Rising Stars

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This program is supported by PicThrive

The aerial adventure industry has seen upheaval and opportunity this year. Operators across North America have adapted to the changing Covid landscape while meeting a surge in demand for outdoor recreation. Here, we highlight some of the women and men whose leadership, compassion, and enthusiasm have helped their teams and the industry not just survive, but thrive in this moment.

Nominated by bosses and peers, these leaders are respected for their teamwork, innovative thinking, commitment, and customer service. From North Carolina to Alaska, they’ve demonstrated the resiliency, business savvy, and passion to shape their operations and the future of the aerial adventure industry.

A newspaper clipping advertising the opening of a local aerial adventure park led Byron Bell to his first guiding job, ultimately launching his career in the industry. He has helped to open a new zip tour in the Virgin Islands, and has worked in a variety of different roles for several well-respected outfits, including Terrapin Adventures, Outdoor Ventures, and RCI Adventures. When The Forge: Lemont Quarries came calling, Byron couldn’t resist the chance to be part of such a big new operation, one that is pioneering the use of augmented reality in aerial adventure (see “The Future of Adventure Parks?” Winter 2021 for the full story). “Why wouldn’t I want to go do that?” he asks. As the general manager at The Forge, Byron “is known for his boundless energy, enthusiasm, care and compassion for his teammates, commitment to equality and inclusion, and deep passion for this industry,” says a nominator.

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

It’s the way I look at developing not only myself but my team: it’s challenge by choice. It’s going to be harder in our industry, especially as we’re growing, pushing boundaries, things are changing, regulations are coming down, and you’re operating in different states with different rules. It’s not easy to do this. I’m choosing my challenge, and hilariously enough, my challenge is challenge courses. I really live and die by that. I tell my staff the same thing: I want you guys to push yourself both personally and professionally each year.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in the aerial adventure industry?
We know people want experiences. They want to pay for really cool, unique experiences. You see businesses in the immersive-art entertainment world exploding right now. People want that kind of unique interaction. And that’s exactly what’s going to happen where the nexus of adventure park and amusement park start to slide closer and closer together. To facilitate that experience for lots of people, it has to be a scaled high-volume attraction. If you can do it well, and design ropes courses and zip lines and all other kinds of authentic outdoor and adventure experiences—and provide it for a large number of people who are craving this outdoor activity and are willing to pay for it—that’s what’s going to drive this industry. It already is driving this industry.

And people are not satisfied with just sitting in their seat and watching the world pass them by. They want to be actively engaged in their entertainment. A roller coaster is fun and all, but it’s way cooler to be climbing through a ropes course instead of sitting passively. That’s where I see this industry exploding. And that’s where it becomes challenging and exciting as leaders and professionals in the next generation of this industry: We want to see higher and higher numbers of participants come through and still provide that authentic experience, so that it doesn’t boil down to just standing in a line and watching trees on a conveyor belt pass you by.

Plus, the need and demand of the consumer is vastly different than it was even two years ago. How do we work with the folks who have supported us and helped us get to this point, while also needing to do things very differently to meet a demand and a clientele that is vastly different? We’re still trying to figure that out. It’s complex, and I don’t know what all the pieces are to that, but that’s what we’re trying to work toward (at the Forge).

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

When we introduced our concept for The Forge, there were people who did not want it to happen. As a public-private partnership, we had to do community outreach and build relationships to ensure our local community understood better what we were doing and why we were doing it, and to turn some opponents into fans. We also had to work with the regulators—instead of fighting against them—and learn what it was they wanted. I learned that when you sit down with certified inspectors and people at the state level, ultimately the goals are all the same: We want to make sure that people have a safe experience, whether it’s on a rollercoaster or bungee jumping or whitewater rafting or a zip line.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received?
It wasn’t a specific word or phrase. It was a training I received probably nine or 10 years ago. It was the first time where constant visual inspection clicked for me. The trust we put in our teams and our people, it’s an immense amount of responsibility. The respect that I gave the job after that point—from being a young teenager and then early 20-something just having fun and jumping off and stuff, to actually realizing the responsibility that I had—really helped propel me to want to learn as much as I can and grow. That’s what I recommend to everybody, never stop seeking that knowledge.

