The Dog Days of Summer

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It seems almost counterintuitive for something that brings so much joy to also trip us up. After all: tell the world you’re working at an adventure park—spending all day out in the trees or on zip lines or hiking up passes—and they’re going to drool with envy and think, “You’ve got the life.”

And yet, burnout is a real thing in this industry. Be it the long hours, the intense way seasons are packed into weeks, the repetition of the days, and perhaps most of all, the pressure. The pressure to keep everyone safe, to keep things moving along, and to make every single guest feel they are the most special guest you’ve ever been with. It all adds up.

That’s why many successful adventure park managers know to keep ahead of burnout. Beginning as early as the interview process, it’s something good managers acknowledge, address, and act on. And even then, it can be something they struggle with late in the season.

Adventure Park Insider recently surveyed park operators about burnout. Responses came quickly and often, most with the same theme: Yes, indeed, burnout is real. And yes, parks are addressing it, with a combination of planning, communicating, outings, and of course, beer. We took the time to speak more with some of the respondents, and to learn more about how burnout can be addressed.

At Air Donkey Zipline Adventures in Oklahoma, Steve Burrough knows how strange it can seem to have to deal with burnout on the job site. “The perception from friends and family is like, ‘Oh, all you do is zip line all summer. How lucky are you?’ They don’t understand the phenomenon. I tell them that after about 3,000 trips, it loses its thrill,” he says.

That’s why he understands not only the signs of burnout, but the timing as well.

“It usually starts to show a bit just after the Fourth of July,” he says. “That’s when you can start to see someone going downhill. It’s like all the things you are taught, all the steps you took to avoid it, just seem to slip. You have to realize at some point you are telling the same joke over and over and doing the same thing over and over and over. It can be hard.”

WAGES, TIPS, AND TEAM-BUILDING

But Burrough takes steps even before he sees this to keep staff motivated. “We start with good wages, and we remind them they keep their tips,” he says. “We also realize these are young kids [who cannot afford a lot]. So we stock the break room with good snacks for them, and we hold [impromptu]cookouts. We throw some ribs on the grill and feed them. It’s amazing how much that can boost a person.”

Burrough and his team also offer a $500 bonus to any employee who does not miss a Saturday all season. With that comes the understanding that money, even to the poorest employee, does not always rule. “It’s amazing how many of them don’t make it,” he says.

Air Donkey hits several of the recurring themes we heard in fighting burnout—pop-up fun and free meals, ice cold beer (after work), and special outings to not only remind employees of why they do what they do, but also to build relationships. And that’s key. One huge sign of and side effect of burnout, according to Psychology Today, is separation from the team.

Chris Christie, park manager at the Adventure Park at Long Island, likes to teambuild with food as a foundation. It’s not unusual for him to cook a breakfast for his entire staff as a way to bring them together and teambuild, without it feeling like a stilted and planned “team building exercise.”

“It’s more of ‘team engagement,’” Christie says. “I like to back-end it, not call it a seminar. I like to find a way to get us together to get to know one another and talk things through, and cooking a meal for everyone works well for that.”

Christie points out something that many managers echo: the less they interact with each other in real time and in real situations, the more likely burnout is to set in.

“The one time we did have a problem with it was when I got stuck inside for about three weeks,” he says. “When I am outside and really engaging with the staff, we see less of it.”

Not that he wasn’t working hard while he was in the office; it’s just better for him to be out there working side-by-side with his staff. But it also could be simply because he’s out there giving his staff a voice and demonstrating that he cares what they say and how they feel first-hand.

PUTTING EMPLOYEES FIRST

Tim Kreutzer, owner of Open Air Adventure Park, agrees, pointing out that while food and beer help, there’s a basic need employees have as well that helps push away burnout: employers who listen.

“We have always really valued our employees,” he says. “They are not just a body. They have a voice and we remind them of that constantly. They can come to us and critique us. We ask them all the time: what can we do better? And we listen.”
It goes further than that, too—and this might sound shocking to anyone in the service industry: Companies that fight burnout well always put their employees first. As in, before the customer.

“We tell our employees that friends and family come first, not work. And we mean it,” Kreutzer says. “We try to be flexible with them, give them time when they need it. We know this is not a career; it’s a summertime job. Showing them we know that helps.”

Even rescue training, like they do at Snow King Mountain, Wyo., can be a fun activity to solidify a team and help avoid burnout.

Even rescue training, like they do at Snow King Mountain, Wyo., can be a fun activity to solidify a team and help avoid burnout.

Sue Muncaster, chief adventure officer at Snow King Mountain, Wyo., echoes that. “We make sure they get time off when and if they need it, and if we’re short, we’re short,” she says. “You know, most of us learned from our own experience that you have to have a balance of family, life, and work. That’s why we actually put our employees before our customers.”

Snow King is in Jackson, Wyoming, a resort town that, she says, lends itself to employee burnout, since folks want to work hard in-season to make all the money they can. One tip she gives for battling burnout? Give employees a benefit they can only get on your work site: lessons in how to be better outdoorsmen.

