Feature Article - April 2016
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Reaching New Heights

Growing Your Climbing Program

By Kelli Ra Anderson

From this year's recent Super Bowl ads to blockbuster TV shows like American Ninja Warrior, climbing has taken center stage in the athletic, fitness and recreation industries. And its popularity continues to grow.

According to the Climbing Business Journal's tracking data, the U.S. indoor climbing industry grew 10 percent from 2014 to 2015, with 40 new gyms that brought the nation's total to 388. That number is now even higher, with projected double-digit growth for 2016 to be just as robust.

Given the industry's steady climb over the past five years, and the eagerness of investors, lenders and developers to get in on the action, first-time operators are opening gyms all over the country. What was once thought to be critical to climbing's success (large cities, natural climbing terrain and an established climbing community) is no longer true. Climbing's crossover potential to mix and complement many other programs, and its expansion (beyond climbing and bouldering) today includes aquatic climbing, ice climbing and hybrid climbing-parkour-obstacle courses. Speed climbing and competitive teams have turned climbing into an exciting spectator sport.

In response, traditional, static, faux rock walls of yesteryear are giving way to colorful geometric panels and curving lines with new surface textures that, in many cases, can be swapped out for easy rotations or upgrades, and that allow almost limitless route-setting options. Holds, too, add to the spectacle, with an array of candy colors (some even lit with eye-catching LED lights). These are just a few examples of the many ways the climbing industry is evolving and adapting to attract and meet the needs of a growing audience.

For the past few years, this wider audience has been fueling the groundswell for the emergence of bigger gyms that can offer more than just a climbing experience. They can provide all-around fitness training to give serious climbers—especially competitive climbers—workouts to improve their climbing performance.

"Climbing in general is growing as a sport very well," observed John Wiygul, partner and general manager of Highpoint Climbing and Fitness in Chattanooga, Tenn. "Instead of seeing 'mom and pop' small standalone climbing facilities, large upscale multi-gym climbing companies are emerging in the industry," he explained, adding that the reason for such growth is that more climbers are seeking the best places to train indoors.

Climbing gyms are also thriving in smaller cities with smaller venues—a big departure from the mega-gym trend—and to many's surprise, these smaller gyms are succeeding in America's flatlands. The Midwest, despite its lack of outdoor climbing terrain and pre-existing climbing community, is rockin' the indoor climbing scene. What this demonstrates and validates is rock climbing no longer requires a sizeable local group of climbing enthusiasts to survive. Moreover, a notable shift in climbing has occurred. Climbing programs are no longer just the training wheels meant to prepare novices for outdoor climbing. Instead, indoor climbing has become a sport, fitness tool and recreational activity in its own right.

The numbers clearly show smaller gyms from as little as 800 square feet are holding their own, while established fitness facilities that add climbing space and climbing programs are significantly enhancing their existing fitness programs. But perhaps the icing on the cake is that climbing is reaching a demographic heretofore considered nearly impossible to attract and hold: the elusive teenager.

Social Climbers

Millennials are notoriously community-minded and highly social. It stands to reason, then, that such a communal experience as indoor climbing would become a favorite activity of this generation. "I think that the social side of it has a lot to do with its popularity," said Mike Moelter, owner and founder of Moving Climbing & Fitness in Denver. "If you take a yoga class, for example, it's all very internally focused, and there is very little interaction with the person next to you. In climbing, however, many go with friends. It's very social with those on the ground talking about what to do next, or holding the rope and encouraging you the whole time. The social aspect alone is a big component of why people come back."

To that end, many gyms have discovered that offering amenities to encourage and facilitate the social component is just good business. At the Multnoma Athletic Club (MAC) in Portland, Ore. (one of the oldest private athletic clubs and the second largest in the country), they strive to make their environment as accessible and community-oriented as possible.

"The bouldering gym is a huge thing. We're trying to make it a spot in our club where you come hang out with friends and work out. It's about community," said Drew White, head climbing coach and outdoor supervisor. "Next we are going to add a place where people can work on computers so that if a kid has a class, their parents can work right there while their kid climbs. A lot of gyms are putting in brew pubs and restaurants, too. We are lucky we already have that. So after a workout, if people want to eat dinner or get a beer and hang out, they can."