Altitude with Attitude

Building Your Climbing Business by Catering to Kids

By Stacy St. Clair

It's boom time for climbing walls in the United States. They can be found in recreation centers, health clubs, schools and malls. They offer creative architectural focal points and provide endless hours of enjoyment to the current generation of extreme sports enthusiasts. The first indoor climbing gym opened nearly 20 years ago in Seattle and featured real rock glued to painted plywood panels. Today, there are literally thousands of places to boulder and belay.

There are currently 9 million so-called urban climbers in the United States. That's an impressive 3 percent of the population, and the growth in climbing interest shows no signs of stopping. Membership in USA Climbing, the organization that governs the sport, boasted a 290 percent increase over the past four years.

The sport has grown, in part, because it offers climbing opportunities to people who otherwise might not have access. Don't live near the mountains? Live in a rainy area? Don't know how to climb?

None of these things matter if you have an indoor wall.

"There's growth every year," said Anne-Worley Bauknight, executive director of USA Climbing. "We expect that to continue."

In order for that to happen, however, climbing facility managers must be proactive in selling the activity to the public. And as part of those marketing plans, facilities should make a concerted effort to target teens and tweens.

Why go after the youth demographic?

First and foremost, young climbers are likely to become lifelong climbers who will help maintain the demand for indoor walls in the decades to come.

Secondly, they're less likely to go to the gym on their own. Kids often bring friends with them, therefore introducing even more people to the sport.

And finally, teens and tweens offer multiple chances for revenue opportunities. Kids are a godsend to pro shops because their constantly growing bodies are in frequent need of new shoes or climbing gear. They also host birthday parties at climbing facilities, giving managers a chance to showcase their walls to other potential new patrons.

"It's extremely important to tap into the youth demographic," said Paula Sessa, a Dallas-based climbing wall consultant. "Gyms that don't make an effort to attract kids and teens are putting their businesses in jeopardy."

Fortunately for recreation managers, youth-oriented marketing is easy, practical and relatively inexpensive. With a little expert advice, you can turn your gym into a kid-friendly facility without alienating your adult patrons.

The war on obesity

Climbing's popularity comes at an opportunistic—and critical—time in the fight against childhood obesity. Studies show that more than 15 percent of children and adolescents are overweight, more than three times the number of 30 years ago.

When there's a push to get kids to exercise, the answer is almost always to enroll the child or teen in a youth sport. Such a reaction addresses the problem for many kids, but it still excludes a large segment of the population—those kids who don't have the affinity for organized athletics. This is where climbing can become an important ally in the war against obesity. The activity gives the X Games generation a chance to tap into their exploratory nature while putting in a solid workout.

"All the traditional sports tend to be team-oriented and competitive. There are a lot of kids who don't excel in that environment, and they really feel left out," said Noal Ronken, facility manager for Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minn. "There's an excitement about climbing. It promotes a sense of adventure."

Ronken has taken this message to local schools, where he offers his facility as a willing partner in the effort to engage children in physical activity. His marketing efforts include calling the schools and offering his gym as an off-campus location for physical education programs. Kids who participate in the classes are given coupons to encourage return visits.

"It's becoming more common for schools to offer alternative sports," Ronken said. "It works very easily into efforts to fight childhood obesity. It's great physical exercise, and it's very fun for the kids."

Schools aren't the only way to get kids in the door. In fact, nothing helps promote climbing gyms better than birthday parties. Parties expose facilities to potential patrons—both the ones who were always curious about the sport and those who would never think about giving it a try.

At Vertical Endeavors, the Saturday schedule is filled with as many as 10 parties. The celebration includes all of the standard birthday fare, such as a party room, gift opening and a cake. The staff members also lead the group in games such as wall twister, candy hidden in the hand grips and sightless scales, in which the other kids direct a blindfolded climber.

Before the climbing begins, however, the kids receive a full orientation that includes an explanation of the sport and all its safety rules. Instructors also demonstrate various aspects of climbing, especially thrilling endeavors like ceiling climbing.

"We show them what the sport can become," Ronken said. "We show them how exciting it can be."

Birthday parties also offer a great opportunity to introduce the sport to parents. Moms and dads frequently stay to watch the kids climb, Ronken said. When they see the kids laughing and enjoying themselves, they want to get in on the act.

