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January 2015

Walking the Line

It's barely five years since aerial adventure parks appeared in winter resorts, but they have become a key part of the landscape.

Written by Moira McCarthy | 0 comment

A handful of years ago, they were the newest——and most happening——thing at mountain resorts. Aerial adventure parks and ziplines brought the promise of a new tomorrow, attracting a different customer base and bringing existing customers back at a time of year they might not have been thinking about the mountains.

Today, adventure parks have done that and more. The parks, which often feature ziplines, ropes courses and canopy tours, are up and running at resorts nationwide, delivering substantial off-season revenue. And barely five years since the introduction of these parks at North American resorts, the industry is focused on the next iteration.

Holiday Valley, N.Y., debuted its park in the summer of 2011, and has expanded it each year since then. “Right off the bat, we outperformed our expectations,” says marketing director Jane Eshbaugh.

Holiday Valley was one of the first in the state to offer an adventure park, but the competition has tripled in the past few years. “We were the only game in town. Now we see new [parks] to the east of us and to the west. But we each are developing our own brand. The more parks out there, the more the public gets educated as to what they are, and the more they want to come.”

Developing a unique brand, while creating something customers feel comfortable and familiar with, is the balance most resorts are trying to strike, and one that’s becoming increasingly important.

At the Utah Olympic Park in Park City, the goal has always been to offer an entry point to almost any age and fitness level. To that end, the Olympic Park is set up as two separate, yet related, adventure courses. The easy-to-navigate Discovery Course is geared towards the first-time user. By taking folks only 15 feet off the ground, the course allows them to get a feel for aerial adventure while not feeling overwhelmed.

Scott Kauf, the park’s mountain adventure manager, says the goal is to set guests up for success. “We want to get them onto the course by trying to take away some of the intimidation.”

The Discovery Course offers lower and shorter features that echo the larger Trackside Adventure Course and finishes with a 400-foot zipline. Nearby, the higher (up to 65 feet off the ground) and longer course sits ready, with additional features including a 40-foot drop tower, where tethered participants free fall from the top to a soft landing at the base. The park is capitalizing on the idea of easing people out of their comfort zone in a progressive fashion.

The adventure park at Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., is different, in that the resort does not own or operate it. Rather, ­Smuggs chose to contract with a builder, ArborTrek, that operates the course.

ArborTrek opened its Zip Canopy Tour at Smuggs in the summer of 2010. It was an immediate hit, and led to increased guest satisfaction. Next came the aerial park.

Establishing a unique brand means effectively pinpointing its market. At Holiday Valley, Eshbaugh says many of the customers cross over from winter. “Skiers and boarders like to come, and they cross over all ages,” she says. “But we are also reaching a few markets we did not get in the past. It has really helped with our conference business quite a bit.”

Eshbaugh says that while Holiday Valley’s courses are not the classic “team building” courses that training and educational businesses have offered for years, the options for team building, spirit and bonding are intrinsic in the activity. Holiday Valley has even seen a boom in a new market: sports teams that come to use the course for pre-season bonding.

The Utah Olympic Park’s goal is to ease people in, in a non-threatening way, and to keep them at the park. And it almost always succeeds. Of those purchasing all-inclusive tickets, Kauf says the percentage of those who progress from the smaller to the larger course is nearly 100 percent. Of those who purchase “single activity” tickets, 50 percent go back and pay again to do more.

The thrill of moving upward and conquering a challenge is a big emphasis in the park’s marketing plan, Kauf says. “Word of mouth is a big part of our business, and a super valuable part of our marketing,” he adds. “The adrenaline they feel—and then share—is what gets people here. There is no better market than our guest saying, ‘You’ve got to go.’”

Kauf says the experience might even trump the cost: “A guest should absolutely feel ‘value.’ If they are saying, ‘Hey, that was expensive … but it was worth it,’ we are succeeding.”

ArborTrek’s Michael Smith says the key to a successful marketing plan is having a range of different elements that draw new people on a regular basis. For instance, a canopy tour can draw a wide market, since it serves both an older and younger demographic. A zipline may draw those looking for the purest thrill of the ride itself. And things like ropes courses bring in those looking to be active and “win” over something.

Paul Cummings, chief client advocate with planning and consulting company Strategic Adventures, feels that while parks are increasingly the norm at mountain resorts, they are not close to hitting a saturation point yet.

Cummings says that adventure parks, unlike ziplines (which he feels are nearing saturation), offer clients a chance to do better and experience more each time they visit. That’s why, he says, most parks experience a 50 to 65 percent guest return rate.

And while such parks are sprouting up at non-mountain resorts, he believes mountain resorts have an edge. “Resorts have a bigger area to work with, so they can have multiple attractions, something guests want,” he says. “Rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, aerial parks can all be in one spot. That’s where mountain resorts can really shine: having so much to do in one place.”

Marketing these multiple activities, he says, seems natural for mountain resorts, which may find it more challenging to expand their winter offerings. “Summer is when they can really expand their profit center,” he says. “And with an infrastructure [such as lifts, parking and base buildings] already in place, they don’t have as far to go to get to where they can make this happen.”

One item of importance to resorts is the protection of the trees and ecosystem. A good adventure park exists within the forest, but does no damage.

“There is great value in a resort’s trees,” says Smith. “Building a large park can result in die off.” A good builder, he says, is cognizant of that. “That’s why we built (at Smuggs) in stages. Our goal is not to build there and leave. It’s to be there for the long term.”

Holiday Valley was careful with its construction as well, and found a benefit. “The health of the forest was and is of great importance to us,” Eshbaugh says. “And in our case, our forest actually became healthier when we put [the park] in.” The resort removed dead or weak trees, preserving the healthiest ones.

Safety is another huge issue. Aerial park operators are working on staffing and training, managing the still-evolving concept of inspection, and making sure guests not only are safe but also feel safe from the moment they arrive.

Cummings stresses that keeping on top of current trends and knowing which products work best for safety is key to a park’s success. In many states, he says, the same inspectors who handle amusements parks handle the oversight of permitting and safety. That means, he says, even the inspectors need education.

At the Olympic Park, Kauf realizes that safety starts with staff.

“That’s the key component,” he says. “We have to be sure to hire folks who buy into our culture and share that with our guests. That culture is and must be inspirational, authentic and dedicated to the safety of each individual staff member and guest.”

Smith is working with national groups, including the Association for Challenge Course Technology, to create tips, best practices and regulations to keep parks safe and well run. He and Cummings both agree that resorts that get and stay involved with such national organizations will fare well with safety and standards as they evolve.

Parks, and the revenue they provide, are likely to keep growing. So what does the future hold?

Cummings sees better technology and a higher standard of quality construction coming, and coming soon.

Smith predicts that in the future, adventure parks will become like ski resorts, with different challenges, vistas and reasons to visit. He foresees a kind of “ninja warrior” type of park offering, with more aggressive courses aimed toward elite athletes, paired with the gentler options.

One thing is for sure: These parks are no fad. More and more mountains are building, adding on, and expanding, and more guests are coming every summer. Adventure parks are a key part of the year-round mix.