Ascending on a Budget

Making Money-Smart Decisions With Climbing Walls

By Daniel P. Smith

Standing tall in Fort Collins, Colo., a hotbed for the nation's rock-climbing scene at an altitude of 5,000 feet, Colorado State University did not have—ironically to many—a recreational climbing wall on its 25,000-student campus.

The longtime 100,000-square-foot on-campus student recreation center featured a variety of amenities to entice physical fitness and play, but the absence of a rock-climbing wall consistently drew the attention and ire of students, many of whom considered the wall's absence a glaring omission from the campus recreational scene. It was a vocal sentiment campus leadership took seriously when they began fashioning renovation and addition plans to the student recreation center in 2007-2008.

As the Colorado State facility expanded from 100,000 square feet to 160,000 square feet and renovated every inch of the existing facility to the tune of $30 million over three years (2008 to 2011), the designers created an explicit architectural feature to host a climbing wall.

Today, a corner of the facility's addition features a pronounced, soaring roof that holds a climbing wall reaching 40 feet high. With 3,000 square feet of climbable surface coupled with a 14-foot high bouldering wall, Colorado State students now enjoy a climbing wall all their own, one outfitted with a teaching ledge on the wall's 40-foot side, a natural-looking overhang that affords guests the opportunity to propel down, practice rescue and partake in rope ascending—all desirable features that create new programming opportunities as well.

According to Rodney Ley, Colorado State University's assistant director for campus recreation, of CSU's 22,000 undergraduates, 4,500 have signed waivers to use the climbing wall, meaning 25 percent of all students have used the wall at least once. In addition, 25 percent of facility users enter the rec center solely for the wall, a student-fee-paying demographic the university's recreational offerings failed to serve just years prior.

"The wall has broadened our outreach into an entirely new user group, often attracting an otherwise uninterested athlete," Ley said. "Outside of the café in the student center, I don't know if there's another campus amenity that carries its weight as well as the climbing wall."

A novel amenity and one offering adrenaline-inducing, full-body workout power for its participants, manufactured climbing walls have showcased an ability to attract guests and entice participation at facilities across the country. Their benefits are far-reaching and varied: inviting a recreational workout beyond the traditional cardio, basketball, tennis and pool offerings; serving as a niche, alternative recreational offering for those who may not fit into the traditional athletic mix and are seeking new fitness adventures; and providing a learning venue that invites education as well as leadership and social interaction.

To be certain, climbing walls can help build new skill sets and encourage people to stay involved in a physical activity, particularly one that isn't accessible in all parts of the country. And yet, all of those benefits come with a drawback—costs. Compared to many other recreational opportunities, climbing walls can be expensive to build and operate, filled with risk and liability concerns, and demanding qualified staff that forces rising labor costs.

As a result, adding a climbing wall—or even refreshing an existing wall—can be a tall task given the present day's notoriously strict budgets. Yet, patron expectations for enjoyment remain high and they consistently vote with their wallets. Without new membership blood and repeat visits from existing members, many facilities face even gloomier economic realities.

When Adventure Rock opened 13 years ago in Pewaukee, Wis., the private facility was one of the nation's few climbing-only gyms and easily among the country's largest at 9,500 square feet of climbing space. Today, even with an additional 3,500 square feet of climbing, manager Eric Olson admitted that Adventure Rock is small by comparison to its U.S.-based counterparts.

"Everything's gone north in the last decade," Olson said.

The surging numbers, Olson believes, are as much a credit to climbing's addictive nature as the activity's all-ages possibilities.

"People are often drawn to the novelty at first," Olson said, "but it's a social activity that's about movement and challenges."

Three years ago, Adventure Rock added a new bouldering cave. While a savvy move to appease a growing interest in bouldering, the cave's presence also serves as a simplistic introduction to climbing as sport, Olson said.

"It taps into natural instincts and is super social," he said. "Plus, there's very little you need to know or necessary equipment to get going. Grab a pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag and you're ready to go."

