A Tale of Two Zip Lines

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Though many might consider Las Vegas the world’s largest “adventure park,” Sin City has its share of zip lines and tours. In the city itself, VooDoo ZipLine at the Rio is the epitome of an urban thrill ride. A half hour away in Boulder City, Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon Zip Line soars across the Mojave Desert over the course of a three-hour tour. Each takes advantage of its specific, and in their own ways spectacular, environments.

Desert Adventure

Bootleg Canyon offers an authentic outdoor adventure. General manager Brina Marcus says the Flightlinez zip line has found its niche as a respite from the lights, sounds, and frenzy of the City of Second Chances, while at the same time meeting two goals of its business partner, Boulder City: increasing visitation to Bootleg Canyon Park, and preserving its delicate desert setting.

The park, 22 miles from Vegas, includes the zip tour along with mountain biking, hiking, and picnicking. The city-owned park is also a refuge for bighorn sheep, coyote, fox, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, Gila monsters and every other known desert lizard, and even the rare desert tortoise. All can be spotted by guests on the tour.

Bootleg Canyon is located in the rugged Mojave Desert, not far from Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam.

For $159, a guest gets ground transportation from Vegas and access to the tour’s four lines. A staff of 18 runs operations, with a third of those interfacing with guests in ticketing, loading, and guiding. A winding hike gains 600 feet in elevation from a starting elevation of 2,800 feet; that can be a challenge for some, so Bootleg staff hands out complimentary water (Bootleg’s base operation is adjacent to two restaurants, so Bootleg forgoes offering food and beverage).

Each of Flightlinez Bootleg Canyon’s four spans have four parallel zip lines with a custom-built, three-stage braking system.

Safety is essential in such a unique natural setting. Guides lead the zip hikers and watch for any health issues with guests while also keeping an eye out for any environmental or animal hazards. One guide “cabooses” to keep the unit whole. Bootleg is not meant to imply boot camp; stragglers are attended to and either escorted back down or brought up with the next group.

Marcus says a good day is 50-60 guests, who routinely take around 2.5 hours to experience the tour, which includes four separate zips, each with four side-by-side zip lines spanning a total of 8,000 feet. Weather, she says, is the major uncontrollable variable keeping Bootleg Canyon from doing more than roughly 15,000 riders a year. It can exceed 110 ºF in the summer; winds tend to increase during the day as well, so staff monitors that throughout the day. The desert elements can mean down time, sometimes all day. On the other hand, full moon tours are available for the night of and two bookend nights before and aft.

The rise and run of the zip lines prompted Flightlinez management to engineer its own three-stage braking system. Stage one has the rider control speed with a hand-operated brake on the trolley; guides signal riders when it’s time to apply it. Stage two is a “brake box” in the landing zone. Finally, a spring-loaded backup brake arrests those few who come in too hot. While “backup braking” is now a big issue in zip line operations, Marcus notes that Bootleg added its backup in 2012. She says it has proven effective on windier days as well.

Guests can purchase the standard fare of experience memorabilia: coffee cups, clothing, shot glasses, etc. Sending a photographer up with each group has been a recent and an effective way to boost margins, she says.

Selling the Desert

Marcus’ marketing is mostly a function of promotions and publicity. Few places in the world market like Las Vegas, so Bootleg gets a boost by everyone from concierges to the Las Vegas Visitors and Convention Bureau, Travel Nevada, and Best Vegas Attractions. As a purpose-built city designed solely for the construction of the Boulder (now Hoover) Dam, Boulder City’s history is captured by museums and celebrated with events. The dam alone is a marvel, Lake Mead is one of the most visited national parks in the country, and of course there’s the Grand Canyon.

In addition to Vegas cross promotions, Bootleg gets a lot of free press. Marcus says the desert setting and the nearby attractions make a great day-long media fam trip. Packaging them provides plenty of story angles, and thus a lot of media coverage, much of it international. In addition, some 20 international vendors join local vendors in generating commission-based sales, and the growing reach of social media is another low-cost means for raising awareness and interest.

Marcus says visitors are amazed by the Martian landscape of the Mojave. As a result, Bootleg Canyon sees a lot of international guests. Upward of 50 percent of Bootleg visitors are from overseas.

And Bootleg’s guests often return for more. The tour has a frequent flier program with nearly 3,000 members. As repeat visits accumulate, prices drop and premiums and incentives accelerate (not unlike the zip line rides themselves). The eighth “flight” is free. Marcus notes the creation of a frequent flier program was largely a reaction to leisure and business travelers making the trip out to Bootleg every time they were in Vegas.

To accommodate traveling groups with non-zippers, Bootleg will direct these guests to nearby attractions while the rest of the group does the tour.

A ten-year anniversary next year marks the halfway point of Flightlinez’s lease with Boulder City. It’s been successful enough that Flightlinez is looking to expand further.

VooDoo on The Strip

Yes, there’s a canyon (concrete) and a zip line, but that’s where the similarities end between Bootleg and VooDoo. While visitors may be awed by the timeless desolation of the Mojave under a full moon, the kaleidoscope of Vegas at night is best viewed via VooDoo, the zip line spanning the Masquerade and Ipanema towers 50 stories high at the Rio Hotel.

