How Sound is Your Operation?


After more than a decade of double- digit growth, commercial zip line tours and aerial adventure parks are becoming mainstream, dotting the landscape of most vacation destination areas, ski hills, and many recreation centers. Increased visibility, however, comes with a price. Recent, highly-publicized accidents and near misses have raised concerns about increased regulation, the likelihood of rising general liability and worker compensation premiums, and have left many operators worried about how they can best mitigate risk and prevent an accident from occurring at their program. One action that can help: perform an operation review and program audit.

This is a relatively new idea, and is the main reason the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) is developing a program accreditation process. But there’s no need to wait for that program to become official—you can start down this road now.

Since ACCT first started producing standards, a heavy focus has been placed on design, installation, and inspection of challenge course structures. Most commercial operators have adopted these standards and participate in annual or semi-annual technical inspections of their challenge course structures by accredited builders or certified inspectors. In recent years, training and staff certification by third-party providers has become a more important part of the standards, leading to further consistency among operations.

While each of these strategies has helped to mitigate risks and improve overall program quality in the marketplace, they often do not address the more holistic concerns of operation review and program audit. Operators seeking to mitigate risk and improve the quality of their programs can include operation review in their budgets and risk management planning.

For those programs getting started with operational review, here are four tips to improve program quality and reduce risk.

1. Engage Third-party Professional(s) to Audit Your Program

This is not simply a good idea, it’s a key element in the ANSI/ACCT Standard. B.2.7. of the ANSI/ACCT Standard reads, “The organization shall engage in a review of its practices by an external qualified person(s), at least once every five (5) years.” This is further explained as:

The organization engages persons outside of the organization to review operational practices to improve risk management and program quality. This review could range from review of operations by an experienced program manager from another organization to a thorough comprehensive review of documentation and practices.

While we recommend that careful attention be paid to engaging the right individual(s) to perform the third-party review, years of experience in the challenge course industry need not be a major requirement. Consideration should be given to engaging an individual or individuals with a broad range of experience that are able to examine your program from multiple viewpoints. In addition to challenge course professionals, other qualified persons include insurance auditors, underwriters, banking professionals, legal counsel, product manufacturers, regulators from other industries, and consultants. That said, there is great benefit to conducting multiple reviews with both professional operators from within the industry, and stakeholders who will ask good questions and challenge operational practices.

In developing an agenda for a review, provide ample time for the auditor(s) to experience each program first hand and to observe program procedures from a distance. Resist the temptation of showcasing only your most senior and experienced staff. Little is learned from third-party reviews that are staged. In fact, that can lead to staff behavior and organizational actions which cover up deficiencies that might otherwise be caught and corrected.

It is possible to engage professional secret shoppers to participate in your program and provide a detailed assessment for a modest fee. Alternatively, many programs have had excellent success in engaging employees and managers from other tours in their region, or professionals met through networking at conferences. Staff swaps can be an excellent way to reduce cost and benefit both parties, so long as anonymity is maintained.

The benefits from engaging a professional secret shopper with no background or experience in zip lines and aerial adventure courses differ significantly from those achieved in hiring challenge course professionals. Results from professional secret shoppers are often more customer service-oriented and less focused on the technical aspects of the tour. Professional secret shoppers can be used to test online booking processes, assess responses to difficult booking questions through e-mail or phone calls to the site (as with “Park Spy”), test minimum participant requirements, provide feedback on sent-out materials, and on the guest experience.

Of course, untrained secret shoppers are not the most qualified to assess your operation’s technical aspects. These reviewers might bring biases for certain technical systems and procedures that are not standards-based. In situations where untrained secret shoppers are utilized, it can be useful to establish guidelines and areas of assessment in advance of the visit.

Use “ANSI/ACCT Standards Chapter 2: Operation Standards” to guide a discussion and formal review once the reviewer has spent time auditing the operation. Operators, have your documentation ready. The review should not be limited to the delivery of programs, but include the systems and documentation that demonstrate the procedures and processes are being followed. Request a written report, and use the findings as a roadmap to address deficiencies and celebrate successes.

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