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

Hamilton Township in New Jersey

"One of the subtle things in any business comes down to 'What do you want to be?'" explains Clay Tyson, vice president of Rockville Climbing Center. "We know we want to be a climbing center—not a fitness center and not a combination of the two."

Approaching its fifth anniversary, Rockville Climbing Center is now the second-largest climbing facility in New Jersey and has about 200 members (who pay by the month), as well as additional customers who come in for the day or buy a punch-card good for 10 sessions. This focus allows the center to keep its staff lean (two full-time and three part-time employees) and its costs more controlled than if it offered other sorts of fitness services and equipment as well.

The center is focused on safety, and after an introductory course, customers are free to climb at will. The staff at Rockville has found that they have more climbers in the cold months, although birthday parties keep weekends full throughout the year. During the sparser summer weekdays, Rockville relies on an assortment of summer camp programs to keep business booming. The center offers three week-long sessions of its own climbing camp for kids—a perfect opportunity for children to try something new and learn safe, solid techniques. Then, in cooperation with a local community college, the center offers two more sessions of week-long camp.

"We use another organization's infrastructure to fill in a program for us," Tyson explains. "This is the type of program we love."

The college prints brochures and newsletters that contain information about the climbing camp at Rockville, and it even collects the money for students who will attend. In return, Rockville gives them a discount—and the benefits don't stop there.

"All these people are reading about [our facility], and even if they don't send a kid to camp, they may have a birthday party."

Rockville collaborates on programming with local churches and YMCAs as well.

To attract adults, Rockville offers classes through several area townships' adult education programs. Again, the local education offices handle the marketing and registration for the three-week courses.

"Another benefit is that the people who come to these sessions are good candidates for [climbing center] membership," Tyson adds. "They've walked in with a keener-than-average interest. They've committed to a three-week class. They're not just deciding to try rock climbing one day."

Plus, after three weeks of learning all sorts of cool stuff, "they get psyched about the sport," Tyson says. "Then we offer them an attractive discount on a membership at the end."

It's a smoothly running system at this point, but it had humble beginnings.

"I started these partnerships by picking up the phone and calling them," Tyson says. "We didn't have a lot of ad money to spend."

And besides, it always helps to have someone else saying nice things about you, whether that's a partner organization or a satisfied customer.