The opportunity to give parents an up-close view of the facility translates into more family memberships. To make the gym even more enticing, Vertical Endeavors employees give visitors discount coupons to encourage a quick return.

"It becomes an event where oftentimes the parents get involved because it's so much fun," Ronken said.

In the end, making it fun is the most important thing a gym can do to ensure its longevity. Facilities that go the extra mile to show kids how enjoyable climbing can be solidify their own futures.

In order to achieve this goal, managers must provide a happy, safe environment from the moment the child walks inthe door.

At KidSpirit, a University of Oregon program that links students with young people in the community, instructors greet all their students at the door.

The instructors also work with the same students each week, so a bond develops between them. The college students—who also go by fun nicknames like "Bumblebee," "Rainbow" and "Rocket" to put kids at ease—also take the time to talk to their young charges so they have an understanding of their goals and abilities.

"It helps them feel welcomed," instructor Christina Bond said. "They know once they're in the gym that there's someone who cares about them."

It's also important not to overwhelm kids upon their first visit. Instructors need to listen to the young climbers' concerns and address them. For example, fears about the ropes breaking are easily addressed by explaining that unless climbers weigh more than a truck, they'll have no problems.

Instructors must realize that there can be various skill levels among kids in the same age group. Not every child will be able to climb to the top. Not every teen will be proficient enough to speed-race. Ronken addresses the issue by finding each climber's comfort level and helping them set reasonable goals.

"We work with all levels. We don't want anyone to feel left out," he said.

"We don't push that the child has to reach the top of the wall to be successful. We celebrate other achievements."

Once the child gets hooked on climbing, they become potential youth team and climbing camp participants. Though both programs can provide additional revenue and boost patronage, neither will happen unless facilities find ways to get young people in the door for that initial visit.

"The fist step is getting people in here," Ronken said. "It usually takes that first step to get the ball rolling."

Challenging Youth on a Budget

Think you can't afford a challenge course?

Think again.

Years ago, the courses were expensive undertakings reserved for deep-pocketed corporate outings or Outward Bound excursions. Today, however, the benefits associated with challenge courses are within reach of even the most cash-strapped school districts and parks departments.

"Many groups can't afford to build challenge courses," said Bill Bates, a program development consultant with Project Adventure. "It's an unrealistic option given their budget constraints, but there's still a lot they can do."

Before nixing adventure-based programming as too expensive or too superfluous, it's important to understand its purpose. In addition to providing physical activity, it also emphasizes education and personal growth.

The courses do more than just provide summer-camp-type diversions. They also offer experiential education opportunities, meaning that people get to learn by doing something other than watching, reading or talking about it. Challenge courses encourage teamwork, build self-esteem and promote creativity, among other benefits.

In short, they provide the life skills that many schools, community groups and parents are failing to instill in today's children. With so many budget constraints and pressures to meet standardized testing goals, society is failing to address students' emotional development, said Bates, who spent more than three decades working as a teacher and administrator in the Cambridge (Mass.) Public Schools.

"There's not enough attention in schools being given to a child's social and emotional development," Bates said. "The whole idea of challenge courses is to get the kids to engage and keep them engaged."

Early in his career, Bates used grant funding to develop an urban adventure program for more than 5,000 students. The programs later expanded to include teambuilding for teachers, administrators, parents and community members. By the time Bates became the system's director of health, physical education and athletics, adventure education was already an appreciated and entrenched part of the curriculum.

Though he is now retired, the adventure programs continue to thrive in Cambridge. The system has full indoor challenge course sites in all 12 consolidated schools, supervisors in charge of each location and a general fund to maintain the courses.

Though Cambridge represents the crème de la crème of challenge-course programs, schools can still embrace—and promote—the ideals of challenge courses, without necessarily building a course. In fact, Bates spends much of his time at Project Adventure helping groups design programs that won't leave them penniless.

"A lot can be done without challenge-course elements and just props," he said.

These props are the tools and toys used in various programs. They can be either purchased or made by members of the staff, though the latter option might not be worth the time and resources required.

The most popular props include a set of half-pipes and a ping-pong ball. Students then must work together using the half-pipes to move the ball to a specific spot without letting it hit the floor or touching it with their hands.

