This year’s crop of rising industry stars has mastered the art of leadership through challenging times. As we emerge from the pandemic, they’ve led with grace, humility, passion, and a whole lot of stoke for the outdoor adventure industry. Nominated by bosses and peers, these stars wear many hats: They manage staff and risk, lead training, and build and inspect courses. From California to Tennessee, each has come from a unique background to earn their spot here as one of Adventure Park Insider’s “Rising Stars.”
For John Gratton, his satisfying life as Challenge Center coordinator at Peak Adventures at Sacramento State is the perfect example of that old ism: On the way to where you thought you were going, you found where you truly want to be.
“My story is that I spent a summer hiking Yosemite and really got into hiking,” John says. “So, when I was back at school, I went to the wellness center to look for jobs, and it just so happened Peak Adventures was there.”
John’s nominators laud him as a leader and changemaker—one who deftly brought Peak Adventures through a pandemic that shut down campus, yet who kept the passion for the business strong by creating virtual team-building events that stayed close to the in-person vibe students love.
“John was a key player in our ability to bounce back to almost 100 percent of where we were prior to the pandemic,” a nominator says. “His leadership and mentorship of young employees (many of them college students in their first job) is inspiring, positive, and he is able to create a culture of learning, failing forward, and growing.”
What do you love about your job?
Working on campus, we employ young students at a time when they are open to anything: new experiences, adventures, and more. It’s really interesting to me to enter peoples’ lives at that point. It’s a fun process, one that I was in myself, and now I get to help others experience it. No matter what field they choose after this, I know we’ve helped that student grow and find what they have inside them.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I’m very democratic. I want my students to make decisions and see them through. I like helping them in the process—seeking input and inviting folks into the creative process of making things happen. When the staff sees their idea succeed—or fail (because failing is an important lesson too)—it really means something to them. I find this leads them to digging in and working toward some great things.
Can you share a challenge you’ve had to face?
The pandemic was hard. Working on a college campus in California meant all we were able to do was virtual trainings. There was no working (on-site) option, and student staff had to pay bills, so we came back to a skeletal crew and people just weren’t applying for the jobs. Our old in-person hiring process was not working, so we had to change the process. We moved to virtual interviews and now, finally, we are back to great numbers.
Where do you see potential for growth in this field?
I’d like to see even more collaboration between campus challenge ropes courses so we can bounce questions off each other and share our knowledge. Especially coming out of the pandemic, there are rules and regulations that nonprofit and college campuses have a hard time working through. So, setting standards within the nonprofit community would be a great outcome of this collaboration.
“Let your passion lead, and you’ll find your home.” If that was the subplot of a Hallmark Channel film, it might feature Beanstalk Builder’s Charleen Stokes. Because, when you ask her how she found her way to an adventure park career, her story lines right up.
She remembers the first time friends asked her to come work at Beanstalk. At first, she said no. She’d already started a desk job by then, and it would be a pay cut. But one day, in the pinch of a staff shortage a decade ago, her friends offered her $20 an hour—an $11 hourly raise—to fill in for a day. “I thought, that’s decent money, and I’ll do these guys a favor,” she says.
Here comes the Hallmark plot point: Positioned at the bottom of the course to help folks get started, she fell in love. “The stoke was just so high!” she remembers. “I’d never done anything like that in my life—and I loved it.”
Now, Charleen has spent nearly a decade at Beanstalk. A nominator says, “She’s fiercely fun, compassionate, and invested in her trainees and the organizations she works with. Our industry is better with Charleen in it.”
How did you become a builder with no construction experience?
I had just come back from six months in southeast Asia and was flat broke. They wanted me to build, and I said, “I’m a trainer, not a builder.” But I gave it a try. The first course I worked on has 32 elements and they’d yell to me, “Bring me the circular saw!” I’d walk over, and it seemed like all the saws were circular. I was like, “I’m going to need a better description.”
But it worked out great. When I was a manager and trainer, I always had to come in the last two weeks or so of a project with a punch list of what needed to be changed or tweaked. So, me being there as we built saved time and effort. Now, I’m leading our crew.
