Feature Article - April 2022
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Choose Your Own Adventure

Climbing, Challenge Courses, Ninja Courses & More

By Dave Ramont


According to the annual Gyms & Trends report recently released by Climbing Business Journal, 2021 saw 53 new climbing gyms open in the U.S., the most for a calendar year ever. And only eight facilities permanently closed—also a record—despite ongoing effects of the pandemic. These numbers suggest that the climbing industry has weathered the COVID storm better than other fitness industries; in 2020, 3% of climbing gyms closed, compared with 20% to 25% of general fitness locations, according to the report. And while there are myriad reasons for this, one could surmise that some people simply prefer their fitness pursuits with a shot of adrenaline. This could help explain why there are more types of facilities featuring climbing walls, challenge courses, ropes courses and zip lines than ever before.

Mix & Match

Andrew Miller is COO and vice president of new business development at North Carolina-based Challenge Towers Aerial Adventures and their family of companies. He sees challenge courses, climbing walls and zip lines across several different industries, including camps, conference centers, colleges and universities. "In addition to the conventional industry segments, municipal parks and recreation programs are increasingly utilizing these amenities as part of outdoor education and parks programs. These features have also proven successful on military bases as part of MWR programs, offering healthy options for high-adrenaline activities."

Miller explained that the project development cycle varies based on the type and scope of the project. "Most projects start with a remote project evaluation, a quick and low-cost way to identify feasibility and site-specific considerations. We use a combination of geo-data and satellite imaging to assess elevation, distance, major utilities and site access points, highlighting design possibilities and limitations. Using 3-D modeling software, we can overlay concepts on the client's site, giving them a visual point of reference about the facility and its relationship to landforms and adjacent structures."

And do these adventure sites seek to attract different visitors by offering various skill levels on their attractions? "Yes, this is very common in the industry," said Miller. "Even with different skill and difficulty levels, we often build separate facilities to accommodate young children and other user-groups with special or unique needs."

Scott Hornick is CEO of Adventure Solutions, based in Baltimore, specializing in the design, build, installation and maintenance of adventure parks, aerial ropes courses, challenge courses and zip lines. He described a huge indoor park they're building in Durham, N.C., slated to open in March 2022. "I believe this park is very different from almost anything I have seen in the U.S. The park includes a massive ninja course, aerial ropes park, climbing gym, zip lines and slides that launch you into air bags."

A lot of the current adventure trends are multi-attraction facilities, according to Hornick, who said their indoor and outdoor projects are pretty equal. And while there are still plenty of projects in malls and trampoline parks, etc., that are geared toward younger kids, the focus is often on attracting older clientele. "Our courses are more like extreme and a little more adventuresome. The whole design for the Durham project is really focused around teenagers and adults more than around a little kids' place."

Climbing Gets an Olympics Boost

Many in the climbing industry feel that the introduction of climbing into the 2021 Tokyo Olympics gave the sport a shot in the arm. Nate Postma is president of a St. Paul, Minn.-based company that designs and manufactures climbing walls and climbing accessories. He also operates six climbing gyms in the Midwest—Vertical Endeavors—and said that business has been great. "We have hundreds of visitors and thousands of climbs a day in each facility."

Bouldering is one type of sport climbing, and is performed on relatively low "boulders" or rock climbing walls, without the use of ropes. Postma's firm manufactures a glass-fiber reinforced concrete rock climbing system originally based on decorative concrete rock work. "We took that material and modified it in a way that we can add the T-nuts or the threaded insert locations so you can bolt handholds onto it as well. It's designed to stand up in the weather and it wears really well, indoors too." He said that in addition to summer camps and community and rec centers, they've installed many of these in large universities. "They want a showpiece, something really dominating and commanding, and they love the look."