Feature Article - April 2014
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Ascending Appeal

Boosting Interest in Your Climbing Wall or Challenge Course

By Chris Gelbach

Leaving the Ropes Behind

Meanwhile, other facilities are attracting new members by eliminating the need to clip in completely during climbing through their bouldering amenities. "Regardless of whether it's the municipal or the commercial markets, we're seeing more bouldering terrain being built than ever before," said Wells. "Whereas 10-plus years ago facilities would be maybe 80 or 90 percent rope climbing to 10 to 20 percent bouldering, now we're looking at facilities that are either wholly bouldering, 60/40 rope climbing to bouldering or 50/50."

In the K-8 market, Whitney's company most often sees traverse walls being installed, because they can be easily added to an existing gym wall to provide a fun climbing experience with less liability risk than a roped wall. The company is also seeing increased interest in walls that have write-on wipe-off surfaces that enable schools to combine climbing with activities and games that involve math, language and other subjects. "Children benefit when movement and learning are integrated, as we're seeing in all kinds of kinesthetic learning studies," Whitney said.

Another low-risk, high-fun and rope-free way to introduce kids to climbing can be through a poolside climbing wall. "We're seeing a lot of them going in where people are taking out old noncompliant three-meter diving boards," said Whitney. "This is a great alternative in those situations because you've already got the depth there and you've already got the space. And when the wall's not in use, you can open up that space again, because the wall only goes out into the pool about two inches."

With products available at a variety of price points, a poolside wall also can be a relatively low-budget way to spike interest in a pool. Whitney cited the example of the Andrew R. Mickle Pool in Gainesville, Fla., which saw attendance more than double in the year after its poolside climbing wall was installed.

Sustaining Their Interests

When it comes to repeat business for a climbing facility, experts agree that thoughtful programming and a dedication to professional and frequent route-setting are critical. "Programming is the life of the business," said Todd Chester, climbing wall product manager for an international climbing wall company with its U.S. headquarters in Bend, Ore. "You can't just open doors, build a wall and then hope that people start lining up. That's not going to happen."

Having a certified route-setter on staff who understands how to set routes for a variety of levels of climbers, will change routes regularly, and is responsible solely for climbing can make a huge difference in a wall's success. It is also helpful to keep the wall readily accessible and open whenever the facility is, as opposed to just a few hours a day.

Newer flat-panel wall designs can reduce the initial cost of a climbing facility while also allowing for greater handhold density, and therefore greater flexibility in route-setting, compared with rock-realistic designs. "It leaves 100 percent of the route-building up to the route-setter," said Chester. "It creates a blank canvas for that person in charge of building the routes — they'll build different levels from beginner to expert and can change those out whenever they want."

A new flexibility also is being seen in challenge courses, where new products are making elements like free-fall-style jumps and zip lines more affordable and more feasible without the need for repeated (and supervised) clipping and unclipping. "A lot of people are learning how to do zip lines and they're coming way down in price," said Liggett.

Liggett also noted that in addition to today's ropes courses allowing for a more self-directed experience, their technologies are also allowing facilities to make each run of the course unique for repeat visitors.

"We're installing RFID in the puck so that every time you go you can have a different experience," he said. "Some elements may shake, some may smoke, some may squirt water into your eye … and with the RFID, how each element will react will be different. So you can program to never have the same experience twice." He noted that repeat visitors on the courses are common, and estimates that 10 percent of visitors are people who come back again and again throughout the summer.