Hitting the Wall
How to boost climbing wall attendance
By Kyle Ryan
When you enter the Countryside YMCA in Lebanon, Ohio, one of the first things you see is a 1,000-square-foot climbing wall. The racquetball-court conversion looks nice, with its aesthetically pleasing crash zone, carpeting and a mural of Utah's Arches National Park on the opposite side of the wall.
"We consider it a member benefit/attraction, an entity which helps draw people into the YMCA in general," says Shane Riffle, senior program director for the Countryside YMCA.
And it does. It's eye-catching. It's cool-looking. It's unused.
Well, it used to be, anyway. When the Y constructed the wall in 1998, members originally had to pay an additional $75 on top of their regular membership fee to use it. That idea lasted about three months before the staff abandoned it. Now the wall gets plenty of action.
Climbing walls can be eye candy for prospective members at a facility—or money-sucking eyesores to owners. In gyms and rec centers, wasted space means wasted money, and there is a concern that climbing walls could flatline like the racquetball courts they often replaced did.
As status symbols, climbing walls can personify the range of activities available at a facility. But without the right programming and know-how, symbols are all they'll remain.
Despite its extreme image, climbing is actually a pretty safe sport, especially in a controlled, indoor environment. It's also a pretty accessible: People of all ages and abilities can do it. The people who run and design climbing walls know this, but the American public doesn't.
"In Colorado, it's part of the recreational conscious of the population; it's something people do," says Matt O'Connor, general manager for the Boulder Rock Club, a 12,000-square-foot climbing facility in Boulder. "And in a lot of parts of the country, it's something that crazy people do. We don't have that initial hurdle."
But climbing facilities have thrived in pancake-flat areas like Houston and Miami, places nowhere near good spots for outdoor climbing. However, those tend to be climbing-specific facilities, not multiuse recreational centers—and there is a distinction.
"Climbers are a totally different population to begin with," O'Connor says. "They're very quirky and kind of independent. Sometimes [public rec centers and health clubs] don't work well with the personalities because they're very structured."
O'Connor, who used to work at a rec center, knows that well, but he thinks climbing can work at a multiuse facility.
"You can definitely work around that," he says. Work with it instead—let hard-core climbers set routes. Just having people at the wall helps.
"We jokingly refer to it as 'the line mentality,'" says Nate Postma, board member of the industry group the Climbing Wall Association, owner of three climbing facilities and president of a wall-manufacturing company. "And that being if there's a line there, people are curious…Whereas the opposite is also true—if the place is empty, there must be something wrong, so they aren't going to do it, either.
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?
"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."
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."
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."
At the Elmwood Fitness Center in Harahan, La., just outside New Orleans, Assistant Fitness Director Eric Schadler supervises the club's 960-square-foot freestanding outdoor wall.
It's "off the beaten path" of the 170,000-square-foot facility, Schadler says, and it plays a minimal (at best) role in attracting new members. The wall has limited hours and sees most of its activity during spring and summer, despite the area's mild winters.
When it comes to personnel, Schadler relies on one active climber (a high-school student) to help with route-setting, but that's as hard-core as it gets.
"We try to utilize the people for the wall for fitness as well so we can justify their salaries," Schadler says. "Because if they're just sitting out there for two hours watching nobody climb, it's hard to justify it."
It's easy to get caught in a self-perpetuating cycle when it comes to climbing walls: People never climb because it seems like the wall's never open, and the wall's never open because people never climb. There may also be prohibitive costs with equipment rental, instruction or basic wall usage.
"A lot of these facilities are open from six to nine Monday and Wednesday nights," O'Connor says. "What can you really do with that? Your window is almost not open. Having that availability so that the second they are interested in it, they can pursue it to some degree [is critical]."
Even if the wall's open a lot, if you don't change the routes, people won't come back. Fitplex completely strips its wall every three months (quarterly is about average). Petraitis estimates there are more than 100 routes on it.
"There isn't a climbing wall in the country that sets routes as frequently as we do," he says. "It's constant, and you know I think climbers appreciate it."
According to O'Connor, not only do climbers appreciate it, rerouting the wall is absolutely necessary if it's going to be used regularly.
"The two biggest things are they don't route-set enough, and they don't change the holds out often enough," O'Connor says, describing climbing-wall mistakes. "So people, after they come in a few times, they're bored."
At the Boulder Rock Club, where routes can change on a weekly basis, O'Connor says some members come in on Monday nights just to see what's new.
