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Climbing Walls: A Great Supplement to Fitness

A climbing wall can be a great addition to your fitness center. Find out what type of wall to install, how much it will cost, how to create programming around it and how to market it for increased revenue.

Studies show what climbers already know: Rock climbing is a great total-body activity that gets the heart pumping, builds muscle strength and joint stability, and, best of all, it's fun! Fitness facilities add walls as a benefit to their current programs, as an attraction for new members, and as a profit center for birthday and corporate parties. While climbing walls can be a great addition to your current programming offerings, they require a well-thought-out plan.

Why add a wall?

If you are hoping to improve your members' fitness levels and engage them in a new way, you can't go wrong with rock climbing because it works every muscle in the body and can be a great accompaniment to a personal training or general fitness program.

Rock climbing can also be a marketing tool for attracting people to your facility, according to Matthew Travis, sales representative for Brewer's Ledge, Boston, Mass. "It's really cool to look through the windows as you drive past a center and see a big rock wall," he says.

Catering to members and climbers

Don't assume that a wall will be an immediate hit - it's not always easy to meld fitness members and climbers onto one wall. "In fitness centers, you have monthly members using [the wall], but, typically, not climbers," says Scott Hornick, CEO of Adventure Systems, Elkridge, Md. "In a fitness center, you don't want the wall to be too complicated, but you do want to offer different features, such as a vertical wall, overhangs, etc." A climbing-gym-sized wall in a fitness center might intimidate new users who are fearful of the perceived learning curve of climbing. It is possible to please both groups with bouldering or traversing walls, or even a rotating wall that takes up little space. These options offer a lower height and, often, are a less-expensive alternative to a traditional top rope wall.

No matter what wall you choose, you'll want to attract new climbers, not just your regular members. That will only happen if your wall has what all climbers need: variety, challenge and excitement. Fortunately, there are lots of options out there, but it can be a delicate balance to meet the needs of both fitness members and climbers.

What type of wall?

Depending on your budget and space, the possibilities for indoor climbing walls are endless, and so are the prior considerations. Where will the wall go? Will it be installed in an under-used court space or line the walls of your fitness room? Will it be bolted to the existing walls, be a modular system that allows for configuration changes, a Treadwall or even a tower where all four sides are in use?

Treadwall. Designed by Brewer's Ledge, Treadwalls are safe, compact, reasonably priced and have some new features. The rotating wall (either a 6- or 4-foot-wide climbing surface, depending on the model) keeps climbers no more than 2 feet off the floor. When the climber needs a rest and stops climbing, the wall pauses. When climbers are ready to get off, they step down and the wall stops moving. If they prefer to climb down, climbers can set the Treadwall at a descending speed of their choosing. The climbing wall can be adjusted to move faster or slower, and at an angle. Its newest feature is a built-in Polar Heart Rate Monitor sensor, so climbers can assess their heart rate. The Treadwall requires no fancy setup and minimal staffing. It does, however, require 12-volt electricity for the hydraulic brake. It has 40 holds in four colors and changeable routes can be created.

Fixed walls. Fixed walls require more space, but the configurations and options allow for bouldering, traversing (side to side climbing that does not require a safety harness or belay rope) and top roping (using a safety harness and belay rope). Prefabricated modular climbing walls bolt directly into your facility's structural walls (concrete, grouted concrete block and masonry brick), or have a frame constructed specifically for the wall (framing is a nice option because it allows the construction of slants and angles, making the climb more interesting. It also allows you to move the wall if you ever choose to).

Bouldering and traversing walls are shorter, typically only 12 to 14 feet tall, and require no harness and no belay system. They typically have lots of contours, angles and even cave options, where climbers are literally hanging on to the ceiling. "These are actually great options for fitness centers," says Matthew Alford of Eldorado Wall Company, Boulder, Colo., "because they require less equipment for the fitness center and climber to purchase, and you aren't spending valuable workout time tying knots or belaying. You just exercise."