“We haven’t been able to do as much as we wanted to, but we’ve done some,” she says of special—free—sessions and getaways to learn more about the outdoors. “We’ve been able to teach them rescue skills they would not use in our park.” That’s the difference between additional training for their jobs and a nice perk, which these activities are. “We try to meet every few weeks for food, beer, and to work on those skills,” she says.

It seems to be helping, she says. But this is the operation’s first year of offering the skills lessons, so she’ll know more as time goes by.

Kreutzer has a similar plan, though his has less to do with learning skills, and more to do with enjoying the outdoors in a fun and unique way. To that end, he holds “hammock nights” for his staff. They set up hammocks from trees around the bottom of their course, build a fire pit, and have a fun overnight. They do it a few times a season, he says, and it works well not only as a reward for staff, but to solidify the team.

“All of our staff are really good friends,” he says. “And you know, I would say we are almost family. As it is in family, I encourage hijinks and kidding around. That goes a long way, too. I try to avoid the drama by letting them know we can have fun.”

SERIOUS FUN

And then there is the serious route, which can combine with beer, food, and fooling around quite well. Kreutzer is careful to pay close attention to employees and hone in on their interests, both personally and career-wise.

“I find ways to give them work to do that ties into that, for two reasons: to break up the monotony, and to give them a new spark of interest,” he says. For instance, when he learned one employee was a whiz at social media, he pulled the staffer off his usual job and put him on some social media work for a spell. Another who expressed an interest in marketing was asked to help with that program.

Christie ties in the serious by acknowledging that the work actually entails a lot of responsibility. “I tell them straight out: you have a tremendous amount of responsibility. I remind them of how important their work is; how they have to address all situations immediately and professionally, and how important I know that is,” he says.

“Sometimes we forget we are working with 18- to 22-year-olds. We have to help them learn how the real world works. I know it helps. I have them say to me all the time, ‘Wow, Chris. I feel like I can work anywhere after working here.’”

STAFFING AND TEAMWORK

Sara Baggett, operations manager at Treetop Quest Gwinnett in Georgia, speaks about burnout from experience. A season ago, her team suffered big time from it. In the 2016 season, she took what she learned and started fresh, working toward less—or no—burnout as a goal.

“Everyone was exhausted,” she says of that rough season. “It’s a long season, and when you are almost short staffed, it can really wear on you.”

The solution started at staff selection. “We went into the season knowing that some might leave [earlier than they agree to]. So we over-hired,” she says. There was risk of it backfiring, because staff could become unhappy with fewer hours if work had to be spread out among more people.

The result? A happy staff with almost no burnout. “They ended up happy with the hours they had, instead of overwhelmed with the more hours they could have had,” she says.

They also were honest to a fault with those new hires, before they even agreed to come on board. “We tried to be up front with people. You know, when you ask people why they want to do this work, the number one response is always, ‘it seems fun.’ So we try now to warn them that truly, this is indeed work,” she says.

They did throw in some fun, too. One big hit was staff nicknames. Everyone got one (Baggett’s is Sriracha), with employees answering to names like Mountain Goat and Sasquatch—all season. “Everyone loves it,” she says.

AUGUST-ITIS

Speaking of nicknames, Veronika Stevenson, director of operations at Skytrek in B.C., Canada, has one for the entire burnout situation. She calls it “August-itis.”

For her, giving it a name makes it real for her and for staff, and helps them all address it head on. She points out to her employees that the “want-to-be-happy customer” can be a grueling person to deal with over and over.

“It helps a little to talk about it,” she says. “We remind them that the vacationers are stressed out, to be honest. This is their big chance. Their few days or week to have fun, darn it, to have fun. Their expectations are high, and they can be impatient and angry at times. It’s important that staff does not take that personally.”

The team at SkyTrek.

The team at SkyTrek looks hyped because they started doing “experience exchanges” as a team, including one with a whitewater rafting company.

Stevenson came up with a novel idea for battling burnout: experience exchanges with other adventure operations. “We did a rafting exchange. We got to experience theirs for fun, and they got to experience ours. I’m working at doing it with more parks. It’s been so helpful to all of us.”

So, has she avoided burnout this season with those ideas?

Not entirely. “They’re tired,” she said in late August. “You cannot stay ahead of it completely, you can only warn them and try to get them to address it. There’s no avoiding some of it. It’s just part of what we do.”

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About Author

Moira McCarthy is a longtime journalist who serves as the winter sports editor (and columnist) at the Boston Herald. She has written for Snow Country, Ski, and Yankee Magazines as well as Disney Interactive, and for trade journal Ski Area Management. She is also a nationally known speaker on diabetes advocacy and life with diabetes, having written "Everything Parent's Guide to Juvenile Diabetes," as well as "Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Parent Survival Guide" and four other books. She has been involved with the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation for 17 years and was JDRF International Volunteer of the Year in 2007.

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