As a private facility, Adventure Rock has consistently examined areas where it could cut nickels and dimes. Skimping on the core climbing business, however, has never been an option. The ownership team is aware that investment in top-end growth is necessary to retain members and attract new guests. It's an important lesson for public facilities as well, many of which can be lured into complacency as much by way of the political nature of public budgets as their ability to escape the frequent examinations of the profit-and-loss statements that plague private-sector establishments.

"We have the viewpoint that everyone's a potential customer, and so we're looking at creating a long-term climber. The way you do that is by keeping things exciting and fresh, even if it means investment," Olson said.

Across the country, facilities—both public and private—have placed value on a climbing wall, many doing so within the confines of a strict budget yet eager to capitalize on the innovation and spirit climbing walls deliver.

Remodeling With a Purpose

Texas A&M University first unveiled its climbing wall in 1995. An appealing amenity for students, staff and community members, the wall steadily began losing its luster with cracking and chipping of the texture by the mid-2000s, a reality that pushed facility leadership to consider a facelift.

For a few years, facility managers contemplated the new innovations, programming opportunities and industry trends they wanted to add into what would be an extensive redesign and refurbishment project. Matters became further complicated when the wall's original supplier went out of business.

"Now we didn't have these experienced partners around to do inspections and give us oversight," said Jason Kurten, the facility's indoor climbing director. "Above all, though, we were getting to the point where we were going to be soon operating an unsafe structure—and that's never a spot you want to reach."

By 2009, the time had come for action. Construction crews sealed and barricaded the existing structure, which sits in the center of the 300,000-square-foot student recreation complex, and took the wall down to its steel bones. Crews then welded and reformulated the structure, changing angles and adding square footage, before installing new plywood and a natural-looking stone texture to complete the redesign.

The new climbing wall stands nearly 45 feet high and features 3,800 square feet of climbing rock. Whereas the original wall was flat and plain, the new structure resembles rock on its front with six other sides hosting flat panels.

"We knew we had to resurface and wanted the look of real rock, but it's not something we needed on all seven sides," Kurten explained of the money-saving decision.

Texas A&M saved money in other areas as well. With an existing climbing program in place, the facility had all of the climbing holds it needed, thereby trimming that need out of the budget and saving $5,000. The facility also built a bouldering spot 100 feet away from the wall. With 800 square feet of climbing space, the 13-foot-tall bouldering wall features a top-edge handrail. Both the climbing and bouldering walls are open to non-members for a fee, an administrative decision that has attracted added revenue to cover the project's costs.

The result has been one of the campus' most popular recreation activities, beloved for its look, feel and design as well as the route-setting potential that creates added excitement.

"A lot think taller is better, but from the climber, routesetter, and manager's perspective, I'll take width any day over height," Kurten said. "Literally and figuratively, the wall is the centerpiece of our center."

Lessons From the Frontlines

California State University Long Beach opened its expansive new recreational complex last August. Amid 106,000 square feet of interior space sits a 40-foot climbing wall with 15 different tracks.

As university leadership, prompted largely by student input, decided upon a natural-looking wall with rock resembling the school's southern California roots, a firm budget was placed in the contractor's agreement, the first move in keeping a tight hold on costs. Along the way, CSU Long Beach's senior construction manager Mark Zakhour gathered a pair of important lessons about maximizing a climbing wall's bang-for-the-buck potential.

First, Zakhour said he learned to pay attention to the ways in which a climbing wall interfaces with the existing structure. By attaching the wall to the existing building over creating a freestanding structure, costs fall for artwork, materials and labor.

Second, Zakhour cautions facilities not to overbuild. Looking at the current programming level as well as forecasts, leadership can get a better hold on the precise size they need.

"It's easy with any project, but specifically a climbing wall, to go bigger and grand, but it can easily get out of hand," he said. "Have a clear vision for what you want and need, and work within those parameters."

Like Zakhour, Colorado State University's Ley gathered important lessons as his facility built its new climbing wall. High among Ley's cost-savvy learning curve: The simpler a design, the less expensive it will be.

"You have to strike a balance between picturesque and plain," he said. "Resist the temptation to go over the top by assessing what's necessary and what's excessive."