When it comes to rerouting, new design-friendly holds have opened up areas that were previously tough to route. Holds have become more comfortable and inexpensive, which means wall operators can order more to create different routes instead of just replacements for broken holds.
One new thing O'Connor mentions may sound small but makes a big difference: screw-on holds, which don't require a T-nut to connect to the wall. According to O'Connor, they have allowed his route-setters to use previously vacant corners of his walls.
Flooring has improved as well, by becoming more absorbent for potential falls and less aesthetically jarring. General-use harnesses, the staple of any wall that relies on nonexperts for revenue, have also improved, according to Postma, growing more comfortable and functional in recent years.
The biggest technological innovation, though, is auto-belay systems. The devices automatically take up slack as climbers ascend, and they control climbers' rate of descent if they come off the wall. The systems don't require external power for operation and require little training to use.
"Auto-belay systems are great," O'Connor says. "That opens up a whole aspect of the facility. It takes climbing from a partner-based sport to an individual sport."
With auto-belayers, people can train alone, and one person can supervise numerous people using the wall at the same time. Auto-belay systems have greatly decreased the amount of orientation needed to get beginners on a wall, and they have therefore been hailed as revolutionary devices.
Not everyone is a fan, though. After a fatal accident involving an auto-belay system last year, wall managers who felt hesitant to use auto-belayers before became firmly opposed to them (see sidebar on page 16).
"Technologically, though, climbing walls are still climbing walls," Postma says. "The only other thing that's really happened with climbing walls is that newer and better products are coming out. Some products are better, and other products are cheaper, making it easier for people to purchase or afford."
Over the past few years, one offshoot of climbing has become particularly popular: bouldering. Essentially low-height climbing done without harnesses, it's a perfect place for beginners to start without freaking themselves out too much.
While some climbing gyms have special bouldering-specific climbing areas, climbers can boulder on any wall. At Fitplex in Chicago, Petraitis just limits the height boulderers can climb on the wall.
"They don't need to take a class or pass a test—they rent a pair of shoes, and you cut them loose in there," O'Connor says. Once they get a taste of the sport, chances are they'll want to take the next step. "At least you've got them hooked on it," he says.
Membership dues only go so far, so hosting any number of group events helps create extra revenue. The Countryside YMCA's climbing wall will sometimes be booked a year in advance by groups who want to use it. Staff will come in after hours to belay groups that have rented the YMCA, or they will show clients how to belay and supervise people using the wall.
Birthday parties are always popular, as are corporate team-building activities and things like group-climbing lessons. All of these types of events generate revenue, but finding them can be difficult.
"It's kind of hard to go out and get it, at least that's been my experience," Petraitis says. There's word of mouth…other people just look on their own on the Internet and find some climbing wall that provides that kind of service—which is basically all of them—so they pick the one that's closest. It's a bit hard to actively pursue, other than doing what you can to let people find it on their own."
Petraitis has approached local schools to talk about after-school programs, but with no tangible results so far. Kids' programming, though, can mean financial security down the road.
The Boulder Rock Club has it in spades: two junior teams (a recreational one and a competitive one), youth sessions (weekly climbing after school for five weeks for kids as young as 6), youth classes and youth-certification programs so kids can learn to climb without adult supervision.
"What's great about those is it's long-term security in terms of looking at it from a business point of view," O'Connor says. "You bring kids into the recreational team and have a good time, then they move on to the competitive team. Then they hit 17 or 18 and are kind of old for that sort of scenario, so they just joint the gym as regular members. That perpetuates our membership base."
The Countryside YMCA has had luck with summertime climbing camps for kids. Part of an 11-week adventure camp, the climbing part spends four weeks on the wall.
While facilities will focus quite a bit of attention on kids' programming, less attention goes to adult programs beyond lessons and price specials. The Texas Rock Gym in Houston offers "Yoga for Climbing" classes to help its members stay flexible. The Boulder Rock Club has personal trainers who help people with movement and technique.
O'Connor concedes, though, that he has to maintain a careful balance when it comes to programming.
"It's weighing membership needs vs. programming needs," he says. "If I did too much programming, we'd lose membership and crowd them out. Like I said, it's a great problem to have, that we have enough members to have to worry about that. Really the bottom line with programming is consistency and making it easily available."
It's a lot to keep in mind, but Petraitis can summarize it pretty easily: "Make it a place where climbers can see it as in some way a positive destination, whether it's just having fun socializing or training to get better," he says.
The buzz behind climbing walls may have mellowed, but that doesn't mean walls are now financial burdens. In one regard, they still are status symbols that show a place's activity diversity—but walls with people on them are infinitely more valuable.
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