The Landing Zone

Don't forget about the flooring, or the "landing zone," when installing your climbing wall. Any good climbing wall designer will mention how essential padded flooring is - it's a safety feature you can't skimp on. In addition to soft and durable, make sure you flooring can be cleaned easily (ideally use a vacuum) so you can get the settled chalk off the floor.
Top roping walls are taller and have a belay system, either automatic or a real person. While this is often more exciting for a seasoned climber, keep in mind that you must think through your belay option. If you choose a non-automatic belay, your climbers' safety is in the hands of your staff people. That's fine, as long as your staff members are well-trained, and your turnover is low. When your best belayers leave, they may take all the knowledge with them. "We recommend the auto belay," says Alford. "It's easier and more efficient for the gym and climber."

Towers. There are various tower formations on the market that can either be free standing or mounted to a structural wall or frame. Climbers can use all sides of the tower, and the sides are often configured for different skill levels. Towers can also be mobile, if you want something that can travel to events outside of your facility.

Climbing routes

Much like a ski slope, climbers will be able to look at the ratings of climbs and determine which is best for them. Those who design the routes typically name them, such as "Easy Way Out" for a beginner climb. Once climbers know what course they want, they can follow it up the wall. There may be 500 holds on a wall, but only 50 are for the beginner climber. Climbers can find the route right for their expertise with either colored holds or tape. Says Travis, "Typically, tape is used on larger walls, but on smaller walls, [such as bouldering, traversing and Treadwalls,] the colors of the holds are different."

You shouldn't leave your holds in the same place forever. Like any routine, a climb can become boring once the climber figures it out. Hornick suggests changing the routes on the walls bi-monthly. Get an experienced climber to change your routes, because it's not just a matter of putting the holds in different places. Says Hornick, "They need climbing experience, because they have to be able to plan for and think through the techniques used to move through the holds." Touchstone Climbing and Fitness in California has full-time employees whose only job is to change routes on facilities' walls. Says Eric Cohen, "At least one route changes each week."

Prior planning

"Some [fitness centers] know what they want, and some don't," says Hornick. "If they don't, we can make recommendations to them. It's helpful if they identify the customer base, such as adults versus kids (because the walls will be shaped differently), where they'll put it and what their budget is." Budget is a big variable, because walls can range from about $20,000 to several hundred thousand dollars, depending on materials, how realistic the face looks, whether it's modular or one huge wall, has an automatic belay, etc. There are lots options and decisions to make. "Some people will call and say they have only $10,000 and want to install a wall. We can do that, but, with a small investment, they'll also get only small returns."

Where the wall is placed is important not only to the design of the wall, but for its feasibility, as well. Explains Alford, "We need a minimum of 6 feet of clear space between the climbing wall and the nearest fixed object." You also need swing zones if you choose the top roping wall. "Climbing walls are definitely not for corridors," he says.

Installing walls in the lobby is a popular option, but, beware of the chalk. The air will get dusty and it can settle into your computer equipment. Another popular option is to install the wall in an under-used court. In this case, Alford recommends going with a wall configuration as opposed to a tower, due to the spacing restrictions. According to Hornick, the average price for a well-used wall installed in a fitness center is about $100,000. This price allows for lots of variations and climbing routes for a variety of skill levels.

Marketing

Most wall manufacturers will help you formulate a business model to determine if a wall is the right decision for you. Once you decide it is, they also help with marketing ideas and usage rates for things such as day passes, courses and incorporating it into membership rates.

If you find that your wall isn't attracting the numbers that you had hoped, try a variety of marketing techniques. While TV and radio work for some, Shye Evan, manager of The Court Club, Albany, N.Y., found his greatest marketing success with coupon books. "Ninety-five percent of our climbing wall business is birthday parties," he says, "and the coupon books have worked really well."

You may also design fitness classes that focus on climbing, or have your personal trainers design workouts for clients that incorporate the wall. At multiple Touchstone Climbing and Fitness facilities in California, they have both cardio and strength climbing-focused classes, and even classes held on the wall.

Other ideas are marketing climbing walls to the Scouts, or for special nights such as "Women's Wednesday," etc. Use your creativity and the Internet to see what other gyms are doing that might work for yours. "There's a misperception out there that building a wall will bring in revenue," says Alford. "But, you have to [use] programming and market your wall to keep it exciting."

"Indoor climbing is huge and growing quickly," says Cohen, "and can be a great advantage to a fitness center."

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