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

Additional Expertise

Michael R. Smith is director of special projects for S.T.E.P.S, Inc., a Michigan-based company that has offered a variety of ropes-course programming and consulting services since 1991. Based on his experience in the business, Smith cited the following as the most common mistakes made by challenge-course owners:

1. If you build it, people will come climb.

Smith estimates that there are 7,500 to 10,000 ropes courses in the United States right now, but "very few have ropes or challenge-course programs," he says. "They're used sporadically for different things."

Facilitators often have just the basic knowledge needed to get people safely through the course and lack the skills beyond that to truly make the ropes-course experience meaningful or useful in accomplishing specific goals.

2. Budgeting and planning will be a snap.

Many challenge courses "fail to budget for market influence, shifts in the economy, changes in local policy, and even gas prices," Smith says.

When skyrocketing gas prices eliminate school field trips or shrinking budgets nix corporate outings, you'll have fewer groups visiting your course.

"This business is very complex," Smith says.

He suggests marketing a mobile component of your facility, which can take services to classrooms or boardrooms when those customers can't come to you. If you're meeting their needs with good programming, when the funds return, they'll be back to visit you on-site.

3. Ropes courses are huge moneymakers.

Those planning a ropes course can become "quickly starstruck with income numbers and revenue predicted," Smith says. "But they fail to account for expenses...They fail to think about paying a manager, insurance, staffing and training."

Smith recommends spending lots of time upfront doing feasibility studies and looking at ways to generate income.

4. Staffing the course will be easy.

"People often fail to understand the type of skill needed to run an effective challenge course program," Smith says. "You need to take someone who could be making six figures and pay them $30,000 a year and have them feel good."

Something other than money needs to motivate your employees, and they'll need to be special—and specially trained—individuals. Smith suggests looking for part-time staff members who can maintain a more profitable gig on the side.

5. Focus on corporate programming.

Sure, you can theoretically charge "a bunch" when a business group signs up to use your course, "but a lot of programs without good staff do great detriment to the companies they work with," Smith cautions. Corporate facilitators need a variety of skills, including perhaps a degree in organizational development, as well as expertise with the challenge course.

"Five days of training is enough to learn to tie knots, but that's about it," he says. If you lack the staff to facilitate a corporate group, stick with less-demanding clients.