Guiding Lights

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With all the upheaval in the world and in the aerial adventure industry right now, we wanted to highlight a few of the young pros who are making an impact at their operations. Nominated by their bosses and peers, we are calling these up-and-comers “Guiding Lights” because they help their teams, parks, and customers maneuver through challenges with composure and creativity. From Colorado to Georgia, and from Essex, England, to Edmonton, Alberta, these Guiding Lights shine across the globe.

Their pathways into the industry have been varied. Some hold degrees in outdoor education or recreation, while others took a more circuitous route—working first as a professional chef, studying to become a teacher, or taking an adventure park job to make a little pocket money.

Regardless of how they got involved, the Guiding Lights are all highly valued team members. And, this year, their skills were applied in unique ways, as they played important roles in helping their companies and crews navigate the uncertainty and upheaval brought on by COVID-19. We hope their examples inspire you, and help you to recognize and value your own Guiding Lights.

Have someone you think should be profiled? Nominate them for a 2021 profile here!

PATRICK AVERY

Adventure Designs & Operations Manager, American Adventure Park Systems/Vertical Trek USA, Ga.

A spontaneous detour to Historic Banning Mills while en route to a job at a wilderness therapy camp changed Patrick Avery’s

Patrick Avery

career plan. Owner Donna Holder invited Patrick to come check out the zip line and see how he liked being a tour guide. “I joined the next day,” Patrick laughs. Ten years later, he’s still with Banning Mills, albeit in a different branch. Patrick now manages operations for American Adventure Park Systems [AAPS], the company’s business-to-business arm. He also holds a degree in outdoor education, is a Level 2 ACCT Professional Inspector, a Wilderness EMT, and is OSHA certified in a number of areas—all indicators of his commitment to the industry and passion for continuous learning. 

What was the defining moment in your career?

It’s gone by so fast, all gas and no brakes. Every season is just so interesting. One of the moments that spurred a bunch of change for me was when we [AAPS] decided to become a PVM with ACCT. I had more of an opportunity to foster relationships with other builders and peers. And it’s nice to have systems that you helped put in place be looked at, critiqued, and fine-tuned by that community.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received?

All part of the job. Patrick Avery checks out a zip line.

I’ve done NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) classes, and one of the things that sticks with me is from Wilderness First Aid. My EMT instructor said, “We can sit around and ‘what if’ all day, or we can step back and do the best we can with the resources that we have.” That comes up more than you’d think when I am talking about operations or training people. This is an industry with a ton of variables and there are lots of questions that always arise. So, one of my answers is always that—do the best you can with the resources you have.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. How are you adapting to the changes?

Overall, my strategy and approach of getting clients what they need hasn’t changed. I have had to have discussions with clients and peers about things like line rescues, disinfecting gear, personal protective wear, and the recommended strategies for dealing with all of that. Being able to have those open conversations about operational changes has been important for us to provide the best service we can.

PHIL BROWN

Phil Brown

Lead Trainer and Facilitator, High 5 Adventure Learning Center, Vt.

While Phil Brown didn’t become a teacher like he initially planned when he was studying English literature and sports science at the University of Gloucestershire in England, he’s still a proud educator. “All of the stuff that we build is just a tool for educational learning,” says Phil, talking about his work with High 5, an experiential education organization. He’s been a trainer with the company for five years, and worked year-round at an adventure program for seven years before that. A Level 2 ACCT trainer, Phil now travels the Northeast, teaching operators how to incorporate adventure activities into their programming.

What inspired you to get involved in the aerial adventure industry?

I came over to the U.S. through a summer camp. The camp had a relatively small static course with a zip, and I was picked for advanced zip line training. The instructor, Leo, liked that I asked loads of questions. I fell in love with facilitating. The camp had an outdoor ed center, and I ended up working with them year-round. The pull for me, the reason I didn’t go back to England and teach, was that we were making better human beings, teaching people how to stretch themselves, instead of teaching Shakespeare.

Tell me about the podcast you created.

Phil Brown leads a training, playing Rock, Paper, Scissors Splits.

The podcast is called Vertical Playpen. The initial point was to stay connected with our clients. We train a lot of students, and people are curious about building a career in the industry. It is not a straight line. So, I wanted to interview everyone who works at High 5 and ask them that question—how did you end up here? The podcast gained traction quite quickly. There wasn’t another podcast about our industry out there, so I decided to keep it going. We’ve added many different topics in the process and have 59 episodes. It’s a free resource for people, and something I wish had been around when I was just getting started.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. How are you adapting to the changes?

I do team development stuff, and we always talk about being more vulnerable in front of the group. And I think this moment has created some forced vulnerability. Owning our anxieties is really helpful. I also think this pandemic brought the community together. We are having to be innovative, and there have been a lot of connections made.

