Feature Article - April 2018
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Adventure Awaits!

Adding Climbing Walls, Challenge Courses, Zip Lines and Other Exciting Options

By Dave Ramont

There are many who seem to crave a bit more excitement and adrenaline with their fitness and entertainment pursuits. Whether it's rocketing superman-style down a zip line, traversing a challenging rock wall or negotiating a ropes course high in the trees, these adventure opportunities are popping up in more venues than ever, including amusement and waterparks, hotels and restaurants, camps and K-12 schools, community centers and shopping centers.

"Non-climbing-gym business is booming," said Christina Frain, director of sales and marketing for a Colorado-based company that designs, builds and installs indoor and outdoor climbing walls. "In 2017, we had a shift and found ski areas, trampoline parks and private homes to be our top client groups for the year. We even built an outdoor bouldering park in Newton, Iowa."

Frain said that ski areas are investing heavily in their summer operations, and have found climbing walls to be hugely popular. She also explained how more municipalities are adding climbing boulders to parks as an alternative or addition to traditional playground equipment. Some of her company's current projects include a massive indoor climbing facility for Nebraska Parks and a rock-realistic climbing tower at an adventure park in North Carolina. "We're also contracted to build climbing complexes for several universities. Climbing walls are now as normal in college recreation centers as swimming pools," she said.

Ropes courses are another hot adventure component, primarily comprised of horizontally strung cables, ropes, boards and other materials tightly secured between poles or trees. The courses are fully customizable and can be tailored to match the current brand or theme of a business, according to Lori Gunthorp, market development manager for a Michigan-based company that designs and installs ropes courses along with zip lines, mazes and climbing walls. "The courses can be uniquely designed to feature a variety of challenging elements in a multitude of vibrant colors," she said.

Besides providing a physical challenge, Gunthorp said, ropes courses provide shared social experiences not only for the participants who are traversing in the air, but for the bystanders who cheer them on. She said about 70 percent of her company's installations last year were for indoor locations.

"We have a large percentage of family entertainment center clients because we can easily install our attraction over an arcade or laser tag area, and valuable floor space isn't taken away from the other activities the business offers." Gunthorp said that the company's products, such as human mazes, also work great outdoors, and are a good fit for farm parks, zoos and aquariums, natural or historic tourist attractions and cruise ships.

What to Consider

So what are some variables venues should look at when considering adding adventure elements? With regard to indoor climbing walls, Frain pointed out that walls attach to studs, CMUs (concrete masonry unit) or the steel skeleton of a building, so you need to choose a place for the wall that offers access to those elements.

Since a climbing wall requires an adequate fall zone, plan to have climbing flooring extend out six feet from the furthest point where the climbing wall overhangs. Avoid unusually shaped spaces if possible, such as areas with stairs or ramps. And be prepared to share architectural, structural and mechanical drawings with your wall builder, so they can work around ducts, pipes and wiring before building begins. "Surprises are always costly," Frain said.

Whether it's rocketing down a zip line, traversing a challenging rock wall or negotiating a ropes course, these adventure opportunities are popping up in more venues than ever.

"During the initial conversation we discuss things like space limitations, target markets and the client's overall business model," Gunthorp said. "We consider the type of audience that frequents the facility to help dictate what attractions would be the most popular."

For instance, if kids under 7 are present, they suggest the "tykes" version of their ropes course, featuring shrunken elements to accommodate kids as young as 2 years old. Depending on the size of the course, these can accommodate 30 to 100 participants an hour.

The facility's space and ceiling height is also important, according to Gunthorp, describing how their modular climbing panels are offered in more than 30 challenges and can accommodate varying ceiling heights. "We have ways to customize most of the attractions to accommodate the client, but those types of limitations need to be discussed right away."

Another crucial aspect for clients to understand, she said, is staff training. "In order to operate any of our adventure attractions, staff must go through operator training to certify they can run the attraction in a safe and responsible manner." Gunthorp said that once they install an attraction, their services department handles the training and inspections so the attraction meets all local and state standards.

Scott Hornick, CEO of a Maryland-based company offering turnkey design/build solutions to the adventure-based industry, including aerial and ropes courses, parkour and ninja courses, zip lines and climbing systems, said, "We've seen a huge increase in business adding these types of attractions. Last year we did around 80 projects and are projecting over 100 projects this year."

He added that ninja courses have been the most popular product over the past few years. "It seems kids and adults are seeking these kind of attractions based off much feedback from our customers," he said.

Whether it's a park, school or gym, every project has unique considerations. "We first look at the space, budget and ages of people using the equipment. Every project is custom-designed to meet the goals of the business," said Hornick, pointing out that different facilities use different methods for generating revenue. "Some facilities charge per attraction in the facility, some charge per hour and some charge a flat rate to use everything."

He explained how they also train staff once an installation is complete, so attractions can be operated safely. They'll also set up an inspection program. "Most of our products have daily and monthly inspection requirements, which are done by owners. We typically provide a yearly inspection."

There are organizations that oversee standards, certifications and inspector training in the adventure industry. The Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) is a nonprofit trade organization working within the challenge course, aerial adventure park, canopy tour and zip line industry, setting minimum standards for challenge course installation, operation and inspection. The Climbing Wall Association (CWA) also works to develop and maintain standards for the industry, and, like the ACCT, sponsors member development, training and certification programs.