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Chalk Dust: Mitigation & Source Control

Posted By Amanda Ashley, Monday, June 10, 2019
Youth Climbing Team Athlete

Dealing with chalk dust is something that climbing gyms are entirely too familiar with; everywhere there are climbers, there’s chalk. Most gyms implement chalk mitigation strategies, whether it’s a never-ending cleaning and vacuuming circuit, installing a chalk eater, or a state of the art HVAC system.

 

The father of modern bouldering, John Gill, who had a background in gymnastics, is credited with introducing chalk to climbers at Stone Mountain, Georgia, in 1954. While its effectiveness at increasing friction was immediately apparent, climbing purists objected to chalk and considered it an ethical dilemma. Not only was the use of chalk to improve grip and keep hands dry considered to be a questionable ethical advantage, it, additionally, builds up on holds and permanently discolors the rock.

 

While today the use of chalk is considered par for the course, in climbing gyms, chalk presents issues as it gets onto practically every available surface and the airborne particles affect air quality. The standard acceptance of chalk use places gym owners and managers in constant reactive mode, which means that in order to implement a successful mitigation strategy, the gym has to stop being reactive and become proactive. This is easier said than done.

 

What is Chalk?

The main ingredient in chalk is magnesium carbonate, also known as MgCO3· nH2O, it’s an odorless, dry fine or bulky powder. In addition to being used for climbing and other sports, magnesium carbonate is widely used as an antacid, an anti-caking agent in food and in personal care products. Pub Chem notes that magnesium carbonate is listed as a safer chemical by the EPA. It is known as a green circle chemical and has, “…been verified to be of low concern based on experimental and modeled data.” Pub Chem also notes that it has been reported to cause eye and skin irritation, with exposure routes topically on the skin or eyes and through inhalation, with recommendations to wash or rinse the skin or eyes with fresh water, or to breathe fresh air. As an inhalation it is noted that a “nuisance-causing concentration of airborne particles can be reached quickly when dispersed.” Which gym owners and staff know, as the air in gyms can appear hazy at peak times. Which leads to many questions about how chalk dust affects indoor air quality.

 

Indoor Air Quality

With HVAC systems running into the tens of thousands and chalk eaters cost nearly $2000 to clean 5000 square feet of gym space, understanding the basic of chalk particles and air quality is necessary to making good decisions on how to mitigate chalk in your gym. Airborne particles of chalk are known as particulate matter (PM). Understanding how air borne chalk particles affect air quality means understanding some basics of indoor air quality (IAQ). The EPA defines indoor air quality as, “the air quality within and around buildings and structures, especially as it relates to the health and comfort of building occupants.”

 

The primary causes of poor indoor air quality are:

  • Indoor pollution sources that release gases or particles, such as VOC’s.
  • Outdoor chemical contaminants: Vehicle or building exhaust, plumbing vents
  • Biological contaminants: Bacteria, molds, pollen, insects, bird droppings and viruses.
  • Physical contaminants: Particulate matter (PM) is a complex mixture of solid and/or liquid particles suspended in the air (which can include soil, dust, metals, organic chemicals, sulfates and nitrates).
  • Inadequate ventilation: Indoor pollutant levels can be increased by not bringing in enough outdoor air and by not carrying indoor air pollutants out of the building.
  • High temperature and humidity levels: High temperature and humidity are related to increased concentrations of some pollutants.

 

Size Matters

Visible dust on the floor, or surfaces of the gym is unsightly and messy, but unless it’s disturbed it’s not creating problems for air quality. Gym members can and will complain about chalk covered surfaces and greasy holds that have a build-up of chalk, sweat and skin oil. When you see chalk dust on the floor or on a surface it’s very fine, like talc, what you are seeing is a bunch of sub-micron particles lumped together to make a larger particle. It’s the smaller particles of chalk, the ones you don’t see or recognize that affect air quality.

 

The EPA is concerned about particles 10 micron or smaller because these particles are inhalable. These particles once inhaled can affect the heart and lungs and cause serious health effects. But it’s important to note that the EPA concerns are based on outdoor PM levels, which are well studied and documented. Outdoor PM effects on human health are well-established and are used to set health-based standards for outdoor air. However, less is known about the specific impacts of indoor PM on health. PM is found in all indoor environments.

 

Due to poor ventilation and other contributing factors, indoor PM levels have the potential to exceed outdoor PM levels, indoor levels can be gauged by MERV rating. MERV means Minimum Efficiency Reporting Value this rating was developed by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioner Engineers - ASHRAE. MERV values run on a scale from 1 to 16 and gauge the effectiveness of the HVAC system in a building or indoor space. For instance, if your HVAC system has a high MERV rating, it is more efficient, meaning that the filter will trap more airborne particles. But filters alone don’t make for effective air cleaners: you have to figure in air flow through the HVAC system and how clean the air filters are. A dirty or clogged air filter or using a filter that is too restrictive may result in low air flow and could cause the system to malfunction.

 

90% of chalk dust is estimated to be 5 microns or less, it’s very very small. A "micron" is a unit of measurement and is an abbreviation of the term "micrometer". One micron is a millionth of a meter (1/1,000,000 meters) or about .00004 inches. Steve Smith with Camfil USA, a company that develops and produces air filters and clean air solutions, has extensively studied, how chalk particles fall. On average Smith says, in a controlled environment it takes 5.7 seconds for a 6 micron and bigger chalk particle to fall 10 feet. But, Smith says, chalk particles 5 microns and smaller are so small that gravity doesn’t have an immediate effect on them and it can take up to 33 days for them to fall down out of the air, but in areas that have air flow, the particles are constantly being moved and lifted. Chalk particles of 1 micron or less become permanent dust as gravity has no effect on particles of that nano size.

 

The physics of air flow creates a challenge when it comes to getting chalk dust out of the air. It’s difficult to generate a sucking air flow that is strong enough to pull the particles out of the air, so particles are removed by blowing particles through the air from one air cleaner to the next to collect all the sub atomic particles.

 

There are three basic strategies to improve indoor air quality:

  • Source Control: Usually the most effective way to improve indoor air quality is to eliminate individual sources of PM or pollution or to reduce their emissions.
  • Ventilation Improvements: Ventilation also helps remove or dilute indoor airborne pollutants coming from indoor sources. This reduces the level of contaminants and improves indoor air quality (IAQ).
  • Air Cleaners: An effective air cleaner is an efficient collector of PM and has high air-circulation rate.

 

When athletes and climbers are engaged in physical activity, they have an increase in respiratory minute ventilation which has a proportional effect on increasing the quantity of PM that is inhaled. Additionally, an increase in airflow velocity can deliver PM deeper into the respiratory tract. It is known that PM of 5 microns and smaller can enter the lungs and bloodstream where they can build up and cause health problems.

 

What is known about people who are exposed to poor IAQ is that they can experience health effects at the time of exposure or even years after breathing it. Symptoms can include: eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, coughing, skin irritation, headache, fatigue, dizziness and nausea.

