Entice the Adventurous
Build Interest & Create Community With Climbing Walls & Ninja Courses
When a workout not only tests your physical strength and stamina, but also your mental acuity, it's hard not to get hooked. Fitness facilities, wellness centers, recreation centers and more are always looking for new and engaging ways to not only get people in the door, but keep them coming back for more, and climbing walls and ninja courses provide that one-two punch of physical and mental stimulation, with a little adventure added into the mix.
A Diversity of Opportunities
Dr. Tracy Paino, vice president of operations for Vertical Endeavors, which has six climbing facilities in Minnesota and Illinois, and also for a climbing wall manufacturer based in St. Paul, Minn., said he's seeing more versatility in climbing, with new ways of adding variety to existing walls.
"The ability to change an existing climbing wall by using 'volumes' has become an easy and affordable way to add variety," he said. "Volumes are large wooden or fiberglass structures that can be secured to the climbing surface by bolts or screws to most existing climbing walls. They can be added, moved around or adjusted to create an infinite number of modifications. Climbing handholds can be attached to them, bringing complexity and deviation to a wall, route or problem. If you have a simple vertical climbing wall, volumes can provide exciting features to keep climbers engaged."
Paino also pointed to the growing popularity of bouldering, and with the upcoming Tokyo Olympics featuring Speed Climbing, Lead Climbing and Bouldering for the first time, this trend is likely to keep expanding.
Garnet Moore, interim executive director of the Climbing Wall Association, agreed, citing "a real rise in the number of bouldering gyms."
Because no rope or harness is needed, and the walls are usually less than 15 feet high, bouldering is much more accessible for first-time climbers and much easier for facility owners to manage, Paino said.
Climbing is also getting more diverse in terms of where you might typically find a wall. "We are seeing walls pop up all over the place, maybe in places you wouldn't expect," said Luke Winkler, product manager for a manufacturer of auto belays and other adventure products based in Louisville, Colo. Being featured in recent movies and the upcoming Olympics, he said, means more people are familiar with the sport and looking to give it a try. "New walls are being built at astonishing rates inside shopping malls, schools, community centers, traditional fitness facilities, offices and even in people's houses," he said.
While it's not necessarily cheap or easy to add a new state-of-the-art wall to a facility, our experts pointed out that there are plenty of ways to add climbing to your facility without breaking the bank or breaking new ground.
"Smaller facilities might not have the space or the budget to create a large climbing wall. They might not have very high ceilings or the ability to have a custom-made climbing structure installed," Paino said, adding that pre-made climbing panels are one easy solution.
"These panels can be attached to existing structures, or anyone with some carpentry skills can create a supporting frame on which to attach them," he added. "Usually they come in 3-by-3-foot or 4-by-4-foot squares with predrilled holes, T-nuts (for attaching handholds) and texture already in place. They can also be trimmed or cut to fit a specific space, unusual dimensions or to add features such as angles, roofs or corners. Utilizing and installing panels can be more cost-effective for smaller spaces and bouldering walls."
Winkler added there are plenty of less expensive options on the market, and explained that "it's also possible to start small and expand as interest in the wall grows." He added, "Things like untextured wooden walls or towers, bouldering-only walls or even used walls from other facilities are all ways to kick off a climbing program on a smaller budget."
Paino also suggests that smaller facilities with an interest in adding climbing options to their programming lineup should look for local partners that might provide access to their climbing space, such as dedicated climbing facilities, schools or fitness centers with existing climbing walls.
Once your wall is up and ready for use, whether it's a wall with ropes or a bouldering wall, you need to get climbers engaged and interested. While you can simply build a wall and expect that to generate some interest, if you really want to be successful, you need to build engagement and community, and that's really all about your staff.
"If you are going to go that route of a wall with ropes, it's important to have the knowledgeable staff who can teach climbing skills and might be plugged into that community more broadly," said Laura Allured, marketing and communications manager for the Climbing Wall Association, which supports these professionals with a certification program.
"Finding the right person is pretty key," Moore agreed. "You should invest in having a dedicated staff member on the team," instead of adding those duties to an existing staff members' to-do's.
