Whitewater Express hiring for 'big year' on the river

Whitewater Express, entering its third season as the Chattahoochee River outfitter in Columbus, is already ramping up efforts to hire enough guides to meet what is expected to be additional demand this year.

"The surprising thing last year is we limited trips because of our number of guides. The demand was higher than we were able to deliver," Whitewater Express owner Dan Gilbert said Friday. He said there were 58 guides on his payroll last year on the way to serving more than 26,000 river rafters along the downtown whitewater course.

This year, the company is looking for 150 applicants, with plans to narrow that down to roughly 100. Some of the positions will staff the Blue Heron zip line and aerial course that was installed late last summer in Columbus and Phenix City and had a brief run in the fall. There also will be a need for bus drivers and reservation staff.

"We're starting right now because it will take a little while to go through this process and train," Gilbert said. "We'll start training the first of March. Trips will pick up in March, but it won't get real busy until about the first of May."When the season does kick in, it is expected to be even busier than a year ago, Gilbert said.

He projects that at least 30,000 people will take to the whitewater course using his company. Another 10,000 individuals, he estimates, will take a wild ride on the zip line that spans the river.

"We're planning for a big year," said the outfitter, which also has a commercial operation along the Ocoee River in southeast Tennessee, east of Chattanooga.

The whitewater course was launched in 2013, with the abbreviated season that year attracting about 16,000 river rafters.

Since then, Gilbert said, word has caught on that Columbus is a unique attraction, particularly with two recreational activities and their proximity to a downtown that is steadily adding new restaurants and shopping.

"We still hear all the time that it's just different than all of the other locations you can go for outdoor stuff," he said.

Marketing has started this year as well, with Whitewater Express making pitches to scouting and youth groups from all over the Southeast, he said. Church and corporate groups also were major pieces of the company's business the first two years.

The hopes and aspirations for 2015 make it critical that Whitewater Express staff properly and early, Gilbert said.

Those hired will receive training in river and zip-line safety, specific instruction on being a successful guide, and information on the history of Columbus and the natural beauty and ecosystem of the river, which they will pass along to customers.

No raft guide experience is required, the company said, although time is of the essence with training beginning March 7.

"We would like to not be in the position where we're just trying to grab people at the last minute" for staffing, Gilbert said. "We need time to have them come in and train so that we're not where we were last year when we had to limit the number of trips we could take."