How Are We Doing?


To help reduce the incidence of incidents, aerial adventure park and zip tour operators conduct daily, periodic, and annual inspections of their structures and equipment. Fortunately, structures are made mostly from steel and wood, and high-strength metals and textiles are key components to equipment, so it’s uncommon for the objects themselves to break or fail when used properly. Our inspections confirm this.

However, these inspections don’t assess how these structures and equipment kits are being used—and that’s an important omission: operator error continues to be the leading source of incidents and accidents across the aerial adventure and wider outdoor industry.

Beyond safety, it’s important to assess how well you are serving your guests and pinpoint ineffective processes and stumbling blocks that detract from their experience. Removing these barriers can improve your operation’s overall success.

So, how can operators identify problem areas in their operations? That information is best gained from an operational review—which is an audit of all of an organization’s actions, or a specific segment of its operations.


Operational reviews and audits are regular practices for businesses of all kinds. Within the outdoor world, many organizations have encouraged such reviews for decades, including standards writing entities like the American Camp Association and the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT). Both ACCT and the Association for Experiential Education require such reviews, in one form or another, to participate in their accreditation programs.

Not surprisingly, operational reviews are becoming increasingly commonplace as aerial adventure organizations seek to assess whether they’re delivering their services the way they advertise, and to improve everything from the patron experience to their safety record.

Not everyone is clear about the differences between structural inspections and operational reviews, however.

“People get really confused about their inspections—thinking that a physical inspection covers part of their actual operations,” says Lori Pingle of ZipZone Outdoor Adventures in Columbus, Ohio, who is currently in the operation accreditation process with ACCT. “But how would an inspector know whether your staff is putting on their harnesses correctly?”

There’s a spectrum of operational reviews available to aerial adventure organizations. Let’s take a look at the different types, who can perform them, what sort of qualifications to look for, and the pros and cons of seeking such a review for your organization.


When beginning a review process of any type, start by defining what it is you’re seeking to learn. You might want to look at trends in incidents or near-misses, or audit a day in the life of an aerial course.

Here are some categories commonly used to help structure a review process.

Property hazards: These can include everything from parking lot surfacing and facilitator access at height to the status and depth of the mulch on your trails. While some of these may be observed or commented on in a structural inspection, how your staff and clients interact with them won’t be.

For example, a trail leading to a course entrance point may have a steep grade that contributes to falls. This may or may not draw the attention of a course inspector, and is unlikely to be noted as a failure or something needing remediation in a typical inspection report. However, the parking lot and walking paths are among the most common sites of incidents in any outdoor business, so a professional review of property hazards and exploration of mitigations is a great precautionary step. 

Operational practices: The practices and techniques used in a park’s programs, from onboarding and training to delivery to the guest, are critical functions. Key practices include belay techniques, pre-climb checks, commands, rescue procedures, and work-at-height methods. A well-performed pre-climb check, for example, can reveal problems that staff can then remedy before an incident happens.

Another example: Proficiency in movement at height allows staff to attend to a client in distress, perhaps preventing the need for a rescue. With costs rising across the industry in staffing and training, a good review process can reveal exactly what actions or activities could use further training, or allow a management team to know what to watch for across the season.

Business risks: Items like marketing materials, insurance coverage, business efficiency, client communication, and booking methods might seem to carry little risk. It’s tempting, therefore, to omit them from the review process and focus just on park operation practices. But an inconsistency in marketing materials or poor communication with a client could increase the liability borne by an operation.

Documentation—presence and consistency: If you didn’t write it down, it never happened. Documents, such as inspection forms and training records, are useful for many reasons. They are also “discoverable”—meaning that they can be requested as part of pre-trial proceedings. Such documents can include manuals, daily logs and checklists, and even emails—as long as they are specifically requested.

Keeping documents accurate and updated to reflect current methods of operation is an ongoing challenge, but is absolutely essential. A good review ensures that organizations are following appropriate documentation practices and describing their procedures in a way that’s consistent with reality.

Compliance with laws, regulations, and standards: Beyond a desire to run fun and safe operations, many operators choose to comply with—or must follow—various standards or laws. ACCT, ASTM, and OSHA are just some of the entities that write laws, standards, and outline practices that may be relevant to your operations.

An operational review may include some or all of the above components. The AEE and ACCT standards both require operators to conduct periodic reviews, but do not specify who or how such a review is to be performed. One exception: ACCT’s growing accreditation program requires applicants to obtain an operational review from an ACCT qualified reviewer. Such a review seeks to ensure compliance with relevant ACCT standards, which touch on most of the aforementioned points in some way. This review will focus on the criteria needed for accreditation, and might not be a comprehensive check on all other parts of your business—marketing and guest service functions may need a closer look. Be clear about scope when hiring a reviewer.


A comprehensive review typically consists of the following components:

1. Secret shopping. For this, the reviewer goes incognito and does everything from purchase a ticket to climb the course, just as a customer would. A covert visit helps give the reviewer a snapshot of what’s truly happening and can expose serious risks or flaws in operations.

