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

Burlington, Vt.

Mike Anderson has been active in the ropes-course community for years, writing and contributing to books on challenge-course programming and speaking at various conferences, but he has only been a ropes-course owner for about a year. Petra Cliffs offers a variety of services (including backcountry expeditions and ice climbing) and has an indoor ropes course, as well as climbing walls, so Anderson has more trouble determining how to best serve his customers than he does finding them in the first place.

"I don't often close the Petra Cliffs building to the public for [a] team-building [group]," he explains, so he may find himself working with a class, only to look up and find them all gaping at climbers overhead. Often these intense team-building sessions are better done off-site—and Petra Cliffs has the mobile elements to make this happen.

On the other hand, the variety of equipment at this facility makes for a nice progression of activities and enables Anderson to tailor the session to just what the customer needs, although they themselves may not realize what this is.

"They always want to do the high-ropes course," he says. "Unless you're very clear about what you're going to provide and what they want, you can have them do the high-ropes course and not give them what they're asking for—even if they have a good time."

The high-ropes course activities focus mostly on individual challenge, whereas for team-building, it's low-ropes or ground-level activities that really work. And your staff needs to know what's appropriate as well.

"If someone wants a community-building activity, and you sell them on the high-ropes course, you may get their money, but they may not come back," he notes. "You can do a lot of [different] things, but this also thins out your availability. You may not have the right people doing everything that you should."

And like so many others, he suggests consulting your mission statement for a guide to how to focus your efforts. Because he operates in an area with three ropes courses, Anderson knows a lot about setting yourself apart.

"You need to offer something that the others aren't," he says. "Create your own programs, be unique. What can people say that's good about you?"

However, in the past, the situation has not been completely competitive, as the three local courses have collaborated on training workshops for facilitators to ensure there's always an adequate supply of well-trained staff around.

But Anderson is pretty sure he still comes out ahead.

"I have the only indoor course, so I have an advantage," he explains. "[In the winter months,] I'm the only guy to call."

Fun Factor

Challenge courses and climbing walls are useful for a variety of serious purposes—from team-building and leadership to exercise and self-confidence—but they can also be a lot of fun. Whether it's a zipline tour over amazing scenery or a less-intense session on the ropes course, don't forget to market your services to those looking for a good time. If they have one, they may come back when there are more serious matters at hand.

There's a movement in the industry to create a "track system" for ropes courses, notes Steve Gustafson of the Professional Ropes Course Association. This allows customers to "hook in to the ropes course on the ground and do all the elements without unhooking," he explains. They can move at their own pace, create their own experience and use minimal staff resources. For more info, visit www.prcainfo.org. And, joining an organization like this might be another way to stimulate your business creativity and networking opportunities.