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Feature Article - April 2017

Reaching New Heights

Demand for Adventure Fitness on the Rise

By Rick Dandes


Owners and managers of recreational facilities that offer climbing walls and challenge courses are meeting the evolving demands of fitness- and fun-oriented customers by transitioning their centers into not just training grounds for climbers, but also social areas for families out for entertaining experiences.

Climbing walls, when they were first built back in the 1960s, were structures made to look like rocky outdoor terrain. Mostly, that's no longer the case, said Michael Moore, vice president of sales and marketing for a Saint Paul, Minn.-based climbing wall systems manufacturer.

"We've seen larger flat expanses trending and becoming more popular with many commercial facilities," he said. "Businesses themselves are now setting routes and having a palette on which you can set these routes and change them up."

Along with the larger expanse, Moore said, comes more compatibility with all of the different-sized handholds that have become the trend. Climbers like large, flat expanses because there are options. For facilities, there is also the capability of adding modern aesthetics and geodesic figures such as slopping curves on the wall, things that are not geometric in style.

"As the sport itself evolves and is now quite popular," Moore said, "it is transitioning off of some of those more natural colors, and I'm seeing brighter, splashier settings, giving the area a fresher feel. It's a trend. And it's huge."

Climbing walls, when they were first built back in the 1960s, were structures made to look like rocky outdoor terrain. Mostly, that's no longer the case.

Agreeing with Moore is Christina Frain, director of sales and marketing for a climbing wall manufacturer in Boulder, Colo. "For a long time," she said, "commercial climbing gyms have been making the move to bright, colorful, vibrant indoor spaces. Recreation centers at colleges and universities tended to still stick to, if not actually rock-realistic, a more natural palette for the walls. But what we've seen over the past couple of years is they are all starting to come around to the more colorful side."

Facilities are realizing that for a younger audience, color is desirable, Frain said. It creates a fantastic vibe in the space when you have bright, colorful walls.

Another trend is the presence of more bouldering terrain, added to climbing facilities outside of climbing gyms. "Bouldering is where you are climbing on a shorter wall and you do not have a rope," Frain explained. "You are just holding on to the holds on the wall, and the walls in most facilities are 14 to 16 feet."

Part of the reason for the bouldering trend is the lower barrier to entry for both the climbers—you simply need shoes—and for business owners, because you don't need high ceiling heights for bouldering. They can be much lower; about 14 feet is average. If an organization is looking for a cost-effective way to add some climbing terrain to their space, bouldering is a good way to do that.

"Where we come in," added Bill Carlson, sales and marketing director for a Boulder, Colo., firm that provides support equipment for climbing, "is bringing automation into the sport of climbing. You have the traditional climbing culture, where it is all about the relationship between belayer and climber."

But now, he said, there are auto belays that provide the safety of a belay without that second person. And while some people don't like that because it splits up that relationship, it allows facilities to have more open hours, and it allows people to come in without a partner and still climb.

Auto belays open up opportunities to increase your customer base, Carlson suggested. "It allows people to come in and train, get in better shape, while having all the benefits of climbing without being tied to another person. It has come almost to the point where auto belays are standard equipment in a climbing gym. It is almost expected."

Meeting the Challenge

Meanwhile, since American Ninja Warrior's debut on American TV, challenge and obstacle courses have also become in-demand recreational options.

Challenge courses are "blowing up," Carlson said. "There are more of them around the country. You have climbing elements within them, but also there is a device called the QuickJump, which if you are on an elevated platform within a challenge course, you can use as an exit element. You jump off a platform and it gives you a little bit of free fall and then it slowly and safely lowers you to the ground."

Carlson has seen two trends in challenge courses: one, where the person would climb to a certain elevation and then belay down. Now, there are also horizontal and vertical elements, he said. "So not only are you going across in height, but you are going up and down."

Jump towers are also trending in the aerial adventure industry, as Alicia Green, marketing and creative director for a company in Todd, N.C., refers to challenge courses. "Things like the PowerFan and QuickJump are trending in a lot of commercial recreation applications. We sell the PowerFan free-fall device, which manufactures a free-fall experience. It's not a bungee, but it simulates a free fall."

Here's how it works: "You clip into a full body harness and climb to the top of a jump tower, which can be as high as 100 feet," Green said. "The person gets clipped into the system and jumps off the tower. It's a simulated free-fall experience. What makes the PowerFan different from other experiences is it is a simulated free fall from start to finish.

"There is no part of the fall where you feel the sensation of stopping," Green said. The free fall is extended from the time you jump off the tower to when your feet hit the ground. It is realistic. It was originally designed to simulate a parachute experience. This is on the rise in aerial adventure parks.