Feature Article - April 2020
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Go, Ninja Warriors, Go!

Adventure-Focused Fitness Trends Continue Their Ascent

By Chris Gelbach

As American Ninja Warrior gears up for its 12th season in summer 2020 and climbing gets set for a higher TV profile through its debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Summer Games, the number of facilities offering these options continues to grow. This is happening in dedicated facilities aimed at both children and diehards. Both ninja and climbing are also becoming more popular in family entertainment centers and similar facilities where these amenities are being added to a suite of multiple attractions aimed at boosting fun and extending patron visits.

Climbing Gym Growth Slows

As climbing continues its rise in popularity, the debut of more dedicated climbing gyms continues nationwide, although at a slower rate.

According to Climbing Business Journal, the net number of climbing gyms grew by 5.21% in 2019 with the opening of 34 new gyms nationwide. This was a decrease from the rapid growth of 11.87% in 2018, a year that saw a record 50 new climbing gyms open in the United States.

Some manufacturers of climbing walls, ninja equipment and other products are unsure of how much more competition the climbing-gym market can bear. "They're kind of like trampoline parks," said Scott Hornick, CEO of a Baltimore, Md.-based company that manufactures ninja courses, aerial courses, ziplines and more. "I keep saying, how many trampoline parks can there be? Yet they keep putting them like four in a city instead of one or two in a city, and it's the same thing with climbing gyms. There are just a lot of them."

Kid-Focused Climbing Soars

In this environment, Hornick is seeing more growth recently in kid-based climbing facilities and attractions, including those that are being added to places like trampoline parks as those chains increasingly recast themselves as multi-attraction destinations. These climbing facilities are characterized more by fun, interactive walls featuring interesting colors and designs, interactive graphics and games, and intensive theming. "I'm sure there'll be more climbing gyms, but I can't imagine you'll double that market again, whereas you might be able to double the market of play kid climbing areas," Hornick said.

These types of facilities also enable climbing to reach families that would never otherwise be exposed to climbing. "A lot of the general public doesn't necessarily go to a climbing gym for fun," said Marissa Kiella, sales executive for an Allegan, Mich.-based provider of ropes courses and kid-focused climbing products. "But our ropes courses and climbing walls make it a more family fun experience rather than people looking at it as exercise."

Kiella is seeing the company's products being installed in places like trampoline parks, multi-attraction bowling facilities and even places like the Philadelphia Zoo and Natural Bridge Caverns in San Antonio. At the Philadelphia Zoo, the WildWorks ropes course allows larger kids and adults to cross bridges, balance on ropes and zip to the bottom from 34 feet up, while a tykes course lets kids less than 48 inches tall explore similar activities.

Natural Bridge Caverns offers a 60-foot high adventure ropes course featuring several zip rails among the treetops, a tykes course and a climbing attraction with multiple fun climbing options for kids and adults alike. Each is offered for a separate admission price and gives visitors a variety of fun activities to do on the surface to complement their cavern tour.

Kiella noted that patrons usually spend anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes on their signature ropes course and 30 minutes to an hour on their typical climbing installation in these types of facilities. "For the most part we cater to anywhere that wants to bring people in, that are looking to keep people around in their facility a little bit longer, and help them earn a little bit more revenue," Kiella said. "This is a good fit for those types of parks and really can help to bring some more excitement and flavor—wow factor—to those types of environments."

According to Kiella, operators are looking for ropes and adventure courses that require minimal staff, and she noted that the company's product allows for throughput of 50 to 100 patrons per hour with as few as two to three staff members. The company also recently added a product line featuring netting around the obstacles. "It's a fully netted experience, so as you make your way through it you don't need staff or safety equipment," Kiella said. "So the staff is really just one person manning the whole thing and kids and families can make their way through, creating their own adventure."

Bouldering Continues Its Growth

According to Climbing Business Journal, nearly half of the new climbing gyms in 2018 were bouldering-only facilities, while 53 new gyms in the United States in 2019 were expansion gyms. An overall look at the last decade found that 39% of new climbing gyms over that time were bouldering only, while 61% featured a mix of bouldering and lead climbing.

But the eight climbing gyms that closed in North America in 2019 were all full-service gyms. Zero were bouldering only. This may be a tribute both to the popularity of bouldering and to the fact that it's much easier to successfully put a bouldering gym into a smaller, less costly area or into lower-ceiling spaces.

"It's definitely easier to go into an existing building or to go into lease for boulder only. A lot of times those wall heights are 12 feet or for professional competition we build those walls up to 18 feet, and we don't recommend that (18 feet) for an everyday fitness facility," said Todd Chester, marketing director for a Bend, Ore.-based climbing wall manufacturer. "With those building heights and interior clear heights, bouldering is just a much more valid business plan and statement."

Chester has also seen more outdoor park and playground boulders installed in park environments. "The benefit of having an in-town boulder park that's manufactured is that maybe you're just walking to that park from your house," Chester said. In this respect, it functions like a fitness area of a neighborhood park in communities in which climbing is popular.

"This is something that everyday climbers, because they're in proximity to that park, will go out and get a fun little workout in after school or work," Chester said. "But what we do want people to realize is that this is a sport—a professional sport. And you can actually go out and get a good cross-training workout if you buy into the correct system instead of just a plastic wall with some holes in it."