Feature Article - April 2004
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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.

The problems with climbing walls

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.