Weathering the Summer of ’23


The Covid boom may be over, but that does not mean a return to pre-pandemic business levels for aerial park operators. Thanks to Covid, the bar is now higher, even in a year when weather challenges dampened demand for many operators.

Kurt Damron, CEO of Highlands Aerial Park, N.C., said since the Covid 2021 season, when revenue shot up 80 percent over pre-Covid levels, business has been slowly tailing off, but “we’re still way up over pre-Covid years.”

“Excitement is not waning, but consumer spending is changing,” he added. “People are still taking trips, but not spending as much.”   


“Our revenue is about dead flat with last summer,” said Damron. “We raised prices, which really helped make up the difference in what would have been a much lower year. Visitation was definitely down (11 percent year-over-year, while revenue slipped just 1 percent).”

Andrew Bogue at Challenge Quest outside Tulsa, Okla., also said demand was flat this summer, as was revenue, despite raising prices.

Flat is good. “Since the [Covid] ’21 season, which was our best, the last two summers have been steady—not crazy like ’21, but steady,” he said. “I’m really happy with the numbers. We’re still doing well above pre-pandemic levels. Our business was down across the board. Then Covid and ’21 happened. We’ve been steady, flat line since.”

Despite raising prices, demand and revenue were also flat at Colorado’s Telluride Canopy Adventure, which has a five-line zip tour with two aerial bridges and two rappels.

At AVA Rafting & Zipline, an outfitter based in Idaho Springs, Colo., which offers a variety of activities including zip lining, both demand and revenue were also down.


In what Olivia Cellini, co-owner of Mountain Ridge Adventures in Schenectady, N.Y., calls her “summer of locusts,” what could go wrong, did.

Start with the rain—which led to one of the wettest-ever summers in the Northeast—throw in smoke from the Canadian wildfires (“we lost an entire group to the wildfires,” Cellini said), add in a new marketing firm (“horrible, we had to fire them”), and for good measure a new bookkeeping system (“a disaster, we spent so much time on it only to go back to the old one”), and it is a wonder the park was down just 10 percent.

“When it rains, it pours,” she said.

Morale killer. Cellini did not have to lay off staff because of all the rain and cancellations, but shifts and hours had to be cut, and morale plunged. “Ninety percent of our staff have second jobs to fill in those fewer shifts,” she said.


On the positive side, Cellini said group sales were up, which is why “we were only 10 percent down.”

“Corporate groups are up; summer camps and schools are doing well,” said Cellini. “In some cases, we have entire school districts coming out. Those [relationships]tend to be long lasting. [The schools] filled in time slots that weren’t being filled by the general public.

“We have a positive outlook for next year,” she added. “We’ve built a good business model. We’re definitely keeping up our outreach program. We’re reaching out to groups and others.”

Groups also helped lift Butter and Egg Adventures, a 40-acre, 19-zip-line outdoor adventure retreat in Troy, Ala., to its “best summer,” said owner/operator Ron Pierce. He credited better marketing for the upsurge, along with a wide variety of activities that includes outdoor laser tag, axe throwing, an escape room, canoeing, and fishing.

Team-building. “We had more groups than we’ve had in a long time,” Pierce said. “Our team-building numbers also went up. We’re one of the few places in the Southeast that does true team-building.

“We did a lot of corporate and school retreats, a lot of church retreats. We have only 52 beds on the property, so our niche is small groups. Word gets back that we cater to small groups, a lot of personal touch. We get a lot of repeat business.”

Also new this year was a contract with nearby Troy University to host up to 30 students at a time.

“All they have to do is make a reservation,” Pierce said. “It helped our numbers. The university pays us a stipend, and it gets [the students]out of the dorm rooms.”

Large groups. In Oklahoma, Bogue also said groups, especially large ones (75 or more), were up.

“This year we saw a lot of larger groups, corporate, school groups booking. We had one group at the end of September of around 400. They booked up the entire facility for the day. We cater to what they want to do.”

Bogue said there is also a 100-plus room lodge on the property that does a lot of weddings and corporate retreats, and shares some bookings with the adventure park.


