Tips from the Top

Bringing in business for challenge courses and climbing walls

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Sometimes keeping your ropes course or climbing wall business in the black may feel as sweaty-palm-inducing as teetering across a rope bridge or stretching for a hand grip that's just out of reach. Talk about vertigo—the ways to attract new customers are as dizzyingly diverse as the myriad potential exercises for challenge elements, and because they are so varied, the advice offered is equally all over the map (adding further to that rock in the pit of your stomach).

In the spirit of adventure, rather than deciding on definitive answers, check out the following selection of case studies from facilities across the country that are doing something right—as indicated by the stream of customers clamoring for their services. Examining their examples, and applying what seems relevant to your particular situation, should help you create some caché of your own.

Kapaa, Kauai, Hawaii

Julianne Lester and Nicole Baier came to the Hawaiian Islands nine years ago, armed with college degrees in recreation and leisure studies and therapeutic recreation, respectively. They immediately got involved with the community—coaching for the Special Olympics, working with Hawaii's Head Start program (Lester) and serving as a social worker with the Department of Education (Baier).

"[After a few years,] we recognized a need for something on the island to help kids build self-confidence through adventure," says Lester, president and CEO of Just Live. "We needed something for the community,"

Drawing on their recreation backgrounds, they began brainstorming with a challenge-course programming and construction company on the mainland, and in August 2003, their course was constructed in the forest on Kauai.

"Our mission is to provide unique programs that enhance the positive development of youth, businesses and community," Lester says. "Our primary focus is the youth and community of Kauai, but we can't stay in business just by serving them. All of our youth and community programs are offered at cost, so we branched out to run corporate development training and team-building. Now we're also running eco-challenge tours and zipline tours for the visiting industry. Just getting creative helps us keep rolling."

Translation? Just Live has taken the basic elements of its challenge course, combined them with a breathtaking natural setting and custom-tailored its programming to suit the needs of everyone from children with disabilities (all their facilities are completely inclusive) to corporate sales and marketing teams to thrill-seeking tourists.

"We started branching out locally at first," Lester explains. One of their first marketing ventures was directed toward local hotels and resorts. By now a human-resource department, safety commission, national sales team and culinary department have all completed the team-building program.

Not only has this generated immediate business for Just Live, "but all these resorts have concierges," Lester says. After the kitchen staff had a great time on the ropes course, a hotel may feel more confident suggesting Just Live as a recreational destination for its guests.

But serving a diverse customer base means more than offering the same programs to a variety of people. Lester has a wide variety of training and done a lot of research.

"Serving youth is different than serving corporations," she says. "You have to up the ante and provide a solid program." One way Lester is able to maintain the staff to do this is via interns. Recreation or tourism majors receive free airfare from the mainland when they come to Just Live to work.

"That's been a good incentive," she says.

And, Just Live also offers mobile programs.

"Who wouldn't want to make Hawaii their destination for a corporate retreat?" Lester asks, but she also knows the answer. "They may not be able to afford it."

So, instead, she can pack up her elements and facilitate groups of up to 500 in a Midwestern warehouse or California park or conference room.

"Others have come here and enjoyed it so much that they then invited us to come to the mainland," she says.

Lester's best advice for adding customers to your roster?

"It depends on which type of business you want, who your target population is," she explains. "Each population has a whole other promotional strategy."

To reach its core focus—local youth—Just Live networks with local school districts and the Hawaii Department of Education. They've now done programs for 13 of Kauai's 15 schools. Church youth groups are also good potential clientele. Just Live sends out promotional packets to corporations on the island (as well as medical facilities and nonprofit organizations) and also to corporate travel agents. They also rely heavily on their Web site to reach clients farther a field. And attracting the tourists may be the biggest game of all.

"We put brochures and cards in racks all over the islands—at airports, with concierges and activity desks; we put ads in magazines," Lester says. And if she can offer a generous enough commission, sometimes activity agents agree to direct tourists her way.

"Our goal is not to lose sight of our mission," she reiterates. "But we've really had to get creative in terms of how to stay alive."

Fresno, Calif.

For the last three years, Yosemite Fitness has been a smallish rock-climbing gym (3,000 square feet of climbing in a 2,000-square-foot space) near Fresno State University in Northern California. But before they settled into this location, the eventual owners purchased a mobile climbing wall and spent a year taking it around to schools and churches and local events to introduce the community to the concept of climbing.

