Finding Synergy

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Brad Lee had lofty plans as a young man: He was going to be a rock and roll star. Now, years later, he is indeed surrounded by music—the zipping of zip lines, the gleeful cheers of folks of all ages playing in and around the trees, and the buzz-buzz of a very special protected hive of bees make up the song. It might not be the melody he imagined back then, but for the tens of thousands of guests who flock to Trinity Forest and Southern Cross Adventure Center in Dallas each year, it sounds quite right.

Brad and his wife Judy have been operating Trinity Forest since its inception in 2012 as an extension of the long operating 40-acre Southern Cross ranch in Dallas. Southern Cross, which the Lees have owned since 2000, hosts business, school, family, and other groups for events and traditional team-building activities. With the addition of Trinity Forest, the site has embraced the trend of offering both traditional experiential programs and recreational activities and adventures, and thereby increased the center’s utilization.

“The relationship between Southern Cross and Trinity Forest is totally symbiotic,” Brad says.

By focusing on the three L’s—location, location, and location—the Lees have created a successful and thriving outdoor adventure business, one they’ll soon be handing over to their children. Being near Dallas puts them an easy drive from millions of potential guests. The actual location is a serene spot situated along a river and in unusually thick trees for the area, and the Lees carefully protect the land to keep it pristine.

The Perfect Spot

The Lees came across the property two decades ago. “It was a long and winding road that led us here,” Brad says of the business. “I bought a talent agency because I was going to be a rock star. But six months later, the band broke up.” As luck would have it, a friend hosted a party at Southern Cross that year (2000). Realizing the property had potential, the Lees purchased it.

More than 70 elements can be found in the park, the highest reaching 50 feet off the ground.

The location, Brad says, is key to their success. “There are eight million people in the metro area,” he says. Being located just eight miles from the center of Dallas, most of their guests come from that region. However, he adds, “when people come to Dallas, we are on their radar.”

A lush arbor. Dallas is flat (so is the Lee’s property), and mature trees of any kind are rare. Yet, the site’s 40 acres, Brad says, are thick with hearty, mature, and breathtakingly lovely trees, something that takes most local guests by surprise. “We hear guests all the time saying, ‘I had no idea this was here!’” he says. “You just don’t see those around here.” 

There’s something to be said for shade, too. In the hot Dallas summers, the park offers respite from the sun and heat. It’s a cooler place to have fun. When the Lees decided to purchase, those sheltering 100-year-old-plus oak trees were a huge motivator.

Adventure Park Arrives

Southern Cross is a large facility; with a 16,500-square-foot banquet hall, it can handle groups of up to 1,000. It offers a range of activities, from volleyball, basketball, and softball to swimming, fishing, and horseshoes. There’s even a Kid’s Korral with a playground and petting zoo. The F&B options, powered by a full-service kitchen and bar, cover a range of BBQ offerings.

Between family gatherings and weddings, plus school groups, corporate events, and team-building programs, Southern Cross performed well enough in those first years that the Lees paid off their loans by 2012.

It seemed to them, though, that the location had even more potential. So, in 2012, “we looked around and saw [aerial]parks being built,” Brad says, and thought that might be just the right next thing for them.

They visited aerial attractions in the Northeast and Midwest to gather ideas and input, and were particularly impressed by The Adventure Park at Sandy Springs, Md. Throughout their research, the Lees found other park operators to be helpful and open.

Knowing they were on to a good thing, the Lees hired Massachusetts-based Absolutely Experiential to build their new park.

From novices to savvy operators. It was a challenge, Brad says, jumping into a new venture at which they were total novices. “That was the hardest thing,” he says. “We didn’t know anything. We didn’t know the equipment. We didn’t know what would be the best choices for here.”

They learned. Today, the Trinity Forest park offers something for every age, and even has a course designed for four-year-olds, a newer addition to the locale. There are six ropes courses of varying levels and zip lines, the longest running at about 100 feet. In all, Trinity Forest encompasses seven acres.

The park uses a typical color-coded system to designate trail levels: the same greens, blues, and blacks that ski areas use, with the addition of maroon (children) and yellow (supervised kids).

A color-coded system helps visitors choose courses appropriate for their ability level.

While the highest you can get is about 50 feet off the ground (flat land makes things level), there are three different challenge levels that increase in difficulty. Each course includes eight to 12 elements, with a total of 70 elements across the park. There are also more than 20 zip lines among the elements, and each course includes at least two. Other elements include wobble bridges, tightropes, ladders, and free falls.

Staffing the park. While the courses are self-guided, the park has staff located on perches all along the way to offer advice and help keep guests safe. Guests are never truly alone, even if they feel that freedom.

“We use the ISC SmartSnap belay, so the park acts like a semi-continuous course. Our monitors are ACCT certified, and are able to facilitate our Trinity Forest guests. Most of our facilitation is encouraging our guests to take that next step, or helping them get through the courses by themselves,” says Lee.

Trinity Forest Adventure Park is a “challenge by choice” environment—while it challenges guests to try something new, staff do not push guests to do more than they are willing to do.

