Feature Article - April 2011
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Ascending on a Budget

Making Money-Smart Decisions With Climbing Walls

By Daniel P. Smith


To be certain, climbing walls can help build new skill sets and encourage people to stay involved in a physical activity, particularly one that isn't accessible in all parts of the country. And yet, all of those benefits come with a drawback—costs. Compared to many other recreational opportunities, climbing walls can be expensive to build and operate, filled with risk and liability concerns, and demanding qualified staff that forces rising labor costs.

As a result, adding a climbing wall—or even refreshing an existing wall—can be a tall task given the present day's notoriously strict budgets. Yet, patron expectations for enjoyment remain high and they consistently vote with their wallets. Without new membership blood and repeat visits from existing members, many facilities face even gloomier economic realities.

When Adventure Rock opened 13 years ago in Pewaukee, Wis., the private facility was one of the nation's few climbing-only gyms and easily among the country's largest at 9,500 square feet of climbing space. Today, even with an additional 3,500 square feet of climbing, manager Eric Olson admitted that Adventure Rock is small by comparison to its U.S.-based counterparts.

"Everything's gone north in the last decade," Olson said.

The surging numbers, Olson believes, are as much a credit to climbing's addictive nature as the activity's all-ages possibilities.

"People are often drawn to the novelty at first," Olson said, "but it's a social activity that's about movement and challenges."

Three years ago, Adventure Rock added a new bouldering cave. While a savvy move to appease a growing interest in bouldering, the cave's presence also serves as a simplistic introduction to climbing as sport, Olson said.

"It taps into natural instincts and is super social," he said. "Plus, there's very little you need to know or necessary equipment to get going. Grab a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag and you're ready to go."

As a private facility, Adventure Rock has consistently examined areas where it could cut nickels and dimes. Skimping on the core climbing business, however, has never been an option. The ownership team is aware that investment in top-end growth is necessary to retain members and attract new guests. It's an important lesson for public facilities as well, many of which can be lured into complacency as much by way of the political nature of public budgets as their ability to escape the frequent examinations of the profit-and-loss statements that plague private-sector establishments.

"We have the viewpoint that everyone's a potential customer, and so we're looking at creating a long-term climber. The way you do that is by keeping things exciting and fresh, even if it means investment," Olson said.

Across the country, facilities—both public and private—have placed value on a climbing wall, many doing so within the confines of a strict budget yet eager to capitalize on the innovation and spirit climbing walls deliver.