 

Are There Effects of Breathing Chalk Particles?

There is no known research on the effects of humans breathing in chalk dust. Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi, a Pulmonary Physician with the University Of Utah Hospitals And Clinics and a climber herself, does research on the effects of outdoor pollution. The effects of breathing in climbing chalk is a topic that she has spent quite a lot of time thinking about. Dr. Pirozzi notes that to her knowledge there is no published data on the specific health effects of humans breathing in magnesium carbonate and that it isn’t known what the PM 10 or PM 2.5 concentrations in indoor climbing gyms are, “these are two big research questions that we need information on,” says Dr. Pirozzi.

 

Higher occupancy rates and the type of activity developing in the gym effects indoor air quality as athletes and climbers increase CO2, while high occupancy also influences PM concentrations. Dr. Pirozzi says that, “concentrations of PM 2.5 and PM 10 are going to vary quite a bit due to building characteristics, the filter, MERV rating, climbing traffic and time of day.” Generally speaking, Dr. Pirozzi can talk about the health effects of particulate pollution, but she thinks it is unknown how much particulate pollution climbers are exposed to in gyms.

 

A 2008 study and a 2012 study on chalk dust concentrations and reduction strategies both measured very high levels of particulate matter during busy hours. Dr. Pirozzi says, “This shows that climbing gyms may have very elevated levels of particulate matter, but there are likely many factors that would influence those levels. It would be interesting to evaluate with the newer filter systems.”

 

OSHA has standards of permissible exposure limits for magnesium carbonate that consider both the concentrations of magnesium carbonate in the air and length of exposure, however without specific data from gyms, there is no way to determine the air quality and how much , if any, magnesium carbonate indoor climbers are exposed to. The question Dr. Pirozzi wants to know the answer to is; are there different health effects from exposure to magnesium carbonate compared with other PM? The answer to this question, she acknowledges lies in study and research.

 

Source Control

The simplest approach is to implement reduction strategies, to reduce the amount of chalk dust in the gym and you’ll reduce the amount of dust in the air and on surfaces. Considering the ritual most climbers have regarding around the way they chalk up before a climb, or can obsessively chalk up while on a route, it’s not realistic to ban chalk. But there are strategies between all or nothing that can be implemented.

 

Specify the Type of Chalk and the Delivery Method Members Use

Many gyms ask members to not use loose chalk, asking members to use chalk balls or liquid chalk instead. A 2012 study on the air borne concentrations of multiple types of chalk using chalk balls, pressed chalk and powdered chalk. The study determined that with the exception of liquid chalk; chalk balls, pressed and powdered chalk leads to airborne chalk particles, the concentration of which is determined by traffic in the gym. While chalk in a chalk ball does not lead to a significant reduction in airborne particles compared to regular block chalk, it is worth noting that the chalk ball does prevent spills. But the study is clear in stating that chalk balls did not lead to a reduction of airborne particles. In comparison ethanol based (liquid chalk) led to the same low mass concentrations of airborne chalk particle as banning chalk entirely.

 

Educate New and Existing Members on How to Chalk Up

In general climbers use too much chalk, says Kevin Brown of FrictionLabs. A climber for over 20 years, Brown says it all too common for climbers to use too much chalk and cake it on their hands and fingers. Too much chalk he explains actually acts like a dry lubricant, and he notes that generic chalk contributes to the problem, as climbers tend to use more of it and it gets spilled. FrictionLabs recommends that climbers use less chalk and employ a layering strategy: apply a base layer of liquid chalk then reapply small amounts of loose chalk as needed, the liquid chalk base will reduce the total amount of chalk the climber uses in a session. Brown states, “just like there is a belay test and safety talks about the skills that climbers need, climbers need to know about chalk. Chalk creates a huge mess in the gym and no one really talks about how you should use chalk.” When you put chalk on your hands initially, Brown says, instead of reaching down into your chalk bag repeatedly for more chalk, you can move it from one hand to the other, distributing it from your palms to your fingertips. Layering with liquid chalk works by filling in all the nooks and crannies, and creates a good base layer climbers will need less additional chalk as they climb. Climbers don’t need a completely chalky hand to have a good grip, Brown notes that there’s a real opportunity for climbers to use chalk smarter.

 

Putting It All Together

Installing HVAC systems, chalk eaters, or implementing cleaning protocols impacts your bottom line either in major capital expenses or ongoing increased labor, this is considered a reactive approach, cleaning up after the fact. It’s nearly unimaginable that gyms could or would ever ban all types of powdered chalk, but implementing education about how to apply and use chalk is definitely a step in the right direction.

 

Amanda Ashley Head ShotAbout Amanda Ashley

Amanda Ashley is a writer, climber, and a climbing mom. From her early days spent training on the musty community woody in The School at the New River Gorge to training in modern mega climbing gyms all over the West, she's seen the rise of climbing gyms and the evolution of routesetting up close and personal for the past 20 years. Amanda writes about climbers, routesetting, changes in climbing movement and performance, and the climbing industry. Amanda's work has appeared in Climbing Magazine, Climbing Business Journal, and the Utah Adventure Journal.

 

Tags:  chalk dust  customer experience  operations  OSHA  risk management 

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An Opportunity to Lead in Indoor Climbing Sustainability: B Corp Certification

Posted By Lindsey Wilson, Monday, May 6, 2019
B Lab Business as a Force for Good

B Corps and the New Responsible Business Story

The story of business is changing. And that story is being reframed to value people and planet as much as profit. People across the world are demanding business be more responsible and make a positive impact on the world.

 

I work for B Lab, the nonprofit behind B Corporation Certification. Certified B Corps are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They meet the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability.

 

There are now over 2,700 B Corps in 60 countries and 150 industries - including leaders like Patagonia, New Belgium Brewing, Ben & Jerry’s, Kickstarter, & Athleta - driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good. B Corps are accelerating a global culture shift to redefine success in business and build a more inclusive and sustainable economy. Society’s most challenging problems cannot be solved by government and nonprofits alone. The B Corp community works toward reduced inequality, lower levels of poverty, a healthier environment, stronger communities, and the creation of more high-quality jobs with dignity and purpose. By harnessing the power of business, B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.

 

Why & How to Become a B Corp

Becoming a Certified B Corp is not just about achieving a certification or seal of approval; it’s about joining a community of other likeminded businesses dedicated to the same vision and goal. Companies pursue certification for a range of reasons including benchmarking and improving performance, building credibility and amplifying voice, protecting mission, and attracting talent.

 

To become a Certified B Corp, a company must complete and submit the B Impact Assessment - an independent assessment of a company’s social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. A company must get a minimum verified score of 80 points in order to earn B Corp Certification. There is also a legal requirement for Certification that a company must incorporate its social and environmental commitment into its governance articles. Read more about Certification requirements.

