Innovative Mills, Buffalo Outdoor Center Take Flight

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 58 views 

Evolution theorists say man climbed down out of the trees to evolve. As usual, Mike Mills has gone the other way.

The founder and owner of Buffalo Outdoor Center Inc. in Ponca, Mills is expanding his business with a unique partnership that’s launched the state’s first zipline park — the Buffalo River Canopy Tour. Guests zoom along a half-inch steel cable 40 to 60 feet above the forest floor, careening between giant oaks and hickories across spans totaling 1,700 feet.

The three-hour escape culminates with a 40-foot rappel from a tree deck where in autumn, thrill seekers and “leaf peepers” will be made kin.

Experts say it’s exactly the kind of “adventure tourism” that will harness visitors and travel dollars for Arkansas.

Joe David Rice, director of the Tourism Division of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, said the canopy tour will likely strike a “receptive chord” for many travelers.

“An international tourism research and development firm we hired stated that one of Arkansas’ biggest challenges is bringing in new attractions, or new reasons for potential tourists to visit the state,” Rice said. “This project, in effect, is just what the doctor ordered.”

BOC, which has 12 employees and $1.2 million in annual revenue, is a lodging, canoe rental, hiking and outdoor adventure center in Newton County – the epicenter of commerce for the Buffalo National River. It draws about 20,000 annual visitors, not counting the ones via

Spring and its teeming river make the company’s best months, but the canopy tour is expected to help diversify BOC’s offerings. There’s already talk of opening a second, slightly shorter canopy course this winter.

According to ADP&T annual reports, total travel expenditures for the three years ended in 2009 were up 3.8 percent in Newton County from $10.71 million to $11.12 million. Statewide, the same number was flat, with less than a percent of growth from $5.369 billion to $5.377 billion (see chart, p. 14).

The canopy tour opened July 17, and through Sept. 17 it’s had about 500 participants. At $89 (plus tax) per tour, that’s about $44,500 in revenue. The ultimate goal is 500 zippers per month, but it’s too early to project annual revenue.

The numbers exceed what BOC partner and canopy tour facilitator Adventure Quest Recreation LLC expected – particularly for the dry season on the river’s west end.

David Brown said BOC and Adventure Quest are smart. Brown is the executive director of the America Outdoor Association, a 600-member nonprofit in Knoxville, Tenn., that serves as the professional association for outdoor recreation and leisure travel providers.

Ziplining is growing exponentially, he said, because it’s exciting and almost anyone can participate. There’s not a lot of hard data yet on the scope of the trend among his members. But it’s clearly the hot venture, Brown said, ahead of casual (flat-water) kayaking and a resurging whitewater rafting sector.


Greg Robinson is managing partner of Challenge Quest LLC of Pryor, Okla., the holding company for Adventure Quest. The parent firm, available online via, is a decade-old experiential learning and challenge course facilitator with $350,000 in top-line revenue.

It sees about 3,500 participants annually through seven experiential courses it manages across Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri. That includes one course at NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville.

Adventure Quest built the Buffalo River Canopy Tour and operates it as a partner with BOC. Mills said 15 years ago he would have simply built the course himself, but nearly 35 years after launching BOC he’s “just old enough” to realize he needed someone else to help.

Robinson said the venture made perfect sense from his end because it overcomes the primary obstacle for adventure courses — marketing.

“Mike’s clientele are already pre-disposed to adventure,” Robinson said. “That’s why they’re there. And with his existing customer flow, he can simply incorporate the marketing with what he’s already doing. It’s only one more reservation for him to take.

“Plus, Mike has a good name and is integrated into the state’s tourism industry.”

The other challenge ropes and zipline courses must overcome is staffing. Hours can be sporadic, and guides require specific skills. But Adventure Tours is able to tap into an existing pool of 30 instructors through Challenge Quest.

“We’ve got good continuity,” Robinson said. “Most of our instructors have five or more years of experience. They have other jobs, but they’re also a little older and more experienced than you might find in other venues.”


Mills’ resume is about as long as the 150-mile Buffalo River itself.

The state’s former tourism director (1982-1986), Mills is now president of AOA, Brown’s trade association for outdoor-centric businesses. He’s also president of the Buffalo Rural Foundation, which is a nature conservancy for the Buffalo River Watershed.

He moved to Ponca 37 years ago with 10 canoes, one trailer and an International Scout. He’d previously rented canoes out of his Fayetteville apartment, but decided to take the plunge fully by becoming manager of the Lost Valley Lodge in Ponca. Two years later, he launched his own deal.

“My father, George Mills, gave me the love of the outdoors,” Mills said. “I was the oldest of four boys, and our vacations were always camping, canoeing and fishing, mostly on the Buffalo, War Eagle and White rivers.”

Mills could have been a doctor, career soldier or about anything he wanted. The pre-med biology graduate from Hendrix finished No. 1 at The U.S. Marine Corps’ Recon school and served in the military from 1969-1971.

But he returned to his roots, getting a graduate degree in parks and recreation from the University of Arkansas.

Then he headed out to the woods to make his fortune.

Things really took off in the 1980s when Mills said he realized Ponca “was screaming for lodging.” So he started acquiring property and building what has become 18 cabins.

It only took 10 years for them to pay for themselves.

 “We’ve been able to really keep our debt and interest down over the years, and now we’re seeing the benefits,” Mills said. “I was never really a money-motivated guy to begin with. I just wanted to live and work in the outdoors, and Ponca was the greatest place on earth as far as I am concerned.”


Mills said corporate business, especially lately, has really taken off.

Being 70 miles from Springdale means firms such as Tyson Foods Inc., Procter & Gamble’s supplier team for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Williams Cos. of Tulsa and various Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club teams don’t have far to travel to do dynamic retreats.

That’s another synergy for Adventure Quest and Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and leadership. A decade ago Williams sought out Robinson to help evolve its leadership training.

Steve Beatie, manager of Williams’ professional development program, said Challenge Quest’s ingenuity and follow-up has made a huge difference.

“We wanted something unique, and Challenge Quest developed really creative solutions to combine with team building theory,” Beatie said. “We’ve had great results, and the program has become a huge recruiting tool for us.”

Robinson said many companies are gravitating to a collective style of leadership development.

Just because you put a group of achievers in a room, he said, doesn’t mean they know how to function together.

“The power of shared experience helps teams develop cohesion,” Robinson said. “That accelerates trust in relationships, which is necessary for success in any organization.

Experiential learning also increases their self-efficacy, or your confidence that you can do things.

“Research ties a person’s self confidence to their level of engagement at work.”

Lee Kidd, vice president of Benefits for Tyson Foods, said his management team regularly retreats at BOC. And team building on the canopy tour sounds like a good fit.

“We’ve gone for the past six years,” Kidd said. “It’s neat because we get away from the semi-starchy environment of work.

“We have a business agenda, but we get to know each other on a more personal level and it’s made a difference for us.”