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

Lisle, Ill.

When Tim Buividas received his master's degree in organizational behavior, he also discovered a passion for the field he wanted to work in.

"But I didn't quite know how to get into it," he recalls.

He soon figured that out. He became certified in experiential education while working for the Wheaton, Ill., park district, and in 1992, he founded his own ropes course business, which eventually became the Corporate Learning Institute (CLI). In 1997, he linked up with the Marriott's Hickory Ridge Conference Center in Lisle, Ill. (a suburb of Chicago), built both a low- and high-ropes course on its grounds and became its exclusive ropes-course service provider.

Buividas is very specific about who he provides with these services.

"Our mission is to create positive impact on organizational and personal growth," he explains. "Our focus is corporate adults, and that allows me to become an expert on setting up and facilitating to provide an experience that's effective for them. When you diversify, you weaken your product."

Because he's focused on pleasing one audience, Buividas has more latitude when it comes to customizing his course, too. Dignified business types aren't always too jazzed about climbing a ladder in front of their peers, so CLI's high-ropes course has a staircase and a deck leading to the top.

"Adults don't want a camping experience," Buividas adds, so the Marriott's amenities—clean bathrooms, a classy lunch and comfortable accommodations—go a long way toward encouraging their participation.

But more important than this is the substance of CLI's programming.

"One of the difficulties in transition to this [corporate] market is that you have to adjust your metaphors," Buividas says. Many of the facilitation materials available are geared toward children. "So we've fought for years to overcome that touchy-feely image," he says.

"[Rather than] a 20-year-old kid telling a client how to change his corporation [by imagining that] an alligator is chasing him," he says, "we use all business metaphors—personal growth, creating change in your life, increasing the effectiveness of a process, profitability and revenue, the values of your organization."

There's also a difference in preparation. Whereas a questionnaire might be adequate to get things rolling with a youth group, corporate clients require more extensive research and assessment via surveys or interviews done in advance.

"You learn about the organization and gain credibility," Buividas explains. This also helps you identify the particular client's needs and decide on the best exercises and elements for their experience.

These days CLI's clients find the facility on the Internet or via the assorted press coverage it has received over the years, which Buividas says is his most successful form of (free) marketing.

"Most park districts are in the newspaper all the time, so that can be a great tool," he advises. Be sure local media know what your course has to offer, whether it's corporate training, kids camps or bachelor parties. And if you don't have your own newsletter, that might be a place to start.

Bottom line, if you're seeking corporate clients, "ratchet up the professionalism," Buividas suggests. "Research the organization and have facilitation that is strong around corporate issues. If you also offer services for camps or schools, consider a different look, logo and feel. Create a [separate] piece specifically around that."