"I would recommend starting with a mobile wall if you want to start a rock gym," says Sean Smith, general manager. "It gets your name out there, as you're marketing to a population that hasn't had a rock gym before. [People] don't usually open [another gym] in a market that already has one."

And, in theory, if you've already opened a climbing center and aren't getting a lot of people attached to the walls, this sort of mobile marketing approach could help pique the public's interest.

When Yosemite Fitness opened, it required all its customers to be "belay certified" (trained in the rope safety system used while on the climbing wall). Smith says this approach yielded "mixed success because not everyone remembered how to get into their harness and how to tie the knots, so we had to re-teach them every time."

These days the facility has six autobelays, which mechanically manage a climber's safety rather than leaving this to a partner on the ground. Clients still take a safety course and learn what they can and can't do, but this takes a lot less time than a full belay certification.

Yosemite also went through a phase when they focused all its efforts on team-building activities.

"It was a big challenge, and we didn't get a lot of return on our effort, so we decided that was not be best direction to go," Smith says. Instead, the facility shifted its focus to providing top-notch personal trainers and lighter fare, such as birthday parties.

"We had to experiment," Smith explains. "That's where you begin. You try to please your customer base, so we went through a few evolutions."

Today, Yosemite provides an introductory opportunity for new, inexperienced climbers as well as an outlet for those who prefer outdoor mountains to indoor walls and just need a place to train when the weather isn't cooperating.

This approach has allowed Yosemite to build a clientele that is broadly based: half adults and half children, half men and half women. And to further accommodate their needs, Yosemite soon will be opening a second location—this one equipped with a full fitness center as well as climbing facilities.

"Most important is to treat the customer perfectly so they spread information by word of mouth for you," Smith says. "That's why we've had enough success to open a second facility. If they're not happy, they won't bring in their friends and family."

Best of Both Worlds

One of the keys to attracting new clients for your climbing wall or challenge course may be as simple as introducing folks to something new. (Notice how many of the featured facilities have a mobile component.) We tend to be drawn toward novelty like moths to the flame, but it may take a little coaxing to get us involved. So, if you can get people's attention while you've got them somewhere they like to be anyway—all the better.

Why not mix the challenge of climbing with the cool splash of the swimming pool? Get kids to take some risks (in a safe environment, of course) with the reassuring comfort of water down below. Specially constructed climbing walls add excitement to the local pool and ensure that every attempt ends in a splash not a crash. And, this activity also can serve as an invitation to master these climbing skills over land. If your facility doesn't have a pool, consider this the motivation you need to seek out a programming partnership with an area swim spot.

Hamilton Township in New Jersey

"One of the subtle things in any business comes down to 'What do you want to be?'" explains Clay Tyson, vice president of Rockville Climbing Center. "We know we want to be a climbing center—not a fitness center and not a combination of the two."

Approaching its fifth anniversary, Rockville Climbing Center is now the second-largest climbing facility in New Jersey and has about 200 members (who pay by the month), as well as additional customers who come in for the day or buy a punch-card good for 10 sessions. This focus allows the center to keep its staff lean (two full-time and three part-time employees) and its costs more controlled than if it offered other sorts of fitness services and equipment as well.

The center is focused on safety, and after an introductory course, customers are free to climb at will. The staff at Rockville has found that they have more climbers in the cold months, although birthday parties keep weekends full throughout the year. During the sparser summer weekdays, Rockville relies on an assortment of summer camp programs to keep business booming. The center offers three week-long sessions of its own climbing camp for kids—a perfect opportunity for children to try something new and learn safe, solid techniques. Then, in cooperation with a local community college, the center offers two more sessions of week-long camp.

"We use another organization's infrastructure to fill in a program for us," Tyson explains. "This is the type of program we love."

The college prints brochures and newsletters that contain information about the climbing camp at Rockville, and it even collects the money for students who will attend. In return, Rockville gives them a discount—and the benefits don't stop there.

"All these people are reading about [our facility], and even if they don't send a kid to camp, they may have a birthday party."

Rockville collaborates on programming with local churches and YMCAs as well.

To attract adults, Rockville offers classes through several area townships' adult education programs. Again, the local education offices handle the marketing and registration for the three-week courses.

"Another benefit is that the people who come to these sessions are good candidates for [climbing center] membership," Tyson adds. "They've walked in with a keener-than-average interest. They've committed to a three-week class. They're not just deciding to try rock climbing one day."