Steve Carne got his first job at a ropes course in high school. He was a camp counselor who wasn’t particularly comfortable with heights. “I stumbled into this industry,” he says, but he quickly found his footing. One summer turned into five, and while Steve majored in political science at UCLA and briefly considered law school, he was drawn back to the adventure industry. Fresh out of college, Steve started as a guide at Terrapin Adventures, eventually working his way up to general manager before moving on to manager and training roles with Outdoor Venture Group. Just as Covid-19 sent the world into lockdown, Steve returned to Terrapin—this time as its new owner. A nominator praises Steve as a “creative leader” who “comes up with ideas that resonate with guests and are professionally stimulating to staff.”

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success?
The only reason I have accomplished anything is because of the people that I’ve gotten to work with. I feel like there just aren’t enough things in the world that talk about the fact that every aspect of life is a team sport. It’s kind of interesting, being in the team-building world, because I have really come to appreciate that the only way anyone moves up, anyone succeeds, anyone gets anything done is with the help of the people around them.

Tell me about your leadership style.
I am a big believer in providing people the support they need when they ask for help and support, in always being here, always being available. But I also trust people to find their own way and figure out their own voice and be able to make their own things happen. The reality is, there are ideas and skills I don’t have, and oftentimes those ideas and skills reside in the people that work for me, and I need to trust them.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?
I bought a business in the middle of Covid. I only did that because I am absolutely certain about the resiliency of this industry. I am absolutely certain that people are going to keep climbing trees and zipping on zip lines and playing outdoors. Now more than ever, people really want to get outside and are interested in that. Honestly, we’ve seen some really good success here, especially this summer, in spite of Covid. Folks want to live their lives and they want to do it in a place that’s in nature and, you know, kind of naturally socially distanced.

Are there any Covid-induced changes you’ll keep?
We modified some of our systems to really push greater online check-in in advance and registration, minimizing the amount of time that people have to spend inside. We’re likely to continue to use that into the future. It leads to a better overall experience for everyone. I think our customers appreciate it, and it just makes for a smoother and faster check-in process. It’s a win-win.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in the aerial adventure industry?

Now more than ever, there is this real human desire to get out into nature and exercise and experience adventure. That desire remains strong. The forces in our society that result in more people spending more time in front of computers and in enclosed spaces under harsh office lighting, those trends are not disappearing. And with that, the yearning and desire to get out and play around in trees will only increase.

How do you think about capturing new markets?
We’re always looking to find new people and connect with people who might have found us. We are a pay-to-play adventure park, but we also bring a ton of schools out. The park is nestled between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and we’re actively trying to create interesting programs that attract new and different demographics and groups of people. We run night programs that are a ton of fun. We’re going to be running a spooky woods haunted trail in October. We run programs for kids as young as five, and we’ve had octogenarians come on out and play around on our course. So, we’re trying to find as many ways as possible to make a course that’s appealing and exciting for literally everyone who could come on out.

Sonni Gibson’s first experience on a high ropes course changed her life. She was fresh out of high school, working a restaurant job she didn’t love, and getting into the trees as a guest showed her an entirely new world. Sonni seized the opportunity to become a guide at the U.S. National Whitewater Center. After that stint on the commercial side, she went into traditional facilitation. When High Gravity Adventures opened, Sonni moved back to commercial operations, joining the new team as a course operator and growing into her role as general manager. “Sonni is the anchor that helps us to be a successful business,” says a nominator. For Sonni, her work is all about facilitating the kind of growth moments that changed her career path. “That’s the reason I stay in the industry, those growth moments,” she says.

