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Member Spotlight: The Gravity Vault

Posted By Climbing Wall Association, Tuesday, March 12, 2019
Updated: Monday, March 11, 2019
Gravity Vault

Gravity Vault Founder Lucas Kovalcik was partway through grad school when he decided that New Jersey could use a climbing gym. Together with Tim Walsh, he opened the first Gravity Vault in 2005.

 

After four years, the pair launched a second location, and in 2013 the first franchisee-owned location opened its doors. Today, Gravity Vault numbers six locations in New Jersey, two in New York, and one in Pennsylvania. In the near future, Gravity Vault plans to open four new locations in four separate states.

 

We reached out to Lucas to learn about the challenges of managing locations numbering in the double digits.

 

CWA: Are there any lessons you learned during those first years that you took into the later years of expanding the franchise and opening new locations?

 

LK: If you think about the landscape 14 years ago, what people’s perception was even of indoor rock climbing, it was certainly more of an extreme sport. One where the perception of our industry from the banking world, the real estate world was not one of favor. I tell the story that our first landlord asked me the question: “So if I lease you this space, how are you going to get the rocks inside the building?” I still laugh at it today.

 

CWA: Were there any challenges that were unique to this area or to Gravity Vault?

 

LK: I think that we were fortunate (or unfortunate, however you want to look at it) to be part of paving the way a little bit. We used the small business administration, the SBA, for some of our first bank loans to open our first few locations. There wasn’t a lot of history, even on the national level, with the SBA. Once we got our first couple of deals, we had a number of people calling us as referrals and references looking to use our successful banking relationship (that was underwritten with the SBA) for other banks to look at as a model.

Climbers at Gravity Vault

One thing that was unique to us in New Jersey was that we were originally governed by the Department of Community Affairs…we were actually considered amusement operators, and carnies, if you will. I had a “ride operator” license to operate the ride that we call indoor rock climbing.

 

CWA: What’s the biggest challenge in managing different locations in the current era of GV?

 

LK: In having multiple locations around the east coast and in different markets, what is good for one gym or one market isn’t always good for another. So it’s really just continuing to find a balance of the right programming, which I use as an umbrella term for everything from our classes to camps to lessons to adult programs. There’s not one widget that fits all.

 

CWA: What do you think sets GV apart from other east coast franchises?

 

LK: We strive to be as much of a customer service-based facility as a climbing gym. We try to be extremely welcoming, to that beginning climber or to that seasoned climber. We want to be able to be an un-intimidating environment while being a challenging environment to the climber. That’s a delicate balance, and that’s what we’ve strived to do and continue to work on.

Gravity Vault Facility Interior

CWA: What projects are you most excited about for the future?

 

LK: I have a vivid memory of a family that was there from day one just to check the place out. The daughter joined our climbing team after a few times and had a knack and a natural talent. She went up to competing at the national level, and the whole family moved to Colorado. From being in Chatham, NJ, having never experienced climbing and never touched a wall, to falling in love with this sport, finding a talent, and moving across the country…it’s just exciting. It’s something that’s forever engrained as part of their life. In a way, we were part of it. So what I’m most excited about as we continue to grow and open more locations is exposing more people to the sport that I enjoy.

 

CWA: What value does GV get out of its CWA membership?

 

LK: I think having that peer-to-peer community to discuss, whether you’re operating a gym in the northeast or the southwest or the northwest or southeast…we all face a lot of the same challenges on a day-to-day basis. I think having a group of individuals that are like-minded, and having that peer-to-peer interaction, is important for any industry to continue to grow. Yes, we’ve gotten to this point, and we’ve grown, and we have the Olympics coming in 2020, and the sport will continue to grow. I think the CWA continues to offer a platform of support for everything from group insurance carriers to overall advice.

 

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Member Spotlight: Triangle Rock Club

Posted By Climbing Wall Association, Monday, February 4, 2019
Triangle Rock Club

Climbing gym operators often bring a diverse set of experiences to running a gym, but few more so than Joel Graybeal, Managing Partner at Triangle Rock Club. After working as an aerospace engineer at the Pentagon, he worked as a banker for 14 years before joining the ownership team at TRC in 2011.

 

Triangle Rock Club opened its first location in Morrisville, NC in 2007. Founded by two former Marines, TRC now operates four locations in two states and has a fifth location slated to open in 2019. We reached out to Joel to find out what it takes to run gyms in the mid-Atlantic.

 

CWA: It was six years between the opening of the first Triangle Rock Club and opening your second location. Are there lessons that have carried forward from the early years into managing all five of your locations?

 

JG: There are certainly more than a few lessons that we've carried forward. Here are a few:

  1. It's important that we earn our customers' business every day.
  2. In order to grow, it's important to take daily steps moving your business forward.
  3. We always need to be ready to take advantage of a good opportunity.
  4. Where we focus our time, energy, and resources is where we'll get our results.
  5. Hire great people who are aligned with your company's mission and give them the resources to move the company forward.

CWA: What has been the greatest challenge in expanding to new locations?

 

JG: Capital is always a challenge. Because of our desire to stay independent and to not dilute current ownership, we've had to continue tricking banks into buying into our vision. In addition to funding new locations, there's always a need to continue investing in current locations. As probably any climbing gym operator can attest, there are limitless ways to spend money when you own a climbing gym.

 

CWA: What sets Triangle Rock Club apart from other east-coast franchises?

 

JG: We have a singular mission statement that we think drives our company behavior and decisions: to enhance and transform the lives of others by enthusiastically sharing our passion for climbing and fitness. That mission statement is a great compass for our company. Something else that might be different is that we have phased four out of five of our gyms. It's allowed us to open earlier, start building the community, and then have a planned enhancement later. We've been able to "throttle" our growth and manage expenses by designing our projects to be phased.

 

Lastly, we've been a big user of SBA funding to grow our business. We've completed five rounds of funding and are in process for our sixth. While the paperwork is rather arduous, SBA has allowed us to keep our equity infusions lower plus give us fixed-rate financing for 20 years. That all translates to long-term fixed costs for our real estate, and it makes getting to cash-flow positive quicker.

Triangle Rock Club

CWA: What's the biggest challenge TRC is currently facing?

 

JG: Access to capital at good terms is always a top need and challenge for us. We're looking at future opportunities in the context of our current expansion commitments. With our business so capital intensive, getting loans at favorable terms is always important. I keep asking our bank partners for a $5M unsecured credit line at prime - 1% but haven't been able to talk anyone into lending to us on those terms!

 

CWA: What projects are you most excited about for the future?

 

JG: Triangle Rock Club Durham is going to be our best laid-out and most balanced gym yet. We had a lot of flexibility laying out the space, which is ironically in a previous Walmart (built in 2011). It's going to be a terrific gym. Plus, our Phase 2 ground-up addition to our Richmond gym will be a phenomenal enhancement to our Phase 1, which opened in April 2018.

 

CWA: What does it mean to Triangle Rock Club to be a CWA member?

 

JG: We've been proud to participate as an active member in CWA. For the last 12 years, Triangle Rock Club has been represented at the annual CWA Summit. Helping our industry grow and thrive has been important to us. Others before us have been gracious in helping us get started. We, in turn, have strived to be a good resource for new and aspiring gym owners. For every one person in the US that has a climbing gym membership, there are 100 people who have a monthly fitness or health club membership. If we as an industry convert just one out of a hundred regular gym members, we double the size of our industry. Growing and working together through an industry organization like the CWA is important for all of our futures.

 

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