What’s your leadership philosophy?
You have to learn to be flexible. Every training is different, and everything we build is custom, so being flexible and adaptable is one of the biggest aspects I try to drive home. And focusing on safety too, of course. I lead by always being focused—in a visible way—on safety.
Where do you see growth opportunity in adventure parks?
People are wanting courses that don’t take a lot of staff to run. Fully enclosed, completely netted, easy to use, low risk—that’s what I see in the future. We are doing way more adventure playgrounds now. And treehouses—for glamping and even as Airbnbs.
What about your own future?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t plan in life an awful lot. The next couple of years I’ll be raising these babies (she is pregnant with twins). My partner works for Beanstalk too, and we plan on traveling to work sites with the babies for a while. But I’d love to go build tree houses for expats in Costa Rica. Doesn’t that sound perfect?
Sometimes you stumble upon your destiny by accident, and sometimes you make it happen. Matt Larter says for him, it may have been a little of both that led him to success as lead trainer and risk manager for Treetop Trekking.
“I was looking for something to do with my life and while figuring that out, needed a job,” says Matt. “I saw an opening for an aerial guide and thought it would work until I figured out my goals.”
But something happened: Matt discovered a passion for the adventure world, and the field as a whole. “It never really felt like work,” he remembers. “I was outside, deep in the forest and contributing to a strong business. It felt right.”
Today, Matt is praised by nominators for his wide breadth of understanding of aerial adventures, his nimble approach to all kinds of challenges, and his professionalism.
“Matt has been a difference-maker for Treetop Trekking and our park development brand, The Trekking Group, as a guide, lead guide, trainer, park manager, and as our lead trainer and risk manager for various projects across North America,” says a nominator. “He is always eager to jump into new projects no matter where they are. Matt is our go-to person to travel to new parks that are preparing to launch, where he often spends months ensuring the new park is up and running to its full potential.”
What’s the secret to your success?
I always like to remember where it all started, where the harness is on and the people are there with you. I like to go back and reconnect with that as often as I can, getting out and climbing and staying truly connected to what we are all about.
I think people produce a better product and want to do well for you when they are doing it with you. I recently started a park in Ontario, and the vast majority of my time, I was out there with the guests, harnessing them up while also managing the team. Staff responds to seeing that you’re hands on with them.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
I had a really great mentor, Catherine Brunet-Collard, and when something would go down not quite right she’d say—and she’d draw it out in this really funny way—“It’s fiiiiiiiinnnne.” The idea was, no matter what happens, you work through it, and at the end of the day, it really always is fine.
What do you see as the future of the industry?
A lot of things have been creatively advanced, quickly. As a result, we are opening up to letting so many more people discover us. There’s a lot of stuff we are doing with netting that gets people up into the trees but with nowhere near as much of the physical exertion. It’s great for families.
And what about your own future?
I am always open to new things, but the role I’m in now—and probably going to stay in—brings me that. I am always onto new projects, and I’m moving around (he’s headed up projects in Canada, Tennessee, Dubai, and currently, Florida). I like the ability to do short-term jobs, and to be available to do all different things. So, I guess I like change, but I have it by staying put.
Like so many Rising Stars this year, Callie Murphy—assistant general manager of the Adventure Center of Asheville (ACA)—found the first steps on her path to this career in the outdoors as a child.
“I grew up on a farm in Georgia,” she says. “After school was all about playing in the fields and at the creek. It was an incredible way to grow up and built a need in me to be part of the outdoors.”
When she headed to college, “I saw the outdoor education [major]and was like, ‘I can actually get a degree in this?’” Callie ended up securing a degree in Ecology and then topped it off with a master’s in environmental education—which she secured while working at ACA.
“I kept my toes in the aerial park world while finishing my masters, and I loved Asheville, so I moved here, found this year-round position and here I am: settled down but still out in the wild,” says Callie.
That drive continues in her current role. “She is always willing to step up to any task put before her and has both the respect and friendship of her team,” says a nominator. “She is a strong advocate for the team, but also maintains a solid balance of team and business.”
What’s your secret to success?