Plus, after three weeks of learning all sorts of cool stuff, "they get psyched about the sport," Tyson says. "Then we offer them an attractive discount on a membership at the end."

It's a smoothly running system at this point, but it had humble beginnings.

"I started these partnerships by picking up the phone and calling them," Tyson says. "We didn't have a lot of ad money to spend."

And besides, it always helps to have someone else saying nice things about you, whether that's a partner organization or a satisfied customer.

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.

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."

A Challenge With a View

Now, of course, if the scenery around your ropes course is more suburb than rainforest, this may not be the option for you. However, if there are vistas worth viewing nearby, you might consider a new element for your course: the zipline tour.

"Ziplines have been around for years, usually as one element on a ropes course, used for the dismount," explains Steve Gustafson, board member for the Professional Ropes Course Association. But rather than just a thrilling conclusion to a session high above the ground, ziplines now are being combined into an attraction all their own.

On the Hawaiian Island of Kauai, Just Live, Inc. offers the only zipline tour in the state.

"Once you leave the ground for the first zip, you don't touch it again until the end [of the tour]," explains Julianne Lester, president and CEO. With an average height of 60 to 70 feet and six separate zipline runs, plus a suspension bridge and other treetop-skimming amenities not for the faint of heart, these tours offer two-and-a-half hours of air time over pine, mango, eucalyptus and bamboo foliage. They also provide an unobstructed view of the surrounding mountains as you fly by above the trees.

As you might expect, this tour is a hot commodity with tourists, but Lester says she gets quite a few fun-seeking locals as well. And, Just Live has found ways to incorporate elements of the zipline into other programming they offer.

"Using elements for multiple services is helpful to our bottom line and makes a lot of sense for a smaller company that is growing," she says.

So get creative. With a little ingenuity, adding some ziplines might create a whole new offering for your ropes course, while enhancing the services you already provide with a new element or a fast-paced reward at the end of the day.

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.

Challenge as Treatment

Sure, they're useful for helping groups of people work together more effectively or conquering your fear of heights, but ropes and challenge courses can be used by therapists to help patients handle problems much more significant than these.

This sort of treatment is "catching on," says Kristy Pounds, a certified therapeutic recreation specialist (CTRS) with the San Marcos Treatment Center, a residential facility for adolescents in San Marcos, Texas. "It's good for eating disorders because of body image, it deals with trust and abandonment issues, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), schizophrenia—anything you can think of you can use ropes for, you just ask different questions as you do the activity."

And why are ropes courses so effective?

"Their emphasis is on action and experience," explains Mack Wigley, clinical services coordinator at the San Marcos Treatment Center. "It dilutes talking your way through things...The mind doesn't allow you to see that you're not really that high up, so you go back to what you usually do when you get uncomfortable."

Challenge courses also may work for patients on a more basic level.

"I routinely recommend exercise for my depressed patients because it tends to increase their sense of self-efficacy," notes Chadd Herrmann, M.D., a New York City psychiatrist. "Getting out there and doing something gives them a sense of accomplishment, and that can translate into other areas of their life."

Now, no one is suggesting that just because you have a ropes course you hang out your shingle as a therapist, but this is another potential use for your facility. Many juvenile justice centers and residential treatment facilities have their own ropes courses, but contact local social workers and mental-health professionals and see if you can collaborate on programming for their patients. You could provide the facility and technical assistance, while they could provide the substance of the exercises.

Key Peninsula, Washington

In spring, fall and summer, YMCA Camp Colman is a mecca for student campers. Fifth and sixth graders, as well as assorted middle- and high-school students, come for two-night, three-day environmental-education visits during the school year, and campers come for a week in the warmer months. This focus on students makes team-building, communication and respect the most common goals for sessions on the camp's ropes course, which has been in place for about 20 years.

However, they've had corporations,

Y groups, Americorps and other public groups as well, explains Amy Hale, outdoor environmental-education and conference retreat director for the camp.

"We do a series of programming: We start on the ground, then move to the low-ropes course and build up to the high," she says. "It's a series of events that build on previous accomplishments—you get to a more united, better communicating group."

Because the challenge course is not a stand-alone item, it's able to benefit from the YMCA's marketing and the steady stream of campers coming through.

"Most of our marketing is word of mouth," Hale explains. "Having good facilitators really makes a huge difference. Make sure people get a good experience, and that's the best marketing you can have."

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 And, joining an organization like this might be another way to stimulate your business creativity and networking opportunities.

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.