2. Observation and walk-through of course or park. Following a covert visit, reviewers will typically want to observe park operations and see a variety of procedures and protocols, such as rescues, equipment inspections—really, any action or passive behavior a staff member may need to perform. This could take some time, depending on the size of the operation and the complexity of its procedures.

3. Document review. A key piece of the review process is looking for the presence and consistency of every checklist and manual a park should have. Furthermore, the observation process should assess whether what’s written is actually happening in the field.


Some readers to this point may be thinking (perhaps rightly so) that their organization is doing just fine without a review—why fix what isn’t broken? Others may have already decided that there are clearly benefits to having someone help assess what’s going well and what’s not.

Those that see the benefit should know that this process takes time and will entail some expense. Further, a review might indicate a need for more training or updating documents, taking more time and money. Problematic findings from any review will need to be fixed, and if there aren’t resources to fix them, the organization could be exposed to an even greater liability by having known of a problem and not addressing it.

So, is it worth the cost? That’s a decision each manager must make.

“The value is in having real feedback on your operation from a pro who can look at everything from how your equipment is being used to what the customer experience is like,” says Pingle. In other words, the review process can point to improvements that will help your operation grow and become more successful in the long term. It’s not just about risk management.

“If you’re approaching this like an

inspection, seeking a pass/fail grade on your operation, you’re thinking about this wrong,” Pingle adds.


If you choose to give this review thing a try, here are some ways to get it done.

Peer review. A peer reviewer is someone from outside your organization who’s doing a review of your program, often for free. Maybe it’s a friend with a park, and you choose to audit each other’s programs. For those with limited resources, this is a great way to start the process. It’s nice to have a friendly face reinforce what you’re doing well or point out some shortcomings.

However, such a review carries some risks. Anything written down becomes discoverable, and your friend could suddenly be called to a courtroom if something happens on your course following his or her review.   

Internal review. An internal reviewer might be an employee who is simply trying to look at all the pieces while removing themselves from the situation, someone from another department (if that exists in your organization), or a new, experienced staff member, such as a newly-hired manager. However, some internal reviewers may have tunnel vision and normalize the small risks one deals with every day, and their findings may be incomplete.

External review. An external reviewer is an individual or organization that is fully independent from yours and has no other relationship with your business. Such a reviewer has no existing biases, positive or negative, about your current operational practices.

Ideally, external reviewers are experts in the systems and equipment you use. They can cite their sources and differentiate between opinions, facts, standards, and regulations.

Another benefit: employing an independent external reviewer helps diffuse the legal liability you may be exposed to. Just like a course inspector, a good reviewer is insured appropriately.

The major con to hiring a pro is cost. While you can limit a review to a specific part of your operation, a good review may be expansive—and expensive. It could take a few days and make it difficult to operate concurrently. Whether the expense is worthwhile depends on how you value the resulting information.

“Our operational review [part of the ACCT accreditation program]costs more than our structural inspection,” Pingle notes. On the other hand, “as it’s something we’re looking to do every five years, we’re thinking about the cost differently,” she adds.


There are a lot of qualified people out there performing operational reviews. It’s OK (even recommended) to select someone because you like to work with them.

“One of the most important things I look for in a reviewer is someone who has been a course manager or owner-operator,” says Korey Hampton, owner of French Broad Adventures in North Carolina. “Someone who’s been a high-level decision-maker about things from training programs to weather policies, and then has implemented and seen them work in the field. It’s helpful to get the feedback of someone who’s been there and had to deal with the unforeseen problems that may occur.”

As you begin to seek a reviewer, here are a few questions to settle:

What will be the scope of the review? If you suspect that you have a problem with guides using their phones, or that commands aren’t being used well on your canopy tour, this is information that can help you decide what you’d like a reviewer to look at. You may choose to have a comprehensive review of your operations, or you may choose to review just your operating procedure documents, for example. Some like to break a review into pieces, focusing on one section every season.

What sort of reports will I receive? Make sure that you’re working with someone who provides clear opinions in writing. And since you may want to make changes to your operation or documents based on the review, it’s important to select someone with whom you’ve got a good rapport, and who will answer your questions to your satisfaction.

Do we plan to seek ACCT accreditation? If ACCT accreditation is your goal, be sure to select a reviewer on the list of ACCT Qualified Operation Reviewers. They will ensure that your review covers all the required bases. Many of these qualified reviewers are also happy to help check for more than just your compliance with ACCT standards. As mentioned earlier, an accreditation review doesn’t cover every aspect of your operation.


Regardless of the route you take, an operational review is likely to turn up some unexpected findings. It helps to have a fresh set of eyes look at your operation from a different perspective, with a different frame of reference. It’s possible that you will find some observations unpersuasive, but also likely that you will discover truths to which you were blind. Addressing these can unlock future growth and prosperity, and prevent incidents that make the news for all the wrong reasons.


About Author

Leave A Reply