 

How B Corp Applies to the Indoor Climbing Industry and Where to Start

As a climber myself, I know that the sport of indoor climbing is growing rapidly and moving into the mainstream. Most major cities - and many smaller cities - now have at least one climbing gym and the sport will officially be added to the 2020 Olympic Games. Of course, more interest in climbing means more demand for indoor climbing facilities which means more opportunity for the indoor climbing industry - which is great! But on the flip side, more indoor climbing means more facilities, more energy to run those facilities, and more materials used to build indoor walls. As the indoor climbing industry scales rapidly, it has a responsibility to grow ethically and an opportunity to lead on sustainability.

 

It can be intimidating to approach sustainability as a climbing gym operator without a roadmap. The B Impact Assessment is a free, open-source tool B Lab has created to allow companies to benchmark and measure their performance so that they can see where they are doing well and what might need improvement. It provides a framework for companies to assess their impact. In climbing terms, it is much easier to complete a route when you have beta, which B Lab and the existing B Corp community have already developed. The best place to start measuring your impact is to log into the B Impact Assessment and see how you stack up. It takes only 30 minutes to get a quick snapshot.

 

Of course, measuring your impact and working to improve business operations and efficiency is important from both an ecological and economic perspective, but there’s another big reason B Corp Certification is important for the indoor climbing industry. That reason is Millennials. According to a recent article about Millennials and purpose-driven business from Inc., “Millennials as a generation are motivated by more than profit when it comes to the opportunities they seek to pursue. They're seeking purpose, both in their personal lives and the types of businesses they're starting. This is a crucial understanding both in regards to Millennials and entrepreneurship, and the companies that seek to earn their business.”

 

Want to find a room full of Millennials? Hop into your local climbing gym. Millennials are a large source of growth for climbing, and it’s important to take note of their tendency to reject business as usual. They want to know the companies they support are ethical. They are demanding more information, more transparency, and more accountability. Becoming a B Corp is just another way to build trust, build community, and create a lasting positive impact in the indoor climbing industry.

 

For those looking to start their journey or those curious about B Corp Certification in general, join me for a Lunch and Learn session at the 2019 CWA Summit on Thursday May 16th at 12:45.

 

Lindsey Wilson Head ShotAbout the Author

Lindsey Wilson is passionate about using business as a force for good. Growing up backpacking and skiing in the mountains of Colorado and northwoods forests of Minnesota, Lindsey has always had an immense passion for protecting the places she plays which led her to initially pursue a career in conservation policy. Realizing many of the ecological challenges the world faces inherently live in social and economic systems, Lindsey went back to school to pursue an MBA in Global, Social & Sustainable Enterprise at Colorado State University and shortly after began working in Business Development for B Lab supporting companies in becoming Certified B Corporations. Lindsey believes in the power of B Corps to create a new economic paradigm where planet and people are monitored as rigorously as profits and all businesses work collectively to solve social and environmental problems. Lindsey is an avid skier and hiker and dabbles in climbing.

 

Tags:  certifications  community development  company culture  leadership  management  operations 

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6 Ways to Retain Your Members

Posted By Emma Walker, Monday, May 6, 2019
Climbing Gym Member Retention

You’ve gotten new members in the door, and now there’s a new challenge: keeping them engaged so they become loyal, long-term members. Conventional fitness clubs track their membership trends closely – it’s well-established that membership spikes significantly right after the holidays, then drops off a few months into the new year. With a niche climbing audience, though, retention is more nuanced.

 

We chatted with a few managers at gyms who are successfully retaining members, even when the slower months hit. Here are their secrets.

 

1. Build a community

There isn’t just one magic incentive or trick you can use to retain membership. “It has be a core value that is applied across all aspects of the gym’s facilities, operations, services, etc.” says Rich Breuner, Director of Operations at Bend Rock Gym. The gym’s #1 goal, he says, is to support and facilitate an amazing community experience. “That translates to people wanting to become and stay members,” he explains. It’s working. BRG has seen member attrition rates drop significantly since 2016, when they began examining programs gym-wide and implementing adjustments with member retention in mind.

 

2. Quality walls, quality routes

Members want to climb at gyms with excellent routes. Bend Rock Gym’s commitment to quality begins with the most basic element: its walls. “They’re built well, they’re maintained well, the routes and volumes are always changing,” says Breuner, who compares setters to the cooks in a kitchen. The ingredients, or holds, might be similar to what you’d find anywhere, but a chef at a Michelin-starred restaurant can really make you want to come back. Their routesetting, he says, is a key differentiator and major factor in keeping members coming back for more.

 

3. Education isn’t just for kids

Anchorage’s Alaska Rock Gym offers adult programming free with monthly membership, says Operations Manager Eric Wickenheiser. At some point, Wickenheiser says, “new climbers hit a plateau. After a few months, people think, ‘Hey, how can I climb 5.12?’” ARG’s Climbing 101, 201, and 301 classes, plus lead clinics and women’s-specific programming, keeps members engaged when they might otherwise burn out and let their memberships lapse.

 

4. Invest in customer service

This begins at the front door, but it’s key for staff to get out on the floor and get to know members, too, says Breuner. BRG expects all-star customer service from its staff. “We’re flexible and adapt our customer service experience with the needs of our membership,” he explains. “People come in and they don’t feel like they’re going to war with the staff—they see friendly faces and people who are getting to know them on a personal level.” BRG makes a concerted effort to get desk staff onto the floor to help with waivers and answer questions, which creates a fun, accessible culture for climbing.

 

5. Find the right instructors

When it comes to programming, “the instructor makes or breaks a class,” says Wickenheiser. One of ARG’s most popular yoga classes is at 4:30 p.m., when members are ostensibly at work or in traffic. “The teacher is incredible, so people come anyway. The class is always full.” Wickenhesier adds that when local celebrities (guidebook authors, pro climbers) teach a fitness class or give a talk, it tends to be full.

 

6. Keep track of the trends

“We’re a little isolated here in Alaska,” Wickenheiser laughs, “But we try to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry.” Lots of ARG’s members have climbed at big-name Seattle gyms (most flights in and out of Anchorage go through Seattle), where they see the most cutting-edge gym developments. Members want those amenities at their home gym, too. Heading to the CWA Summit each year, he says, is the best way to keep an eye on industry trends and make sure ARG is up to speed.

 

“The bottom line in member retention is not treating members like a number,” Wickenheiser says. ARG has recently moved to a brand-new facility, but it’s been open for 25 years – Wickenheiser attributes that success to little things like taking the time to remember members’ stories and treating them like the important part of the climbing community they are.

 

Emma Walker Head ShotAbout Emma Walker

Emma Walker is a freelance writer, editor, and an account manager with Golden, Colorado-based Bonfire Collective. Emma earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as an educator and guide at gyms, crags, and peaks around the American West.

