Editor’s Note: Sylvia Dresser, executive director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology and long-time experiential educator, contacted us after reading a story we published on page 22 of the July issue of Camp Business which posed the question: “Is a challenge course a good investment?” Sylvia felt the article, while factual, didn’t dig deep enough into some of the issues involved in this decision and offered to write a follow-up article. Here’s her response…
Challenge courses have certainly changed over the years and so has the risk factor and investment potential. However, investing in a challenge course simply for financial reasons is probably akin to buying land on the moon.
Many organizations have made their challenge courses financially lucrative, but only after a lot of hard work and only in certain, well-thought-out situations. The straight scoop is challenge course construction has been booming in the last five to 10 years, which means they no longer offer the unique opportunity they used to provide. Quite simply, there’s probably already one in your area.
So, in order for a challenge course to be a great investment, it has to add significantly to the overall value of your program AND bring in extra income. Neither of these things happens simply by building the course.
Mitigating Risk & Building Demand
While it’s true there’s an inherent risk in installing and using a challenge course, it’s also true this risk factor can be minimized by following a number of best practices (both in construction and administration) and by educating yourself as a consumer.
Perhaps the best way to start this process is at conferences. These gatherings offer a unique opportunity to talk with multiple people at one time – service providers, challenge course owners, insurance professionals, and association representatives.
The next logical step is to familiarize yourself with the industry literature (you can visit our web site, www.acctinfo.org for information about ACCT standards, questions to ask vendors/suppliers and articles from the ACCT newsletter) and then go back to the folks you met at the conference to ask follow-up questions and start to make an informed decision.
Of course, knowing best practices for building and maintaining a challenge course and maybe even deciding on a vendor is only part of the process. Before you commit yourself to building a course, you really need to consider how you’re going to market your new attraction (and make some determination if it will be successful).
Marketing your challenge course outside of your camp program requires you to understand how to meet the needs of the groups who you anticipate will come to use your course – so take the time to talk with them. Ask them about their thoughts on your possible addition of a challenge course. In what situations could they see themselves bringing a group to utilize the course?
For example, many camps have tried to entice corporate groups to use their courses outside of the traditional camp season with mixed results. These camps have discovered a fundamental problem with this approach – mainly serving an adult group requires a different skill set (and ideology) then serving youth groups. The point? Be sure your staff has the skills needed to promote and administer the program to the audiences you’re looking to bring through your new course. Be honest about your abilities and conservative with your challenge course revenue projections.
Like all capital improvement projects, challenge course costs are specific to your site characteristics and your programming goal (how you plan to use the course). So, before you go through the work of putting together a request for proposal (RFP), use the information you gleaned from your calls to likely customers and meetings with your staff to actually design your challenge course program.
Once this is done, you’ll find it much easier to choose course elements not only physically suited for your particular site, but also best suited to deliver your program objectives. Already, you’re ahead of the game!
If you’ve done your homework and become an educated consumer, the task of selecting a vendor should not be too difficult. Ask your three or four finalists the questions printed in the sidebar to this story and check out our web site to see if all your candidates are accredited companies. (ACCT is the predominant trade association that serves the Challenge Course field, and has set standards for the industry since 1994.)
You’ll find a knowledgeable vendor can also help you develop a realistic budget for your course – which may influence what you decide to install. They’ll also help you realize your ongoing budget needs to include more than just installation costs. A good budget will also include: annual maintenance and inspection fees, equipment maintenance and replacement, and most of all, staff training – the real key to running a profitable, safe program.
Your staff will make or break your challenge course investment. The better they are, the more knowledgeable, friendly, efficient, and safety conscious, the better your program.
This is not earth-shattering news, but how do you ensure you have great staff? Through good training.
Staffing patterns for a challenge course may look different than for other activities. For one thing, staff does need specific training to facilitate on a course. Technical skills are the obvious need, but your staff also needs to be able to manage the social and emotional issues that inevitably arise in the challenge course environment. Retraining on a regular basis is also recommended, to keep skills updated and fresh.
We recommend getting training from a professional challenge course vendor. Vendors offer different kinds of training. The vendor who installs your course will suggest a training program most appropriate for your situation. They may also be able to suggest other places to get training in areas, which they do not cover.
Other good sources of information are:
•Local Groups -- There may also be a local group in your area – check with local challenge course owners to see who has courses in your area. (People who do this work are often very willing to help newcomers to the field with sharing information.)
•The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) – AEE has an accreditation program, which covers multiple faceted outdoor programs, including challenge courses.
•Other Course Owners -- Most course owners cannot keep enough facilitators on permanent staff, so there may be a group of “itinerant facilitators” in your area whom you should know about. One caution about using part time staff – be sure that they have adequate training to facilitate, and specific training on your course from a recognized trainer.
In the end, the challenge course continues to be a popular activity. And, when well integrated into your camp program and appropriately positioned to generate additional income for your organization it can be very, very popular. Just never forget, your new course is a specialized part of your camp program. As such, it deserves your investment in time and energy to help it reach its potential.
Sylvia Dresser has served as the Executive Director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology since 2002, and is a longtime experiential educator. You can contact Sylvia at firstname.lastname@example.org or 847-945-0829.