JONI HYLAND

Joni Hyland

Aerial Park Guide, Snow Valley Aerial Park, Alberta, Canada

University of Alberta student Joni Hyland has been with Snow Valley Aerial Park since its inception four years ago. “Guiding at the aerial park has taught me so many skills that I hope to bring to my future work,” says Joni. An outdoor enthusiast, she is also a ski instructor at Snow Valley when she is not studying for her library and information studies degree. Joni grew up going to the mountains with her family, and those childhood experiences inspired a lifelong love of nature. Keenly aware of the need to balance safety and fun, Joni was a key player in revising COVID-19 protocols at the park amid evolving government recommendations.

What inspired you to get involved in the aerial adventure industry?

I ended up at the aerial park because my mom saw it was opening and encouraged me to apply for a summer job. I had been zip lining in Costa Rica once, but other than that I had no experience. I really like coaching people through difficult things or encouraging them to do things that they don’t believe they’ll be able to do. Helping them gain confidence is super cool to see every day. And, as a person with type 1 diabetes and ADHD, exercise has had a big impact on my mental and physical health. So, I find sharing these benefits with people to be super rewarding.

Describe a challenge you’ve encountered and how you responded to it.

Joni Hyland masks up.

The pandemic has obviously created a lot of uncertainty. And I feel like it’s my responsibility to push for as many precautions as possible. We were encouraging social distancing when the park opened, but I felt that there were many places in our aerial park where it was difficult to maintain that distance. I pushed for masks. I feel really happy to have been a part of that change. Keeping guests safe is such a big part of being a guide.

What COVID-induced changes might remain in place over the long term?

I’m hoping the frequent cleaning practices will be implemented long term, as well as the smaller orientation groups. It gives guests a more intimate experience and allows them to ask questions.

CONNOR JAMES

Connor James

Course Manager/Guest Services Supervisor, Aspen Snowmass, Colo.

After graduating from West Virginia University with a degree in recreation, parks, and tourism, Connor James stayed at WVU as a facilitator on the university-owned canopy tour. Simultaneously, he pursued a graduate degree in parks and rec. That post-grad education prepared him to join Bonsai Designs as a course installer and trainer for ACCT Level 1 candidates. While with Bonsai, Connor worked on the Lost Forest installation at Aspen Snowmass. A summer later, he returned to Lost Forest as a facilitator. “I love that I am able to facilitate and manage a course that I helped build,” says Connor.

Who inspired you to get involved in the aerial adventure industry?

One of the first people that got me going was my boss at WVU, C.J. Belknap. He is the one who gave me a graduate assistantship and first recognized my work. He really pushed me in a positive direction. My other big mentor would be my boss at Bonsai, Leslie Sohl. She put me in a position to thrive and put a lot of responsibility on me. She helped me to be more confident in myself and what I do.

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success?

I am always reflecting upon what I’ve done in the days past so that I don’t make the same mistakes the next day. As a manager, you are always learning, whether that’s about your people or your industry. We all make mistakes, but as long as I can learn from those, I feel like I am contributing to my growth, well-being, and career.

Describe a challenge you’ve encountered and how you responded to it.

Most recently it’s COVID-19. We are one of the only zip line/aerial adventure places open around here, so everyone has been coming to Snowmass to get on the challenge course. We don’t have as much staff right now. That means some days I’m on course, some days I’m doing orientation. Everybody has multiple jobs every day. When I am managing, I do a lot of the maintenance and deal with things people don’t necessarily think about, but that have to be done every day. 

What covid-induced changed might remain in place over the long term?

We have been washing our harnesses every day, and I think it looks good overall. We will be keeping our new reservation system—that’s been a huge help. Also, we rerouted our main office and ticket area, and that improved the entire flow and experience.

SAM KING

Sam King

Assistant Course Manager, Tree Trekkers Frederick, Md.

Sam King’s initial foray into outdoor recreation was through paintball, which he played all the time in high school. Becoming an aerial adventure instructor with Go Ape allowed him to enjoy all the things he loved about paintball—without the projectiles, he wryly observes. After six years of working his way up through Go Ape’s ranks, he moved on to Tree Trekkers. As the assistant course manager at Tree Trekkers, Sam has served as a mentor to young staff, and his recommendations have been key to making COVID-related policy tweaks.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received? 

The director I used to work for would say, “You can only control what you can control,” and that really resonated with me. Like, if it’s raining, we can’t control the weather, but we can control our marketing. Or large groups often show up late. Maybe they are stuck in traffic. I can’t change the traffic, but I might be able to give them more climbing time.

How do you mentor staff?

I like to equip everyone with a tool box of knowledge. In the past, I’ve done book clubs with staff who wanted to learn more management techniques. Right now, with Tree Trekkers, I do more one-on-one mentoring, finding out what each staff member needs and helping them play to their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. How are you adapting to the changes?