 

Tags:  climbing culture  community development  company culture  customer experience  customer satisfaction  customer service  leadership  management  marketing  member retention  operations  staff training 

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Focus on Workplace Safety – Eye Protection for Workers in Climbing Facilities

Posted By Aaron Gibson, Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Eye Protection

Despite how the muscles in your forearms might feel while climbing, the muscles that control our eyes are the most active in the human body. Likewise, our eyes, part of our nervous system, are one of our most complex organs, second only to the brain. Even though only 1/6 of our eye is exposed to the outside, and our eyelids, brows, and lashes help to protect our eyes, they are still highly vulnerable to injury. Our eyes are susceptible to UV light, harmful substances, and trauma.

 

Workplace injuries are the leading cause of eye trauma, vision loss, disability, and blindness. In 2017 alone there were over 23,000 non-fatal workplace eye injuries in the US. Thankfully, 90% of eye injuries are preventable with the proper safety eyewear.

 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in CFR 1910.133 requires that, “The employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses appropriate eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles, molten metal, liquid chemicals, acids or caustic liquids, chemical gases or vapors, or potentially injurious light radiation.”

 

Of all the tasks in a climbing facility, routesetting is the most likely, but perhaps not the only, job where eye protection is needed. These days, most professional routesetters use impact drills, which increase the exposure to flying debris hazards.

 

Not all safety glasses are intended for the same purpose, so make sure to select equipment compatible with the work you are doing. OSHA requires that safety glasses be specially rated and approved by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). All safety glasses and goggles should be rated ANSI Z87.1 for eye protection, with the Z87 mark on the frames or lenses. Using glasses that are not safety-rated may increase your exposure to a hazard because standard eyeglasses and sunglasses can shatter.

 

Cody Grodzki, Director of Routesetting for High Point Climbing and Fitness in Tennessee and Alabama, said they have recently employed the use of face shields, like the Petzl Vizen, during routesetting activities while on ropes and ladders. A face-shield provides wrap-around protection from flying debris and particles. The Vizen is compatible with the helmets they wear, provides full-face protection, and meets the ANSI Z87.1 standard.

 

Eye injuries can result in vision loss, so if an eye injury occurs it is important to recognize it and respond appropriately. First, do not attempt to treat a serious eye injury yourself – seek medical attention. If a person has obvious pain, trouble seeing, a cut or torn eyelid, blood in the eye, or something that is not easily removed, it is important to seek medical attention. Attempting to remove something that is embedded in the eye can create more damage.

 

Some facilities may offer portable eyewash stations with rinse bottles. These can be helpful for minor first-aid response, but keep in mind the limitations of an eyewash bottle. Eyewash stations should be easily reachable with clear access. From a risk management program perspective, the rinse solution in eyewash bottles has an expiration date and needs to be inspected and maintained.

 

As with all work, remember to take the necessary precautions before beginning and make sure you understand the hazards in the tasks you are performing. If possible, try to eliminate the hazard first. Ensure that tool guards and other “engineering controls” are in place. Make sure your eyewear is comfortable and fits. Finally, don’t overlook eye protection – use it.

 

References

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
American Academy of Ophthalmology
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
The Vision Council
National Eye Institute

 

Aaron Gibson Head ShotAbout Aaron Gibson

Aaron Gibson works as an EOSH Professional and has over fifteen years of experience in workplace and environmental safety and health. He’s worked with local, state, and federal agencies as well as private industry. Since 2007, Aaron has applied his experience to the climbing gym industry as a gym owner/operator, coach, routesetter, instructor, and industry consultant/expert. You can contact Aaron at aaron@rockislandclimbing.com.

 

Tags:  job hazard analysis  operations  OSHA  risk management  routesetting  routesetting management  standards 

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Streamlining Development in Indoor Climbing Gyms

Posted By Nicole Brandt, Tuesday, March 26, 2019
Indoor Climbing Gym Development

Developing is “growing or becoming more mature, advanced or elaborate,” according to Google dictionary. You, your company, and the climbing industry as a whole are all developing all the time, but are you getting the most out of your development process? This article will introduce a set of tools you can use to ensure your development plans are strategic, efficient, and streamlined.

 

In the well-known Tuckman model of group development there are four stages of development: forming, storming, norming and performing. Indoor climbing as an industry is currently in the productive, yet chaotic, “storming” phase of development, which means our industry lacks consistent access to long-term cumulative, generally-accepted knowledge and best practices. We are all still pushing boundaries and creating these resources. In the rapidly-evolving, entrepreneurial indoor climbing niche, “industry standard” is a moving target. As a business you are trying to meet or exceed that standard while learning what is contributing to your success.

 

If the definition and standard of indoor climbing gyms are not clear, the direction of your development might also be unclear. Using the right tools to direct development in operations, programs, or expansion will move us toward the “norming” phase of development, which allows your company more success, a more positive culture or better customer experience.

 

As an example, ponder the variety of answers you might receive to the following:

  • Ask gym owners: Is indoor climbing a part of the outdoor industry or fitness industry?
  • Ask operators: What does risk management include?
  • Ask routesetters and coaches: What are the best resources for climbing terminology or standards?
  • Ask employees: Who is our target customer?
  • Ask every employee: What is your company’s mission?

If you can answer each of these questions clearly for your company, then you have done your homework. If any debate or confusion comes up from these questions, there is still room to develop.

 

What to develop?

Each gym or brand is developing new facility designs and product ideas, testing their viability, building prototypes, deciding on marketing issues such as pricing, packaging, promotion, and positioning. The willingness to self-evaluate and look critically at our organizations can help us reach peak effectiveness in these endeavors.

 

Consider if there is a way in each of the following areas YOU could make the customer’s experience 10% better:

  • Mission and Vision
  • Company Organization, Management, Staffing, HR functions
  • Facility Design & Wall Design
  • Routesetting: Commercial & Competition
  • Operations and Valuation
  • Membership Products, Services, Programming (Adult/ Youth) and Events
  • Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Sales, Pricing, Tracking
  • Expansion Opportunities

Each of you can undoubtedly talk for hours, if not days, about specifics related to at least one of the topics listed above. In order to keep things simple, determine 3-5 priorities to focus on each year. Even better, turn those priorities into Objectives and Key Results to increase accountability within your company.

 

Questions to gut check your priorities include:

  • Is the idea really part of your company’s bigger mission/vision?
  • Does it fill a short-term or long-term goal?
  • Has a customer or staff member said they want this feature or product?

Tools for Developing

Have you ever stared at a blank document and not known where to start? Me too.

 

Starting from scratch after you determine the priorities can be daunting. There are several tools available to help the development process feel more approachable.

 

Piggyback on outside industries. Knowing what business resources are available and which of those can be utilized in climbing gyms helps us not have to develop from scratch. Additionally, utilizing another industry’s bones and structure for a project and then substituting indoor climbing content can help reduce time required on a project. Potential resources include but are not limited to: HR resources and software, fitness industry, data tracking, gymnastics or other sports program structures, project management tools for expansion, case studies from successful businesses, etc.

