Feature Article - April 2008
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Scaling New Heights

Harness the Popularity of Climbing to Take Your Facility to the Top

By Kelli Anderson

Experience of a Lifetime

Yap noted that climbing is going mainstream, which is reflected in its use in after-school programs and climbing teams. As kids become more exposed to climbing at younger ages through programs at summer camps, daycare, school fitness programs and climbing gyms, it makes recreational and fitness climbing a lifelong pursuit.

"I think it's an exciting option for a lifetime sport," said Bill Zimmerman, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association (CWA). "If upfront and early, it's simply a matter of improvement and growth curve. As a lifetime sport, it's a great means for number retention."

When the Santa Monica Family YMCA in Santa Monica, Calif., decided they wanted to bring more variety to participants for their workouts, they installed a 27-foot-high and 40-foot-wide climbing wall this past June on an unused gym wall. The initial attraction of the wall brought in patrons who then went on to investigate the rest of their facility and liked what they saw.

"The numbers definitely changed," said Audrey Meyer, youth and family director of the facility. "We've had people join just because of the wall. They like the variety of different walls in the community, and membership has increased in all age groups from 3 to 75."

Changing Course

Similarly, contributing to the growth of membership of the Paul Derdra Recreation Center of Broomfield, Colo., was the recognition that an effective route-setting system and good programming was a must. They knew that just installing a climbing structure or even offering some classes was not going to be enough to create the earmarks of success—long-lasting interest and retention.

"You can't put a wall in like a cactus and just water it once a month," Zimmerman explained. "Where most people don't get it is they do a capital campaign to build a wall but won't spend $2,000 dollars to train staff or change route settings. Route setting is key to keeping it fresh."

While there is no one-size-fits-all number for route-setting schedules, it is a management issue that warrants close attention. Boredom is the enemy of the climbing program. While many facilities will tell you that they change their routes every two months, some may be monthly while others change routes only every three months. Thankfully, there is a guideline publication that takes the guesswork out of the problem.

The Route Setter's Guide, published by the CWA, along with the industry Bible also known as Industry Practices are resources no climbing program should be without.

If frequent route changes keep the climbing experience fresh, then equally important but also a challenge is finding good route setters. "We change our routes every two months," Buckmaster said. "It's critical to get good route setters, especially for diehards."

Other facilities that hold regular competitions even hire from outside to set the more challenging routes while at some facilities, like at SMU's Climbing Tower, staff will even set a particular route for a particular person in an effort to keep patrons challenged.