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It's just a bunch of cable, What's the big deal?

Mike Smith spent five years answering the phone and consulting for S.T.E.P.S., Inc. (a prominent canopy tour builder) educating bright-eyed entrepenuers, thrill seekers, and businessmen on what it takes to build a zip line canopy tour.  He spent fifteen years in and out of trees, trained hundreds of guides, conducted dozens of site visits, and today, he takes some time to answer some basic questions about zip lines, the marketplace, ArborTrek, and what is to come.

Q. Zip lines and canopy tours seem to be growing in popularity. Can you tell us a little about the history of zip lines and the sudden craze?

A. The recent boom has certainly brought zip lines in to the media's eye and we're seeing a lot more advertising dollars thrown around. In reality, zip lines have been around for ages. They've been used to ferry goods from one ship to another, as a low cost bridge to transport people and goods across gorges and waterways, and even to shuttle villages over known mine fields. Ropes courses, which gained popularity in the U.S. in the 70's among camping agencies and schools frequently included a zip line as an exit from the course. In fact, I would estimate that there were more than 5,000 zip lines in the U.S. prior to the canopy tour boom which started in 2005.

Q. How are today's zip lines different from those built on ropes in the 70's and 80's?

A. Well, there are several major differences. First, the experience has changed. The focus of the ropes course experience was on helping individuals to learn to manage adversity, challenge their comfort zones, and increase confidence. On traditional courses, participants would climb a tree or pole, perch on the edge of the platform, and make the decision to go. The cables were often slack, and the first step would send your stomach into your throat. We still see people everyday who are nervous or terrified, but they take that first step, and by the end they are so proud of what they have accomplished.  It's not our primary focus though. Second, the technology and engineering on the new commercial courses has improved dramatically. We used to use all kinds of pulleys. They weren't designed to handle the speeds that zip lines can generate and it was not uncommon to see the bearing fail. I can remember one instance where the bearing blew out and the trolley began to really smoke on the way down.

Q. How did you explain that one to the guest?

A.. We just told him that only the fastest riders get the fireworks. He loved it. When they left, we pitched the trolley.

Q. Are there other differences in today's zip lines?

A. Sure. The thing to remember is that zip lines are just a transport vehicle. There are a number of builders out there building lines that are longer, faster, and steeper. The longest is currently over a mile, but I am aware of a project that is claiming to be building a two mile zip line. With the introduction of a new hybrid trolley and vectorized systems, distance is really no longer a contest. The tours could go indefinitely. I refer to these as zip rides. Some are individual lines, some allow multiple riders to race down side by side. They're thrilling, but they remove the user from the experience and take skill out of the equation and substitute it with speed, height, and distance. For me, they're kind of a one shot deal. Other builders focus on using the zip line as a means of moving clients through terrain and habitat that would otherwise not be accessible. This is the essence of a traditional canopy tour. Others yet, have designed the zip line to include challenges. There are zip lines that let people swing great distances, that collide with cargo nets, allow people to ride a bike or ski off significant cliffs, balance on a skateboard, ride a horse and lance rings... You name it, people are doing it or dreaming it.

Q. What's next?

A.I could tell you, but then I would need to push you off this platform. Let's just say that there are plenty of exciting new concepts in the works.

Q. So, what are your plans?

A. My personal interest is in developing experiences that help people reconnect with their environment, with themselves, and with the people around them. I'm not that big in to the amusement aspect of the business. I like the adventure and exploration. A well developed canopy tour can be magical. Good tours allow users to experience the world from a different perspective, to access places that they may not otherwise ever be able to access, recreate in a risk managed environment, take shared risks, experience flight, learn about local ecology and wildlife and connect with family and friends in a novel and memorable way. That's what we're doing at ArborTrek. I think we've really got something special. We have talented and experienced people, great partners, and the locations we are exploring are awesome.

Q. What makes ArborTrek different?

A. I'm excited about our approach. We have brought together the talents of many of the leading firms and individuals in the industry and we're dedicated to creating a product that is customer focused, replicable, and unforgettable. We're seeking out partners that we want to work with, exploring places where we want to spend time, and putting together some really exciting new concepts. With the expansion of the market and lack of government regulation, there are a lot of low quality tours being thrown up. We want our guests to feel well cared for; to know that when they come to us, they are in good hands; and to create experiences that they just can't stop talking about.

Q. So when will the first tour be open?

A. We've been busy in the woods all spring and summer imagining and designing and should be announcing our first tour soon. But look for it to open this winter.

Q. In the Winter? Can you zip in the Winter?

A.Absolutely.Weather just adds to the adventure. In fact, my most memorable experiences have been in the winter, right after big snows when theentire forest was white. It can be really tranquil. In some ways, it reminds me of agood powder day on skiis.

Q. And after that?

A. You'll have to join our newsletter at www.arbortrek.com or become a member of www.ziplinenirvana.com to get the scoop.


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