Whether you have a staff of returning veterans or you’re welcoming an army of new guides, staff training plays a critical role in the success of your business. To help your adventure park or challenge course team deliver the best possible experience, Adventure Park Insider asked trainers from across the country to weigh in with their best practices for preparing staff for the busy season.
What we wound up with is a list full of great ideas, timely reminders, and common-sense practices that will serve both staff and guests well into the future.
1. PLAY TOGETHER, SPREAD JOY TOGETHER
Taking guests through a challenge course or adventure park is a hands-on experience that involves heavy staff involvement and interaction. To ensure that your guides are spreading the love, Aerial Adventure Academy director Steve Carne recommends pre-season staff bonding.
“Help your new and veteran staff bond and get to know each other,” says Carne. “Staff trust and staff morale can have a huge impact on the customer experience, and we know that happy guides make happy customers. We like to spend some time early on in our staff training and retraining helping our staff make connections. This can take the form of traditional ice-breaker activities or paired climbs where new employees get some time on course with an experienced employee.”
2. FINDING COMPLEMENTARY STRENGTHS FROM WITHIN
When it comes to training staff, Bee Lacey, lead trainer at Bonsai, takes an innovative approach—she taps each employee’s existing strengths to benefit the team as a whole.
“Provided it’s appropriate, we pair staff with different skill sets, which often leads to learning for both parties,” Lacey says. “For example, a gregarious guide capable of keeping the attention of a group paired with someone who is fantastic at one-on-one coaching often results in improved skills for both.
“I encourage the trainees to watch other staffers/trainees and identify techniques they may be able to use in their own programming. When staff members learn positive practices from each other that help them succeed, it builds trust—and that’s a win for staff and guests alike.”
Conversely, Lacey cautions that this practice can also lead to the transfer of bad habits. To avoid this, she emphasizes the importance of carefully considering who you pair up.
3. PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
While it’s all well and good to describe the many scenarios that can crop up on a daily basis during the busy season, nothing beats immersing staff in potential scenarios for hands-on experience.
Carne says, “We have found that the single most important factor for preparing new staff is to practice scenarios. We can have the best written manuals, the newest equipment, and the most competent staff, but none of that matters if they don’t take the time to practice.
“As with all parks, we train and practice our technical equipment and assist techniques, but we also practice less frequently thought-of scenarios, such as difficult customer service situations, park evacuations, and key software failure.”
Taking it a step further, Carne says he encourages veteran staff to come up with worst-case scenarios themselves since they’re on the front line and they’ve seen the problems and near misses firsthand. This practice encourages even the most veteran staff to look at the park with fresh eyes and, by considering those near misses, staff can be better prepared for any number of potential problems.
4. THE FEAR FACTOR
When it comes to handling fear—and there’s plenty of that when introducing guests to adventure and challenge courses—Bonsai’s Lacey tries to ensure that even the most hardened staffers can tap into the emotion.
“Whenever I introduce the topic of coping with a guest’s fear,” says Lacey, “I ask my group to close their eyes and think of a specific time when they experienced fear or anxiety related to an activity or situation. I ask them to identify someone in that recollection who stands out, whether as a positive or negative influence, and to share a few words that describe that person’s actions or demeanor.”
After everyone has shared, Lacey asks the group to identify any trends in these experiences to underscore important concepts or techniques that the team can file away for future use. By bringing the fear home, Lacey says, “The lesson is more likely to stick with them long after I leave.”
5. REMEMBERING WHEN
To help staff better connect with first-time guests, Aerial Adventure Academy’s Carne believes in reminding staff what it’s like to be a new participant.
“It’s easy for those who have worked at a park for years to forget what the first climbing experience was like,” Carne says. “We want all of our employees to understand how new, confusing, and even scary the experience can be for many first-time participants.”
To help staffers, Carne will add a new element to the park, take his staff to a different park to climb, or send staff through a few lines of their course blind-folded. Afterward, Carne gathers staff for a reflective discussion that reinforces the lessons learned.
6. CONNECTING WITH GUESTS
Catering to guests with wildly different needs, concerns, and backgrounds can be difficult, which is why Rohan Shahani, director of training at Challenge Works, Inc., trains staffers to learn as much as they can about their guests.
For example, learning names is important, but Shahani tells staff to go beyond that. “I want to know where people are from, what their lives look like, and what their reality is outside of the park or tour. Anything I can learn that helps me phrase or frame instructions or interpretive programming in a way that relates to the individual is a valuable piece of information.”
As an example, Shahani’s favorite question is, “Where were you before you were here?” By learning the sequence of events or choices that led them to the park, Shahani “seeks to learn what their interests or worries are while simultaneously listening to and observing their tone, terms, body language, and expression. This data helps me shape their experience by highlighting things that interest them, and it provides me with information about the best way to give them instructions—some people will respond better to questions (‘Will you please stand over here?’), while others want to be told what to do (‘Hey! Walk this way!’).”
7. LESSONS LEARNED
A great way to guide staffers in the new season is to use lessons learned from the past. Sydney Iverson, program manager at Northwest Teambuilding, a Signature Company, says, “Last season, we began implementing electronic forms for our accident, incident, and close-call reporting, as well as end-of-program debriefs. With all this data compiled in one place, I am now able to share trends and notes from last season to give staff the motivation behind policy and procedure changes.”
8. ANTICIPATING STAFF BURNOUT
When it comes to handling guests on a challenge course, day in and day out, staff burnout can often be an issue. “Folks are often working long days in the elements, multiple days in a row, and they can become both physically and mentally exhausted,” says Iverson. To combat this, Iverson “plans ahead for refresher days at the course, or even a barbecue or other event, to thank staff for all their hard work and check in with them about how things are going.”
9. HANDLING THE MASSES
It’s all well and good to train staff on a quiet course, but the reality of the day-to-day operation can be much different, especially when guests arrive en masse. To prepare staff, Aerial Adventure Academy’s Carne spends a good amount of time going over the basics of group management and engagement.
“Most parks out there have had the experience of multiple buses pulling up, a hundred kids filing out, and new guides standing watching the scene dumbfounded,” Carne says. “We want to prepare our staff for this situation, so we teach all of our employees, from hosts to monitors, how to corral and engage large groups. This includes strategies like voice projection, mirrored clapping, and positioning to maximize attention.”
10. GAUGING YOUR GUESTS
Since fear is often part and parcel of the adventure or challenge course experience for guests, Sonnie Gibson, operations manager at High Gravity Adventures, teaches staff how to identify guests who seem nervous or show signs of hesitation.
Gibson urges staff to monitor and gauge their guests from the moment they explain the activities and then throughout each obstacle, challenge, and activity. “This helps staff plan ahead for how to best help guests through their fears,” Gibson explains.
“By continually assessing the guest’s fear level, you can help avoid fear-related surprises and delays,” he adds. “Our goal as recreation professionals is to help create the most fun and best experiences for our guests. If we are constantly observing how our guests are responding, we can help to tailor that experience for them to make it even better.”
And that, after all, is a fantastic goal for any park.