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

Liberty, Mo.

Back in the mid-1990s, William Jewell College, a small liberal-arts institution outside Kansas City, began offering students a chance to study leadership skills as part of their education. The program flourished, and in 2000, the Pryor Leadership Studies Program's graduating class constructed a challenge course right on campus. In addition to providing conveniently located leadership training for students, the course is open to the public.

"Most [of our customers] are external," says Todd Long, director of the Tucker Leadership Lab, of which the ropes course is part. "We use it as a campus resource, that's part of our mission, but we have to be revenue-generating...We come from an organizational and training perspective, so we try to identify the specific needs of an organization and design an experience to fit their needs."

Like so many other ropes courses, the staff at the Leadership Lab found that potential customers always wanted to try the high-ropes course, regardless of whether that was best suited to their needs. So, when a 2003 tornado devastated the college's campus and required reconstruction of their course, they opted to rebuild with a special high course intended for use by team-building groups.

"This is for pods of eight people to work through tree houses and challenges," Long explains. And he says the facility's numbers have increased as a result.

In terms of advertising and marketing, Long says the course's on-campus location and affiliation with a college program are definitely a boon (although he also uses open-house, mass-mailing and cold-calling techniques to reel in potential business)—but even with some student clients built in, ultimately, they still have to deliver.

"We come from the approach that high-quality services are best; we let the business build itself through word of mouth," Long says. It took about three years to generate a profit.

"And it's never been a cash cow," he adds.

But as the leadership program on campus continues to flourish, it's likely the ropes course will as well.