One Climber, Two Climbers, Old Climbers, New Climbers
"To get new climbers into the sport," Winkler said, "you need to combine programming and operations that are friendly to new users. A climbing wall, with high-level climbers on it, can be a very intimidating atmosphere. There is new complicated gear, a high level of anxiety due to safety concerns and extreme physical challenges. By offering programming that caters to new climbers or certain user groups, some of the barriers are broken down. This could be instruction-based or just climb time."
"Being the 'best kept secret' is not a great goal," Paino explained, and the good news is that climbers generally love to share their love of the sport. "One of the best ways to attract new climbers is to feature a 'bring a friend' event. Offer discounts, such as BOGO or a 'friends climb free' night, to encourage regular climbers to introduce their friends to the joy, challenge and camaraderie of climbing."
The upcoming Olympic Games also offer the perfect moment to shine a spotlight on the sport, Paino said. "Sponsor a competition on your climbing wall," he suggested. "It can be a one-day event or have a week-long challenge. See if local businesses will donate prizes in exchange for some marketing at the event. You could also host a clinic, where newcomers can 'learn the ropes' of climbing. Teach the basics and introduce them to the varied aspects of climbing."
On the operations side, Winkler said that there are ways to remove some of the barriers to entry to help get first-time climbers interested. Auto-belays are one tool he suggests, letting "…first-timers get on the wall fast without having to find a partner, learn new skills and buy equipment."
Auto-belays can also be attractive for experienced climbers, he added, allowing them to climb at their convenience and "show up for a session on a whim."
As far as experienced climbers go, "Climbing is such a progressive sport, there is always something to keep you engaged," Paino said. "Whether you climb for fitness, want to climb harder routes or want to eventually climb outdoors, setting goals is vital. Having programs that help people accomplish their goals will keep them engaged. Classes, clinics, clubs and teams will attract people and keep them climbing."
Winkler agreed, adding that climbing is "naturally addictive." He explained, "It has physical and mental components, and progress is easily tracked. There is also a strong social/community aspect to climbing. To get repeat users, any activity must have an element of progression, provide community or provide extreme excitement and an 'adrenaline rush.' Climbing actually combines aspects of all these, and it's very common for first-timers to get hooked."
Allured added that when you're investing in climbing, you also need to invest in holds and good route-setting. "Having a variety and interesting, challenging routes for people to try on a regular basis is super important," she said. "If you only have space for four routes, or climbing lanes, you need to make sure you're creating some variety on those lanes on a regular basis, so your members are always seeing new challenges they might be able to tackle on the wall."
If the wall and its components are the hardware for climbing, then routesetting is the software, Moore said. "It can change all the time, and that's very engaging," he explained. "You're constantly faced with these new challenges. But it costs money and takes time to set those routes, so it often gets short shrift. But if you want to make your wall operate at its highest level, you should be changing your routes at least quarterly, once or twice a year at bare minimum." For those without the resources, he suggested looking nearby for other climbing facilities that might be able to "loan" you a professional to help set the routes.
The social community that tends to grow up around climbing will also help keep experienced climbers coming back for more, and as a facility owner or manager, you should try to grow that community. "Provide concrete opportunities for people to meet each other, whether a club or some kind of social event where climbers can come specifically to meet each other, find belay partners and socialize," Allured said. "You can even do things like hosting movie nights—there are tons of interesting, engaging climbing films out there. Reel Rock is an example—an annual film festival that you can host. You can get creative with how you build community. It's not just participating in the activity of climbing."
"Climbing is such a social sport," Paino agreed. "The community that grows around climbing is supportive, inclusive and dynamic. Plan events, parties or 'meet-ups' to encourage the social aspect of the sport. People want to climb where they feel comfortable, and where they are challenged by friends. Make your climbing space and programming welcoming and they will keep coming back."
That social nature of climbing has been a boon for existing climbing gyms amidst the varying degrees of closure throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. While many fitness gyms and sports facilities have been heavily and harshly affected, Moore said that they haven't seen as many climbing gyms close down. "The next six months to a year are a hard test of everyone's meddle—and finances," he said.
