In 2015, the year we launched Adventure Park Insider, our editors asked a panel of industry leaders questions about the hot topics shaping the industry:
Helmets: Good idea or not?
Harnesses: Full, or seat?
Waivers: Paper, or digital?
Zip line brakes: Active, or passive?
These were still subjects of debate eight years later at the 2023 ACCT International Conference and Expo in Portland, Ore., Feb. 9-12. Of course, the industry has changed since 2015 in response to shifting consumer trends and the seismic shifts caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Conversations about safety, liability, and regulations have evolved, too, to reflect new participant trends, incident data, and proposed standards.
So, where do things stand now? What are the key concerns for the industry these days?
Here, we’ll reflect on the issues driving the industry nearly a decade ago, how those concerns have—or have not—changed in the interim, and what we heard in the classrooms and on the tradeshow floor at the ACCT show about what must be addressed next.
STANDARDS AND REGULATION
Back in 2015, our panelists expressed that a key need was safety standards, specifically how to balance the challenge and excitement inherent in aerial activities with the need to minimize risk to participants. The goal was to create an environment of high adventure, but with little actual risk.
“That’s a gray area when it comes to self-navigating courses, as opposed to amusement parks where customers expect that nothing bad can happen,” Challenge Towers president Ken Jacquot told us then. “Adventure parks involve some choices and active experiences in which people are engaged with you. These two worlds have different standards of care. We’re trying to create an activity that feels active, you’re engaged, but where the risk is more perceived than real. We’re trying to take care of the things that actually create a threat or risk.”
Standards concerns. Since 2015, standards have become more complete. The ASTM 2959 standard has been revised and expanded. The ANSI/ACCT standard came into being in 2016, and is heading toward its second revision. Proposed changes tackle the problem of minimizing risk with new rules regarding active and passive braking and low ropes elements, as well as new requirements for construction and testing of ground anchors.
API has explored some of the potential impacts these changes might have (“Give Me a Hand. Brake.” adventureparkinsider.com, November 2022; “State of the Standards,” Adventure Park Insider, Winter 2023).
Concerns and questions about those impacts, particularly for certain segments of the business such as traditional and camp operations, produced 1,730 comments during the public comment period, most regarding technical points. These concerns remained high at the ACCT conference.
Case in point: Rich Klanjscek’s session on zip braking at the conference reached maximum occupancy—volunteers were turning away attendees at the door. Inside, there was a lively discussion about how and when to measure braking speed: at the “landing zone,” at the “terminus,” at the “impact zone” (i.e., the point at which a rider could hit something)? That discussion reflects the role that arrival speed plays in guest safety.
Another key question up for debate: would the new standards eliminate adventure and risk to the point that the line between amusement parks and aerial courses, both traditional and recreational, would become blurred?
“Changes to the standards regulate hand braking at a more aggressive level and include new standards for low ropes elements, and I worry about that segment of the industry getting sucked unnecessarily into the amusement world through that more robust language,” said one attendee.
Notably, ACCT isn’t the only one in the standards game. One attendee pointed out that the language in the draft standard essentially eliminates a percentage of zip line canopy tour operators based on a braking system that is not being eliminated in other standards that exist in the marketplace.
At the conference, several people worried that the proposed draft standard would increase the time and cost of inspections, further adding to the cost of doing business for operators.
There are potential impacts in the ANSI/ACCT draft standard for vendors, too, some of whom are concerned that the standards are becoming too specific. This could make the standards more costly to deal with and put smaller vendors at risk of disappearing.
Consistent regulation. At the same time that operators and suppliers are concerned about the increasing rigidity of the standards, there is a call for more consistent government regulation. For example, as it stands, only 17 states have regulations for zip line safety, and those regulations are not consistent from state to state.
This was the same concern Keith Jacobs of Experiential Systems Inc. shared back in 2015. “It’s not always easy to keep track of the standards, and that points to a second issue: understanding the different standards, and when and where they apply. A third issue is understanding the constantly changing regulatory arena—that is, what is regulated where, and when will it change. Because it will change,” he said.
And the regulations have changed, as Jacobs predicted. While camps face relatively consistent regulations, that isn’t the case for commercial aerial operations. Some states have instituted or expanded their regulations, while others still don’t regulate at all. Aside from making it difficult for builders to stay current on regulations, this inconsistency has added pressure to operators’ insurance premiums and policies.
