Park 360


For the past few months, Park 360 at has provided a 360-degree view of various parks around the country. In researching these monthly profiles, we have been amazed at the passion surrounding the industry. We’ve also received an insider look at how different parks are managing staff, training, safety, programming, and operations in general. Here are our top 10 (okay, 11) takeaways from our first four profiles.

    1. Include Kids Under Age Five: Early adventure courses mostly catered to guests ages eight and up. But some eventually realized that they were missing out on a valuable demographic—younger kids, as well as their families. The Sky Trek Adventure Park in Revelstoke, B.C., Canada is one. Operations manager Veronika Stevenson says that business started booming once the park added options for kids as young as two, including a netted aerial obstacle course that starts at around six feet off the ground. According to Stevenson, the greatest advantage to creating activities for the youngest kids is it brings families back, because parents want to see their kids progress, and progression means return visits.

    2. Get Creative: The Adventure Park at Virginia Beach’s Virginia Aquarium is one of the largest in the world, with 241 elements on 13 aerial trails. It’s no surprise, then, that owner/operators Kema Geroux and Wendy Tompkins had to get creative with their mix of elements, and the park’s mix of features makes it truly unique. One trail offers a wooden dolphin that flies on cables from one tree to the next, while another presents a Tarzan-style rope with a disc base to ride on. On trails above, one person might navigate stirrup-equipped ropes while another rides a modified skateboard attached to pulleys. Also important: The Swiss-style course allows folks to interact with each other while they’re on different trails, which lets kids laugh together about, say, dad riding the skateboard.

    3. Guides > Infrastructure: An engaging, interactive staff goes a long way toward creating a good, or great, experience for guests, says Mike Smith of ArborTrek. To that end, Smith advocates that the most successful parks invest heavily in staff development, focusing on that over infrastructure. “If the value of the experience is a zip line, and somebody wants to come back and have a new experience, you pretty much have to change the structure,” says Smith. “However, if the experience is coming out and spending a great day in the woods with a guide and your family, that experience is easily adaptable.” At ArborTrek’s park at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., guides are trained to be knowledgeable about local activities, can recommend a restaurant, and can discuss a range of topics, from local flora and fauna to how the adventure course was built. Customers return for the guide experience even more than for the activity. This “customizing novelty” creates repeat customers.

    4. Partner with your Neighbors: Royal Gorge Zip Line Tours in Cañon City, Colo., has had great success by partnering with other local activity providers on adventure packages, combining zip lining with a range of pursuits including Jeep tours, bike rentals, heli trips, and rides on the scenic Royal Gorge Route Railroad (in addition to half-day rafting/lunch tours through the company’s own rafting operation). The combination of activities gives visitors a reason to make the long drive from Denver or even Albuquerque. “It’s not a real big community, so everybody depends on everyone else to make the customer experience something that they want to come back for,” says Bruce Brown, director of zip line operations and training. “It’s competitive, but cooperative at the same time.”

    5. Provide Alternative Options for Adults: Last summer, Rockbridge, Ohio’s Hocking Hills Canopy Tours added an experience for all ages that has nothing to do with getting off the ground: guided Segway tours. Owner Julieann Burroughs says that the 1.5- to 2-hour guided eco-tours on park property have been a great addition for folks looking to do something other than the zip line. Hocking Hills currently has 10 machines in its fleet, and may add more.

    6. Tweak Your Programming: Sometimes, business can be doing just fine, but still have room for growth. On that note, Vail Resorts tweaked the programming at some of its Vail, Colo., and Heavenly, Calif., summer adventure parks last year. At Heavenly, marketers decided to sell one of the courses in a different way, adding a guided experience alongside its unguided option. Vail’s Jamie Barrow says that the change has brought in a new group of clients who are willing to pay a bit more for the extra touch of support and engagement. Vail’s sales office also added group teambuilding experiences to fill the parks during slow times. Barrow says it’s been an easy adaption, and lucrative.

    7. Reach Out to Locals: The Adventure Park at the Virginia Aquarium has actively targeted local adult group business, developing special packages for Boy and Girl Scouts, school PE groups, church youth groups, and similar community organizations. “We want to make sure we’re responding to the needs of the local market,” says Geroux. “We’ve made real efforts to let different pockets of the community know about us.” Park marketers have also been diligent in reaching vacationers before they arrive via strong relationships with the Chamber, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the local hotel/motel association.

    8. Little Add-Ons Go a Long Way: In Ohio, Hocking Hills Canopy rents helmet-mounted Go Pro video cameras for $35 per day, or $25 for Super Zip rides only. Visitors rent the camera, and then keep its 16GB card when finished. Some days the 10 cameras sell out, so more are being added. Burroughs says the marketing value is exponential, with social media sites ripe for video sharing.

    9. Think Big Picture: Hocking Hills is staying on top of potential regulations after the Ohio Department of Agriculture opened discussions on legislation for zip lines. A few years ago, to be proactive, the company teamed with three other zip tour operators to form the Ohio Zip Line Association (OZLA). Since then, the group has worked closely with the state to identify where zip lines may or may not fit into their regulations. “We’d rather be proactive versus reactive,” says Burroughs. “We want to help build those standards, and help the state understand what they don’t understand.” The OZLA has worked with the state extensively in the past few years, even bringing in ACCT board members to meet with state officials.

    10. Put a Premium on Guide Training: Brown at Royal Gorge will train about 60 guides this year. Not only is he concerned with safety—guides complete six 10-hour days, written and rescue-based tests, and on-the-course evaluation culminating with ACCT certification—Brown is also acutely aware of the importance of personal interaction with customers. “If our guides aren’t really in the mood that day, then I don’t send them out. If they can’t understand how important the guests are to their livelihood, they don’t belong here.” Not content to stop there, Brown is in the process of developing a guide-training program through Colorado State University’s Pueblo branch; the program is set to debut next year.

    11. Create Special Events: In Virginia Beach, the Aquarium park promotes repeat visits via ticket options and special events. In addition to three season-pass products, a special effort has been made to create events that provide variety and encourage return visitors. “We want to be the answer to the question on Wednesday night, ‘what are you doing this weekend?’” says Geroux. The park has had success with midweek events like Glo in the Park, a twice-monthly Thursday night party that may include DJs, live performances, special lighting, and other attractions.


About Author

April Darrow is a Denver-based editor and writer. She was communications director for the National Ski Patrol, where she captained Ski Patrol Magazine and other publications, and is a former editor of the NSAA Journal. Most recently, she served as copy editor for Heinrich Marketing, where her clients included Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Humana and Kroger.

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