At the other end of the spectrum, staffing difficulties contributed to a 30 percent decline in business at Zip Timber Lake, a canopy and zip tour park in Indiana.

“The Covid years were some of our better years,” said operator Matt Faley. “Our best revenue year was 2020-21. This summer has been very difficult. Our biggest challenge has been staffing. It is clearly our worst year ever in terms of recruiting and retention. I won’t say we turned away business, but we had to adjust some of our revenue strategies, available tours, the number of weekend tours. We’ve not been aggressive at all with marketing.”

Faley said the park “used to get a fair number of repeat staff for a summer or two, traditionally college age.” But the reliability, and perhaps the expectations, of returners appears to have changed. “I think people recognize that the job is fun, but also hard work, and one summer is enough. Also, the hours are not ideal,” he said. “Most of our business is weekends and holidays.”

New strategies. Going forward, Faley is reaching out to local colleges with hospitality programs hoping to create more cross-functional opportunities and internships for prospective recruits, “so they’re not only doing zip line work, but also working in marketing, operationally, financially, and getting a well-rounded experience,” he said.

“For us, it’s learning some new channels of recruitment,” he added. “We may be missing some opportunities in how we recruit. It’s easy to fall into complacency, and we’re hoping that this may open some new avenues for us.”

Older applicants. Damron at Highlands saw a decline in qualified applicants this summer. “We were a little slimmer, staff-wise, than we’d like. The last two to three years, the minimum age of applicants is way up. We used to get a lot of high school and college-age students looking for a summer job. Those days are gone. We’re getting more people in their 20s and 30s.”

“We’re in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to finding staff,” said Bogue at Challenge Quest.

Hiring for two. One advantage he has is hiring for two companies: Challenge Quest, which does group facilitation, inspections, course building, gear sales, and training for course staff throughout the Midwest; and Postoak Canopy Tours, a six-line zip tour in Tulsa.

“They are two separate companies,” he said. “All of our staff are welcome to pick what side of the company they want to work from. Most start with the canopy tours and can transition and become facilitators and grow into what Challenge Quest does as well. A few work for both companies. It gives staff more opportunities.”

Bogue said the company hit all of its staffing needs for the summer, but “I’d like to see more and recruit more,” he added. “It’s a struggle to find people who want to work.”

At Mountain Ridge Adventures, Cellini said she was “very fortunate to have a great staff. We have a large pool of high school and college students,” she said. “We start our staff young and train them young. We have a very low turnover rate. They stay four to five years.”

Wages. But paying them is another matter. When the park opened in 2016, Cellini said New York’s minimum wage was $9.40—staff make minimum wage plus tips. Now, the state’s minimum wage is $14.20. “It’s hard to keep up,” Cellini said. “Everybody around us is raising prices. It’s affecting all of us.”


Several operators said continually expanding attractions and making capital improvements has become essential to sustaining demand.

Offerings. “Our goal is to add a new attraction every two years,” said Damron. Last year, for Highlands Aerial Park’s 10th anniversary, Damron spent $150,000 to completely retrofit its courses.

Since Mountain Ridge Adventures opened, Cellini said, it has nearly doubled in size. “We went from five courses in 2016 to seven, and have increased the size of some of the courses.”

In Alabama, Pierce said Butter and Egg Adventures is adding a new rappelling tower and team challenge course.

“You’ve got to have the next best thing,” he said. “Keeping it fresh, mixing it up is important.”

Marketing and events are another key to bolstering business. In Oklahoma, Bogue said he wants to “hit marketing harder” to become a more integral part of the Tulsa community, as well as add more special events to attract a wider audience with a “Come to Tulsa” message.

“Our special events draw people from as far away as Dallas, Kansas City, and St. Louis,” he said. “Our normal daily operation is mainly the greater Tulsa area (15 minutes away).”

“We also want to reach out and become more ingrained with Tulsa,” Bogue added.

Whatever routes operators choose to follow, the decisions are all about ramping up visitation and momentum to maintain the Covid bump.


About Author

Leave A Reply