Feature Article - April 2004
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Hitting the Wall

How to boost climbing wall attendance

By Kyle Ryan


The intangibles
Personnel

Successful climbing walls all share one thing: good personnel. Without dedicated people, walls just become high-priced sculptures.

"It'd be similar if there was a basketball league," O'Connor says. "If the program director is really into it and puts his energy into it, then it fills up. If it's someone in that position that couldn't care less about those leagues, then it will die off."

O'Connor even recommends spending less money on the design of the wall in order to train a staff to maintain it.

"I think it's worthwhile for the facilities to fit into their budget to find the right person that has the energy and pay them to route-set and maybe start a junior team to teach a couple of classes here and there," he says.

How do you find good people to help?

That depends.

"If you're a rec center in the Denver/Boulder area, it's obviously going to be different to find someone to run your climbing program than it would be in, say, Milwaukee," Postma says. "There are ways you can find those people…We've found that people tend to come out of the woodwork."

When it comes to finding qualified staff, look at local climbing clubs, go to other climbing facilities, hang out at local crags (if any),and place ads in local papers or in climbing magazines.

"You've got to take the time to interview various people," he says. "I think sometimes people are so worried that they're going to find somebody that when the first guy comes along, they just gobble him up real quick…They don't know the criteria by which to judge the individual on—it's hard to find a tennis pro if you don't know anything about tennis."

Atmosphere

The right personnel, Postma says, gives a facility a certain aura, and that's critical to getting people on the wall. Climbing wall manager Tom Petraitis has taken great pains to create the right atmosphere at his 1,000-square-foot wall inside Chicago's Fitplex health club.

"It seems climbers mostly like to socialize," says Petraitis, a climber himself. "It doesn't hurt to provide an atmosphere for that."

Climbing's "extreme" image may prevent some regular folk from trying out your wall, but it can also draw other regular folk to it.

"People want to feel excited about it," O'Connor says. "They want to feel like, 'Wow, I'm doing something that most people don't do.' That's what attracts people to it—it's not lifting weights or aerobics. It's something out of the mainstream. I think facilities need to promote that a little bit."

Staying current

Another critical necessity for keeping people on the wall is staying up to date with the climbing world, by going to conventions, reading industry articles, talking to climbers and having the occasional competition. O'Connor cites the American Bouldering Series, an annual competition of scores of events around the country. He says they can be done in nearly any facility, the ABS handles the marketing for them, and they're easy competitions to put on.

"I would say the staff needs to be up to date with what's current in the climbing community, and mostly I would say that energy is generated through competition," O'Connor says. "Just fun, all-ages, grassroots, all-abilities events that put energy in the facility and show other people how fun it can be. And when it's all ages and all abilities, it shows how accessible it can be."