Another option is a "reflecting pool" kit in which students can forecast their feelings using an interactive weather map and catch fish that embody their adventure experience.

Complete prop kits can cost anywhere from $1,400 for a basic elementary kit to $3,200 for a high school package with all the bells and whistles. Simply put, it's a budget-friendly option for schools and park districts that cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars on courses.

For example, Bates has been working with a Florida school district that has 37 schools and does not have the money to operate an outdoor course at each campus. Knowing they could not shortchange some schools by erecting courses at only a few sites, administrators purchased a prop kit for each building. Teachers were enrolled in a three-day training session to learn how to run the programs and help students with emotional development. During these workshops, educators also learn how these activities promote a self-awareness not often derived from traditional gym class.

"It's more of an individual program," Bates said. "The kids push themselves beyond what they think they can do with the help of the group."

Prop kits, however, don't mean that schools or park districts must surrender their desire for an outdoor adventure course. To the contrary, they can help students understand the importance of teamwork and healthy self-esteem while the bean counters look for ways to afford a full course. Some groups bring in climbing walls or other elements as a reward for students who successfully achieve the goals associated with prop-based programs.

The bottom line, Bates said, is that every organization can start small—and dream big.

"Start now and start with some training, certification and props," he said. "You can work and build your program from there. You can grow as big as you want once you lay the foundation."

Getting started

No matter how popular climbing becomes, there will always be recreation managers and physical education instructors reluctant to take their programs to new heights. Their fears are fully understandable and, in many cases, easily addressed.

Experts recommend testing patrons' interest with less-expensive climbing apparatus. The playground industry offers colorful walls that are strong enough to withstand the elements and safe enough for young children to scale.

Park and school officials also may want to consider climbing boulders, which look and feel like rugged natural stone. In addition to having a striking visual and physical impact on the site, the rounded edges and rocky texture provide safer grips and footholds. Recreation managers can put different-sized boulders next to each other, creating age-appropriate challenges for both toddlers and expert climbers.

Once the climbing apparatus is installed, managers can observe their parks and playgrounds to gauge the public's interest. If the walls and boulders are among the top attractions, experts say it would probably be wise to consider investing in an indoor climbing wall and bouldering program.

Recreation managers with lingering doubts also may want to consider renting a wall. There are companies throughout the nation that will erect temporary walls at both indoor and outdoor locations.

San Francisco-based Climb On! has been bringing the challenge and excitement of wall climbing to Northern California for more than a decade. The walls are frequently rented by schools and park districts that can't afford permanent structures. Others use the company as a way to test their patrons' interest in the activity.

"It's always a big hit," said owner Charles Whitman. "It's a little more unique and a little more rare than other things that have been offered, so people gravitate toward it."

Whitman's walls, which go up to 24 feet high, cost between $175 and $250 an hour to rent. Depending on the size of the rented wall, the company can have three to five people climbing at any given time. This means that as many as 65 people can scale the wall per hour with the help of an auto-belay system.

Groups often recoup the cost by using the wall as a fundraising event. Organizers charge $2 to $5 to climb the wall and keep all the money. Whitman, whose company covers the insurance costs, has seen groups make thousands of dollars in a single day.

"They rent the wall, charge each climber and keep all the money," he said. "We staff it. We handle everything. All they have to do is stand in line."

For groups using the wall to test their patrons' interest, Whitman advises being prepared for a positive youth reaction. Young people just gravitate toward the walls, allaying any doubts about whether there's a desire for more climbing opportunities.

"I've been doing this for a long time," he said. "I've never seen anything more popular with kids."

Guarded Guardians?

When looking to attract kids to climbing, the first step is always convincing the parents. And that's not always the easiest task, given that many moms and dads have never climbed.

Here are some experts' tips for selling the sport to parents:

SAFETY FIRST: If mom and dad haven't tried climbing, they probably don't know all the precautions that are taken. Spend a little extra time to explain your safety measures, the climber-to-instructor ratios and the routine maintenance performed on equipment.

PARENT-KIDS CLASSES: There's no better way to get parents to overcome their concerns about the sport than by having them learn how to do it too.

PARTY ON: Use birthday parties as a way for parents to visit your facility. As moms and dads drop off or pick up their children, ask if they have any questions about indoor climbing that you could answer. And remember, the more engaging and kid-friendly you make the event, the more likely the kids will ask their parents to bring them back.

