Bad things almost never happen. But when something does go wrong, you’d better be ready. That is where the value of a well-trained staff really comes to light.
Few companies in the adventure-park industry have a better grasp on the need for thorough employee training than Navitat Canopy Adventures, operator of a six-year-old adventure park in Asheville, North Carolina, with another park opening in Knoxville, Tennessee this summer.
Navitat operates seasonally from April through November, with about 25,000 visitors annually. The company puts its staff—five full-time employees and roughly 50 seasonal workers, swelling to closer to 70 during the busy months of July and August—through a rigorous, broad-based training program to develop technical and guest-service skills.
According to Navitat COO Dylan Burt, Navitat’s training is designed to be able to turn “anyone without any knowledge of this industry,” e.g., someone who doesn’t know a carabiner from a can opener, into a skilled and reliable employee.
Basic employee training, for assistant guides, totals about 100 hours in 10- to 12-hour days. Employees are expected to make themselves available for a 10-day period, in which the training is conducted in a six-days-on, two-days-off, two-days-on framework. An average of eight employees comprise each training group.
Lead guides undergo another 35 hours of training, and course managers another 40 hours beyond that.
In addition, there is a training course for trainers, of which there are currently five within the Navitat family. About 70 hours of the training curriculum is devoted to safety issues: being able to conduct technical rescues, equipment inspection, preventative repair and maintenance of equipment, and the like. The curriculum varies somewhat for canopy tour guides and zip line guides.
Employee training on inspections comes in two categories: personal-gear inspection and infrastructure inspection. Both lead and assistant guides are trained to inspect personal gear after every use, and to identify any problem that might warrant taking the gear out of rotation, says Burt. They are also trained to make daily visual infrastructure inspections before opening, with more in-depth, periodic (monthly) inspections taught in management-level training.
The courses begin in a classroom, with the focus on such basic skills as knottying, then are transferred into the field to “validate,” as Burt puts it, that new skills can be properly applied.
Among key objectives in the course, says Burt, is an ability “to recognize when you’re out there, what to do when something goes wrong,” and an ability to execute a technical rescue in under eight minutes.
In addition to the 70 hours of safety and operational training, Navitat assistant guides must also go through another 30 hours of educational and interpretive training. They are taught about the area’s flora and fauna, basic geology, and the cultural heritage of the Blue Ridge region.
The additional 35 hours for lead-guide training are devoted to raising basic skills to a higher level, while the 40 more hours for course-manager training cover management skills and additional first-aid training.
Returning assistant and lead guides go through what Brian Johnston, Navitat’s tour logistics manager, calls four days of “refresher training.”
Employees are graded on a pass-fail basis, although failures are rare. And once an employee has successfully completed the training program, he or she is paid a set stipend.
Ed. Note: This article was written prior to the tragic accident at the Ijams Nature Park canopy tour in South Knoxville, Tenn., which Navitat manages, and has been amended from the original. The fatality at Ijams shows that even the most prepared staffs and up-to-date equipment can not guarantee guest safety. Nonetheless, comprehensive training programs and constant vigilance help keep incidents to a minimum.