For some operators, repeat customers are the entire backbone of their business. For others, the mere prospect of generating recurring customers who came for a one-time “bucket list” experience feels like little more than a fantasy. But regardless of where their customer segment lies, everyone can agree that repeat business is good for business.
To get a gauge on how to successfully generate repeat customers, we spoke to a variety of operators—ranging from commercial aerial parks to traditional challenge course and team-building programs—who have found success in this arena. While some of the sales strategies differed, other themes were universal.
WHAT DO YOU OFFER?
Design. The ability to bring back recurring customers often starts with one simple question, “Is there more to do here?” According to John Hines, owner of The Adventure Park at Sandy Spring in Maryland, park design is key to bringing people back. “Our park is laid out in such a way that nobody can do it all in one day [because]there’s too much stuff to do,” explains Hines.
The main attraction, the Adventure Forest, has 14 courses and seven levels of difficulty. The park also has an axe throwing venue and a special climbing structure for private groups and parties. “We always want [guests]to come back to do more things in the future,” says Hines.
ZipZone Outdoor Adventures in Columbus, Ohio, similarly offers multiple activities, including an aerial adventure park and a zip tour. Here, programming also plays a role in courting repeat visitors. For example, the “Night Flight” zip tour offers a new experience on the same zip line course as the daytime “Canopy Tour,” providing enough variety to entice repeat guests without the need for additional design elements. “People come and climb our adventure park, and then come back for the ‘Night Flight’ zip lines,” says owner Lori Pingle.
Product offerings can also incentivize return visits, particularly in the aerial park setting where businesses sell primarily to individual customers. For example, punch cards or season passes provide customers with an easy way to become “regulars.” Developing a base of regulars serves two purposes—it captures a different market segment than the one-time leisure visitor and creates strong word-of-mouth marketing.
At Sandy Spring, one annual member—a 62-year-old woman—climbs 160 times a year and is “inspirational to other members,” says Hines. Other regulars have gone so far as to use their annual membership to the park as a replacement for their gym. The behavior that they model serves as an “asset” to the park, according to Hines; these visitors often come during off hours and are highly self-sufficient, requiring little guidance or instruction from staff.
Sandy Spring and ZipZone, which also sells a membership product, both include discounted guest passes as a benefit of annual pass ownership to encourage loyalists to bring friends, converting potential word-of-mouth marketing benefits into sales dollars and potential new customers.
Pingle says annual memberships and season passes also appeal to gift givers. At ZipZone, many annual memberships are sold as gifts during the Thanksgiving/Black Friday rush. According to Pingle, parents “are so excited that they are buying an experience that can last the whole year.”
Other incentives. There are other ways to incentivize repeat visitation, many of which require the ability to capture visitor information. Fortunately, digital waivers make this process infinitely easier, and many booking software programs automatically capture email addresses.
At ZipZone, every customer receives a thank-you email at the end of their visit that includes a coupon for 10 percent off a return visit. This is a great way to gain individual business from group sales, where children who climbed with their school might tell their parents about the experience. Pingle advises that this offer also “lets [customers]know that this doesn’t have to be a one-time thing.”
For traditional challenge course programs, where businesses traffic largely in group sales, the incentives look a little different. Sue Crumbaker of Hale Reservation, a popular nonprofit challenge course program that serves many of the schools in the Boston area, says pricing can be a factor. At Hale Reservation, customers always have the option to lock in the prior year’s pricing if they book by a certain date. This often leads return customers to commit months before they would normally book.
At Chelsea Piers Team Building in Manhattan, the follow-up process takes a step further. The venue, a traditional team-building operation housed in a high-end gym and sports training facility, offers every team-building guest a free day pass. Only 10 percent of visitors take advantage of this, but the “huge value” add incentivizes groups to book, according to special events manager Nick DiMatteo. While conversions to gym memberships are negligible, the perceived value creates a wow factor that helps bolster repeat business for the team-building experience, which currently sees roughly a 75 percent return rate.
WHAT BRINGS THEM BACK?
While strategic pricing, product positioning, and marketing can certainly provide a pipeline to attract repeat customers, these strategies gloss over one critical question, “Do the customers want to come back?” The operators we spoke with agree that no one would come back if not for the quality of the service.
