Feature Article - April 2011
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Ascending on a Budget

Making Money-Smart Decisions With Climbing Walls

By Daniel P. Smith

Auto Belays

In April 2010, Gillette, Wyo., welcomed its new $55 million Campbell County Recreation Center, which included a 45-foot climbing tower resembling the Devils Tower National Monument located in the nearby Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming. Guests can boulder, top-rope climb, or use quick clips to leap climb. Leadership also added a pair of auto belays, a critical decision according to Campbell County Recreation Supervisor Rick Mansur.

"By having two auto belays, you can climb alone and don't need another certified person. This has wildly expanded the wall's potential use," Mansur said.

Though Campbell County boasts an active climbing club—a group that has taken an active role in training belayers, providing lessons, and maintaining the wall—novices have visited the climbing tower in droves. Within its first nine months, more than 3,000 people had climbed the tower at least once, many using the auto belays during their initial voyage. The wall and its auto belays have been a key feature in attracting birthday parties, schools and out-of-town guests.

Auto belays have been a key feature at Adventure Rock as well. The facility hosts 17 auto belays, and manager Eric Olson said they would take more if they could fit more.

"People want to be able to climb immediately; they want that instant satisfaction," he explained.

The auto belays, Olson added, serve as a key selling point for customers. Prior to their installation, climbing rookies wanting a trial run were directed to come back for a class and their immediate business was turned away. That's no longer the case. In 2010 alone, Adventure Rock credits more than $100,000 in business to its auto belays' presence.

"Our growth has far outpaced our investment," Olson said of the impressive ROI figure.

Though a vocal fan of auto belays, Olson remains objective about the automated system's drawbacks. Like many in the industry, he fears the mechanization transfers climbing from skill to entertainment.

"That's something the industry's fighting right now. Climbing is not a carnival and there's a need for knowledge and instruction," Olson said, acknowledging just as quickly that the customer service and revenue-generating benefits still must enter the discussion.

Surprising to some, Olson said Adventure Rock has not saved on staffing as they had anticipated with their auto-belay purchase.

"There's a visual management aspect that's necessary here, simply making sure that people are clipped in [during open climbing]," Olson said. He believes smaller climbing facilities would likely reap better cost savings given less coverage area.

During private parties, however, Adventure Rock claims more control of the scene. Where the facility once required four staff members to tend a birthday party, the ratio has dropped to 1:1 with auto belays. One staff member clips in guests, ensures their security, and they're on their way. The mechanized system subsequently frees up personnel to move around, service customers, and interact. It's an advantage, Olson argued, that cannot be overlooked.