What’s your leadership philosophy?
There are very young people working for us, early college age, just learning how to be an adult and be in the workforce. The world we live in nowadays is really challenging. And I just try to be supportive and guiding within that, and show staff there’s a really awesome industry out here. I’ve actually had a few employees that were going to college up here for a totally different industry, and they’ve changed their minds. They’re realizing, “Wow, I can actually do something that I enjoy and have fun with,” and it’s getting them to think about their careers in a different way.

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

I really truly care. I truly care about each and every person that walks through our door, guests and employees. And I truly care about the success of this business and the industry as a whole. I think that’s really important. I put all that I have into it.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?

I became general manager the fall before Covid hit. The biggest thing for me was realizing nobody really knew what was going on, and we just have to be flexible and be patient and understanding with everyone. We found, especially this year, we’ve had a lot of challenges with the attitudes of the people coming in. People were coming in with all these frustrations about what’s going on in the world. Like I said, just being flexible and understanding and patient, and supportive of all our team.

What is one of your predictions about the future of the aerial adventure industry?
The more commercial side of the industry will continue to grow. This year we’ve hit record numbers, and we were kind of all wondering if it’s just people wanting to get outside and do something after being shut down last year. Maybe it started that way. But now, people are actually understanding what we do, and they want to continue to come out and challenge themselves.

I have a huge passion for the commercial side because it opens a door to so many people, and they get to experience these really special moments. And I hope that we can continue to provide those. I also do work in our sister company [name it]where I do programs, and those are super powerful and meaningful and I love doing those, too.

What is your go-to ice breaker?
I really dive deep early on. I just talk to people, and I start asking them, “Why are you here? What are you hoping to get out of this?”

Taylor Knight grew up in the thriving cruise port of Ketchikan, Alaska, where on-shore adventure excursions are big business. At 17, he joined local outfitter Kawanti Adventures. Too young to guide, Taylor helped around the facilities that first summer. He was subsequently promoted to guide, then supervisor, and eventually general manager. As GM, Taylor oversees everything from course maintenance to the hiring and training of 100+ seasonal staff each year. “He is not only technically proficient,” says a nominator, “he is also an astute business, operations, and customer service manager.” Taylor is drawn to the industry’s fast-paced environment—Kawanti’s three courses can see 25,000 visitors in just three months. “It’s super dynamic; it’s just really hard to beat,” he says.

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

In my second year supervising, we had probably 800-plus people coming through—one of our bigger days—and the ship was late, but they still wanted to get the same number of tours in and leave at the same time. We were like, “alright, you guys get them out here, we’ll make dreams come true.” It was an entire day of just full-on sprinting around the site. Buses would show up, guests wouldn’t know what tour they were on. I was organizing groups of people, organizing guides, kind of orchestrating this whole thing on this dense schedule. It was just chaos from start to finish, but it was super fun and everybody had a great time. That stands out as the first time where I was thought, “OK, I like this, I’m good at this, I can keep doing this for a while.”

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success?
I thrive in the chaos—that’s my favorite part about the job. We have crazy busy days. We’ll have over a 1,000 people to our site in one day. I thrive in those chaotic days and being the calm in the storm, where everybody knows they can come to me if they have questions and we’re going to get through it.

What’s your leadership philosophy?
A lot of our employees are seasonal. We have people here for a short amount of time. So, I’m looking at what people are interested in outside of the operation as well. How can we incorporate that into the summer? They don’t know us when they come up here, so they’re all quiet and closed off. If you can get them talking about what they get pumped about, you get pumped on it, too. Then we can get people all excited and happy to be here and working on things they want to do. It’s helpful in terms of morale and relationships on the site.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?
It was a rough year last year. We had no cruise ships, and that’s a large portion of the shore excursions that we run. So, a lot of my role changed. Where I like to be outside, running around, managing the chaos, working with people, there were way less people and no tours to be managing. The role changed to, how are we going to get through this with no revenue for a year, year-and-a-half? How are we going to be ready when the ships do come back? It was definitely trying to focus on the long game. I’m so fortunate to work for a diversified company that was able to keep operations open and keep me on, so that I could focus on getting us back to the point where people are coming in again.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in the aerial adventure industry?
From what I see, industry-wide, there is a want for families to come out and try adventure tourism together. We hear from those people that they want to be able to bring their three-year-old and do something cool, something adventure-y while they’re on a cruise ship or while visiting southeast Alaska or any other place. So, looking at the different elements that can be built now that can accommodate almost anybody—you can accommodate ADA, children, high volume—and being able to utilize those new technologies to cater to multi-generational groups and families, I’m excited to learn more and then figure out how to implement those efficiently.

