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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.

Growing (and Keeping) a Clientele

Growing your business is really a matter of being inclusive, and that goes for successful climbing gyms and facilities with challenge courses, Carlson said. If you cater to the high-end user, the most experienced participant, your market is always going to be limited to that high-end climber.

For a climbing gym, Carlson said, "offer a wide variety of terrain that will accommodate everything from a beginner to an advanced climber. Then split it up so that you don't have overlap of the two, because a more advanced, experienced climber wants to focus on the training aspect, whereas a beginner wants to learn."

When you have overlap, it can create some friction. It is important to include everybody, but make sure you have defined spaces for someone just starting up and someone who is more advanced.

For entry-level climbers, offer tools like the auto belays, where beginners don't have to know how to belay to go into a climbing gym and climb. They can get a short orientation on how to clip into the auto belay, and then they can begin to climb and so develop an immediate love of the experience.

If you are conducting classes, such as for beginners, it is good to have, if possible, a separate space or pod, Frain said. "Many recreation centers that have limited climbing terrain—they might only have half a dozen or a dozen climbing lanes—could have times of day set aside for beginner climbers. This makes it a little more comfortable for the beginner, and it means more advanced climbers are not getting frustrated because someone is moving too slowly on a route. Advanced climbers want to be lead climbing, and if you have limited terrain you would probably end up with beginner climbers roping in that same space."

People say climbing is a dangerous activity, and it can be, but modern climbing equipment, whether it is with a belayer or an auto belay, is extremely well thought out and safe.

Within a group setting, make sure you have enough routes that accommodate the beginner, the super beginner to the intermediate, and then ones that are challenging enough for the advanced climber to be able to get what they want out of the indoor gym.

Changing the routes is a must, Carlson said. "We've seen excellent facilities not do well because the routes have remained static. That happens a lot with recreation centers where you don't have an experienced route setter. People get bored. You need to have a constant update and altering of the routes. It should be done often. That goes for beginners as well as advanced climbers. This is such a big, important part of having a successful climbing wall."

With challenge courses, make sure you have different routes that participants can take: one easy, one medium, one hard.

Keep up that level of excitement. If all you can do with a bridge on your challenge course is to make it narrower, it can get boring. Try throwing in elements like free fall. Or have a climbing part of the course. This really adds to the experience.


Engage the entire family, not just kids, and not just adventure seekers, Green said. "We have seen kids as young as 4 on a kids' course, and their parents go with them."

Above all else, understand your market, Moore said. "Your offerings and your hours traditionally are the first thing to establish, and then from there it is making sure that you get new people in by using sales and marketing techniques. Getting the word out is what you can do to build up a clientele."

Risk Mitigation

People say climbing is a dangerous activity, and it can be, but modern climbing equipment, whether it is with a belayer or an auto belay, is extremely well thought out and safe, Carlson said. As long as the climber is using the equipment properly, you've mitigated a significant amount of the risk.

But as a facility owner or manager, Moore advises that you not take any chances. Protect yourself by having the appropriate waivers on hand.

"The sport is inherently dangerous," Moore said, "and that needs to be told to every person that comes through the door. Along with customers signing their waivers, make sure your staff conducts the correct orientation, so that climbers and challenge course customers understand the inner workings of the facility, what is acceptable, what is not acceptable, how to help each other out, and how to protect and spot each other."

When someone comes into a climbing gym or a challenge course, whether they use ropes or an auto belay, make sure the participant knows how to use the equipment properly. Most accidents that happen in climbing gyms are either because people are not using the equipment at all or they are using it improperly. You have to educate people, and you have to have an engaged staff that is going to be keeping an eye out for the climbers' safety.

On the climbing walls, with auto belays, the risk lies with the climber, Frain said. "If you look at any accident that has occurred with auto belay, it is because the climber did not clip in. This happens with climbers using it as a training tool, by doing a good workout, by doing laps up the wall; you get into your groove and moving from one auto belay lane to the next and then, all of a sudden, you realize that you didn't clip in and you either fall or you are stuck."

Flooring is important in preventing, or lessening injuries, Frain added. "In bouldering, you are going to eventually fall, whether you finish the route successfully or not. That is the nature of the beast. You need to make sure you have padding on the floor, which is for fall attenuation, that is thick enough to be able to successfully absorb a fall. For bouldering you generally want to have a minimum of 12 inches to 14 inches for super tall walls. For most rec centers or colleges, 12 inches is adequate."

That, when paired with appropriate training, helps prevent injuries. Have the staff teach new boulder-ers how to fall.

With challenge courses, the risk mitigation mindset has been all about the experience and having people clip themselves in as they move between different elements. But that introduced a certain level of danger, Carlson said. "Now, many facilities with challenge courses use a continuous belay. Whoever is going on the course is never, ever unclipped from a safety line. And there is nothing they can do to unclip until they get to an exit point." This is something that is becoming popular, and it has added a level of safety to this activity that hadn't been there in the past.



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