 

Utilize existing resources within the climbing industry. Industry-specific resources can help streamline development, and new resources are being created rapidly. If someone else has done the work, it benefits you to not create the same material again. Potential resources include but are not limited to: CWA, USA Climbing, IFSC, podcasts, climbing blogs, outdoor climbing organizations, magazines, books, guiding companies, supporting non-profits, fitness industry resources, climbing-specific vendors, research, etc.

 

Celebrate competition and know them well. If you have competition, you know your product is in demand. There is an opportunity to utilize the competition’s idea and retool it, making it “more better” and specific to your brand. Your job is to LISTEN. People will tell you what they want. Take their feedback, even when hard to hear, and find a way to implement.

 

Identify stakeholders. Stakeholder identification is understanding who is responsible for executing the development and who is holding them accountable. To do their best work, those executing the development need to feel supported, empowered, and appreciated.

 

Understand the timeline. Understanding how development fits in with gym happenings, events, ongoing duties, and responsibilities will help minimize stress around each project and keep goals realistic.

 

Communicate! Communicating what is being developed company- and community-wide increases trust, transparency, and satisfaction with customers/staff and helps them to celebrate the success created.

 

It takes time and energy to shift a good idea from infancy to execution, but these tools are a great way to ensure your development goals are achievable and align with your overall business strategy. Continuing to learn our best practices, document our changes and progress, and push the boundaries of indoor climbing will take our sport from adolescent to mature.

 

Nicole Brandt Head ShotAbout the Author

Nicole Brandt runs Cypress Roots Consulting, a consulting company for climbing gyms helping them deep-dive into their company organization, programming, and culture. Nicole earned her degree in Outdoor Recreation with an emphasis in Tourism and has worked as the Program Director of Momentum and as a facilitator and guide across the Southeast and West. Currently based out of Salt Lake City, she spends her free time learning about yoga and herbalism.

 

Tags:  leadership  management  operations  standards 

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One Small Step (or how a close call changed my routesetting life)

Posted By Peter Zeidelhack, Sunday, March 24, 2019
Peter Zeidelhack Routesetting

When I started climbing about 28 years ago, there were no climbing gyms around, so our dad built us our own little steep woody where my love for routesetting and climbing holds was born. Today I’m a routesetting nerd, a gear freak, and a hold-aficionado. I’m passionate about every aspect of routesetting, except maybe cleaning holds… I love the workout and feeling exhausted after a day on the rope. I love watching the members enjoy the routes my team and I set and seeing their happy faces (or the challenged, angry ones). As long as our members are happy, we are happy.

 

I also like to teach routesetting, which I’ve been doing for almost 8 years now. As our industry is growing, this is becoming progressively more important. More gyms mean more routes and boulders have to be set more often, and people need to know the fundamentals on all aspects of routesetting in order to be able to create a great experience for the customers. We want them to come back, don’t we?

 

As for Germany, it’s only in the last 15 years that the growth in climbing gyms really started picking up pace, and through that growth routesetting has become more and more important. My first contact with routesetting was at the 1991 World Cup in Nürnberg where a certain Wolfgang Güllich was setting the routes together with Kurt Albert and others. When these guys were routesetting from ropes back then, what did it look like? Maybe a bit like this:

 

Vintage Routesetting Technique

 

Some of us might have used techniques similar to this at a certain stage or actually still do.

 

When I started routesetting, everyone was using standard sport climbing practices. We thought, “Yeah man, climbing gym, cool, all good! No sharp edges, no cutting tools! We climb all the time with one rope, why would we need more than one rope for routesetting? We’re comfortable with height as climbers, no problem!” We felt invincible. We were teaching routesetters this way, we were routesetting this way ourselves, and we probably would still be routesetting this way if not for the wake-up call we got one day. A rope almost ruptured on a coworker of mine due to a sharp edge on the wall and luckily, we didn’t have to learn the hard way:

 

 

“Once in a lifetime” you say? Nope, this was not a singular event when it comes to damaged ropes. My team started to notice this happening with some regularity, and we determined that the hazards of a cut rope weren’t preventable. So, what do we do? Similarly to the CWA’s Work-at-Height standard, we apply techniques that are already used in other fields. We switched to a redundant way of routesetting and began teaching it this way from then on. Not only in Germany but also in other European Countries like the UK, Austria, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, and France. The community is rethinking safety standards for the industry on a larger scale.

 

Routesetting has evolved along with the sport of climbing, the climbing community, as well as overall industry growth. You all know this! A climbing film winning an Academy Award, combined sport climbing being part of the Olympic family next year, and the level of awareness of climbing and the gym industry is growing faster than ever. We have to meet this awareness with a certain level of professionalism.

 

What does this mean for routesetting? We have to be aware of what we are doing and the bottom line for this is: we are not climbing when we are routesetting, we are working, and we have to act accordingly! I will not dig into the hazard analysis and the legalities – this has been done here before.

 

My point is the necessary shift in our mindset as routesetters – be it the Operations Manager, the Head Routesetter, or the routesetters on the team. It doesn’t take much to embrace this way of thinking and if you value your life, this is the best way. I am not only talking cut ropes but also human error, injuries, and medical issues. Do we really want to wait for an even bigger accident to finally see the obvious?*

 

I‘m on a mission. And my mission is to make the routesetting profession safer on a global scale. With the industry getting bigger, more gyms popping up everywhere, and more demand for awesome routes, new routesetters need to know what they are doing. We want to give them the tools to pursue a professional curriculum and keep customers from getting hurt.

 

In order for our industry to keep growing, we need to reduce risk in routesetting. What I personally want most is to have routesetting stay as much fun as it is right now, and that involves safety: not third, not second, FIRST! The foundation of routesetting is all about safety. Creating movement and climbing come after that.

 

*Editor’s note: As this post was being prepared, an accident occurred in Germany resulting in the death of a climbing wall worker named Gerhard Haug. Mr. Haug was conducting an inspection on the wall and fell from 16 meters (over 50 feet). It is not clear what kind of rope system was in use, but it was not redundant. There was apparently no rope attached to his harness. We will share further information if it becomes available.

 


From Climber to Worker: A Panel Discussion on Work-at-Height

Join Peter Zeidelhack and other routesetting leaders for a panel discussion of the Work-at-Height standard and the future of the routesetting profession during the 2019 CWA Summit conference. Register here.


 

Peter Zeidelhack Head ShotAbout the Author

Peter Zeidelhack has been a routesetter for 16 years, specializing in commercial routesetting and routesetting safety. He is Head of Routesetting Training for DAV (German Alpine Club), manager of two gyms, and responsible for routesetting in 4 gyms with a total climbing surface of 16.000 square meters.

 

Tags:  certifications  operations  OSHA  PPE  risk management  routesetting  routesetting management  staff training  standards  work-at-height 

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The Three Most Important Pieces of Personal Protective Equipment for Climbing Wall Workers

Posted By Aaron Gibson, MS, Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Personal Protective Equipment

Climbing wall workers are confronted with a number of potential hazards to be protected against. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is the term given to wearable devices and clothing used in the workplace to protect workers from various hazards. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that PPE “shall be provided, used, and maintained,” whenever necessary by risk of injury and hazard exposure to workers [1]. Each job task should be assessed for potential hazards (see my previous article about JHAs) but most climbing wall workplaces can benefit from three fundamental forms of PPE: eye protection, hearing protection, and hand protection.

