Feature Article - April 2006
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Tips from the Top

Bringing in business for challenge courses and climbing walls

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Sometimes keeping your ropes course or climbing wall business in the black may feel as sweaty-palm-inducing as teetering across a rope bridge or stretching for a hand grip that's just out of reach. Talk about vertigo—the ways to attract new customers are as dizzyingly diverse as the myriad potential exercises for challenge elements, and because they are so varied, the advice offered is equally all over the map (adding further to that rock in the pit of your stomach).

In the spirit of adventure, rather than deciding on definitive answers, check out the following selection of case studies from facilities across the country that are doing something right—as indicated by the stream of customers clamoring for their services. Examining their examples, and applying what seems relevant to your particular situation, should help you create some caché of your own.

Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii

Julianne Lester and Nicole Baier came to the Hawaiian Islands nine years ago, armed with college degrees in recreation and leisure studies and therapeutic recreation, respectively. They immediately got involved with the community—coaching for the Special Olympics, working with Hawaii's Head Start program (Lester) and serving as a social worker with the Department of Education (Baier).

"[After a few years,] we recognized a need for something on the island to help kids build self-confidence through adventure," says Lester, president and CEO of Just Live. "We needed something for the community,"

Drawing on their recreation backgrounds, they began brainstorming with a challenge-course programming and construction company on the mainland, and in August 2003, their course was constructed in the forest on Kauai.

"Our mission is to provide unique programs that enhance the positive development of youth, businesses and community," Lester says. "Our primary focus is the youth and community of Kauai, but we can't stay in business just by serving them. All of our youth and community programs are offered at cost, so we branched out to run corporate development training and team-building. Now we're also running eco-challenge tours and zipline tours for the visiting industry. Just getting creative helps us keep rolling."

Translation? Just Live has taken the basic elements of its challenge course, combined them with a breathtaking natural setting and custom-tailored its programming to suit the needs of everyone from children with disabilities (all their facilities are completely inclusive) to corporate sales and marketing teams to thrill-seeking tourists.

"We started branching out locally at first," Lester explains. One of their first marketing ventures was directed toward local hotels and resorts. By now a human-resource department, safety commission, national sales team and culinary department have all completed the team-building program.

Not only has this generated immediate business for Just Live, "but all these resorts have concierges," Lester says. After the kitchen staff had a great time on the ropes course, a hotel may feel more confident suggesting Just Live as a recreational destination for its guests.

But serving a diverse customer base means more than offering the same programs to a variety of people. Lester has a wide variety of training and done a lot of research.

"Serving youth is different than serving corporations," she says. "You have to up the ante and provide a solid program." One way Lester is able to maintain the staff to do this is via interns. Recreation or tourism majors receive free airfare from the mainland when they come to Just Live to work.

"That's been a good incentive," she says.

And, Just Live also offers mobile programs.

"Who wouldn't want to make Hawaii their destination for a corporate retreat?" Lester asks, but she also knows the answer. "They may not be able to afford it."

So, instead, she can pack up her elements and facilitate groups of up to 500 in a Midwestern warehouse or California park or conference room.

"Others have come here and enjoyed it so much that they then invited us to come to the mainland," she says.

Lester's best advice for adding customers to your roster?

"It depends on which type of business you want, who your target population is," she explains. "Each population has a whole other promotional strategy."

To reach its core focus—local youth—Just Live networks with local school districts and the Hawaii Department of Education. They've now done programs for 13 of Kauai's 15 schools. Church youth groups are also good potential clientele. Just Live sends out promotional packets to corporations on the island (as well as medical facilities and nonprofit organizations) and also to corporate travel agents. They also rely heavily on their Web site to reach clients farther a field. And attracting the tourists may be the biggest game of all.

"We put brochures and cards in racks all over the islands—at airports, with concierges and activity desks; we put ads in magazines," Lester says. And if she can offer a generous enough commission, sometimes activity agents agree to direct tourists her way.

"Our goal is not to lose sight of our mission," she reiterates. "But we've really had to get creative in terms of how to stay alive."