Ley and his team also worked with climbing hold manufacturers to get bulk deals for purchasing their holds. Needing hundreds of holds, negotiating a bulk deal will create tremendous savings. Ley said you can then use that purchasing leverage to have the company's professional route-setters train student staff on best practices in route-setting.

With the wall built and operating, Ley turned to public-private partnerships. Though admittedly touchy, particularly in the public facilities sector, he swapped promotional space for licensing opportunities with a climbing shoe company. In addition, Ley believes many facilities can run their walls with a mix of paid staff and trained volunteers.

Modular Walls

After nearly a dozen years of fundraising and planning efforts, the Flagstaff Family YMCA in Arizona opened in April 2010. According to executive director Paul Giguere, a climbing wall was a part of the leadership's vision from day one.

After consulting other branches in its local 17-member YMCA Association and researching the options, Giguere's team decided on a modular wall. Largely driven by affordability, the ease of assembly and maintenance, as well as flexibility to expand or alter the amenity as necessary, the modular wall carried a compelling sales pitch.

Available in wall units or freestanding towers, modular walls are most often built using fiberglass panels. Once derided for their manufactured look, today's modular walls can feature a realistic, earthy look combined with a texture to better resemble the natural elements on which they're based.

Modular walls' real attraction comes in price, however. In some cases, modular climbing walls sit as low as $10,000. While Giguere acknowledged the "incredible things that can be done with walls today," a cost-effective strategy led the Flagstaff facility to select the modular wall option, which Giguere discovered to be approximately one-third the cost of more elaborate walls.

"At the root of choosing a modular wall for our facility was really costs," he said. "It often comes down to who's paying for it."

Flagstaff sits at 7,000 feet and provides first-rate climbing and bouldering opportunities within a short drive, so Giguere said there was no way his facility was going to build the perfect wall or rival the enticing natural routes accessible to local residents—yet another reason the modular wall option made perfect sense. Rather, the Flagstaff YMCA team looked at their wall as a gateway to a new hobby, an invitation for interested climbers to get their start in a safe, accessible environment before tackling the region's natural terrain.

"The biggest focus of our wall was to introduce people to the sport, to connect with those who have thought about climbing, but never done it," Giguere said.

Upon entering the facility, the 30-foot-high modular climbing wall is immediately visible, which Giguere believes entices participation. The attraction has been "overwhelming popular," Giguere added, while climbing wall camps and clinics, particularly with children, have all recorded high participation.

"The route selection accommodates all climbers, including children, and that's allowed the wall to become one of our most popular amenities," he said. "I couldn't imagine our center without the wall."

Auto Belays

In April 2010, Gillette, Wyo., welcomed its new $55 million Campbell County Recreation Center, which included a 45-foot climbing tower resembling the Devils Tower National Monument located in the nearby Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming. Guests can boulder, top-rope climb, or use quick clips to leap climb. Leadership also added a pair of auto belays, a critical decision according to Campbell County Recreation Supervisor Rick Mansur.

"By having two auto belays, you can climb alone and don't need another certified person. This has wildly expanded the wall's potential use," Mansur said.

Though Campbell County boasts an active climbing club—a group that has taken an active role in training belayers, providing lessons, and maintaining the wall—novices have visited the climbing tower in droves. Within its first nine months, more than 3,000 people had climbed the tower at least once, many using the auto belays during their initial voyage. The wall and its auto belays have been a key feature in attracting birthday parties, schools and out-of-town guests.

Auto belays have been a key feature at Adventure Rock as well. The facility hosts 17 auto belays, and manager Eric Olson said they would take more if they could fit more.

"People want to be able to climb immediately; they want that instant satisfaction," he explained.

The auto belays, Olson added, serve as a key selling point for customers. Prior to their installation, climbing rookies wanting a trial run were directed to come back for a class and their immediate business was turned away. That's no longer the case. In 2010 alone, Adventure Rock credits more than $100,000 in business to its auto belays' presence.