PROVIDE ALTERNATIVES: Adults are more likely to bring their kids to the gym if they get something out of it, too. Some climbing gyms offer yoga or Pilates classes during youth hours so parents have something to do while waiting for their children to work out.

ADULT SUPERVISION: Many gyms offer youth practices and climbing hours as an alternative to traditional after-school programs. Nothing makes moms and dads happier than knowing what their children are doing when they're not around.

GREAT EXERCISE: With all the talk about childhood obesity these days, don't underestimate the value parents place on physical activity. Stress the sport's ability to help youth develop strength, endurance and gymnastic ability.

NO WEATHER-RELATED CANCELLATIONS: Nothing upsets the family schedule more than rain days and makeup schedules. Remind parents that with indoor climbing, they'll never have to worry about Mother Nature ruining their plans.

Keep them coming back

Once you get the kids climbing, it's critical to offer programming that keeps them coming back.

Some gyms have dedicated "youth hours," during which patrons under 15 can enjoy the facilities. This gives teens and tweens a sense of having their own space, without being intimidated by adult climbers.

If you decide to go this route, consider designating the early afternoon hours as a youth climb time. This helps keep your gym busy during the day when older patrons are typically at the office. Adult climbers appreciate such programs because it thins out the crowds in the busier evening hours and gives the gym a more mature atmosphere at night.

Many climbing facilities also achieve great success by establishing youth climbing teams. By forming a competitive climbing club, recreation managers give the X Games generation a chance to compete in an adrenaline-pumping sport. At the same time, parents get the comfort of knowing their children are learning the benefits of working with a team to achieve something.

"They still have the feel of doing sports and getting physical activity," Bauknight said. "Instead of doing your typical football, soccer or swimming, they're climbing."

To make the youth programs more inviting, some facilities offer discounted memberships to kids who join their teams. USA Climbing also has bolstered the sport with local, national and international competitions. The contests—which boast bouldering, sport and speed events—are offered for various age groups.

The association currently has 6,400 members, including 13 percent who are 11 years old or younger. Another 35 percent are between the ages of 12 and 15, while an additional 30 percent are ages 16 through 21.

Of the organization's roughly 5,000 youth members, 40 represent the United States in international competitions. Team USA has traveled to Bulgaria, Austria, China and Ecuador, among other places. A chance to represent the country abroad gives kids extra incentives to train and participate in national meets.

"It's a real honor for the kids who are on the team," Bauknight said. "It's something they can aim for."

The thought of starting competitive programming may be daunting for some gyms, but it shouldn't be. If you've got a wall, you pretty much have everything you need. USA Climbing offers coaching symposiums, extensive educational programs that teach participants how to train, encourage and attract athletes.

"There's not much overhead," Bauknight said. "You just need the facility and the desire to do it."

Once you've tapped into the youth market, it's critical not to let you facility become an indoor nursery. It helps to schedule classes and team practices after school, when most adults are still at work.

But really, the best way to control the atmosphere is to have everyone—from the 6-year-old climber to her 60-year-old grandmother—follow the same rules.

"We keep our kids accountable," Vertical Endeavors' Ronken said. "It becomes like they are just another climber in the gym."

Discipline Definition

In the United States, competitive climbing competitions are governed by USA Climbing. The national governed body, which is sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee, promotes three disciplines: bouldering, sport and speed climbing.

Here's a quick look at the trio and what makes each of them unique—and challenging:


This style is like traditional rock climbing in many respects, except that it relies on permanent anchors affixed to the wall for protection. The discipline emphasizes gymnastic ability, strength and endurance.


An increasingly popular discipline, the sport pits climbers against one another in a race to the top. Climbers must be quick, smart and continuously thinking of their next move. Efficiency is essential, as the most proficient climbers often finish their route first.


Bouldering is undertaken without a rope. The height is usually limited to minimize the risk of injury. It's a higher-impact activity than other disciplines and relies more on individual moves than endurance. Because the climbs are usually shorter, boulder routes are referred to as "problems."

For more information on forming a team or how to enter patrons in competitions, contact USA Climbing at (888) 944-4244 or Additional information can be found at

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