“Rarely do we have to get anyone off the course,” Brad says. “I give credit to our deck monitors for that. Our deck monitor acts as a policeman or -woman, allowing those that are capable and age appropriate on the upper courses and denying access to those who are not quite ready for the harder courses, either by height, age, or maturity.”

Photos, left to right: ISC SmartSnap belays allow the rest of the park to act like a semi-continuous course; the site’s team-building programs operate separately from the adventure park; deck monitors stationed on the ropes courses supervise and support guests.

The staff for the team-building program is mostly separate. “We have just hired a full-time staff member to handle our team-building,” Brad says. “She has over 25 years’ experience, handling all types of groups. She also doubles as one of our managers on duty when necessary.”

Currently, most public guests at Trinity Forest are first timers. The Forest has a season pass program, but it hasn’t been built up yet. Instead, most visitors choose from several three-hour time slots for their visit. This year, the Forest plans to offer full-day passes as well.

Step-by-Step Growth

Being in the South, Southern Cross and Trinity Forest have a long season. They welcome guests year round, with high season running all the way from spring break (the first week of March in Texas) through December.

Public vs. private access. Initially, Trinity Forest was reserved midweek for use by the groups that came to Southern Cross for various events. The aerial courses were part of the package of activities groups could choose from. Then, on weekends, the aerial park was open to the public.

As Trinity Forest has gained popularity, the Lees recently expanded public access to include Fridays as well. And this summer, the aerial park will be available daily to the public. 

That’s among the many changes the Lees have made—or plan to make—as they evolve their business to suit the demands of their various guests.

Similarly, the Lees are considering opening the Southern Cross property and activities to the public on weekends and daily during the summer, which would transform Southern Cross and Trinity Forest into one location where individuals and family guests can take in all the fun the property can offer.

F&B operations have also evolved to meet the needs of varying groups. At Southern Cross, “food and beverage for corporate or private groups can include a full menu—entree (typically a three meat BBQ), sides, desserts, and drinks,” says Brad. For smaller banquet groups, he says, “we have found the need to install a moveable wall,” which was expected to be installed by early spring. 

For larger groups at Trinity Forest, the menu offers hamburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, and Tex-Mex. The options for the public guests at the aerial park are more limited: energy bars, bottled water, and Gatorade. “But again, we are looking to expand our concessions beginning this summer,” Brad says.

Accessible to All Ages

One of the Lees’ goals—being accessible and fun for all ages—got a boost when they added Out on a Limb, a special netted course for small children ages 4 and up, to Trinity Forest. Children ages 4 and 5 must be accompanied by an adult, while children 6 and up can try the kids’ course with supervision from staff on hand.

Adding the Out on a Limb netted course enabled Trinity Forest to cater to kids as young as four years old; its netted features provide access and fun for younger kids without lifeline equipment.

The addition means everyone has something fun to do on a visit, Brad says. And since it’s in a relatively compact area, the netted course makes an easy home base from which individual family members can head to their appropriate level, have some fun, and then meet back for snacks, lunch, and whatever else they may want to do while at the park.

The Challenges

The challenge as the operation grows, Brad says, is a big challenge all businesses are facing now: staffing. They currently employ 12 full-time staffers, split evenly between Southern Cross and Trinity Forest, and about 35 part-timers in the summer months. With the metro area to draw from, the Lees hope they can meet their growing staffing needs. 

Another challenge goes back to those three L’s: Their location, as lovely as it is, limits their expansion options in some ways. “We’re planning on adding more courses,” says Brad, “and one will include a number of zip lines. But, you know, we’re flat.” That means their zip lines play differently than the lines he’s seen at other parks that may sweep downhill, for example, he says.

Still, the whoops and laughs and smiling faces he sees at Trinity Forest already show him that even short zips are crowd pleasers.

Preserving the Forest

One thing that isn’t a challenge? Keeping their commitment to preserving the trees and land long term. “I always go back to the trees,” Brad says of the park’s attributes. “The feeling you get when you are in the park? That’s from preserving those trees.”

That’s an active process. “We have an arborist out at least twice per year, every year since 2013,” he says. “If something does not look quite right, we will call them out again.”

Then there’s the bee tree. A giant Bois d’Arc tree with a hollow spot three feet above the ground sits at the park’s entrance. In it is a long-living bee colony, and the park does all it can to support it.

“We have a rope barrier and a sign that reads, ‘Live Hive,’ so the public does not get too close,” Brad says. “Every year or two, the queen decides the colony is too large and kicks out the new queen and drones. We have a ‘bee box’ that acts as a nesting area. From there, we contact the local beekeeper, and he collects the bees and relocates the new colony.”

Brad’s proud of that example. “Most of the pest control companies just want to poison the bees or vacuum them out of their home. We do not allow that to happen,” he says. “Our unstated mission at Trinity Forest Adventure Park is to preserve, admire, and appreciate all that lives within nature, even the least of these creatures, and inviting our guests to share that with us.”

What of the future? The rock star of Texas outdoor fun sees lots of potential in the operation. “We like it so much, we brought our daughter and son-in-law into it,” Brad says. “They are the future.” 

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