 

Safety Glasses and Safety Goggles

Eye Protection

Eye protection is perhaps the most important protection device in your PPE toolbox because our eyes are delicate and vulnerable to a variety of hazards. OSHA requires that “the employer shall ensure that each affected employee uses appropriate eye or face protection when exposed to eye or face hazards from flying particles…” [2]. Most notable in the climbing wall workplace are physical impacts such as projectile materials, particulate matter, and liquid chemicals. An approved pair of safety glasses with side shields can protect against metal shards, plastic particles from holds, and wood dust, such as when using an impact drill during routesetting. Safety goggles provide all-around protection and should be used for splash hazards often found during cleaning operations with liquid chemicals.

 

Earplugs and Earmuffs

Hearing Protection

Noise-induced hearing loss can occur as a result of both a one-time excessive noise level and from long-term exposures to excessive noise. While single intense “impulse” noises are possible in the climbing gym environment, more likely are chronic, long-term exposures to elevated noise levels (above 85 decibels) over time. The good news is that noise-induced hearing loss is preventable. The use of disposable earplugs or earmuffs provides the necessary protection. Depending on the type of device used, these effectively reduce the noise levels by 15-35+ decibels, saving a worker’s hearing. Some workers may use music headphones or ear-buds in lieu of earplugs (or earmuffs) and while these may provide some noise reduction they are typically not designed to protect in the same manner as hearing protection. In fact, in some cases, listening to loud music while also performing work in a noisy environment may even increase your risk of hearing loss, so be aware of what type of hearing protection you choose.

 

Gloves for Hand Protection

Hand Protection

As climbing wall workers, protecting your hands is important to your ability to both work and climb. Gloves provide the necessary barrier between our hands and what we are handling. Select appropriate gloves for the task you are performing. There are different gloves for different types of tasks weather it is housekeeping chores, hold washing, routesetting, or other manual labor. Routesetters that go without work gloves while stripping a wall are susceptible to cuts and abrasions to their hands from bolts, spinning holds, and repeated contact of handling holds. Workers can benefit from preventing blisters and abrasions by wearing a thin-layer work glove when performing daily cleaning duties.

 

In summary, the use of PPE is an important means of reducing workplace injuries and incidents. While protecting workers’ eyes, ears, and hands is a good place to start, keep in mind that training is necessary for proper work practices. An emphasis on worker participation and the demonstration of a positive safety culture by management is paramount to effectiveness.

 

References and Resources

[1] OSHA 29 CFR 1910.132 – Personal Protective Equipment
[2] OSHA 29 CFR 1910.133 – Eye and Face Protection
[3] OSHA 29 CFR 1910.95 – Occupational Noise Exposure
[4] U.S. Department of Health & Human Services - National Institutes of Health – Information on Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
[5] OSHA 29 CFR 1910.138(a) – Hand Protection

 

Aaron Gibson Head ShotAbout Aaron Gibson

Aaron Gibson works as an EOSH Professional and has over fifteen years of experience in workplace and environmental safety and health. He’s worked with local, state, and federal agencies as well as private industry. Since 2007, Aaron has applied his experience to the climbing gym industry as a gym owner/operator, coach, routesetter, instructor, and industry consultant/expert. You can contact Aaron at aaron@rockislandclimbing.com.

 

Tags:  management  operations  OSHA  PPE  risk management  routesetting  routesetting management  staff retention  staff training  standards  work-at-height 

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Balancing the Business, Creativity, and Labor of Routesetting

Posted By Amanda Ashley, Monday, January 21, 2019
Climbing Gym Birthday Parties

As businesses, climbing gyms use business strategies, protocols, and methods to establish and operate the gym, but that approach doesn’t entirely work for routesetting. Unlike fitness gyms that use standardized equipment, climbing gyms are engaged in selling the climbing experience to members, which means routes and boulders set in the gym must emulate the very elusive concept of natural rock. Managing routesetting means balancing the business aspect, the creativity, and the manual labor. These are 3 distinct and very different skill sets, and it’s nearly impossible for anyone to be engaged fully in all 3 at the same time. The goal of managing a routesetting program is to engage the right staff, at the right time, in the right task, to the right degree.

 

Understanding Creativity, Business, and Labor

Creativity can be defined simply as creating something that didn’t exist before, ie: a new route or boulder in the gym. Inherently, creativity and productivity don’t mix and can be challenging in business. When you see a routesetter staring at a wall, many managers will think, “that person needs to do something.” But approaching routesetters and routesetting this way will only lead to frustration and conflicts. It’s important to know that it’s nearly impossible to see the creative process. People generate ideas in different ways, but research shows that ideas typically come when the mind is free and random thoughts can occur.

 

Business tasks on the other hand, unlike the creative process, are observable. It’s easy to tell when admin tasks are not completed. The business side of a routesetting program includes measurable tasks like placing orders, writing schedules and signing off on payroll – meaning you can determine the average amount of time it takes to accomplish these tasks. Of the three key elements to managing a routesetting program, the business side is the clearest cut, but due to the nature of the other aspects of the job, can present challenges.

 

The manual labor of routesetting cannot be measured in terms of productivity in the same way that other positions can be. This is due to the variable sizes and complexities of routes, and while the routesetter will have a plan of how they want to set the holds, there will be changes as the route takes shape on the wall. Furthermore, unexpected problems can arise that slow down the process, like a broken drill or a spinning t-nut. Additionally, routesetters often work outside of gym hours to set routes.

 

Creating a routesetting team that meets business goals, creates dynamic and fun routes that your members enjoy, and operates productively and efficiently can be a challenge to manage due to the unique skill set required for the position. Luckily, there are some approaches that can help.

 

Apply Strategic Thinking

Labor productivity research shows that the main characteristics influencing staff productivity fall into two categories: 1. age, skill, and experience, and 2. leadership and motivation. How you engage and interact with your team plays a significant role in determining the outcome. Identify the strategic requirements of the job – how does this job contribute to the overall mission and goal of the business? Then identify and prioritize the activities that would reach that outcome. Unfortunately for management and staff, the connection between their role and the strategic contribution they should be making is not always obvious, and losing track of this very important ideation can lead to poor productivity and skewed expectations. Simply put, your staff should be able to say the goal and objectives of their role as routesetters within the larger framework of the gym and know how their work directly affects the business.

 

Schedule Team Meetings Appropriately

While most of your staff probably keeps a regular schedule, routesetters may be setting after hours to avoid business interruption, which can lead to late nights. This may sound obvious, but expecting routesetters to attend early meetings after a late night or a re-set after a comp isn’t setting them up for success, pun intended. While team meetings are important and often need to occur right after events to recap, schedule them when they make sense and with consideration of when your routesetters usually pull shifts.