Built nearly four years ago by New Capital Ventures of Las Vegas (the firm’s only foray into zip lines), the VooDoo ZipLine is a modified Soaring Eagle zip line. It can take single or tandem riders to speeds over 30 mph, with the added thrill of a round trip—the line runs 800 feet from one hotel tower to the other, and then back. All told, the ride over and back is just a bit more than 70 seconds long, and runs a third of a mile.

VooDoo ZipLine operates seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (and until midnight on weekends), so guests can enjoy a thrilling ride both day and night.

The VooDoo clientele is a reflection of the general Vegas market, i.e., anyone from anywhere, and newlyweds to conventioneers. Where the Flightlinez operation in Boulder City requires planning and intention to visit, VooDoo can be more of an impulse decision.

Building the zip line itself was a much longer process. When New Capital hatched the idea of a Vegas zip line, it took engineering studies to identify the proper distances and angles to determine the optimum site. The Rio Hotel, with its two tall towers, was deemed the best location. Soaring Eagle Ziplines then crafted a custom installation; the line runs from one tower to the other and back to the starting point. As such, it is among the highest tandem zips in the country, if not the world.

Construction took a couple of years, says VooDoo general manager James Puckett, as the unique attraction and its engineering required thorough regulatory and design approvals. A 30-story crane was needed to move much of the steel to the perch. Logistical challenges had Soaring Eagle design a low-maintenance zip line, limited primarily to changing out pulleys, painting, and meeting inspection requirements, Puckett says. The cable is inspected daily in-house, and third party experts x-ray the cable for soundness. Clark County has very strict ride and attraction safety regulations, he adds, including unannounced safety inspections (the required annual inspection IS scheduled, however).

VooDoo’s vertigo-inducing height leads some would-be riders to chicken out; Puckett notes that most who do so are males (much like at the altar!). While tickets in such instances are refunded, no questions asked, a VooDoo ticket is good for six months should the timid muster the courage. The height and location also means that all employees must be tethered in, and a strong net extends some six feet out of both perches.

Marketing VooDoo

Puckett notes that VooDoo has some good momentum as an attraction. Even with all the entertainment options that characterize the excess of Vegas, VooDoo occupies a singular space in the market. It is not owned by the hotel, but a concessionaire; still, the hotel promotes the attraction heavily. VooDoo is on the 50th floor, along with the VooDoo Steakhouse, and the VooDoo Lounge is on the 51st floor. All combine for a zip experience quite different from the desert plunges of Bootleg Canyon.

Adding to the Vegas vibe of it all is the occasional appearance of Penn and Teller, who perform at the Rio. In fact, according to Puckett, Penn Gillette is an ordained minister who has presided over matrimony at the zip line. Puckett notes that VooDoo sees a lot of newlyweds so freshly minted as couples that the zip line crews will often see them ride in wedding gowns and tuxedos.

Newlyweds are frequent riders of the VooDoo ZipLine, which soars 400 feet above downtown Las Vegas.

Puckett says the location and its unparalleled visibility translates to a lot of walk-up sales, thus helping keep marketing costs down. He will purchase billboard space, and use VooDoo’s shuttle bus for picking up guests along The Strip; the shuttle thus serves as a moving billboard as well.

And because a big day (and night) can bring in more than 1,000 people, VooDoo’s website allows people to schedule their riding experience to avoid long lines. Rio has a convention and conference center on site, meaning big groups can dominate the facility for hours at a time, so the website scheduling for available slots has been well received, he says.

Unlike Bootleg, which is seeing some dispersion of summer business to the fall and spring due to the heat, summer is the busiest season for VooDoo. The day and night hours have Puckett managing 30 employees to cover two shifts daily seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (and ‘til midnight on weekends). Big days keep them hustling, since there’s only one tandem seat and a round trip can be as tight as two minutes. It’s good, then, that closures are rare, usually caused by wind or lightning. A lightning detector warns operators of an encroaching storm.

Tickets are $28, and peak pricing on Saturdays and Sundays is $29. Riders must be over 21 after 7:30 p.m. Guests can zip a second time on the same day for a discounted rate of $17.50. Promotions include a Rewards Program for discounts, free VooDoo Lounge admission, and priority scheduling.

The unique setting helps create a rich variety of add-on sales. Videos of riders’ experiences, and uploads of pictures and video on social media, serve as both referrals and endorsement. Other revenue streams include an array of retail, shirts, shot glasses, hats, and other accessories.

Holidays, Puckett says, boost business ever further. The Lounge’s Halloween Party is a perfect fit for VooDoo riding and photos. New Year’s is always a big deal in Vegas, and the Fourth of July drives strong business as well.

The holidays seem to further accentuate the differences between VooDoo and Bootleg. The setting, the views, and the scene all combine to exemplify the excess that is Vegas, and, from 400 feet high, one can witness an entirely different type of wildlife than that found at Bootleg Canyon. The contrast between these two highly successful businesses highlights the many paths to success in the world of aerial adventure.

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