“So, what exactly is a ropes course?” As our industry grows, this is a common question from the general public. Yet if we ask five different industry professionals, we might get five different answers. As an industry, it is important that we have some consistency in our terminology. Somehow, this has gotten lost in the shuffle of harnesses and carabiners.
Why is it so important to get our terms straight? If nothing else, we need to sound like we know what we’re talking about as our industry comes under scrutiny from regulators and litigators.
Second, from a practical, day-to-day business perspective, we need to set clear expectations for our customers. One of the most common complaints on online review sites like TripAdvisor and Yelp is that visitors were expecting a different outcome than they received. This often sounds like “this wasn’t really a zip line tour,” or “the ropes courses were harder than I expected.” These complaints can be avoided by properly positioning your park, and that starts with using precise language.
So let’s define some basic terms.
1. ZIP LINES
Zip line tour: A series of cables, strung together at height, that participants ride for a unique aerial experience. These tours are usually guided.
Canopy tour: A zip line tour in which all platforms between zips are located at height, and participants travel from platform to platform via zip lines and, perhaps, sky bridges—elements or obstacles that are strung between two platforms, which participants cross to connect between two zip lines.
Other zip line tours may involve various exit points on the ground, where participants walk to the next zip. While this qualifies as a zip line tour, it is not a canopy tour, as participants are not above the ground for the duration of the experience.
Dual racing zip lines: Two parallel zip lines of identical length and height, allowing two individuals to start at the same time and descend side-by-side. Some parks have three or four (or more) parallel zip lines, creating triple or quad racing zip lines, etc.
Single zip line: A standalone, single ride, as the name suggests.
While zip line tours are relatively common, any attraction that has a zip line anywhere on property will probably capitalize on the term to boost recognition—whether it is a summer camp with a single zip line, or a multi-million dollar facility in a major tourist destination. If you operate a zip line tour or canopy tour, be sure to clearly define that in your marketing materials.
As for the spelling of “zip line” versus “zipline?” The two can be used interchangeably.
2. AERIAL ADVENTURE PARKS
Aerial adventure park: A series of obstacles, strung between trees, poles, or other vertical structures, designed to provide a novel, above-the-ground physical challenge for participants. May also be called aerial trekking.
Variants on the term: Since “aerial adventure park” can be a bit of a mouthful, we often see it shortened to aerial park or adventure park, as it is in the title of this magazine. While “aerial park” is pretty straightforward, “adventure park” can also apply to everything from water parks to miniature golf. We aren’t suggesting you should stop using that term, it just may require additional explanation to your customer base.
Aerial adventure parks are typically self-guided, with course monitors available to offer suggestions and assist participants as needed. Monitors may be located on the ground or at height. The safety equipment, particularly the belay (safety attachment) system, varies greatly from park to park, and can be one of the biggest differentiating factors.
Pole-based courses: Pole-based courses may be constructed from wooden or steel poles.
Tree-based courses: These rely on trees as primary support structures. Often, some sort of pole or tower construction enhances tree-based courses.
Linear designs: On these fairly common layouts, participants simply travel from one trail to the next, following a set path. These may be compact, set up in a geometric shape with courses operating one above another, or could be strung across a line of trees or poles.
Hub-and-spoke designs: Also known as European or Swiss designs, these are setups in which each trail fans out from one central platform, allowing participants to choose their own level of difficulty while maximizing throughput for the park.
A popular variant of this is a tower- based design, in which a large tower structure, typically constructed of either wood or steel, is host to two or three centralized platforms, each operating at different heights and corresponding levels of difficulty. Elements fan out from the tower in various directions.
Compact versions of this concept have a relatively small footprint, yet allow for a high volume of participants. When installed in public places or open spaces, these offer a very different user experience from a tree-based course in a forest setting. Whatever the experience is, be sure to define it for your participants.
Belay system: A means by which guests remain attached to the elements and platforms of the aerial adventure park. Guests are typically expected to operate their own belay system on an aerial adventure park, so ease of use and redundancy are both crucial aspects.
Dual-carabiner belay: Often referred to as “lobster claws,” this system uses a harness and two belay lines that attach to a belay cable. Guests transfer themselves between platforms or elements, and are instructed to always have at least one line clipped in at all times. Typically, these are relatively easy to operate, but come with the highest risk, as there is no mechanism preventing individuals from unclipping both lines at the same time.
Smart belay: A dual-carabiner belay system designed with a mechanism that requires at least one carabiner to be attached to the belay line at all times. Magnets or another mechanical feature prevent both lines from being unclipped simultaneously. This allows for a much higher level of redundancy and flexibility in course design, but can be more difficult to operate, depending on the setup of each attachment point and the age and experience level of participants.
Continuous belay: A system in which the guest is attached to the belay cable at the start of the course, and remains attached throughout, with no need to disengage at any point. This system offers great ease of use, but may make it more difficult for participants to pass one another, which could impact throughput. It also somewhat limits design, and removes much of the ownership of the safety attachment process from participants.
Dynamic belay: Typically used on ropes courses (see below), the participant is attached to one end of a rope, while a facilitator or instructor is attached to the other end. The rope is strung through a shear reduction device (a pulley-like system that allows rope to feed through easily) or other master point above the element. The facilitator (or a team of people) is responsible for managing the other end of the rope and removing any slack from the system.
