Service-related businesses rely on people to deliver an exceptional product. At aerial adventure parks, the staff—for better or worse—are often one of the most memorable parts of the guest experience. That’s why finding the right employees is an important factor in operating and growing a successful aerial park. Unfortunately, for many business owners, this is also one of the most challenging parts of running a park.
So where do you find these people, how do you train them (today and in the future), and how do you keep them? The good news is, you don’t necessarily need to recruit seasoned aerial-park experts to run a successful operation.
Where to Find Staff
While there are several places to look for new staff, we find that most parks have good results by hiring employees who have some level of customer service or hospitality experience. You can utilize general job posting boards to locate people with these qualifications, and narrow the search criteria to require some of this experience.
However, the very first place we would look is for referrals and recommendations from your current staff members. Most of the time, they are pretty good judges of character and of how someone new will fit in with the team. If you are just starting your business, tap into referrals from your local community. Even if your friends and family do not know your company culture, they know you, and should have a sense of what you are trying to create if you outline your parameters.
Other, somewhat less obvious resources you can tap:
- If there is a local university that offers a hospitality program or something similar, build a relationship with the faculty and it could serve as a consistent pipeline for seasonal staff.
- Some parks have had success recruiting local teachers, whose vacation schedules often line up almost identically with adventure park calendars.
- Other regions have found great staff by tapping into the local retiree population.
To help qualify candidates, disclose that you are recruiting for an outdoor, almost all-weather position. There are plenty of people out there who always have a smile on their face—until they have to work an outdoor shift in the rain.
Finally, it’s not a bad idea to be recruiting all year. You never know when you’re going to need a new employee, or when the next superstar will become available.
What to Look For
1. Character. You can train almost anyone in the technical aspects of course safety and equipment, but you can’t train someone to be a good person. The best staff tend to come off as kind, helpful, talkative, and having a good sense of humor.
Lori Pingle, owner of ZipZone in Columbus, Ohio, says that she often goes with her gut after the first interview. “If I want to keep talking with them after 30 minutes, I take that as a very good sign,” she says.
Pingle also observes if the candidate smiles and laughs during the interview. Parks are fun places to be, and employees should reflect that. When in doubt, think about your own experiences on aerial parks, zip line tours, or other adventure experiences. Would you want this person instructing you and supporting you when you’re feeling a little in over your head?
2. Reliability. A good employee shows up on time and does what is expected. While this trait is hard to identify during a face-to-face interview, there are ways to figure it out—like if he or she is late to the interview. Also, during the interview process, it’s good to be up front about the sometimes-erratic schedule of working at an aerial park, and gauge the candidate’s reaction. Be sure to ask about reliability and timeliness when conducting reference checks, too. You do check references, don’t you?
You’ll also want to spend some time during the interview process letting your candidates know about their expected responsibilities. It sure is great to get paid to climb trees, but do your prospective employees know that they may be spending hours standing on a platform on a rainy day? Or speaking in front of groups of up to 30 people at a time? We have fun jobs, but the work isn’t always so fun or glamorous, especially if you’re new to the industry.
3. Expectations. It is not uncommon for an employee at an adventure park to be perceived as unreliable or lazy, only to later find out he or she didn’t clearly understand what was expected while performing the job. So if, for example, you are counting on your park staff to do ground maintenance when it’s not busy, you’d best tell them that before they start working for you.
Training for Success
Once you’ve gone through the rigorous process of hiring everyone and putting them through the initial training, you’ve really only just begun. Next, you’ll need to put them through the additional training on how to operate the course. That should be enough to meet the bare minimum requirements, but there are plenty of additional training components that you will need to consider if you want to be ranked among the best.
You’ll also want to look at ways to retain staff, and even promote them over time. The industry has high turnover by its very nature, and it sure is cheaper to retain your existing people than it is to hire and train new ones.
Some key aspects of training:
- As you assemble a training curriculum, consider having your vendor come out to help train your staff on course maintenance. This will help all of your staff know how to best preserve equipment, and that is worth its weight in gold in the longevity of the course.
- All staff should be trained in CPR and first aid, given the nature of what we do.
- You should also consider providing some arborist training if your course is built on trees. Remember, your staff are the ones on the front line and will be the first to spot something that is amiss—if they know what to look for.
- Look into an in-house ICE certification for head inspector and the Petzl PPE course.
- Oh, and customer service training is crucial, and should be integrated every step of the way.
Sounds overwhelming? Take a deep breath—many vendors offer professional trainers who specialize in all this. While you can use your builder/vendor, it may be good to bring in a fresh set of eyes, especially if your builder does not have a dedicated training department.
Regardless of who does your training, schedule it on a regular basis. Skills degenerate over time, just like the physical structure of your park. Periodic training keeps your staff fresh before their skills start to wane. Standards change over time, too, so make sure to stay current on trends in the industry and to keep your staff informed anytime there is a change. Joining ACCT, and attending the annual conference with your senior staff, can help with this.
Elevating and Retaining Staff
Once your staff is trained on the basic operation of the course, evaluate them with an eye toward the future. If you have a path to promotion, be sure that your staff knows about it. Show them an obvious way to grow (and get paid more), and some of them will stick around. As with training, promoting from within is way easier than hiring new staff.
Here’s what a promotion path might look like:
- Guide/Course Monitor: Someone who is responsible for setting up the course, assisting guests on elements, helping them in and out of equipment, conducting rescues if necessary, or traveling with a group on a zip line tour.
- Senior Guide/Course Monitor: This individual has a role similar to the above but with additional responsibilities, like briefing large client groups or leading a group on a zip line tour.
- Supervisor: This person may be the senior person on the ground and is the point person while the course is in operation. He or she may be responsible for moving staff around and making sure everything is running smoothly, as well as taking on some typical guide/course monitor responsibilities.
- Manager: The person responsible for managing the park or office operations. There typically aren’t too many of these roles available, but it may be worth opening up this position to current employees first, if there is a good candidate for the job.
Of course, some staff may wish to stay on without assuming additional responsibilities. Make every effort to keep them on in a seasonal role. One easy way to do this is by giving returning employees a raise each year.
You can also orchestrate fun team-bonding events, like pool parties, potluck dinners, “friends and family” climbing events, or other gatherings that are specific to your region. Be creative! Even something as simple as bringing coffee and donuts twice a month can go a long way.
You can also create other incentive programs to keep staff engaged and raise their competitive game. ZipZone uses a “star chart” that measures how often employees’ names come up on comment cards. Whoever has the most stars at the end of the month wins a fun prize.
Regardless of what you do to keep people engaged, always have the communication lines open with your employees. Let them know what is going on in the business, keep your door open (metaphorically, if not literally), and stay as transparent with them as you can. If you develop a trusting culture, your staff will take ownership in their work and will be more likely to stay.
And finally, have some fun out there. We all got into this business to create memorable experiences for others, and that includes your staff. If you can keep the environment light and enjoyable, they will buy in, it will translate to your customers, and hopefully everyone will return for many seasons to come.