INSURANCE AND INCIDENTS
Risk management is always a key concern of operators, and rising costs are making it even more worthy of attention. The aggregated incident data for 2022, from the annual claims of the industry’s leading insurance agencies Granite Insurance and Hibbs-Hallmark, suggests that the average claim amounts for a variety of incident types (e.g., inherent risk, passenger transport, and operator error) are rising, with zip line claims significantly larger than aerial park and challenge course claims. (See “2023 Incident Trends & Solutions,” p. 42.)
This speaks to a globally hardening insurance market, where increasing unfriendliness in the courts to liability waivers and both social inflation and real inflation are driving markedly larger liability payouts. Across industries, to maintain a robust pool of premium money—a finite resource that a proliferation of large payouts could drain—premiums must rise to cover costs. Some aerial operators fear those rising premium rates will force smaller operations out of the market for liability coverage.
How might the challenge of higher costs be met in the aerial adventure industry? Consistent state or federal regulation could be one avenue. Reducing the number of incidents—that is, better managing risk—is another obvious solution, but one that is easier said than done. Operator error was the top alleged causation of claims for 2022.
There are no easy answers for that. Among the solutions floated at the conference was the creation of a robust safety culture. Such a culture requires quality training and adept leadership, as well as putting the right employees in the right positions—a proposition made more difficult by a tight labor market.
Yet building a strong safety culture is essential. The cost of employee injury per $100,000 of payroll was way up in 2022. Industry observers attributed this largely to staffing issues in 2022, as many operators onboarded many new, inexperienced staff. Thirty-five percent of employee injuries happen to employees in their first three months of employment.
STAFFING AND TRAINING
How to solve the staffing issues the industry is facing? That’s the question seemingly on everyone’s mind.
Shared ideas. This was reflected in a well-attended “owners and operators open discussion” session at the conference, where much of the conversation focused on the challenges of finding and keeping good staff (the kind that won’t flake on the job). Operators shared tips for weeding through applicants from job sites like indeed.com, positive experiences with staff referral incentives, and the effectiveness of incentives such as an end of season bonus based on hours worked.
Among the concerns were questions about employee housing (to provide or not to provide) and the difficulties of staying abreast of a changing HR landscape, particularly as it relates to drug legalization, liabilities, and policies. Operators also expressed concern about how high staff turnover and a forced shift from pre-season hiring to a rolling hiring model (i.e., new staff joining throughout the season) has had ripple effects on training quality, consistency, and cost.
High quality training and minimizing the risk of operator error were high priorities back in 2015, too, but the labor market has tightened considerably since then. Training a large group of staff at the start of the season, as was the norm several years ago, is cost efficient and provides consistency. When training has to occur all summer long, as it does now, it becomes more expensive. There is also the question of who has the time, experience, and energy to conduct all that training.
As one attendee said, simultaneously conducting training and operations requires a “make it work mentality.” Constantly making it work isn’t necessarily a sustainable model, though.
The industry continues to deal with the aftermath of Covid, which was a major disruption. It created a wealth of challenges for the industry. But it also invited innovation and swelled demand, at least temporarily. It appears that demand, for both recreational and traditional operations, has returned to pre-pandemic levels. That’s despite the largely positive and inspirational outdoor experiences many people had during the pandemic.
So, what’s going to bring staff and participants back? How are we going to keep people engaged long term?
If operators simply revert to pre-pandemic models, they will miss an opportunity to evolve. As the industry thinks about how to move forward, it should do so with circumspection and with information, rather than assumptions about what prospective staff and participants want.
That information can come, in part, from increased collaboration and sharing. Industry peers—and competitors—can work together in a combined effort to improve their individual businesses while buoying the industry at the same time. More operations can participate in data collection efforts, which will result in better resources for all.
ACCT, too, has an opportunity to grow with the industry. What do members need from the organization? (Online education and engagement? Lobbying? Data? More resources? Increased communication?)
The bottom line is: Standing still is not an option in our rapidly changing business environment. We face some of the same issues and questions as in 2015, but the options and answers have evolved. That requires new thinking. Fortunately, it seems a lot of industry members understand and desire that.