3. ROPES COURSES
Ropes course: This term has two distinct meanings. First, it has been used to define the physical climbing structure, the complex or obstacles suspended or supported by ropes. And second, it can refer to a specific learning experience designed for groups, with programming based on an aerial climbing structure.
For now, let’s step away from the structural definition, and focus solely on a “traditional ropes course experience.”
Historically, ropes courses have been used as a team-building tool for groups seeking a specific educational outcome, typically revolving around trust, communication, leadership, or teamwork. A “traditional” ropes course program usually involves some ground activities as well as both low ropes and high ropes challenges.
Low ropes: Activities that occur a few feet off the ground, and are tied to some sort of group problem-solving task. These activities are almost never belayed, and introduce the additional element of participants taking responsibility for spotting one another, in effect preventing their peers or colleagues from hitting the ground.
High ropes: These elements often look very similar to those found on aerial adventure parks, but the obstacles are typically built as standalone activities. Participants are usually belayed from the ground, either by a facilitator or by their peers/colleagues via a team belay, in which multiple participants take responsibility for various aspects of the belay system. In a few cases, a high ropes course may include a static belay, where participants use some form of self-belay, much like aerial parks.
Challenge course: Often used interchangeably with “ropes course,” this term defines the type of experience without the ties to (or confusion with) the climbing structure.
Of course, “ropes course” is often used to define the structure on which participants climb, and that usage will remain common despite any efforts to the contrary. Forest Service members tend to use this term internally, so you may need to use it for your aerial park if you are planning to build on public land.
More importantly, ropes courses have been operating in the United States far longer than aerial parks, so don’t be surprised if participants refer to your park, or even your zip line tour, as a “ropes course,” for a long time to come.
While the term “ropes course” is ubiquitous, it is important that we maintain consistency within the industry and try to avoid using terms interchangeably. As a company, we use the term “ropes course” in the traditional programming sense, and “aerial park” or “aerial adventure park” for any commercial, pay-to-play operation.
To geek out over industry terms, or call out something you want to see defined, contact Stephanie@strategic-adventures.com, or attend her session, “Selling the Outcomes,” at the ACCT conference in Savannah, Ga., Feb. 2-5.
SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN TO ME?
No one will come to your park ready to quiz you on these terms. However, you should be able to speak intelligibly on the subtleties that define these terms, because chances are, your guests will not know the difference.
One common error we see among operators is a failure to set the proper expectation for guests, and that often relates to the terms used in promotional material. There’s a temptation to capitalize on the most ubiquitous industry terms. Sprinkling “zip line” throughout your aerial park’s website may help with initial web traffic, but could disappoint guests if they arrive expecting a full-blown zip line tour and instead find some shorter lines interspersed among your aerial obstacles.
Here are a few other common situations caused by misleading communications:
• attending a teambuilding program on a ropes course, and expecting to climb all day
• attending a teambuilding program on a ropes course, and expecting that everyone gets to ride the zip line
• visiting an aerial park, and expecting to ride all of the zip lines on site
• taking part in a teambuilding program on a zip line tour or aerial park, and expecting a facilitated experience
• climbing on an aerial park, and expecting that a guide will take care of all of the clip-in stations
• taking part in a zip line tour, and expecting that all platforms are connected above the ground, like a canopy tour
Any of these issues can result in negative online reviews, which will, in time, offset any initial marketing traction. So how do you capitalize on popular industry terms without misleading your visitors? Here are a few pointers that might help:
Avoid using misleading terms in your name. If your primary attraction is not zip lines, don’t use the word “zip” in your business name—or in your domain name, slogan, URL, or title of any given web page, for that matter. Some visitors will read your copy thoroughly and discover the truth, but let’s face it—most folks only read the headlines.
Integration, integration, integration. You can mention your zip lines, even if they are not your primary focus, as long as you are clear about how extensive they are (or are not). Keyword integration allows search engines to pick up on various terms, and integrating these keywords into your web copy allows you to capitalize on popular searches—but on your terms. Create a page that compares your offering with another similar offering (canopy tours versus aerial parks, for example). You get to use all of the popular industry jargon, but also set extremely clear expectations and come across as an industry expert.
FAQ page on your website. This can also help manage expectations. It is your opportunity to clear the air and reassure visitors who are uncertain about what they are in for. It doesn’t hurt to start with, “What is a ropes course?” or “What is an aerial park?”
Partnerships. Capitalize on industry trends by partnering with a nearby operator who offers a complementary service. I know a ropes course operator who will not take pay-to-play groups, so she refers these to a nearby aerial park. Likewise, the park calls her when a group wants to come in for teambuilding.
Focus on Your Strengths
No two parks are exactly alike. The best way to draw visitors is to focus on what makes yours unique. Whether you are an adrenaline-infused zip line tour in an amazing location, an aerial park with a fantastic array of elements, or a ropes course with world-class facilitators offering various success stories for strengthening teams—your best bet is to focus on conveying your best attributes to potential visitors.
To truly understand what sets you apart, take the time to visit other parks or tours and get a clear sense of what’s out there. The more you know, the more you can be an expert in your
specialty, and the better prepared you’ll be to maintain your niche. —S.S.