"Our growth has far outpaced our investment," Olson said of the impressive ROI figure.

Though a vocal fan of auto belays, Olson remains objective about the automated system's drawbacks. Like many in the industry, he fears the mechanization transfers climbing from skill to entertainment.

"That's something the industry's fighting right now. Climbing is not a carnival and there's a need for knowledge and instruction," Olson said, acknowledging just as quickly that the customer service and revenue-generating benefits still must enter the discussion.

Surprising to some, Olson said Adventure Rock has not saved on staffing as they had anticipated with their auto-belay purchase.

"There's a visual management aspect that's necessary here, simply making sure that people are clipped in [during open climbing]," Olson said. He believes smaller climbing facilities would likely reap better cost savings given less coverage area.

During private parties, however, Adventure Rock claims more control of the scene. Where the facility once required four staff members to tend a birthday party, the ratio has dropped to 1:1 with auto belays. One staff member clips in guests, ensures their security, and they're on their way. The mechanized system subsequently frees up personnel to move around, service customers, and interact. It's an advantage, Olson argued, that cannot be overlooked.

Traverse Panels

A private facility filled with inflatables and game tables, a common destination for private parties and open jump sessions since its October 2010 opening, Texas-based Jump On In wows guests with its 8-foot high and 16-foot wide traversing panel wall.

Unlike most climbing walls, which send participants up, traversing panels direct users to move laterally. Among the most economical climbing wall options, even if not the most daring and technical with a maximum height of 8 to 10 feet, traversing panels remain a wonderful option for kid-friendly establishments such as Jump On In.

Eager to offer an amenity that would attract business, Jump On In owner Carol Sumrall turned to traverse panels as a fun and exciting play option for kids, yet one that would not increase her staffing. Traverse panels were her immediate target, confident the system would perfectly fit an inherent niche in her space's physical layout and add a climbing attraction that was both easy to install and cost-effective.

"I can make the wall as big as I want or as wide as I want, and I love that flexibility," said Sumrall, who is considering adding four additional panels to her wall to make it 24 feet wide. "Even better, the wall can hold a lot of participants, yet doesn't take up that much space."

Immediately upon walking into Sumrall's gym, the wall catches guests' eyes, an appealing option for potential guests touring the new facility as a private party venue.

"The wall gets a response and certainly helps us book parties," Sumrall said. "It makes us stand out."

Route Setting

The 25-foot high climbing wall at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh features 16 anchor points spanning a sculpted rock wall with a few overhangs and varying terrain. The now 4-year-old amenity is a popular recreational feature among students at the school of 13,000, one enhanced by frequent route-setting ventures that bring fresh routes and new challenges to climbers.

"I'm blessed with an avid staff that is eager and motivated to change routes," said Greg Batten, the university's coordinator for outdoor recreational programming. "Every semester, we're taking down all the handholds and cleaning them and then setting up new routes. It keeps things interesting."

Altering routes is an even more frequent occurrence at Colorado State University's campus recreation center. There, Ley's staff sets the routes with the help of a volunteer cavalry.

"We're shooting for a turnover rate of every four to five weeks," Ley said of his staff's ambitious route-setting plans.

Whereas basketball and baseball have fixed dimensions and standardized rules, climbing enjoys a freedom rarely matched in recreational outlets. Route-setting, Ley argued, is "the soul of climbing."

"The environment needs to change so you can challenge yourself against variety," he said. "The measure we're concerned with is 'Can you get it?' And once climbers successfully ascend a route, their interest drops, which is precisely why freshening routes is so critical."

Easily the most economical way to engage customers and prompt a return, route-setting is vital for any facility looking to maximize its climbing wall offerings in a cost-savvy way. In keeping routes static, Batten said, neither the facility nor its guests benefit.

"Strictly from the viewpoint of customer service, route-setting is the best way of serving customers and keeping them interested," Batten said.

Batten uses the frequent route changes at the UW-Oshkosh facility to his marketing advantage. He offers climbing competitions as well as a climbing incentive program, specifically gearing promotions to attract climbers on the fringe of becoming regulars.

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