Josh Silk was studying communications at Salem State College and commuting three hours each weekend to his job at a ski resort. “I couldn’t possibly have made enough money to make the gas money worth it,” he laughs, noting that he should have realized then that he wanted to build a career in the outdoor industry. It took him a few more years to figure things out, though. Josh’s love of the ski industry brought him to the aerial adventure world seeking a summer gig. He had no experience in aerial parks or zip tours at the time, but a few seasoned staff showed him the ropes. As customer experience manager of Catamount ski area’s Aerial Adventure Park, Josh is “the ‘go team’ guy,” says a nominator, and “the one guy who stays ‘til the end.”

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

Putting people in the right positions. I was stretching myself thin, and it was a year or two ago that I started delegating a little bit more and putting the right people in the right spots. It’s been something that has really benefited our product and my own personal quality of life. The people that I have leading in the adventure park, on the zip line, and in customer service are people that I really admire and trust. I know their personalities and what they’re good at, their strengths and weaknesses. I don’t think you can interchange them.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received?
I used to really want everything to be perfect the first time. I wanted the quality of my work to show immediately. And one of our bosses told our entire team, “I want you guys to take chances.” He didn’t want us to be afraid to take a chance and make a mistake. That clicked immediately, and it was empowering hearing it come from leadership. It set me up on a road where now, I’m looking at things, knowing that they don’t have to be perfect. So, that pressure is gone, but I also am much more open to using those mistakes as learning experiences.

The worst?
When I was younger, I felt a lot of weird pressure about how I really should have my sights set on looking for a “real job.” I’m not sure where it was from, because I was working in an industry that I loved. And I wish I had known earlier to just lean into what I like doing, because it’s paid off in the end. I love what I do.

Tell me a bit about preparing to reopen after lockdowns were lifted.

That was an interesting time in my life because all of a sudden everybody I’ve worked with, they were gone. I ended up being one person who stayed on full-time. It was basically just to make sure that if we could operate, we were able to operate, but there was so much mystery back then. I spent a lot of time up in the park trying to get things ready, doing jobs that were meant for two or three people by myself. I did a fair amount of swearing to myself, but I felt lucky to still have a job when not everybody knew what the future held. Our leadership—they’re the people that I wanted to have my back when something like this was going on.

What is one of your predictions about the future of the aerial adventure industry?

I don’t want to say it’s a benefit to Covid, but I think people will realize that they crave the outdoors again, and spending time with friends and family. The activities that we offer, it’s like the perfect mix: You get to be outside and build those relationships back up with people. When people complete one of our more challenging courses or they’re on a really massive zip line, that’s not something that you can recreate on a smartphone or a computer or TV. It’s a great opportunity for us to grab new customers, people that haven’t been participating. People are trying new things, and if we’re grabbing them now, we’ll probably make lifelong customers.

Annika Truebenbach discovered challenge courses as a YMCA camper 20 years ago. The camp became her anchor after a family move from Colorado to Minnesota left her feeling unmoored. “I know the power of the work we do,” she says. Annika grew from camper to counselor, but after three years on staff, she thought she’d have to go get a “big kid job.” The camp director encouraged Annika to check out other programs, though, and that’s when Annika’s seasonal life began. She developed her skills outside and on the job, working in a variety of camp and adventure park roles. As the full-time, year-round park manager at The Adventure Park at Storrs, Annika “is a driven leader who works hard to build an inclusive workplace in which everyone feels valued and appreciated,” says a nominator.

