Traditional ways of doing business became immediately untenable when the coronavirus pandemic forced us out of our offices and into our homes. Across all sectors, the need for digital transformation took on new urgency.
The adventure park business model tends toward the tactile, but as operators look for ways to minimize person-to-person contact in the short term and develop long-term efficiencies, there are gains to be had by going digital in some areas of operation. Staff training is a good place to start, and the e-learning space is filled with tools to support the transition.
What Can Be Done Online?
A wide range of training topics translate to digital platforms. “The sky’s the limit,” says Ingo Albrecht, head of business development for Be A Better Guide, an online training service for tour guides and operators.
“Things that you can and should be moving online are processes and procedures, product descriptions, soft skills coaching, and any company-specific stuff like brand training, company roles, FAQs, route maps, and tour scripts,” says Albrecht.
Certain topics transfer to digital more easily than others. When the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) began developing e-learning programs back in 2010, it started with fields like wilderness medicine and risk services. “The classroom nature of these programs lends itself to online learning opportunities more readily,” says Sandy Chio, NOLS marketing and admissions director.
IAAPA has also begun translating its indoor intensives to online platforms. “Since the global COVID-19 crisis, we have been working to provide even more opportunities by offering virtual editions of core IAAPA programs, such as the IAAPA Safety Institute and the IAAPA Institute for Attractions Managers,” says Reno Deschaine, VP of global education.
Processes and procedures. NH-FUN, which owns and operates Whale’s Tale Waterpark and Alpine Adventures in New Hampshire, started developing its digital training years ago with topics like orientation, bloodborne pathogens, and lockout/tagout. “These topics lend themselves to video/digital training,” says COO Matt Boyd.
Make it COVID specific. The shifting guidelines around COVID-19 best practices and policies are on every operator’s mind right now. Online FAQs and training are smart ways operators can equip staff to deal with common COVID questions guests may ask once business resumes.
Health and safety guidelines “are topics where the knowledge can be delivered in an online course and in practice we keep each other accountable, letting people know, ‘Oh, your mask has slipped,’ or ‘you touched that high touch point,’” says Alexis Webb-Bechtold, a 24-year veteran of the adventure industry and founder of X37 Adventures.
Digital training as primer. Boyd finds e-learning useful for initial training of hands-on scenarios, like how to hook a guest up to a zip line. “In these scenarios, we use the digital training as a primer for the hands-on training,” he says.
This is called the flipped classroom model, says Dr. Trey Bechtold, director of online course development for MBTS, a higher education institution. “The theory behind the flipped model is that [in-person] classroom time is better spent with the students practicing with the information they’ve already received instead of listening to a lecture.”
“This philosophy is a perfect correlation for us,” says Webb-Bechtold, who, together with husband Trey, is looking at developing a digital training consulting service aimed at adventure industry operators. “Being able to deliver the information that isn’t experiential online allows us to maximize in-person time to focus on the stuff that is experiential,” she says.
Get creative. When considering what must be experiential and what can be coached online, creativity is key. Byron Bell, general manager of The Forge: Lemont Quarries, a large-scale adventure park scheduled to open outside of Chicago this summer, says that “because of COVID, I’ve been really fortunate to be involved in a lot of really creative digital trainings. We are trying to see how far we can go with what we can digitize in our own training.”
Hands-on at home. “One thing we are struggling to map onto a digital space is the actual manipulation of the equipment,” says Bell. He may ship retired rope to staff so they can utilize it during a virtual training session.
Teamwork in isolation. Bell is also developing digital teambuilding. He was inspired by the Cotopaxi Questival, in which Bell and other members of his leadership team participated in an online scavenger hunt using an app. “Our process was really collaborative and indicative of the way we work as a team, even though we were all working from our own homes,” he says. “And we thought we could take this idea and do it with our employees to create substantive teambuilding activities without them having to be in the same physical space.”
There are some aspects of training that will likely never move entirely online. “Anything life-critical would be inappropriate for an online format and needs to be taught and confirmed in person,” says Rachel Robinson, director of training at Signature Research, Inc.
Deb Kulcsar, an adjunct at Red Rocks Community College who teaches outdoor education, discovered digital’s limitations firsthand when she had to move a challenge course facilitator intensive online due to COVID-19. “The actual experience of leading a real group was hard to translate,” she says, including the practical application of facilitation skills, how to perform an emotional rescue, and how to make decisions on your feet.
Speed the curve. But online training isn’t there to completely replace in-person training. The idea is to speed that learning curve. “Online training is more of an opportunity to set foundational concepts and knowledge, that then enhances and supports the hands-on training time,” says Robinson.
There are significant benefits to moving elements of your staff training online.
Consistency. Digital training means that all trainees get the same exact message. Boyd says this clear digital messaging adds to on-site consistency as well: “It keeps our trainers accountable to training toward the same standard.”
Blend the best. On-site training often relies on trainers with varying levels of experience and expertise. “An online program can take the best of all your trainers,” notes Albrecht.
Flexibility. Pre-recorded digital training can be conducted on demand. “You don’t have to wait until all your staff are on site. You can onboard them as soon as they are hired,” says Albrecht. In some cases it allows staff to engage with learning when and how they would like to.
This flexibility has been important to IAAPA. “Technology and virtual learning provide ways to offer education across time zones and continents,” says Deschaine.
Documentation. Digital training platforms provide automatic record keeping, too. When NH-FUN developed online training, “our insurance companies were excited,” says Boyd. “You get consistency and lots of documentation. It’s an easier way to guarantee the training has been done.”
