less people. Operating efficiently—particularly when it comes to staffing—is paramount.
So, what works? Operators and operational reviewers agree that a few key components stand out: staff training, inventory management, management and evaluation of daily operations, and company culture.
A strong in-house staff training program can mitigate inefficiencies at every level of operations, but it’s also an efficiency in and of itself. “The biggest component for us is being able to quickly hire and train staff ourselves,” says Micah Henderson from Vertical Solutions Consulting of the three operations she co-manages with Applied Adventure Consulting. Henderson says that, due to the nature of the industry and high staff turnover at most sites, it is not often realistic or affordable for a third-party vendor to keep up with the training and qualification needs of a site.
Dylan Burt of Applied Adventure Consulting agrees, and emphasizes the importance of finding an individual who is knowledgeable and good at training others—someone you can build a program and curriculum around. “Training one trainer saves time and money,” says Burt. “Finding the right person is key, and retaining that person is critical.”
Operations can save if they can create and maintain their own specific instruction and qualification programs. This requires quality planning and execution by site leadership, though—half-baked plans won’t cut it. Any good training takes a great deal of time and effort to pull off. Operators must also work closely with their manufacturer to determine their own specific training needs and to ensure compliance with their local and state regulations.
Cross-training staff is also an effective efficiency measure. If staff have the ability to hop from role to role, they can be deployed more widely and effectively throughout the operation. Henderson has seen that “cross-training between guest services, guides, and office work allows people to pivot on the fly with the team atmosphere,” which she also says encourages an “all hands on deck” attitude among the staff when gaps are present.
Inventory management is also key in saving time and money. Many parks have fallen into the deadly “more availability = more profitability” fallacy. This ideology often manifests itself in extensive operational hours, tons of available tickets, and a plethora of options for times and activities available to guests. While on paper the idea seems reasonable, in practice this can lead to staff burnout, diminished guest experience, and wasted time and resources.
“We make sure that we monitor ticket inventory closely each day,” says Henderson. “We adjust our ticket availability based on our ability to staff it efficiently while still maintaining a factor of safety.”
Fill popular times first. Trends can be identified, even for new operations, in terms of when guests will come and when visitors will be scarce. “We schedule tours based not only on guide availability, but also local trends due to being a vacation destination,” says Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventures, Wis., general manager Caitlin Snyder. “We’ll push [guests to]weekends to have a more laid-back midweek. We do our best to manage the schedule and push participants into tours and close unbooked tours.”
While guests should have some options, Burt encourages operations to fill the known popular times first before expanding. “We know that from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. will be our busiest time,” he says. Using that five-hour window as a jumping off point for days that may be questionable in terms of traffic, additional tickets can be added as needed in case of walk ups or last-minute reservations.
Flexibility needed. This strategy requires those managing the operation to be knowledgeable and available to adjust inventory based on real-time data. It also requires flexibility when it comes to staffing and the ability to call more staff in if needed, or shuffle folks around to fulfill demand.
Many operations may struggle to put this kind of flexibility into practice, but companies can use strategies such as call-in pay (additional compensation for those willing to be called into work last minute) as well as closing and/or opening availability within a certain time frame or marker (example: closing off unbooked slots 24 hours in advance, or opening more when 75 percent of capacity is reached) to encourage flexibility within the staff. This may prove to be more trouble than it’s worth for some sites, however, so operators should be cognizant of the pros and cons of using these methods.
Operators should also take a hard look at how their day-to-day programming runs in order to determine if they need to be more adaptable in their procedures. Henderson describes the shift supervisors at Quarry Park Adventures in California as the “conductors of the symphony” because they monitor all aspects of the operation—from guest flow and ticket inventory to staff movement and placement—and will make adjustments and corrections to account for daily conditions.
A certain level of fluidity and flexibility is important in the management of operations and strategies, such as restricting certain portions of the experience or activity (example: only using five zips of an eight-zip tour to increase efficiency). Having staff fulfill multiple roles (such as supervisory staff jumping into low traffic areas) can help to reduce waste.
Make informed decisions. The decision to cut programming needs to be made with careful consideration of demand, guest expectations, and staffing. Burt suggests that managers ask themselves, “Where do our guests want to go?” and staff accordingly. Leadership needs to look at what guests actually want vs. what we think they want. Historical data and current ticket sales can be used to make this distinction.
Future and situational planning also needs to be taken on if operators are to be prepared for any scenario. Leadership should address some of the “what ifs” of short staffing and make plans as to what can be cut and how staff can be allocated if the minimum number of staff is not available to run the entirety of the activity. Leaders should ask themselves how they can meet guest expectations while still remaining profitable and safe. Once these backup plans have been created, they should be integrated into training so that, if the situation arises, everyone understands what their roles and responsibilities will be.
At Lake Geneva Ziplines and Adventure, Snyder’s team knows that if staffing is short or demand is low, the high-ropes excursion will not be available. “It’s the cheaper ticket option. Demand is generally higher for our zip line tours, so we schedule as many of those as we can and then open high ropes when we have an extra guide available,” Snyder says.
Tracking demand as well as payroll and revenue metrics will allow leadership to identify trends and areas that are not performing as anticipated or desired. This will result in a clearer picture of weak or troublesome areas that may need tweaking or more intensive modifications.
Modify for efficiency. An evaluation of operational performance may also deal with the design and infrastructure of a course and its use. Operators may need to consider equipment or design component changes to make the systems run efficiently and improve the guest and/or staff experience.
Johnny Turman of Ascent Collaborative Consulting emphasizes the importance of open, honest communication between park operators and their manufacturers. If changes need to be made, Turman says that teams “have to find a way to work with the [original equipment manufacturer]to get the changes that you want or need done. Ask internally first how you can tweak the course to make it better, then fine tune the ideas by working with the manufacturer to implement it.”
While a total course overhaul isn’t necessarily the answer, industry professionals should keep in mind that new and improved technologies may be available. Operators should do their research and see what else may be out there that could make their lives easier.
Last, but certainly not least, course operators need to also consider their culture and staff care when evaluating efficiency within the operation. “If you can’t maintain your culture and staff, you reset yourself to have to start again the next year,” Turman says. Starting again means hiring, training, and breaking in all new staff members, which costs time and money.
Henderson advises leaders to “respect your staff like they are in a career” if you want dedicated and career-focused employees. Quality leadership also means setting realistic goals and putting the power to track efficiency into the hands of those managers that are responsible for it. Creating a simple calculation that takes labor cost and revenue into account and spits out a number that quantifies achievements will help leaders to monitor their managers’ progress on a daily basis.
Tracking and benchmarking progress also helps create clear expectations and will set teams up for success as they move forward. “If staff are successful, you’ll have better retention,” says Burt.
Hit the mark. The bottom line is that there are many ways to operate efficiently. All operators need to assess their needs and goals to determine which strategies will be most effective for their application. It is an ever-changing mark that requires constant attention and monitoring in order to hit.
In the end, the most important goal is to keep guests and staff safe. Beyond that, the age-old adage of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” comes to mind. As with most worthwhile things (other than maybe skydiving) trial and error will be necessary, but the end result of being able to do more with less will be worth the effort.