Bill Zimmermann, who was named executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) last spring, has been circling the aerial adventure world for much of his life. From his days as a Boy Scout through his leadership of the Climbing Wall Association, his career has been grounded in experiential education and the management of an association in a relatively young and dynamic, at-height industry. That makes him uniquely suited for his new role.
Zimmermann got a taste of experiential education in the early 1990s after graduating from the University of New Hampshire, through a program called Upward Bound. As a consultant and independent contractor, he did experiential education work with the Browne Center at the University of New Hampshire and Project Adventure, which has launched numerous careers in the industry. He was the director of accreditation for the Association for Experiential Education from 1997 to 2004. From there, Zimmermann helped launch the Climbing Wall Association (CWA), which he led from 2005 to 2020, during which time the industry and its association grew and evolved along a parallel path to that of our own industry and ACCT.
Zimmerman saw the climbing wall industry “go from the backyard builder to very sophisticated operations,” with the same push and pull between the old ways and new innovations that the aerial adventure industry is experiencing. He learned to navigate the regulatory intervention and lobbying needs—issues closely related between the two industries—that come with such change, too.
“I feel like I’ve been running on this parallel track for a long, long time,” he said.Now, since starting as executive director in the spring, Zimmermann has been immersing himself in the world of ACCT.
“This has really been an orientation phase,” he said during an interview in August. That included a very practical orientation about process and systems and transferring of accounts, and debriefing from former ED (and longtime acquaintance) Shawn Tierney about “what I could expect, what kind of dynamics exist in the organization and on the board, these various constituencies or groups that kind of operate in the organization, meeting the staff and spending some time with them.”
It also included producing the fiscal year 2023 budget. “That was a good opportunity to quickly understand, in terms of financial performance and revenue, what matters here. How do you go about doing it? And, can I help improve that or grow some parts of the business?”
At the same time, he praised ACCT for successfully navigating through Covid. “ACCT did a very fine job of planning for a rainy day. They managed their way through the acute phase of the pandemic intact. We still command substantial reserves.”
He has also been getting to know his membership. “I have really enjoyed meeting some of the people and working with them on projects so far. I have some good relationships already,” he said.
The value of membership. He counts that membership as a major asset of ACCT. “Having a vibrant membership program is vitally important. My assessment of ACCT, in terms of its membership, is it’s enthusiastic and engaged.
“That’s a great advantage to me. I can ask people to do work, and they’ll do it. And they’ll do a good job if they’re well led.”
Defining his role. Zimmermann expects to provide that leadership. He sees himself as a manager who tends to the overall direction of the association, but not someone who gets deep in the weeds of individual departments or programs.
Instead, he aims to keep the big picture in sight. “As an association manager, one of my jobs is to identify unmet needs and to run to those gaps and fill them,” he said.
The goal of the association is to help members and the overall industry thrive, and in that regard, Zimmermann will be actively involved. “I can be an ally to them. I can be an advocate for them. I can talk to them about how to run an association,” he said.
“But I’m happy to let them be the experts in the technical areas,” he added. >>
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
Zimmermann knows what his priorities are. “My focus, at least this year, maybe next year, is going to be on the basics,” he said. “Let’s make sure the legs are steady under the organization.”
The annual conference. That starts with ACCT’s annual conference and expo. He praised the work of the current conference head, Melissa Webb, and said that he plans to support her work in developing the conference beyond this year’s event.
That said, the immediate goal is rebuilding attendance at the annual show. “The big challenge right now for most small nonprofits and small associations is we’re coming out of Covid, two years of virtual events, no events, in the association management industry, generally,” he said. Getting back to pre-Covid levels of participation is key.
Then, he said, “Let’s really focus on a good event in ’24 and ’25. That will provide us with the resources that we need to invest elsewhere.”
Long term, Zimmermann is focused on making the conference, and ACCT generally, as efficient and cost-effective as possible. That might mean establishing a rotation of locations, with different sites in the east, west, and middle sections of the country. Constantly seeking out new locations takes a lot of time and effort, and that comes with increased cost.
Future events. Zimmermann also sees the potential for other, more focused events and shows. “This field has really diversified since its inception,” he said, including the development of pay-to-play recreational adventure parks. “That’s an opportunity for events targeted to these different constituencies or audiences. I don’t know what that looks like today, but there’s an intention there to identify those groups and tailor events and experiences to meet their needs.”
Part of the effort to increase the value of ACCT events involves identifying trends as they begin to take root, and identifying experts, speakers, and panelists who can bring that content to a conference. “Good content sells events,” he said.
LOOKING FOR EFFICIENCIES
To both strengthen ACCT’s finances and better serve members, Zimmermann is looking for operational efficiencies in several areas.
Organizational streamlining. With his background in accreditation, Zimmermann hopes to make ACCT’s accreditation programs more efficient.
“We’ve got a lot of groups within ACCT,” he said. “We have the ACC [Accreditation and Certification Committee], each program has a group that information flows through. It might go to the ACC and then might go to the board. What I’m looking at is, do these processes make sense? Are these processes reasonably efficient? Is there a way we can reorganize the governance of these kinds of programs to make management of credentialing easier and more profitable for ACCT?
“There are huge opportunities to reorganize credentialing as an activity in ACCT, and I’m trying to learn as much as I can about what kinds of recommendations would work here. I’m trying to figure out what the bigger, better offer is for all these programs, trying to help make them more aligned one to the next.”
Technical fix. Another way to address efficiency, he said, is through technology. “How do you take a small team and multiply their effort?” he asked. “These days, that’s often on the back of technology, so we’ll be making some investments there.” One example: ACCT is adopting a new marketing platform.
And that’s part of a broader move to integrate all of ACCT’s tech systems, “from accounting to association management to marketing,” Zimmermann said. “In six months to a year, all of those systems will be much more tightly integrated. “For a small association, this makes a ton of sense. It’s more expensive, but it saves money on the other end. If you consider the cost of a salary versus the cost of subscription for some of the new software, it’s a no-brainer.”
The CWA under Zimmermann did a lot of “content marketing” to its members, a concept he hopes to bring to ACCT. “We were developing a lot of technical information related to indoor climbing and structures, and, by the time I left, work at height and safeguarding workers and educating members about their obligations as an employer,” he said.
The aim was to help businesses evolve and become more sophisticated as the industry itself grew and evolved. “You become aware as a business owner about obligations that maybe you didn’t know you had when you started your business 10 or 20 years ago,” he said, from new industry standards to OSHA requirements.
“A lot of our activity around standards development and credentialing provided us with lots of material to repackage and redistribute,” he said, in the form of short pieces, white papers, position papers, and technical documents. The aim was to make the standards and accreditation programs easier to understand and implement. CWA repackaged the information into a practical piece that would help educate members, inform them of trends, and help them operate their businesses.
More technical publishing. “I would like to see ACCT do more technical publishing,” Zimmermann added. “We have a lot of technical expertise inside the organization, but relatively little of that comes out in easily digestible forms.”
“We have to be in that education space. That will continue to be an area of emphasis. It’s a key to our future success,” he said.