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Get A Grip On Climbing Walls

Climbing walls are about more than aesthetics. Good management, excellent customer service, highly trained staff, and challenging routes are the defining factors in transforming a one-time climber into an enthusiast.

Structurally, climbing walls are of two types--mobile or stationary. Deciding the best option for a recreational facility requires reviewing the needs and wants of patrons, considering the cost of insurance and evaluating the availability of qualified staff and budget.

Mobility

Mobile walls range in height, but generally top out at 32 feet; after all, the wall has to be towed from one location to the next. And that leads to the next consideration--you need staff that is comfortable with towing and setting up the climbing wall in a potentially small space, such as on a trade-show floor.

“Our rock walls can be found at YMCAs, Chicago Parks and Recreation, Charleston Park and Recreation, every Six Flags, and even with the U.S. Military National Guard,” says Philip Wilson, marketing manager with Extreme Engineering, which designs both mobile and stationary walls.

“The mobile product helps the parks advertise the park’s services,” says Wilson. “It is a huge draw and they can put on banners, and they can lift up the activities for the parks.” Some parks rent out the use of their mobile climbing walls to various groups and festivals, which helps promote a climbing program and also generates a revenue stream.

Mobile-Wall Programming

Hamilton County Park District in Ohio offers a mobile climbing wall at its camp facility, various programs and a limited number of festivals. Rick Wheeler, Adventure Outpost manager for the district, says, “We use a trailer with a hydraulic lift and are able to set the tower on a flat, solid surface in less than five minutes.”

While the tower is on the trailer, staff also check all the handholds, install the auto-belays, and if needed reroute the wall. Auto-belays are mechanical devices used to take up the rope slack of the climber, and provide a safe descent without the need for a person to belay. Therefore, just a few trained staff members are needed to safely operate the tower. When the tower is not manned, it is on the trailer. This prevents people from climbing the tower without proper supervision.

“We do a basic climbing course which incorporates personal growth. There are a lot of people that have never climbed before. It is good for them to learn how to climb and gain that self-confidence,” says Wheeler, who regularly works with climbers of all ages.

Stationary Walls

Stationary walls come in all shapes and sizes, but don’t let their good looks fool you into buying an aesthetically pleasing, rockish-looking wall when what really matters is the flexibility of the wall in providing a variety of challenges to different levels of climbers.

“We see some facilities that want to have a REI (lifelike) experience, but you potentially sacrifice route setting and peanut placement,” says Rich Johnston, designer and owner of four Vertical World climbing wall gyms in Washington state, America’s first climbing gym. Also the chairman of the Climbing Wall Association, Johnston, who has been building climbing walls for over 20 years, explains “peanuts” are the places where the handholds are secured to the wall.

“You have to build a wall that has a lot of route-setting capability,” says Johnston. “Choose routing over beauty. You can have a crummy wall with great routes, and people will have a blast on it.”

“How often you change out a route depends on the number of routes, climbers, grade distribution, skill of climbers and the size of the wall,” says Bill Zimmermann, executive director of the Climbing Wall Association Inc. “A 10,000-square-foot facility with a lot of traffic will need to be rerouted frequently to keep the wall fresh.”

Before changing the routes and difficulty level, consider the needs, wants and skill levels of patrons. “We have route setters every day changing out routes,” says Johnston. “We don’t like a route being up more than three months because we have heavy traffic in our gyms.”

Developing Enthusiasts

Many people will give climbing a try, but few will become enthusiasts unless staff is dedicated to excellent customer service beyond rerouting the wall.

“The retention rate is low, but that is due to the atmosphere that doesn’t bring people back,” says Johnston. “You have to provide a quality climb as well as great customer service, routes and instruction.”

The following is a list of considerations for developing a wall-climbing program with dedicated enthusiasts:

Structure

“You don’t want to go really high; it takes too long on rotation,” says Johnston. “A 30-foot-high wall is optimum.” The rotation time--or time it takes for a person to climb the wall--should be about 30 minutes.

Belay

There are two camps in belaying -- auto and manual. Auto-belays work well for places that might not have the staffing capabilities to have a person belay for each climber, but need to provide a safe way for people to experience the climb. Manual belays require a person to be vigilant at the other end of the rope, and work well when staffing and instruction time are ample.

Staff

Good instructors and staff can be found by looking for quality rock climbers who are effective with customer service. “It is important to get people who understand the sport and the challenges,” says Johnston. Another option is to get a crew of people who are enthusiastic about the program and have them trained by certified trainers.

In regards to route setting, there are consultants who specialize in that. “Several of the vendors who build walls have route-setters on staff,” says Zimmermann.

Promotion

If you host competitions, certified route-setters with prior experience should be hired. You may also want to develop a climbing team to compete at a regional level leading to the World Cup.

Focusing on youth programs but also having programs for every level of expertise will allow for developing enthusiasts. Many climbing walls offer programming to other youth groups, such as boys and girls clubs, scouts and church groups.

“We put a lot of money and effort into the youth program,” says Johnston. “The adults are more word-of-mouth.”

Advertising

To get the word out about the climbing tower at a specific facility, consider advertising in local parenting and children’s magazines. However, the most important form of advertising will come from climbers. “This industry thrives on word-of-mouth,” says Johnston. “Once people get up there on the wall, they will talk about it to others.”

A climbing wall--whether mobile or stationary--will provide a facility an additional physically challenging and emotionally rewarding experience for patrons. If you take the time to properly select and train staff, as well as maintain the routes to keep climbers challenged, it also can provide a revenue stream to help your park develop additional programs.

Tammy York is a freelance copywriter specializing in outdoor sports and recreation. Her upcoming book, “60 Hikes within 60 Miles: Cincinnati,” will be available spring 2009. Contact her at landsharkpr@yahoo.com.

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