Surrounding myself with good people. My family and my husband, of course, but also a really good staff. I would never be any kind of success without those people around me.
The pandemic was very eye-opening for this industry in this aspect. Hiring and keeping people on long enough so they could settle into the world and be productive enough to be really helpful to you long-term was tough. You have to find people who will actually stay with you. That’s truly the secret to success, I think.
What’s the biggest challenge you see this industry facing now?
Policy and procedure, at this point, is a grueling love/hate dynamic for the entire field. But the bigger the field grows, the more we need to dot our i’s and cross our t’s. It’s frustrating, but I do believe once we get systems in place, it will be easier.
What do you want to do in the future?
I want to combine environmental education with the adventure side. You know: While you are zipping through the trees, why don’t we talk about those trees? Make the connection. While I know those are two different fields, I hope to find a place where we do both in tandem.
Ask Colin Lynch about his first job in the adventure park world, and you might be surprised. “This actually is my first job [in the industry],” he says. But while it is his first foray into adventure park work, his background is full of guts, determination, a love of the outdoors, and the lessons he learned in the foodservice industry.
Lynch holds a degree in environmental studies from the University of Minnesota—Morris, where he was captain of the rugby club. A passionate and active outdoorsman, he completed a 400-km mountain biking tour of Argentina while still in high school and is an avid runner and hiker. So, when friends invited him to the grand opening of the North Shore Adventure Park, something clicked.
“I was working a desk job and realized I should try something with ‘adventure’ in the title,” he says.
Today, as park manager, his employers love his can-do attitude and willingness to not just learn but take what he learns and use it for the good of the team.
“With no previous experience in this industry, he has stepped into his position with confidence and a commitment to learn and master all aspects of the job,” a nominator says. “Since starting the position, he has taken multiple classes through ACCT and other vendors to establish his skills. He has developed new systems to manage inventory, park protocols, and employee reviews. With hiring and keeping employees being a constant challenge, Colin manages to inspire and create loyalty from his team.”
What’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far?
It’s on the dry side but, look at the ACCT standards and find out what you know, what you don’t know, and what applies to you. Then look at what you don’t know and figure out what, or who, will get you to where you need to be. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know or understand something and ask for guidance.
I have found more people in this industry willing to share than any industry I’ve been in. Every time I ask, I get not just an answer, but help. We are competing for the same market, but we all want to see one another succeed. So good advice is everywhere.
What is your leadership philosophy?
A lot of it comes from the service industry. While we are selling the experience itself, what makes or breaks it is how we interact. Think of going to a restaurant. You could have a great meal but if your server is not into it, it can ruin the experience, and that’s what you remember. So, my philosophy is: We are going to sink or swim together. My staff is going to carry the day or bring it down. So, we all need to support one another, lift one another up.
What do you hope for the future of the industry?
It is so much bigger than I realized when I started. I had a narrow idea (of adventure parks are and their client base), but I realize now that it is much broader than I envisioned. Post-covid, families want to go out and create moments and memories. Vacations got more experience-oriented. It’s not just “let’s hang out at this resort for a week,” anymore. They want a connection experience that enriches their entire family. So I hope we keep looking at how to make this just that for all family, young, older, active, and not so active.
What do you see for your future in this field?
I’m still figuring that out, because I’m so new. But as of now, I’m pretty happy. The seasonal work is challenging, but I see a benefit to it, too. When you’re going as fast and hard as you can for four to six months, knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel helps. But foremost, it’s fun and exciting. I’ve had a lot of jobs, and I’ve never had one where people come to simply have fun. To be the facilitator of that fun? It’s great.
How young was The Adventure Guild’s Stephen Nowack when he felt the pull toward a career in the aerial adventure industry? The course builder, trainer, and inspector can trace it all the way back to his childhood years as a camper, then a counselor at a small Christian summer camp in the deep woods of Pennsylvania.
“A big part of it, for me, was the spiritual side of it,” he says. In the woods and up on ropes courses, zip lines, and other camp challenges, Stephen found a deep, meaningful connection; one he knew he needed to keep in his life. “It brought me a love and appreciation for the outdoors—and for family campers, too.”
