In 2015, there was a fatal incident at a challenge course in North Carolina. In the aftermath of that tragedy, a local legislator held a press conference where he declared his intention to bring law and order to an “unregulated industry.” It wasn’t long before he proposed an onerous and ill-advised bill in an effort to regulate the aerial adventure operations in the state.
As the owner and operator of a zip line canopy tour in the mountains of western North Carolina, I recognized that the bill would have had a tremendous impact on my business and all of the other businesses offering aerial adventure activities.
There are three other outstanding commercial zip line tours within an hour’s drive of my operation, not to mention an abundance of camps and university programs. Prior to this time, I hadn’t spoken to any of the other tour owners. But in the moment, I didn’t hesitate to call them and ask if they’d heard the news. In retrospect, that was when things changed for all of us.
Convening a Collective Voice
The legislative process moved pretty quickly, and we were compelled to react. Within a few frenzied phone calls, we had recruited other operators in the state, formed an impromptu organization, and registered as a 501(c)(6) trade organization. Before that, we were competitors, now we are collaborators. Before that, we were strangers, now we are “strange bedfellows.”
Following the advice of an operator among us with previous legislative experience (a former lawyer with some lobbyist friends), we hired a lobbyist to keep us informed of the bill’s progress and to connect us with those in state government that might be receptive to stakeholder input.
As the process moved forward—from Department of Labor research about our industry and how (or if) they could effectively regulate it, to hearings in various state legislative committees about the process and implications of regulation—we were able to insert ourselves into the conversation.
This would have been impossible without the ability to represent ourselves as a collective voice for a much larger industry. The North Carolina Aerial Adventure Association (NCAAA), as it is now known, is a state-level organization of operators, ACCT Professional Vendor Members, and partner organizations, such as insurance companies, that are members of ACCT based in North Carolina.
When asked recently about organizations like NCAAA, ACCT policy director Scott Andrews said, “Local trade associations that have the ability to coordinate the efforts of operators in a region are a significant help in developing new or improved regulation. In a jurisdiction where regulation is proposed or is being changed, one of the first steps ACCT takes is to learn who will be affected by the regulation. This is time-consuming work, and local trade associations have already done this work. ACCT is always happy to work with local aerial adventure groups.”
In the ensuing years, one of the most important lessons we have learned is that we share a common purpose. Being competitors can sometimes overshadow that. However, we have banded together multiple times to defeat the same ill-advised zip line bill and have continuously advocated for smarter regulation.
But perhaps more importantly, we have repeatedly gathered to share our collective wisdom, to create a strong local aerial adventure community, and to further our common goal of advancing the industry through advocacy, communication, education, and cooperation.
So, why do you need a state level organization? Because when you speak together with multiple operators and organizations in your state, your voice is stronger. Because when you form a 501(c)(6) you are legally allowed to hire a lobbyist, and a lobbyist will get you a seat at the “important tables” in your state government. Because you are an important link between the ACCT and the local state legislators that want to hear from constituents like you.
Where to Begin
How do you form a state-level trade organization?
Start by researching the process in your state. For example: What paperwork do you need to file (bylaws, tax forms, registrations)? Then call other operators and stakeholders in your state. If we have learned anything in North Carolina, it is to start early, before there is an urgent matter to address.
When reaching out to fellow operators, we have found that the best antidote to resistance is education and information. For example:
• If there is a unifying issue to rally around, such as a pending bill that would be detrimental to the industry in your state, explain what it is and how it could affect them.
• If there is a unifying public message, such as wanting to promote your industry to visitors, convey it, and emphasize its value.
• If there is a unifying theme, such as wanting to get together to “break bread” and share ideas, communicate it and welcome them to join.
Small Cost, Big Return
The means for funding and maintaining a state-level trade organization come with time and will be specific to your state, the other industry professionals that are recruited to join, and the scope of what the organization wishes to accomplish.
For the NCAAA, we charge a small yearly membership fee. Those dues go toward retaining a lobbyist, funding our website and outreach efforts, and paying various association costs like state registration and insurance. All of our board members are volunteers, and they contribute greatly to the overall mission and administration of the NCAAA.
As a group, we get together regularly to socialize, visit each other’s courses, and break bread (and sometimes drink adult beverages). While we network, we share war stories and success stories, and learn from one another. This costs very little and has had immeasurable value in our quest to do better and be better.
If you have questions about why, how, or if you should form a state-level trade association, please feel free to visit our website (www.NCAAA.net) or reach out directly to me ([email protected]) or one of our other board members. We would be honored to support or assist you in any way we can.