Shawn Tierney

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It would be difficult to conjure up a more likely candidate for executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) than Shawn Tierney. He has served as director for several non-profit outdoor organizations, has worked in the outdoors business itself as a hands-on mountain guide and, briefly, as a challenge course guide. And has experience in the development of industry standards. Did we mention he first attended ACCT decades ago, and is familiar with its role? All in all, his resume reads like an ACCT wish list.

Beyond all that experience, though, his calm, confident demeanor may be his greatest asset. We spoke to him toward the end of the summer, as he was getting comfortable in his new role, to learn how he plans to lead the organization.

What have the first few months been like?

Tierney: It’s been going really well. We’ve focused on transition items, and we’re mostly through that. The first three months are a challenging time. I’ve been learning what the different groups and committees are, and who the players are. Now, though, we have an office in Boulder, and we have moved a lot of stuff out from Chicago. It’s a small space, just me at the moment. We still have part-time staff in Canada, Chicago, Maryland, all over the country.

I’m still in the process of evaluating what will be the optimal structure. What we have in place will serve us well for the year ahead. Then we can see how we might want to add a staff member, for example.

What are you focusing on first?

Tierney: Growth. The industry, which is comprised of many different elements, has seen a lot of growth in the past five years or more. We can position ourselves to increase membership. We have tremendous value in products and services, networking, and shows. I see huge opportunities in training, accreditation, and being a strong advocate for the industry as more regulation comes down the pike. We can take the lead as a trade association. There is a lot that we can offer to members to serve them well.

More broadly, we haven’t even touched on growth internationally. Whether it’s China, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, we’re seeing growth in the industry there. Even in South and Central America. That will continue as well. We have some operator members from these areas already.

U.S. regulatory bodies are already citing ACCT standards. That’s something that will continue, and we’ll see that internationally as well.

Looking ahead, I want to make sure we have all the resources needed to act on a strategic plan that was developed before I arrived. We need to revisit that and see what our priorities are.

Where are some of the specific opportunities to invest and grow?

Tierney: Program accreditation is one. That will be ready to roll out by the end of the year or early next year. We may want to do a pilot program first. But that will be a great opportunity. Operators are going to be really interested in that.

Operator certification could become an important function for ACCT as more pay-for-play operations enter the industry. It elevates professionalism and recognizes operators’ moves toward excellence. There are also opportunities for education and professional development. Credentialing will be important for the industry going forward.

All that ties back to membership. And we have lots of affordable membership categories. A big piece now is we’re ANSI-accredited; that is huge. We have an American National Standard, and a lot of people purchased it. We offer discounts for members, and that has enticed people to join.

Explain a bit of your background and how it will inform your work as executive director of ACCT.

Tierney: Part of my work as a risk manager was as director of accreditation for the Association for Experiential Education. I worked with various industry groups to develop consensus standards. Those are different standards, of course, but the process is similar. I’m familiar with the process.

My background includes several non-profit organizations, and touches on HR, marketing, strategic planning, and the budget. It’s essential to ensure that the association stays on sound financial footing. You have to align your resources with your actions, such as providing professional development and maintaining government relationships, among other things.

In working for a climbing and advocacy group, I worked with land managers and agencies regarding climbing issues. We want to be at the table and have stakeholder representation with the various regulatory bodies, and I have experience in that.

No one candidate is going to embody every quality the association needs, but at the end of the day, we have all that individual expertise on the board and in the committees. What I bring is the organizational background. The experts are the volunteers; my role is making sure we stay financially strong and build toward the future. That’s a different skill set.

You spent more than a year as Emergency Services Coordinator in New Orleans after Katrina. What did you learn from that?

Tierney: First of all, it was very humbling. I intended to work a few weeks with the Red Cross, but wound up spending more than a year there. I coordinated efforts with government agencies that were providing services and relief efforts for an incredibly impacted community. We helped people work through the maze of bureaucracies. That role gave great insight into how those agencies functioned. I also assisted local business communities to spotlight their needs, and performed a lot of logistical support to provide basic necessities. In all, it was in an entirely new and different environment and setting.

Finances have been an issue for ACCT in the past year. How will you address that? What in your background helps with it?
Tierney: We’ve already addressed it. We’re on a July 1 fiscal year, and just wrapped up 2016 with a healthy surplus. We’ve already budgeted for 2017. We worked through the budget process and analyzed how we got into that situation. Then we asked, “How do we prevent that? How do we create a realistic budget going forward?”

Essentially, you have to estimate revenues conservatively, and then stay within your budgeted expenses. Then you can look for ways to exceed your revenue projections.

Just because we’re a non-profit doesn’t mean we can’t make a profit. We just have to plow any surplus back into products and services for the industry.

How do you view the role of the annual convention?

Tierney: It’s a huge opportunity to get people together. We offer a ton of workshops and the expo will include more than 100 exhibitors, so there will be a wide range of products and services for attendees to experience. It’s a tremendous networking opportunity as well as being a huge amount of fun.

It’s a great group of people that work in this industry. We’re not always in complete agreement, but people are very devoted and committed to what they do. Many of us might not see each other except at the conference, so it’s a place and time to develop working relationships, too. And the conference is growing as well.

How can ACCT help operators handle insurance and related risk management issues?

Tierney: The insurance game is a really complex issue. Operators are concerned about costs, of course. We’ve tried to provide some guidance. Hibbs Hallmark has been a key player for many years; they know the industry and discuss it at the annual conference. They help educate operators about their choices, the costs, and other factors. But it’s a constantly changing landscape, and we as an industry have only so much control.

There will always be an element of risk in adventure parks, as in many things. When it comes to risk management, we have to help jurisdictions avoid knee-jerk reactions to incidents. We have to analyze and, where needed, take corrective action.

Last thoughts?

Tierney: For those who are not familiar with ACCT, the website is a great resource. And if you are in the industry, you really need to be a member. There’s no rationale for not being a member.

To speak with Shawn Tierney yourself, contact him at shawn@acctinfo.org or (303) 328-5978.

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