The staple activities of an aerial adventure park are zip lines, canopy tours, challenge courses, and climbing walls. But why not bring other activities into the mix to augment the basic adventure park paradigm? Many park operators have been reaching beyond the core activities to create, for lack of a better term, “hybrid” parks.
The possible additions are innumerable and intriguing. Spelunking, zorbing, ATV tours, laser-gun target shooting, canyoneering: these are just a few possibilities being introduced at some parks.
The reasons? More options on a park’s menu can bring more people into the fold, the principle being, as one park operator puts it simply, “something for everyone.” An expansion of offerings can certainly equate to an expansion in business, revenues, and profits. But it is not a step be taken without considerable forethought and planning to avoid potential pitfalls along the way.
A little research can help, too. Jim Owen, founder and owner of recently opened Coral Crater in Hawaii, talked with hotel concierges and read numerous online travel inquiries to determine what activities were most in demand. In Hawaii, where water activities rule, offering alternative activities away from the water filled a void.
Several park operators have been thinking outside the normal adventure park box. In some cases, a chicken-egg scenario was in play—i.e., adventure park activities were added to activities pre-dating the adventure park age, rather than the other way around.
That was certainly the case at French Broad Adventures in Asheville, North Carolina. Rafting had been the company’s go-to activity since the early ‘80s, but five years ago, the company was “looking for a way to diversify,” says Korey Hampton, French Broad’s co-owner. Thus, a zip line canopy tour was built.
What Hampton and her team recognized was that visitors to the Asheville area weren’t coming for a specific outdoor activity, such as rafting, but were generally looking for outdoor recreation. Zip lining was an activity already offered successfully by several other adventure companies in the area. But French Broad’s strategy was, “why not all things in one place?” says Hampton. “You don’t have to go to six different places.”
So in went a network of 10 zip lines, along with a canopy bridge and a treehouse. Just last year, canyoneering was added to the mix. Hampton figured that activity mix reached a broad audience—rafting and zip lining for all ages and physical abilities, along with canyoneering for those who “want a little bit more and want to take it up a notch,” Hampton says. The result: longer visitor stays at the park and a nice little extra padding to the bottom line.
At Coral Crater, Owen has noted a difference in use pattern between vacationers and local park visitors. The locals, he says, usually book just one activity, while out-of-state visitors typically book packages of two or more activities.
Greg Brook, founder of Lawson Adventure Park in Lawson, Colorado, has had a somewhat different take on choosing activities. Lawson has a jam-packed menu; in addition to familiar adventure park fare such as a challenge course and a climbing wall, the park offers, among other activities, rafting, zorbing, bungee trampolining, a mechanical bull, and a via ferrata.
But Brook’s overriding philosophy in the choice of activities has been to be “a park for the 90 percent. Nothing too extreme.” In other words, rather than offer activities that might appeal to a specific audience with a specific skill set and physical ability, the idea was to only include activities accessible to 90 percent of the general public. Nothing too scary, or especially challenging technically.
Down Low, Up High
Whether for the 90 percent or a specific audience, however, any activity should be compatible with, or take advantage of, the natural setting and specific natural features. As an example, Cave and Mine Adventures in California began almost 40 years ago as a cave exploration company, offering guided walks and more challenging expeditions in the subterranean world of the Sierra foothills.
The unique underground features of the region were the initial draw, but clearly the Sierras also had an above ground natural appeal. So 10 years ago, some adventure park staples were added to the mix—zip lines and a climbing tower. When the zip lines were added, says director of marketing Heather Ginn, “we saw a huge spike in participation.”
But some symbiosis was also in play—people who might initially have been attracted to cave exploration could see zip lining or climbing in action and want to try those activities as well. Or vice versa. “Trying one adventure gives them the encouragement to try another,” says Ginn. Adding the above ground activities is “a great chance to cross-market for the caves.”
One intriguing hybrid strategy employed by Coral Crater has been to turn activities into games, essentially marrying the allure of adventure with a video-game-like component. Coral Crater is a unique setting, created from a quarry that supplied material to build a nearby Air Force runway. The quarry cliffs—the park’s most compelling physical feature—make for especially exciting zip line rides, making it Coral Crater’s most requested activity.
But Coral Crater came up with a way to make an exciting ride even more enticing. Target shooting with laser guns supplements zip lining, giving zip liners an incentive to return with the goal of improving their shooting scores. Laser guns at Coral Crater have inspired the park to go a step further with a night-time activity it calls Zombie Apocalypse. Park staff dress in zombie masks while guests—via ATVs, walking, and zip lining—try to shoot their way to safety. It sells out regularly.
Multiple Activities Are Sticky
Having multiple and diverse activities can be especially valuable for parks, such as Lawson in Colorado, that have a lodging component and guests who stay for more than one day. An extra activity or two can mean an extra day’s stay, and more money in the till.
But Brook says it is also “great for the return visitor.” At a park like Lawson, which is an easy day trip from Front Range population centers such as Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder, having alternative and diverse activities to bring people back for a second or third visit is a tremendous asset.
Obviously, however, adding activities can present a number of logistical challenges. Prominent among them is staffing. Can guides be trained to lead and supervise a variety of activities? Or are specialists needed for each activity?
Cross training seems to be the way to go, according to the park operators interviewed here. Hampton says that she “hires for personality” rather than for specific skills. “You can teach somebody rafting or zip lining or canyoneering,” she says. “You can’t teach somebody to be nice.”
Cross training obviously can help reduce overall staff costs, but it can also be a means to encourage guests to try multiple activities. If they have a good time engaging in one activity under the leadership of a particular guide, the personal connection between guide and guests can be a powerful incentive to reunite for another activity.
That said, cross training is not a panacea; some activities do require specialists. “I started by wanting every guide to be able to do everything,” says Owen. He quickly learned, however, that guiding ATV tours was different: “It takes a special guide to know how to keep people under control when they drive.”
Multiple activities can also present insurance headaches. At Lawson, Brook has found that “no insurer has jumped into this hybrid space.” As a result, Lawson is currently covered by three separate policies. Over time, as insurance companies come to better understand the risks of various adventure park activities, this problem might resolve itself. But for the time being, it remains an obstacle.
For proprietors and guests, “adventure park” is a term that is most likely to conjure images of zip lining, climbing, and canopy tours. But clearly a host of other activities can be added to the mix, helping to prolong visits or to encourage repeat visitation. Presumably, some adventurous component should be a part of any chosen activity, but with adventure being so ill defined, that can mean a lot of things. That’s why it’s well worth thinking outside the adventure park box.