In the early days, we didn’t really know what to expect. My wife has an autoimmune deficiency, so I was just trying to follow all the guidance and precautions. I was nervous to work with guests and worried if I would have a job. But it’s been really cool seeing the technology and information come out. In adversity comes a lot of ingenuity. This is an opportunity to figure out better data on UVC lights and how washing affects harness breaking strengths. I’m hoping to see innovations coming from vendors.

Rachel Maestri-Hailey

Rachel Maestri-Hailey

Zip Line Canopy Tour Manager, Zoar Outdoor, Mass.

Rachel Maestri-Hailey is a Johnson & Wales-educated chef, but after 10 years in the food industry, she was ready for a career outside. Rachel led youth programs for Project Adventure before jumping at the chance to join Zoar Outdoor in 2008. “It’s been pretty amazing to work with a company whose values so closely align with my own,” she says. Rachel has been a champion for diversity in the industry, even serving as a keynote speaker at last year’s ACCT conference. Her talk: Diversity in the Outdoor Industry: It’s not just Black and White.

What inspired you to get involved in the aerial adventure industry?

I’m from Roxbury in Boston. It’s very urban, not a tree in sight. In grade school I moved to Middleboro, Mass., which is very rural. I found comfort amid this really unfamiliar lifestyle at a YMCA camp. My first day on the ropes course was a total life-changing moment for me. There were one or two facilitators of diverse backgrounds like me, and I felt home. I was a total dirtbag climber for a long time. When I decided to leave the chef game, I decided I wanted to do this work for the rest of my days.

Tell me about your diversity, equity and inclusivity (DEI) work.

Rachel Maestri-Hailey jumps for joy over guiding this group.

Bruce Lessol, the former president of Zoar, was a really big advocate for gender diversity in the whitewater paddling industry. I took up the standard from him and said, “Diversity looks so many ways: gender identification, ethnicity, socio-economic status.” I’ve been actively working to use our industry as a tool to create DEI. I’m very lucky in the way I grew up, walking the line between rural and urban, Black and White. 

I was able to work with the management team and set up bi-weekly meetings with our staff to create ownership at the ground level. We are looking at a subsidized day education program. We’ve implemented a donation link for all of our guests who book at Zoar to expand access to programming locally.

Describe a challenge you’ve encountered and how you responded to it.

The glaring one is how to re-create our program from the ground up due to COVID-19. One of the ways that we’ve been able to navigate the challenge is to create a culture of learning. Our staff is amazing at taking a look at what’s working and what isn’t working and adjusting as necessary.

KEELEY ROPER

Keeley Roper

General Manager, Kidspace Adventures, U.K.

Keeley Roper joined Kidspace Adventures fresh out of school at age 17. She started in food and beverage service at the Essex-based indoor facility—which has five climbing walls, a Sky Trail, and a go-kart track—and worked her way through different departments until she eventually became GM of the operation. “I’ve never been the outdoorsy type,” says Keeley, but she enjoyed learning about the aerial elements on the job. When the pandemic hit, Keeley was instrumental in inventing and implementing new COVID protocols across the 800-person operation.

Describe a challenge you’ve encountered and how you responded to it.

It was a challenge to change from a team member into management. As much as I knew the “front of house” end of the business—the guest services side—the back end—health and safety, training—that was all new to me. I was motivated to put my whole self into the business. I wanted to be a Rafik to the new team. I see all of these 16-year-olds and know that I was them when I started. It’s a first job for many, and I want them to have fun. I try to be open-minded. It’s an ongoing challenge, which is good.

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success? 

You look after your team first, and they’ll look after your customers. I want my team to feel comfortable coming to me with anything. We all take things into work sometimes, and as managers it is our job to make sure our staff are OK before they start their shift. They call me a mum-ager, part mum, part manager. Mutual respect is key.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty. How are you adapting to the changes? 

I always think communication is so important. Just before lockdown, I started a WhatsApp group for all of the teams. Every couple of days I would check in to make sure people were OK. We were all on furlough, and I didn’t want people to feel like I had just up and gone away. When the government announced that play centers could reopen, I woke up to god knows how many messages—people were excited to come back. And the team worked so hard cleaning. It was inspiring. We wouldn’t have been able to reopen without them. 

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About Author

Katie Brinton is a PSIA-E Development Team member and a staff trainer at Okemo Mountain Resort, Vt., where she grew up. She was named to the 2017 “10 Under 30” class for Adventure Park Insider's sister publication SAM (Ski Area Management). She is a freelance writer, and has written frequently for Adventure Park Insider and sister publication, SAM. Katie is currently a Master’s student at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English.

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