 

Cross Train on Varied Tasks

As an employer, don’t fall into the trap of a one-stop shop employee; sure, the idea of a creative routesetter/business wunderkind/workhorse sounds good, but as your gym grows, this approach limits what your staff can do and can lead to burnout. Be creative and do what works for your team; if you’re unsure of what your team needs, ask them for input. Cross-training the routesetting team on all the tasks that need to be accomplished for the business, while allowing them to develop skills and take on new responsibilities, will in turn support the strategic plan and growth of the gym.

 

Build Creativity Into the Schedule

We’ve already covered that creativity happens when the mind is free, so build in time for routesetters to be creative as a part of their job. Simply because you can’t see it doesn’t mean your business won’t benefit from the process that routesetters undertake to create routes; and they need to be compensated for their creativity. What does that look like at your gym? Ask your routesetters when and how they get their best ideas for routes, then include time for them on their schedule to foster and develop creativity. You’ll know it’s working when your gym members are happy with the routes and providing positive feedback.

 

Putting It All Together (PIAT)

Balancing creativity, labor, and business doesn’t have to be challenging once you know what you need to accomplish. Managing your team well means that you know the strategic objective of the job and the strengths and weaknesses of your team.

  • Define Routesetting Strategically
  • Identify and Prioritize Routesetting Tasks
  • Schedule Meetings so Routesetters Can Participate
  • Cross Train on Varied Tasks
  • Schedule Time for Routesetters to Be Creative

 

Amanda Ashley Head ShotAbout Amanda Ashley

Amanda Ashley is a writer, climber, and a climbing mom. From her early days spent training on the musty community woody in The School at the New River Gorge to training in modern mega climbing gyms all over the West, she's seen the rise of climbing gyms and the evolution of routesetting up close and personal for the past 20 years. Amanda writes about climbers, routesetting, changes in climbing movement and performance, and the climbing industry. Amanda's work has appeared in Climbing Magazine, Climbing Business Journal, and the Utah Adventure Journal.

 

Tags:  company culture  employee engagement  human resources  leadership  management  operations  routesetting  routesetting management  staff retention  staff training 

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It’s Not a Cakewalk: How to Develop a Birthday Party Program

Posted By Amanda Ashley, Monday, December 3, 2018
Updated: Friday, November 30, 2018
Climbing Gym Birthday Parties

With fees ranging from $100 to over $300 for a two-hour party, birthday party programs can be a serious and solid income stream for climbing gyms and also align with other business goals. Not only are you creating a community for your existing youth climbers to celebrate their milestones in your gym, you are also gaining exposure to new youth and families that are not already members of your gym.

 

A birthday party program, like any revenue stream, requires business know-how, research, and set-up to make sure that it’s successful and in line with your brand and business mission. The process for researching the viability of a birthday party program, as with any program for your gym, is known as market research, and the more effort you put into it, the more successful your program will be. Effective market research will result in developing a program that meets customer’s needs, is competitive with similar offerings, is financially viable, and offers a repeatable template for every event.

 

Know Your Customers and What They Want

No matter the size of your gym, the most effective way to learn about your customers is to perform your own market research. In-house market research can be done through conversations, online surveys, or by looking at online analytics. While it’s likely that your existing members will take advantage of your birthday party program, the insights you will gain from research will help you market to a new set of customers, which gives you opportunities to boost membership and promote youth programs. When you research customers, you’ll need to answer the following questions:

  • Who is going to book a party at your gym?
  • What other options are they likely to consider for their party location? Why?
  • Why do they book parties at venues?
  • What factors are likely to convince them to book a party at your gym?

The answers to your research questions should include general and specific information, for example:

 

Who is going to book a party at your gym?
General information: Parents
Specific information: Parents of children aged 8-14 within a 10 mile radius of the gym

 

Know Your Competition and What They Offer

What is your competition? While you might think that a neighboring gym is your main competition, when it comes to birthday parties you are now competing with amusement parks, zoos, restaurants, and countless other venues. While the sheer volume of venues can be overwhelming, focus your research on venues that host parties comparable in size to ones you will offer in your gym. After reviewing your competition, you can determine what you offer that they don’t.

 

When you research competition in your area you should be collecting data on:

  • What services/activities they offer
  • What rates and fees they charge
  • Their marketing materials and ads
  • What can you offer that they can’t? (Unique selling proposition)

 

Set up a Party Space

Unless you want kids carrying drinks and cake all over the gym, set up a dedicated party space and make sure guests understand your expectations on where they eat and place food. The party room should be easy to set up, decorate, and clean. Determine what you will offer and what you expect parents to bring or do.

  • Will you decorate or give out goody bags?
  • Do you have ice?
  • Do you offer a sink or kitchen space that can be used?
  • Do you have enough tables and chairs for kids and parents?
  • What activities will you offer: only bouldering, only top-rope, games or other hands-on activities?
  • Do you provide an e-vite with links to waivers and information about climbing in your gym?

 

Calculate a Pricing Structure

You’ll want to calculate a pricing structure that adequately reflects your value proposition in addition to the party aspect. Birthday parties at your gym may cost more than hosting a party at the local pizza place – and you should be prepared to explain why. One obvious unique selling point is the value of the experience the kids will get when they learn about and get to try indoor climbing.

 

There are different pricing models that you can apply, but you’ll want to consider material costs, labor costs, and other fixed or overhead costs that are inherent to running a climbing gym, as well as competitors’ pricing. It can be difficult to determine a pricing structure, as you must balance selling a service, delivering value, and earning a fair profit. As you build and develop your program you can monitor and change prices.

 

Create Birthday Party Packages

Once you know what your customers want and what the competition offers, it’s time to figure out what you are going to offer. You’ll want to clearly and specifically outline what you’ll offer and how much you’ll charge. Things you’ll want to cover in your packages are:

  • Base rates and rates for add-ons
  • Times/days that you offer parties
  • What age range can you accommodate? Are the space and activities appropriate for all ages?
  • What you provide; plates, napkins, serve ware, shoes, harnesses, etc.
  • What parents need to provide; decorations, drinks, food, cake, etc.
  • Do you have a parent or adult/child ratio requirement?

You can be creative with packages to sell more at a better price. How you present your packages can make or break your program, so make sure to re-evaluate if you are not seeing the sales you were expecting.

 

Get the Whole Team on Board

Getting the whole team on board with the new program is crucial to its success. Not only is training essential to make sure that events are booked and run properly, you’ll also be engaging and investing in your staff. Provide the staff all the information about the new program so they can answer questions and speak to guests about booking events. When events are booked and held make sure that everyone knows what the expectations are for their involvement.

 

Market Your Birthday Party

Once you’ve researched and defined your birthday party program, it’s time to get the word out and generate sales. As part of your research on competition you collected data on marketing, now you’ll use it to promote your program. Obviously you’ll want to promote your birthday party program to your existing members and on your social media.