Tailored experience. For Shaw Dunton of APEX Adventures, a traditional ropes course business based in Santa Cruz, Calif., personal relationships are the backbone of his business. Many of his customers have been coming to APEX for more than 20 years, and his school and corporate clients have a 90+ percent return rate. For Dunton, every conversation with a group starts with the same question, “What are your goals and desired outcomes?”
“I’m having this conversation every single time,” he explains. Even for repeat customers, “it’s far more tailored than it may look on the outside.” This may involve asking a school what specific dynamics are going on in class, what kind of transformation the school might be going through, and how things may differ from other school years.
Crumbaker echoes this sentiment. “We talk to every single client,” she explains. “[Repeat customers] never go back into our system without somebody reaching out and talking to them.” This level of personalization allows for a truly custom experience that ensures each school or corporate group feels valued.
Level of service. For commercial operators, the product and sales process may be different, but the level of service is equally critical. According to Hines, one key component to developing repeat business was simply lowering the park’s capacity post-Covid by more than 35 percent. “On average, half the people on any given Saturday are new to the park—is it crowded or is it rewarding?” he asks. “We chose to make it rewarding by holding our numbers down.”
Capping numbers doesn’t equate to a loss in revenue. The reservation system allows the park to continue to capture the same overall volume of business, but spread over more hours across
additional time slots—sometimes earlier in the morning or later in the evening. As a result, people wait less, creating a more positive experience overall. Happy visitors are more likely to return.
For Pingle, the quality of service all comes down to how guests are treated by the staff. One easy trick for wowing customers? Learning peoples’ names. At ZipZone, it’s expected that guides learn and use everyone’s name during a two-hour zip tour. “It’s one of the hardest things—but it’s so, so important,” says Pingle, adding that the effort “makes people feel included and cared for.”
According to the operators we spoke with, one critical theme that “wows” repeat customers is an inclusive approach to service. For Crumbaker, this takes the form of accessible access and programming, a critical component of Hale Reservation’s course design. Many of Hale’s high and low elements have been designed with universal access in mind, including the integration of a seated harness and haul system that anybody can—and everybody will—use. “If I have somebody who needs that harness, every single student will use that same harness,” explains Crumbaker.
These efforts have paid off. Hale had a nearly 80 percent return rate for 2023, and while there isn’t a direct correlation between accessibility and the strong return rate, says Crumbaker, “I believe it helps that we can accommodate our customers’ needs.”
Dunton agrees that accessibility and inclusion play a role in return business.
For example, he says, during a recent outdoor program featuring low elements, one participant was using a walker. “We were still able to include that person where they felt that their contribution was just as valued as everybody else’s. At the end of the day, the CEO called that out specifically,” he says, adding that the group has already verbally committed to return.
There are other ways to be inclusive and create a welcoming environment beyond accommodating physical mobility differences. For example, says Hines, “We don’t do rescues anymore, we do assists.” As such, “The goal is [for participants]to feel good about how far they’ve gotten. We want their last impression to be, ‘I want to try that again.’”
HAPPY STAFF, HAPPY CUSTOMERS
All operators agreed that the best way to provide high-quality service worthy of repeat business is to hire and train high-quality staff.
For Pingle, this begins with ingraining a passion for customer service in the ZipZone team. “It’s a really fun job, but you should get the most fun from the guests,” she says. Staff are therefore encouraged to feed off of the energy of happy customers. Those positive group dynamics are frequently reflected in guest reviews and repeat bookings.
At Hale, which relies heavily on a pool of experienced contract staff, Crumbaker ensures that her team is taken care of. Professional development days are offered biweekly during the off season, and staff are given a survey that allows them to choose the topics that are covered. This level of engagement creates a higher level of staff retention, in turn creating more opportunities for repeat business, as groups will often request to be paired with the same facilitators when they return.
Hines offers his staff myriad benefits—including generous health insurance and 401(k) plans—to attract quality team members that want to stay on board and make a career in the industry. “We invest in really great people, train the heck out of them, and they share in the rewards of a park that is doing well and that people love,” says Hines.
Above all, providing a high-quality experience is paramount to these operators’ business strategies. If customers have a great time and feel safe and valued, they will want to come back. The other tactics—park design, product mix, and incentives—just make it that much
easier to get them there.