Case Studies

Ropes Courses Inc.

A global leader in high-flying, family fun

Founded in 1989 by Jim Liggett, Ropes Courses Inc. is the world’s largest manufacturer of ropes courses. Based in Allegan, Michigan, Ropes Courses high-flying obstacles courses can be found at amusement parks, tourist attractions and cruise ships across the globe. The towering courses typically feature horizontally strung cables, ropes and boards strung between steel poles to create a challenging, vertigo-inducing circuit of elements.

With one division dedicated to the manufacturing of ropes courses and another that operates a chain of courses across the country, Ropes Courses is both an industry leader and the patent holder for many of the innovations used at ropes courses. Ropes Courses Inc.

“We don’t really have to go head-to-head with anyone because we have a lot of patents that people like,” says Jim Liggett, founder and owner of Ropes Courses. “That gives us a competitive advantage because we have the intellectual property and everyone wants it.”

Ropes Courses produces most of its patented ropes course system in-house, with on-site manufacturing, design, engineering, verification, painting and shipping capabilities. The company has built over 1,000 courses in the last 26 years, including both domestic and international work that has taken Ropes Courses as far as Shanghai, Kuwait and Australia.

“I built my first overseas ropes course in Kuwait about eight years ago and folks just kept calling,” says Liggett. “We have one going up this week in a Dubai mall and in five weeks at another mall in Kuwait.”

Today 35 percent of Ropes Courses’ business is on the international market, including some high-profile cruise ship and amusement park projects. “We have one that will open up in February at Shanghai Disneyland Park that will be the world’s largest ropes course,” notes Liggett.

The Disney ropes course marks two milestones: not only is it the world’s largest ropes course, but it’s attached to the world’s largest man-made waterfall. “The ropes course is on the outside, then actually goes through the waterfall and comes back out,” he says.

Learning the ropes

Liggett encountered his first ropes course on a summer camp trip when he was 18. “It was a memorable experience that I’ll never forget,” he says. When the summer camp decided to install its own ropes course the next year, Liggett offered to help. “I decided hey, this is fun, so I actually incorporated my own company at age 19,” he adds.

He ran his first ropes course manufacturing company for half a decade before parting ways with a partner and starting all over again with Ropes Courses Inc. in 1989. Growth was modest at first, but things started to take off when Liggett really committed to the venture in the early 2000s.

“I was building ropes courses but was still thinking ‘what am I going to do when I grow up?’” he says. “I really didn’t have success until I decided this is what I do and after that, every decision was easy.”

The company had its biggest year on record in 2006 and saw 30 percent year-over-year growth for the next three years, but for Liggett it was a real crash course in entrepreneurship. “When you’ve never managed a business before, you make mistakes that cost you money and you call that school,” he says.

New markets drive company profile

Ropes Courses offers seven distinct models of its Sky Trails brand courses, from the smaller Sky Trail Discovery, which can accommodate 30 to 100 participants per hour, to the towering Sky Trail Expedition with an hourly flow of 50 to 400 people. The company has also expanded into the bourgeoning zip line industry with its patented Sky Rail system, which can be attached to Sky Trail’s overhead track system.

While the courses are designed to instill a certain amount of fear, Liggett has tried to make sure there is something for everyone. “There are choices at every platform; it’s an acclimatization process,” he says. “They’ll do an easy element and if that’s fine they come back and do another.”

With hundreds of course across the U.S., Ropes Courses is an undeniable leader in the industry, but for Liggett, land domination was not enough so he took to the sea. “When we did our first course for Carnival, that was the first ropes course on a cruise ship,” he says. “Anytime you can be ahead of things, it’s very cool.”

Ropes Courses has since worked with several cruise lines to install courses on ships, including a recent double-decker ropes course with a zip line that arches over the edge of the ship, suspending participants some 200 feet in the air.

The company has also installed ropes courses systems in some unlikely locations, including two Jordan’s Furniture locations, a chain of furniture stores across New England known for offering in-house entertainment, including IMAX movie theaters and a water show. “It’s not just a furniture store,” Liggett says.

Ropes Courses installed a system to replace the trapeze that had been the centerpiece of Jordan’s store in Reading, Massachusetts, and a ropes course recently added at Jordan’s New Haven, Connecticut, location will be the world’s largest indoor course. “We try to put them where there are families who want to do stuff and it’s just been going gangbusters,” says Liggett.

As the company continues to grow, Liggett has hired operations managers to run both the company and the seven ropes courses that it oversees. Ropes Courses plans to steadily expand its footprint over the near future with plans to open up three to five new locations each year. “The goal is to build our own destination-based indoor ropes courses, brand them and do them all over the world,” he says.

Ropes Courses recently exhibited at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) trade show in Orlando, Florida, where the team went literally above and beyond to help get the word out about the product. “We got a 40-foot-by-100-foot booth and we built a ropes course right on the trade show floor,” he says.

Three decades in the industry have not dulled Liggett’s enthusiasm for the business, but he knows that he can’t afford to rest on his laurels. “I still get my juice from inventing stuff with my research and design team, but you’ve got to stay hungry because there is always that kid working out of his garage who wants to eat your lunch,” he says.

For Liggett, the ropes courses aren’t just a fun distraction, but a life lesson. “It’s allowing people to experience fear and have success and I think that makes them a little more able to cope with things,” he says. With a passionate ownership team, a worldwide presence and over 25 years of experience in the relatively young industry, success is just par for the course at Ropes Courses Inc.

Published on: March 29, 2016

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