Over The Transom

The most recent Parks and Rec Business just landed on my desk, with the “Publisher’s Note” from Rodney addressing continuous improvement. That is a subject that really resonates with me, and I owe him an article!

What might continuous improvement on the challenge course look like? Running a course can be divided into three sections--the staff, the physical course and the administrative aspects. Continuous improvement in general can be divided up likewise.

Share With Neighbors

We know anecdotally--from program reports and insurance loss histories--the primary cause of incidents on a challenge course is human error. Therefore, hiring good staff and investing in staff training and development are critical components. In-house training is great to cover certain problems, and has to be a part of any program for site-specific issues, particularly in emergency procedures.

However, continuing to learn from people outside an organization is key in keeping on top of recent developments, adding to the wealth of knowledge in your staff. Many vendors offer a variety of challenge-course trainings, and conferences are a great place to find out what is happening in the industry. A quality program will take advantage of vendor-delivered trainings, conferences and peer-learning experiences.

What about forming a local group, so that you know who else in your neighborhood owns and operates a challenge course? In the Chicago area, there is an informal roundtable that meets annually. Someone--I have no idea who--maintains a mailing list, finds a facility (often a local park district), is willing to front the money to make up a flyer, mails it, and hosts the event (including coffee and donuts in the morning, and sandwiches for lunch). There is a minimal fee to attend, which covers expenses, and a variety of choices for discussions and presentations. Presto, a local network!

Once you know who in the area operates a course, you might choose one or two other programs to exchange peer reviews, swap techniques, and so on. When practical, courses that are geographically close can band together to find a vendor to conduct inspections, or perhaps do a bulk gear buy--what I call the ‘60s food co-op mentality for challenge courses. A local event, like the roundtable, is a golden opportunity to find out who is located nearby.

Spruce Up The Course

In terms of the physical environment of the challenge course, a minimum maintenance feature is the annual inspection, done by a qualified challenge-course professional, in addition to regular in-house checks. This tactical inspection involves climbing to inspect each component, as well as all equipment used on the course. Keeping up with recommended repairs and changes is a natural outgrowth of the inspection process.

Another form of improvement can be the addition of elements, or upgrading to a new design. In the equipment arena, a new harness that may be more comfortable and cover a wider range of sizes is a consideration. Most technical decisions are specific to that course: build in trees or on poles? Is it to be used predominantly by kids or adults, or both? What are the local climate and soil conditions?

These and other issues are best addressed in conjunction with the professional who services your course.

Management for the Higher-Ups

Administratively, improvements are likely to look similar in several respects across all departments. Hiring and evaluating staff requires specialty knowledge, but not different techniques, in the challenge-course department. For example, continuing education about certain liability and legal issues may be content-specific, but also useful in other areas.

Administrators might concern themselves with areas such as certification in order to make policy about staff credentials, and to communicate with legal and insurance advisors in making those decisions. In the challenge-course industry, certification has not been well-defined until recently. Various organizations offered certification, but every program was set up differently, so an employer had no idea what a certification card meant.

In an effort to standardize this terminology, the Association for Challenge Course Technology (ACCT) recently released standards for certification programs. Minimally, vendors accredited by ACCT have programs that align with one another, and presumably other organizations will follow suit. This alignment will benefit the staff person describing his or her own qualifications, as well as the employer looking for qualified staff.

Other policies may need revisiting from time to time, such as group size, participant-to-facilitator ratios for different groups, marketing what is actually delivered, and, of course, the annual budget.

Across all these areas, knowing what is happening in professional associations is essential. Find out what associations exist and how to meet your program’s needs. Attend conferences, meet your neighbors and, most of all, keep looking forward and upward!

Sylvia Dresser serves as the Executive Director of the Association for Challenge Course Technology. She can be reached at Sylvia@acctinfo.org, or 847-945-6095. For more information about ACCT, visit www.acctinfo.org.