That connection drives him daily in his work, where he’s lauded for a remarkable attention to detail, maturity beyond his years, and a determination to get things right.
“His energy, enthusiasm, work ethic, and skill are light years ahead of most young men his age,” says a nominee. “But what stands out most is his ability to think critically and arrive at smart and efficient solutions to any problem that he faces. His commitment to integrity, his faith, his family, and our company is incredibly rare.”
Why is this a great place for you?
I was a camp director in Southern California and had a lot of responsibilities. The challenge course work was where I always had the most fun. Working for Adventure Guild appealed to me, so a friend suggested I reach out—and here I am.
I’ve got a natural attention to detail that not everybody has. I can see a problem and tackle it early. In my role as inspector (one of many roles), lots of times we are out after a storm event that causes damage to a course. I’m able to identify and the way to fix it quickly. I like that. It ensures things keep running well, and in a safe way.
What’s the best professional advice you’ve been given?
It came from my grandpa. I worked on his hay farm for about six summers, bucking hay and all the things you do out there; and he would say to me, “There’s no sense doing it right if you’ve got the time to do it twice.” That was his sarcastic way to say don’t waste your time; do it right the first time.
What do you see for your future in this field?
I love this job now because it keeps me outside, and no two days are exactly the same. I like how dynamic and changing it is. Because summer camp influenced me so strongly in my career path, I’m excited to get to work in an industry that brings people out to places I felt that spirituality and connection. I might not be the one operating a course on any given day, but knowing I am a big part of it operating well makes me happy.
I spend most of my work days in a harness and at heights, so I’m learning, developing as an employee, and all while in that place I love. For now, I like it right where I am.
Before joining Go Ape, Jacqueline Otto lead rock climbing outings for her school as a college student. Now, in her three-plus years as site manager of Go Ape Chicago, she supervises a staff of two assistant managers and 50 course staff during peak season, all while overseeing a host of activities: a treetop adventure geared toward ages 10 and up; a Treetop Journey course focused on a younger demographic; Treetop Nets (suspended bouncy nets and giant slides); and axe throwing.
Jacqueline’s secret to success is all about balance. “This is a lot to manage, and Jacqueline does it with pure commitment and passion,” a nominator says. “A balance of business management and people management is the golden ticket.”
The single mom is hard working, focused, and willing to jump in wherever she is needed, such as her recent foray into social media—when numbers were down at Go Ape, she got all kinds of influencers representing all kinds of communities to come out, have fun, and share.
She points to her background in serving people with disabilities (she holds a degree in Therapeutic Recreation) as a driving force in her work. “I like being in the general public sector and seeing people with special needs come in—adapting for them is important to me,” she says.
What’s your leadership philosophy?
I actually asked my staff this question, and they said I’m very inclusive. I want everybody’s opinions on topics. Once I make a decision, it’s made, but I do like to weigh and consider every point of view.
I also want my staff to experience growth; growth they can then use either with me or, if they go someplace else, I want their new team to say, “Wow, where did you learn all this?” It’s a good result either way.
Where do you see potential growth for this industry?
Not everyone knows about (adventure parks), especially in Chicago. So, we need to let people know we are here. I decided to reach out to influencers, but in a focused way. Rather than look for those with a million followers, I brought in people from mom groups, people who speak different languages, people who have a different culture than me.
For the future, I do think we need to provide more than the zip line type experience. Different options, varied price points; this is where we will find growth. And most of all, I hope to adapt more for people with special needs. I’ll always be focused on that.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
It goes back to a summer camp I worked at. I made a mistake and rented out a canoe and did not include a life vest. When I realized my mistake, I was devastated. But my boss said: No one was hurt, and you learned from it enough that you won’t do it again. So, move forward. I do this with my staff too. Mistakes are not unforgivable—from others or to yourself.
What’s a long-term goal?
I really like being right where I am. I get to be both working with staff and the public. It’s hard because I’m a single mom, and I don’t want to be the CEO or sit at the desk. I always want to be those feet on the ground.