Feature Article - April 2006
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Tips from the Top

Bringing in business for challenge courses and climbing walls

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Fresno, Calif.

For the last three years, Yosemite Fitness has been a smallish rock-climbing gym (3,000 square feet of climbing in a 2,000-square-foot space) near Fresno State University in Northern California. But before they settled into this location, the eventual owners purchased a mobile climbing wall and spent a year taking it around to schools and churches and local events to introduce the community to the concept of climbing.

"I would recommend starting with a mobile wall if you want to start a rock gym," says Sean Smith, general manager. "It gets your name out there, as you're marketing to a population that hasn't had a rock gym before. [People] don't usually open [another gym] in a market that already has one."

And, in theory, if you've already opened a climbing center and aren't getting a lot of people attached to the walls, this sort of mobile marketing approach could help pique the public's interest.

When Yosemite Fitness opened, it required all its customers to be "belay certified" (trained in the rope safety system used while on the climbing wall). Smith says this approach yielded "mixed success because not everyone remembered how to get into their harness and how to tie the knots, so we had to re-teach them every time."

These days the facility has six autobelays, which mechanically manage a climber's safety rather than leaving this to a partner on the ground. Clients still take a safety course and learn what they can and can't do, but this takes a lot less time than a full belay certification.

Yosemite also went through a phase when they focused all its efforts on team-building activities.

"It was a big challenge, and we didn't get a lot of return on our effort, so we decided that was not be best direction to go," Smith says. Instead, the facility shifted its focus to providing top-notch personal trainers and lighter fare, such as birthday parties.

"We had to experiment," Smith explains. "That's where you begin. You try to please your customer base, so we went through a few evolutions."

Today, Yosemite provides an introductory opportunity for new, inexperienced climbers as well as an outlet for those who prefer outdoor mountains to indoor walls and just need a place to train when the weather isn't cooperating.

This approach has allowed Yosemite to build a clientele that is broadly based: half adults and half children, half men and half women. And to further accommodate their needs, Yosemite soon will be opening a second location—this one equipped with a full fitness center as well as climbing facilities.

"Most important is to treat the customer perfectly so they spread information by word of mouth for you," Smith says. "That's why we've had enough success to open a second facility. If they're not happy, they won't bring in their friends and family."

Best of Both Worlds

One of the keys to attracting new clients for your climbing wall or challenge course may be as simple as introducing folks to something new. (Notice how many of the featured facilities have a mobile component.) We tend to be drawn toward novelty like moths to the flame, but it may take a little coaxing to get us involved. So, if you can get people's attention while you've got them somewhere they like to be anyway—all the better.

Why not mix the challenge of climbing with the cool splash of the swimming pool? Get kids to take some risks (in a safe environment, of course) with the reassuring comfort of water down below. Specially constructed climbing walls add excitement to the local pool and ensure that every attempt ends in a splash not a crash. And, this activity also can serve as an invitation to master these climbing skills over land. If your facility doesn't have a pool, consider this the motivation you need to seek out a programming partnership with an area swim spot.