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success?
I really take the time to ensure my staff know—from the moment we’re doing an interview through hiring and onward—that I will support them in any way I can. So, if somebody has an interest in photography, they get the camera and they’re starting to take photos for us. If they like maintenance, we put the tools in their hands and start showing them all those skills. I do what I can to meet those preferences on top of advocating for physical and mental health days, time off, self-care, all those things that support the person—not just the work that they’re doing. I want to do everything I can to support their personal and professional growth.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?
I had just started here the week of the grocery store panic when it hit the East Coast back in March 2020. My first week was exciting, as you can imagine, because not only was our industry completely rethinking the way that we did things, but everyone else was, too. I have the good fortune of having four sister parks that our organization runs that I can reach out to anytime I have questions. So, when it came to the pandemic, our five locations worked on our policies and procedures together, offering feedback as we discovered what did and didn’t work. That’s been the biggest gift of this whole experience—it has reminded everyone that it takes a village to accomplish any goal.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in the aerial adventure industry?
It’s a really exciting time for the challenge course industry. I’m seeing more and more businesses and organizations that are using this time as an opportunity to change the way we do things. There’s new resources and technology. There’s more online and hybrid training, and certainly a renewed focus on inclusion and social justice. And beyond that, there’s more discussion that’s focused on how we can improve the process to foster a better experience for everyone, from the folks who are working at ACCT all the way to the staff that are on the ground facilitating the experience itself. I’d love to see how we can support developing leaders.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received?
It was, “Why not?” I had called a friend to ask for their advice about staying in California for the winter instead of returning to Minnesota. I wasn’t quite ready to move on yet, and my friend’s response was, “Why not?” And that was the first time I really realized that the world is my oyster, and I don’t want to miss a single pearl on this journey.

The worst?
I am always challenged by this question. A mentor of mine said once that there’s no such thing as bad communication, only someone who communicates in a way that you don’t understand or appreciate. So even if I’ve gotten advice that maybe didn’t click with me, I always hesitate and challenge myself to ask, “Well, did it not click with me, or did I not understand what they were trying to say?”

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the idea that everyone must want to climb that professional ladder. But each person wants a different kind of growth. I heard someone compare professional growth to plants, and I loved looking at growth that way. There are trees that try to grow tall so they can get more access to the sun, but there’s also creeping plants that instead focus on expanding their root structure so they can grow anywhere. There are different ferns that do better in rain. And I think people are very similar in that way. It’s our job as leaders and managers to figure out what kind of growth they’re looking for and to provide that opportunity for them.

Colleen Tyler needed a summer job after her freshman year in college. She applied to a park in Maine, ended up loving it, and the rest is almost history. Back at the University of Vermont that fall, she declared a major in parks, recreation, and tourism. “I’m passionate about the outdoors. I love being outside,” says Colleen, and she figured if her boss could get a master’s in parks and rec, a person must be able to make a career in the field. She took an internship as a facilitator at a ropes course, and then post-college, Colleen joined the office team at Sandy Springs. She was quickly promoted to sales supervisor, then the media supervisor. Now, she’s assistant general manager. Colleen’s role focuses mostly on marketing and business operations, but she “continues to take ownership of anything and everything that needs to be done,” says a nominator.

What is something you do that directly contributes to your success?
Saying yes as much as I can. I think some people might feel boxed in by a title or afraid of outcomes by saying yes to things they might be uncomfortable with. I try and say yes to things as much as possible and take initiative to get things done, even if it’s not something I’m comfortable with or something that’s not technically my job. And I feel like that has gotten me to where I am today.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?
I remember sitting in a managers’ meetings and someone saying, ‘”Look, we’re in the business of risk management and keeping guests safe. We can take what we know and apply it to pandemic safety.” From a business standpoint, we’ve learned a lot. It’s a big park, so we could have like 850 people here. Now, with Covid, we’ve realized everyone’s a bit happier and has a better experience with not as many people, and we can do just as well financially. Adapting comes with learning lessons, and we learned a lot.