 

To target new customers, you’ll use your research on who your customers are and advertise to them. Add a landing page to your website with relevant information and be sure to include an information capture form to get leads. Create a list of likely search terms, such as “best kids birthday party venue,” and target them with ads. Send out press releases to local media outlets. Invite local family and mom bloggers to come tour the facility and write about what you offer and why it’s unique. There are lots of marketing strategies to choose from, but the key is to think about where your customers “hang out,” whether that’s online or in person, and develop a plan to reach them.

 

Putting It All Together (PIAT)

Creating new business lines can be intimidating, however the pay-offs make it worthwhile. Set realistic goals for accomplishing each step of market research and launching your new program, set it up properly and do it right the first time. Birthdays are a life milestone at any age and developing a well-thought-out birthday party program builds the community in your gym and creates brand loyalty with your members. You may not be able to research everything, so stick to the areas that will provide you with the most important information:

  • Know what your customers want
  • Know your competition
  • Create a fun and functional party space
  • Run the numbers to develop pricing
  • Clearly outline everything you offer
  • Train all the staff on expectations
  • Market and book birthday parties

 

Amanda Ashley Head ShotAbout Amanda Ashley

Amanda Ashley is a writer, climber, and a climbing mom. From her early days spent training on the musty community woody in The School at the New River Gorge to training in modern mega climbing gyms all over the West, she's seen the rise of climbing gyms and the evolution of routesetting up close and personal for the past 20 years. Amanda writes about climbers, routesetting, changes in climbing movement and performance, and the climbing industry. Amanda's work has appeared in Climbing Magazine, Climbing Business Journal, and the Utah Adventure Journal.

 

Tags:  birthday parties  marketing  operations  programming  staff training 

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The Dirtbag Dilemma: Evaluating Van Life on Gym Property

Posted By Marley Jeranko, Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2018
Van Life at Climbing Gyms

Counterculture has long been in the fibers of climbing, so is it any wonder that as the sport becomes more mainstream, the two have started to butt heads? As the climbing population explodes, indoor climbing gyms have become havens for urban van-dwellers, which begs the question – how should the industry respond?

 

Do you create new policies that support the modern business model but deny its dirtbag roots; or do you make room for the dirtbag as a part of your business model – and if you do, what might be the risks to your the business? Hear what a few climbing gym professionals have to say on the matter…

 

Rich Breuner, Director of Operations at Bend Rock Gym in Bend, OR, takes a neutral approach. He says, “Having folks park their vans overnight in our parking lot has been more or less inconsequential in the grand scheme of the general operations of our business.” Breuner is in a unique position that allows a flexible policy without a lot of consequence. Depending on the season, Bend Rock Gym sees anywhere from a couple to a dozen vans a night, Breuner reports. Not only does the gym have a lot of space to accommodate a crowd like this, overall, most people who come there to stay in their vans aren’t doing it long-term. “Right now, it works given the dynamics of our business, users, and community; however, as we continue to evolve as a business, our policies around overnight visitors are likely to change.”

 

His position is a common one. Like several other gyms who responded anonymously, he describes a desire to appeal to community values while remaining wary of the potential problems they could create. “I can see both sides of the equation,” Breuner acknowledges. “It depends on where the gym is, the owner’s comfort level, land use policies, the dynamics of the community, and environment [city versus small town]. I can easily see gyms not being open to it like we are, and I respect that. Any time you have people sleeping in a parking lot, unfortunately it tends to create an opening for people you wouldn’t necessarily want to be there – I can understand not wanting to perpetuate that.”

 

Like Bend Rock Gym, the Boulder Rock Club’s philosophy is geographically dependent. But unlike Bend, the subject was a bit more pressing. “We’ve known for well over a decade that if we were to allow overnight camping, we would be overrun," says Kevin Bains, General Manager. With 53 parking spots, 10 percent of which are occupied by staff – the only group with permission to be there overnight – van life would create a logistical nightmare. “As a part of their agreement for living here, the staff help monitor that.”

 

The reason behind this is purely circumstantial. "We have a popular morning crowd,” Bains says , “so if you’re sleeping in until 10 o’clock – we need your spot because we have other paying customers that want to be in here."

 

Now, some would argue that it opens up a can of worms to allow overnight parking for staff but not members. "Part of allowing staff to stay here is tied to employee retention and job satisfaction,” Bains explains. “I would assume in a lot of places, Boulder in particular, there’s no camping close to city limits – you have to go pretty far to get to a campground. We live in tough rental market, so we try to listen and make accommodations.”

 

Despite these challenges, Bains views van life as a unique opportunity for climbing gyms. “If you’re in a city that doesn’t have as many climbers as Boulder does, you might have a policy that allows your members to stay overnight – that might be a really great way to give back to your membership. If we could service our membership with overnight camping, we totally would, but [for us], there are too many obstacles.”

 

Zach Mathe, Adventure Rock’s Desk Staff Supervisor, agrees, but points out an important distinction. “Although there is a strong link between van-living, climbing gyms, and climbing culture, customers, members, and friends of climbing gyms shouldn't feel owed or entitled to their own allocated space on a business's property, even if the business is connected to the lifestyle associated with that practice.” He continues, “If a climbing gym supports van-living, it will be a nice service offered by that gym.”

 

Regardless of your current situation, “It is important to think about because ... the growth in the climbing industry only seems to be going up,” says Mathe. “Along with the rise of minimalist lifestyles, many people will be coming into a sport that glorifies the dirtbag lifestyle, which could lead to more people pursuing van life.”

 

Ultimately, it comes down to listening to your staff and membership and finding out what their needs are. The best way to find out? Talk to them. Communicate openly with customers and inform your staff so that they can respond appropriately. “We verbally communicate our expectations to those staying in the parking lot: where to park, where not to park, cleaning up trash, noise, inappropriate behavior, etc. More often than not, people ask or in some way communicate with us that they intend to [park their vans here], and that’s when we have that conversation with them,” explains Breuner.

 

He also advises, "When it comes to communicating with staff, it’s just like any other change in policy – you use the communication channels you have and make sure it’s well-documented and reinforced on a regular basis. Everybody needs to be aware, comfortable, and confident [in their understanding of how] the business is meant to operate.” Without consistency, it could become harder to maintain a respectful relationship between the business and its van-dwelling customers.

 

Here’s the bottom line: van life doesn’t have to be the enemy of the indoor climbing industry. Regardless of the position you take, it’s up to you to establish fair boundaries. And most importantly, don’t wait to address the subject until it becomes a problem. Failure to educate could be the determining factor for the positive or negative circumstances that happen outside your doors.

 

Marley Jeranko Head ShotAbout Marley Jeranko

Marley Jeranko is a freelance writer and editor in the Bay Area. With her combined experience in business-to-business media and the outdoor industry, Marley aims to help educate and provide useful solutions to indoor climbing gym professionals.

 

Tags:  climbing culture  community development  operations  van life 

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