Check for understanding. What about the common claim that trainees “check out” when e-learning? It may sometimes happen, but, says Dr. Bechtold, “not all online learning is the same. And online learning done right requires students to engage, because the student can’t possibly complete the module without doing something with that information.”
Many digital platforms make it easy to track progress and check for understanding. An operator or trainer is able to see that someone has gone through the whole program and understood it. That same level of control isn’t always there in a hands-on setting.
Cover more content. Kulcsar says moving her course online “allowed for a lot more in-depth discussion and for us to cover more content than when we do things hands-on.”
Learning styles. One of the major critiques of digital training is that it doesn’t cater to the hands-on learner. But, says Boyd, “in terms of the learning styles piece, if our primary employee wasn’t a Gen Zer, I’d have more concerns about that. The age bracket that we generally hire, they are accustomed to that type of learning.”
And, because this technology is so ubiquitous, particularly in the midst of the pandemic, Robinson sees digital training as a way of “meeting people where they are at right now.”
Company culture. There’s no mandate that e-learning must be boring. Well formatted digital training can showcase company culture, says Albrecht, noting that a well put together video “can pump you up, make you feel part of a community, and get you invested.”
Preparedness. “Our world is more aware of the possibilities of what can be done digitally. I do think there are opportunities,” says Robinson. “But we also can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are still really crucial reasons to continue in-person training.”
Bell’s theory, though, for employees undergoing digital training, is that, “regardless of COVID, they are going to be so much better prepared than a group that shows up with no primer on the day.”
Picking a Platform
There are countless platforms for online learning, from top-of-the-line learning management systems (LMS) to free conferencing services like Zoom. “Pick a platform that allows you to do what you do well. Keep it simple. Make it fun,” advises Kulcsar.
Initial investment. Digital training can be cost-effective in the long run, but getting started with digital can be costly. While many operators may have elements of their training curriculum in digital formats already, organizing and digitizing content costs time and money. “It’s an initial investment because you have to build it out,” says Albrecht. If you opt to bring in an expert or license a platform, there are costs there as well.
That said, “you don’t need an expensive e-learning platform or a videographer,” says Boyd. “We are trying to keep things VERY simple.”
In the cloud. “One of the first steps is just selecting a cloud-based program you can use for all your documents. There are tons of places that you can host these files. We use a lot of Google Docs because it allows us to edit and share live,” says Albrecht.
Want oversight? “Video hosting gets a little more complicated depending on your needs,” says Albrecht. “If you just want to host video files anyone can access with a link, you can do that on YouTube or Dropbox. But if you want to track progress or protect files, you might need an LMS.”
Purpose-built. Tod Schimelpfenig, NOLS curriculum director, likes using an LMS because it is purpose-built for e-learning. “We use one called Canvas,” says Schimelpfenig. “It helps me set up the content and provides options for formatting the content. It also gives the students some options on whether they want to utilize more audio, video, or text. And I can monitor the project.”
Get gamified. Bell is using 1Huddle, a platform designed for onboarding and upskilling employees that uses prizes, notifications, and scoreboards to incentivize trainees. “Gamification is something I’ve done in my in-person training for a long time. That kind of methodology has been really effective for me in the past, and taking that same approach to our policies, SOPs, and manuals is a no brainer.”
Budget friendly. Boyd says NH-FUN aims to build its training inexpensively and keep things low-tech. “We simply use existing training outlines and/or checklists to write a script and determine what photos/video clips we need to gather,” he says. “From there, we shoot everything on our phone and produce video segments with simple editing software—like iMovie. And we have adapted the use of Formsite to present the training and checks for understanding.”
Live or pre-recorded? A key thing to figure out is whether you want to go live or pre-recorded with your digital training. Kulcsar used WebEx to teach Red Rocks courses in real-time. “We used synchronous classrooms to create a community where people were there live, talking to each other,” she says.
Live learning seems to be popular for people looking for connectivity amid social distancing measures. Webinars, for example, are becoming more popular. Deschaine notes that, since COVID, IAAPA is hosting “more webinars than ever.”
Teaching live on Zoom or WebEx is what Dr. Bechtold calls “remote learning.” On the other hand, “online learning” is asynchronous, meaning it can be accessed anywhere at any time. He endorses the latter, saying, “The retention rates of basic knowledge and information for lecture-based learning are low compared to other modalities. And, in my experience, anything that can be delivered in a web-lecture can be delivered through an asynchronous modality.”
Continued outreach. Whether you build out a full digital training program or not, there are several other online tools for operators looking to expand digital outreach to staff. NOLS uses “digital newsletters, as well as podcasts, video meetings, and blogging for continued education and engagement with our staff and students,” says Gates Richards, special programs manager.
COVID Presents Challenge and Change
While digital training was already widely used pre-COVID, the pandemic is forcing hands when it comes to making the leap online. One can look at the transition as an obstacle or an opportunity.
“A lot of businesses feel paralyzed. They are just waiting. They haven’t taken next steps. And you just can’t do that,” says Albrecht. He advises businesses to use this down time to move what they can online so when it’s time to reopen, they can hit the ground running.
Gathering the resources to develop your own online training can seem overwhelming. Webb-Bechtold encourages operators to reach out to experts in online education, be they consultants or educators at local institutions. “We don’t need to make it up on our own in the adventure industry,” she says.
And Bell suggests that operators and trainers be prepared to pivot when some ideas don’t work or fail to translate. “There has to be a real ability to accept failures and learn from mistakes,” he says.
“Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Robinson. “I think as an industry, we’ve done it a certain way for a while. I’m excited about possibilities and the chance to innovate, to think outside of the box in training.”