Are there any Covid-induced changes you’ll keep?
One small one was getting rid of cash. Counting cash and deposits and everything was always one of the harder things to complete with the job. We’re sticking with no cash. It takes a lot off of my plate, my staff’s plate, and hasn’t really been an issue with any of our guests.

Again, with reduced capacity, we’re realizing that guests are happier, staff is happier. It puts less stress on the park itself to have a reduced capacity and a smaller number of groups rather than trying to pack people in because we can.

What is the biggest opportunity for growth in the aerial adventure industry?

There’s going to be a lot of opportunity to expand what we have right now, like adding more courses and building to meet the demand. I also think there’s an opportunity to round out the experience. I know some of the other adventure parks have added axe throwing. We are considering offerings that are for younger kids who maybe can’t do anything at the park. A lot of people want to get outside to have fun rather than opting for something indoors, especially right now.

Any advice to offer?
Don’t be afraid to try new things. I remember in sixth grade, standing at the top of a leap of faith and I couldn’t do it, I was so terrified. I was terrified of anything adventurous like that. Rollercoasters? No way. Ropes courses? No way. And then, one day I waltzed into a ropes course, and here I am six years later making a career out of it. Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself, because you never know where it might take you.

Chrissy Very
Senior Regional Site Manager
Go Ape, PA

With a degree in nutritional sciences from Penn State, Chrissy Very knew a more traditional career would keep her interactions with people to mostly clinical environments. She wanted to apply her understanding of mental and physical health to getting people outside, though. She’d taken a few parks, recreation, and tourism classes in college and decided that might be the best field for her. “When you get to play outside for a living there’s only positives there,” says Chrissy. She started at Kayak Pittsburgh before moving to non-profit Venture Outdoors. Then Go Ape recruited her to be the site manager for its Pittsburgh location. She continued to climb within the company and now oversees several parks as the senior regional site manager. Chrissy works closely with her team to ensure they are “meeting direct interests and finding ways to grow personally and professionally,” says a nominator.

What’s your leadership philosophy?
When you’re working with people, you have to remember they are people. They’re not just a revenue stream. They all have personal lives and personal interests. So, how can we relate what we’re doing to what they’re passionate about? Then they can really take ownership and feel that passion about what they’re doing. There are so many great people with so many great talents and skills and different things they bring to the table. It is so awesome to hone all of their specific skillsets and be able to make this awesome conglomerate team that can really create awesome products, too.

Describe a challenge you’ve encountered.

I think we run into challenges with everything that we do. I like to talk to my team about being very solution oriented. Everyone is a little understaffed right now. So how can we still give people the best experience possible and keep them safe with fewer hands available? It’s a lot of teamwork. It’s having the right attitude and being willing to go and do what’s outside of your job description, volunteering to go that extra step.

It’s not part of your job description, but you support marketing efforts. 
I oversee our social media and help with some marketing campaigns. We’re creating STEM educational materials to offer school groups and creating activities to do in the fall for people at the courses. It’s just something I enjoy doing. I write for our blog every so often when bandwidth allows. Those are fun activities, a creative outlet that really helps to spread the message and attract new people, or encourage past guests to have a new experience.

The pandemic has created a lot of uncertainty over the last 18 months. How have you adapted?
It’s kind of cool that you really have to throw the book out the window and start from scratch. It’s a good challenge to develop this brand-new product that’s really (Covid) safe and still a fun, adventurous, activity. We have been lucky that we have the space for social distancing. We do have to adapt to make it safe, but it’s what people can fall back on to provide a vacation, almost, from all the anxieties of everything else.

What is the best professional advice you’ve received?
“It’s outdoor recreation and it’s supposed to be fun.” So, in the back of your mind, control what you can—the safe experience—but there are certain things outside of your control, and that’s OK. Do the best with what you have, and it should be fun.

The worst?

Nothing really stands out as super negative. I’m not a very negative person; bad advice doesn’t stick with me. You make your own judgments and go from there.

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