Three Steps Operators Should Take Now to Improve Program Quality and Reduce Risk

Recent, highly-publicized accidents and near-misses have raised concerns about increased regulation, the likelihood of rising general liability and workers compensation premiums, and have left many operators worried about how they can best mitigate risk and prevent an accident occurring at their program. For much of the ACCT’s history, standards development has focused heavily on design, installation, and inspection of challenge course structures. Most operators have adopted these standards and participate in annual or semi-annual technical inspections of their challenge course structures by accredited builders or certified inspectors. In more recent years, training and staff certification has become a more important part of the standards, leading to further consistency among operations. While each of these strategies are effective in mitigating risk and improving program quality, they often do not address the more holistic concerns covered only by program review.

Programs seeking to mitigate risk and improve the quality of their programs should add program review to their budget and organizational review process. An informal review of many of the best programs in the industry—educational and commercial—shows that there are three steps operators should take now to improve their program and reduce risk.

1. Engage a professional operator to review your program.

Located within the ACCT 8th edition standard, Chapter 3: Operations Standards, is standard A2.5 “The organization SHALL engage in periodic external organizational review.” This is further explained as

Periodically the organization engages persons outside of the organization to review organizational practices and/or programming for the purposes of better managing risks and improving program quality. External organizational review may be formal, as in accreditation, or less formal, as in peer review. The frequency of external review may increase or decrease according to variables, such as the longevity of management, changing practices, and staff turnover.

While it is recommended that careful attention be given to engaging the right professional to perform a third-party review, years of experience in the challenge course industry should not necessarily be the key determinant. In fact, some of the most valuable third-party reviews I have participated in have been with professionals from related adventure industries or stakeholders in the operation—insurance auditors, underwriters, banking professionals, legal counsel, product manufacturers, regulators from other industries, and consultants. There is great benefit to conducting multiple reviews with both professional operators from within the industry and stakeholders who are trained to ask good questions and challenge operational practices.

In developing an agenda for a review, provide ample time for the auditor to experience each of your programs first hand and to observe operational procedures from a distance. Too often, I have witnessed programs put forth only their most senior and experienced staff. Little is learned from third-party reviews which are staged. In fact, staging or front-ending reviews can lead to staff behavior and organizational actions which cover-up deficiencies that might otherwise be caught and corrected.

TIP: In lieu of specific forms, use Chapter 3: Operations Standards to guide a formal discussion once the reviewer has spent time assessing the operation. Request a written report and use the findings as a roadmap to address delinquencies and celebrate successes.

2. Engage a secret shopper. For a modest fee, it is possible to engage a professional secret shopper to participate in your program and provide a detailed assessment. If you would prefer a view from within the industry, I recommend networking at industry gatherings and posting notices on the list-serv. Over the years, I have participated in many secret shopper programs. As an operator, I welcome other operators and builders as secret shoppers. In some cases, a complimentary tour for the shopper and their family is exchanged in return for a few hours of conversation and feedback. As a frequent traveler, I often call operations that I will be passing during my travels and trade a complimentary tour for a letter and feedback. The potential rewards are numerous, ranging from new marketing and staffing ideas to changes in policy and procedure which are uncovered through critical questioning and debrief.

TIP: Be careful not to inform programming staff of a secret shopper. When programming staff know that they are under performance review, common behaviors are often hidden from the shopper and additional attention to details, which might otherwise be overlooked, are scrutinized. Instead, let staff know when they are hired that third-party reviews will occur. Request that the secret shopper not identify themselves as a reviewer. As a program manager, do not alter your role. If you are normally the one to greet a group, cover staffing briefings, or handle difficult customers, do not remove yourself from the position that staff count on you to fill in daily operations. Ask the secret shopper to provide a brief letter summarizing their findings. Documentation demonstrates compliance with A2.5 and will help during risk management reviews and technical inspections to target specific concerns and areas for improvement.

3. Challenge yourself and your staff to participate in other programs annually. Whether as a secret shopper, reviewer, or paid participant, set a goal to participate in 5 or more programs per year. I am frequently caught off-guard by the responses I receive from owners, course managers, builders, trainers, and staff when I inquire as to how often they frequent other courses. Many of my most successful marketing implementations, programming adaptations, and “ahh-hah” moments regarding risk management have come from participating in other programs. As a course operator, I frequently encourage my staff to participate in other courses and reimburse them for their direct costs, or I work out exchanges with other operators to offer complimentary tours to one another’s staff. Experiencing new models may not always lead to new improvements in your program, but critical examination and reflection are key skills to hone in any risk management environment.

TIP: Be mindful not to make judgements in advance of the program, but to be open-minded to new and unique experiences. Challenge yourself and staff to try course types and experiences which your program does not offer as well as programs similar to your own.

The Association for Challenge Course Technology Board of Directors has set Program/Operator Accreditation as a top priority for this fiscal year and a pilot program is expected in the coming months. Core to Program/Operator Accreditation is the requirement for third-party reviews. Operators who have not recently participated in a third-party peer review are encouraged to plan the review into their budget and schedule opportunities. Operations interested in participating in the pilot program, or individuals interested in assisting in the development of the program are encouraged to contact Bill Weaver at

Michael Smith

As the President of ArborTrek Canopy Adventures, LLC, Michael is dedicated to providing novel, adventure experiences to individuals, small groups, and communities that foster an appreciation for the n...

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