In the mid 2000s, Jenny and Dan D’Agostino and Chris Swallow were three consultants looking for a business partner with a “triple bottom line” view—not just focused on money, but also on doing the right thing and providing value to communities.
The trio stumbled across Go Ape, a U.K.-based network of aerial adventure parks that, while making a profit, also makes it a point to give back to local communities. The three brought the Go Ape franchise to the United States in 2010, setting up headquarters in Frederick, Md., and opening its first park in nearby Rockville.
Go Ape parks follow a unique business model: All are built in public parks—city, county, or municipal. The company provides an initial capital investment to each “park partner” for a treetop adventure course, and designs, builds, and operates it. Park partners pay nothing, but receive a percentage of each ticket sold to reinvest in their communities. The money helps maintain grounds and add new amenities.
Dan says it’s a model similar to Tom’s shoes, in which a portion of each sale goes to someone in need: “That’s something we’re really passionate about and believe in.”
Like public parks in general, Go Ape is fueled by the philosophy that outdoor recreation should be available to everyone in a community, not just certain segments.
“Park departments work to distribute their goods to everybody, and Go Ape was aligned with these goals,” says Dan. “Partnerships with park departments get everyone in the outdoors—kids, school groups, Baby Boomers, etc. It’s an opportunity and an outdoor activity accessible to everybody.”
The company makes it a priority to target non-profit and charitable groups, providing them free access to courses. According to its website, Go Ape annually donates more than $30,000 in cash and thousands of free tickets to local disadvantaged kids, and to organizations including the Wounded Warrior Project, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Park partners have contributed to some of these external and national partnerships, including Big Brothers Big Sisters. The company sponsored a “National Live Life Adventure Day” in which a free ticket was given to the organization for each ticket purchased. In all, 1,170 tickets were donated, adding to the more than 8,000 tickets donated to similar groups in 2015.
Common and Unique Elements
With a franchise operation, it’s easy to envision a big-box-like chain of parks, each resembling the next. But Go Ape’s designs aren’t cookie cutter; they must adapt to the spaces in which they’re built.
There are similarities, though. Each course uses a 5- to 10-acre footprint, and offers five different sections, starting with a rope ladder that leads into a tree canopy. From there, users find a variety of elements, typically 40 obstacles, five or six zip lines, and a few Tarzan swings. Each takes two to three hours to complete. Ticket prices are the same at all locations: $55 to $57 for adults aged 18 and up.
“It’s extremely important for us to provide the same guest service at each park,” says Dan. “That said, there is an opportunity to provide different things at each location, which is exciting from a design perspective.”
The company is heavily focused on environmental sustainability, too. Trails are built with woodchips to reduce compaction of root systems, and platforms are not drilled into trees. Independent arborists inspect tree health before a course is built and during operation.
An extensive stewardship program also includes park clean-ups, a “Weed Warrior” program targeting non-native species, and building of bat and bird boxes. Participants are tapped from park staff as well as local non-profits and community organizations, like Boy Scouts. Educational interpretive signage is also provided.
Go Ape’s 12 U.S. parks employ around 200 people. All receive training using an in-house program adopted from the U.K. At each park, teams go through “Go Ape University,” a two-week curriculum that’s required each year for anyone working at a course. The training includes online and on-site courses, and covers everything from safety to guest service to how to be a good partner to the public parks.
The company hosted a Go Ape Festival in Delaware last summer, inviting employees from around the country to camp for a night and get to know one another. Close to 100 showed up, driving from St. Louis, Memphis and all points in between. Such gatherings are important for the business, which recently received a corporate culture award from a well-known business trade magazine (watch for the announcement in a few weeks).
Five years in, Go Ape is becoming a recognizable brand. “Our vision has always been to be national and be a prominent outdoor brand in the U.S.,” says Dan.
In the earlier days, he recalls, staff worked hard to identify and reach out to prospective park partners. Success has made that easier: Now, park departments are coming to them almost daily with opportunities.
Go Ape doubled the size of its business in 2014, and plans to add five parks per year moving forward. Locations are already determined for 2016, including Texas, Missouri, and Illinois, so the company is looking at 2017 and beyond. Giving back is a popular concept with public partners.
It’s also one that Dan hopes other operators will embrace.
“While we believe in giving back,” says Dan, “we also feel that we’ll be able to inspire existing and new course operators to do the same.”