Winkler said he's seen many climbing walls that have been able to continue operating throughout the pandemic, because the sport does lend itself more to social distancing than many other activities. "Even while climbing indoors, people are usually spaced out more than in other sports, and oftentimes gear is personally owned or easily cleaned and disinfected," he said. "Using auto belays can effectively cut the number of people in a party in half since there is no belayer. Some facilities have chosen to transition to 100% auto belay operation during this time to minimize people in a space while maximizing time actually climbing."
Paino added that while there's no way to completely eliminate the risk of viral transmission, there are "protocols and practices that have made climbing a very good option to get out, exercise and have fun in an environment where people feel comfortable."
How can you help people feel confident and safe visiting your climbing facility? Paino had several suggestions:
- Increased cleaning, disinfecting and decontamination of facilities and equipment.
- The implementation of wellness checks through diagnostic health screening questions at check-in.
- Communicate that you expect everyone to take personal responsibility for the health and safety of themselves and others by wearing appropriate face masks or coverings at all times.
- Asking everyone to wash or sanitize their hands on entry to the facility, before and after each climb, and whenever they have touched a common surface, object or piece of equipment.
- Signage to remind people to keep their social distance. "I suggest including signs that inform climbers to leave a climb between themselves and other climbers in order to maintain social distance while they are climbing."
- Maintain capacity limitations by using a reservation or check-in system. "This will help manage who is in the facility at any specific time and give you the ability to perform contact tracing if necessary."
"Fitness facilities and indoor climbing spaces usually have higher ceilings and increased air filtration systems," Paino added. "This means that they have better airflow than most indoor spaces, which reduces the potential for airborne viral transmission. Be sure that you keep these systems running and change the filters often. Along with wearing masks, washing hands and keeping proper social distance, this makes your climbing space a great venue."
Allured added that you should also be sure to list all of your COVID-related protocols on your website, including photos of what your facility looks like. "Anything you're doing to reduce risk, showing that up front is going to make people more comfortable," she said.
Over the past couple of years, facilities have come up with more ways to provide that exhilarating thrill and the satisfaction of facing—and overcoming—a challenge. Based on popular TV shows where we see people tackling obstacle courses, ninja-inspired equipment has been emerging in gyms, fitness facilities and even in local parks, providing the average Joe or Jill a chance to try their own skill.
So, how do you get started?
"It's easier to start than people think," said Any Timm, western regional sales manager for a manufacturer of sports equipment, including gymnastics equipment and a line of ninja-inspired equipment. Put simply, you can start small, using equipment you might already have on hand, and then build from there. "Basically, it's about getting people started. You have so much of the equipment in your gym already."
Yes, there are complex arrays that make for appealing "eye candy," Timm said, "but you don't have to start that way."
Timm's company's equipment is popular with gymnastics facilities, which can expand their offerings and attract more users with ninja rigs, and they've also put installations in sports centers, YMCAs, churches and more.
Once the equipment is there, it's easy enough to catch people's interest, Timm said. Start with birthday parties, or maybe throw a free ninja class into the slow time on your schedule, and "see what kind of turnout you get," he said. "It's so popular right now."
What's more, it doesn't need to take up a lot of space in your facility, and Timm's company even offers a unit that can fold up. "It's multipurpose, so you can bring out your equipment as needed." And, "Ninja provides a very good return on investment right now. We want to keep everyone in business."
Ninja-related equipment can also be installed outdoors in parks, providing yet another way to get people active and engaged in your community. Sam Mendelsohn, president and CEO of an Orange County, Calif.-based manufacturer of outdoor fitness equipment that recently added a ninja course to its offerings, said the course "…requires agility, upper-body strength and a practical approach." He added, "In order to bring this to a community, programming would be beneficial for people to have professionals teach them how to do the skills necessary to use this new course. Some of the features are straightforward, such as the slanted jump boards and spider web. Some are more difficult, such as the peg board and overhead spider walk. Overall, it provides a fun and exhilarating new challenge for those at higher fitness levels."
The course caters to those who are agile and fit, making it a good fit for parks and rec, health and fitness clubs, universities and colleges, YMCAs and more. "People who like a challenge in their workout love it," Mendelsohn said. And, he continued, "This course provides a striking, eye-catching design to serve as a dynamic focal point of an open space." RM