New Markets, New Expectations

Association Guest Column: Climbing Wall Association

By Bill Zimmerman

he sport of climbing has grown and diversified considerably over the past 20 years. In its infancy, the indoor climbing scene attracted hard-core climbers and enthusiasts. Climbing facilities were places where climbers could train in the off-season or in bad weather. Now there are engineered climbing structures in parks, playgrounds and recreation centers, and climbers who rarely, if ever, venture outdoors.

With the growing popularity of the climbing wall across North America, the audience for climbing and the purpose of climbing facilities has grown and changed. Setting aside the hard-core climbers and enthusiasts, let's look at some other segments that have entered the mix: first-timers, social climbers, youth and their parents, and organized climbing programs, schools or groups. With these emerging audiences, today's climbing wall is being re-purposed to become accessible to just about everyone.

To take full advantage of the climbing wall's potential, you have to understand the mindsets, needs and goals of each segment. Of course, to be successful in the long run, the wall has to meet the enthusiasts' needs too. The climbing wall can be a place for all of these groups to learn, socialize, recreate, train and compete.

First-timers are willing to try climbing once. If the experience is positive, they may try it again, and then again. If the experience is negative, if they feel intimidated or unwelcome, or if the climbs are too hard or too technical, they may never try it again.

Creating ways to "invite" and welcome new climbers to the wall is the key to this group. Identify or develop a triggering event or catalyst that might entice someone to try climbing: an organized event or function, a personal lesson or a demo day.

The objective with first-timers is to identify barriers to participation and remove them. You can accomplish this through facilitated experiences designed to introduce novice climbers to the climbing wall. Climbing guides have been teaching people to climb outdoors for years. Climbing facilities are increasingly teaching novice climbers and implementing programs that allow non-climbers to climb. First-timers and one-timers need a supportive social context, and need to be made as comfortable as possible.

If you have sufficient, well-qualified staff, simply offering to take someone climbing on the wall for 20 or 30 minutes might help that person discover a new sport and a new passion. If a first-timer tries climbing and likes it, the next step may be climbing lessons, a membership and, eventually, more climbers in your facility.

When it comes to the social climbing scene, you are looking for intact groups that affiliate with one another naturally. The group bond is present, and there may be other activities that these groups already enjoy together. If you can identify these groups, you can create programs that cater to their interests. Some examples might include religious groups, scouting groups, youth groups, women's groups, work-related professional groups and even singles groups.

Programming can be varied and, in addition to climbing topics, could include speakers, slide shows and films. Social climbers may or may not identify themselves as committed climbers, at least at first, but once they see the activity as something their group organizes around, you'll likely have a number of new members.

The face of climbing has been getting younger with the advent of the climbing wall. Kids are being introduced to climbing activities through school, youth serving organizations and through the media. Many climbing facilities across the country offer programs tailored to the needs of youth and parents: social events, private parties, youth-specific climbing lessons and even recreation-based child-care programs. If you offer top-quality youth programs, you will be rewarded with some loyal members.

Organized climbing is an important part of a climbing facility's offerings and comes in many forms: individual lessons, group lessons, coaching, movement training, and climbing teams and competitions. Indoor climbing is now a sport in its own right with climbing competitions organized by USA Climbing, climbing teams sponsored by local rock-climbing facilities, climbing coaches and professional competition route setters. There are now climbing competitions for both roped climbing and bouldering. There is even a movement to recognize climbing as an Olympic sport. Climbing was a demonstration sport at the last Olympics in Italy.

Bouldering is a style of unroped climbing close to the ground, usually no higher than the climber feels comfortable jumping to the ground. Bouldering can be done with little or no equipment, can be less intimidating and is a good way to focus on developing climbing skills. With a coach or trainer at arm's length and with friends nearby, it can be a great social activity. Bouldering routes can be very easy or among the most difficult of any climbing discipline. All one really needs to get started are a pair of climbing shoes, chalk and a chalk bag, comfortable clothes and a padded landing surface. Bouldering is an integral part of many new climbing facilities, and some facilities offer bouldering exclusively.

The needs of the various market segments were not really addressed 10 or 15 years ago, but now they are among the fastest-growing segments of the industry. For example, more walls are being built in multipurpose facilities and schools than are being built in purpose-built climbing gyms. Tomorrow's climbers are more likely to be introduced to climbing on a climbing wall than by climbing outdoors.

The proliferation of high-quality climbing equipment and easy access to indoor climbing venues has made climbing accessible to many more people. New climbers are now able to develop their ability rapidly through intensive indoor training. However, the climbers from these new markets may lack the knowledge, experience and good judgment that build a solid foundation to be successful climbers in the traditional sense. These new climbers may also have different expectations about the risks associated with climbing and their safety.

In order to address the needs of new climbers and market your facility successfully, it is important to make sure that the skills taught and developed in an indoor climbing environment are sound. You should be able to communicate what services and instructional programs you have developed to meet their needs. You should also be able to communicate the risks, responsibilities and rewards associated with climbing. The best-designed climbing wall is practically worthless without a high-quality instructional program.

Finally, you should anticipate the future needs of your new climbers. For many people exposed to the sports of climbing and bouldering, the transition to outdoor climbing is inevitable. The importance of sound education and preparation for climbing outdoors is essential. While the skills learned indoors should transfer, this transition has to be managed intentionally. There are additional considerations and skills to learn if one is to climb outdoors. The importance of learning new skills, developing a healthy respect for the natural environment, and promoting a sense of environmental stewardship for the crags and mountains are all essential for climbers.


Bill Zimmerman is executive director of the Climbing Wall Association, the trade association for the manufactured climbing wall industry. The CWA develops and publishes standards for indoor climbing and provides services to climbing equipment manufacturers, climbing wall builders and climbing wall operators. The CWA provides for the professional development of the industry through the Climbing Wall Summit and Managers' Symposium. For more information, visit

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