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Rock Climbing Gym Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs are capitalizing on rock climbing by bringing the sport indoors -- minus the heat and bugs. Climbers are paying big bucks to get a full-body workout in a convenient, controlled environment.

When Josh Bruckstein says his business is hanging on by a fingernail -- he's not kidding. But Bruckstein wouldn't have it any other way. He owns and operates Green Mountain Rock Climbing Center (GMRCC), an indoor climbing gym in Rutland, Vermont.

Climbing indoors is a popular alternative to traditional outdoor rock, ice and mountain climbing. Often, climbing gyms are the only way for some climbers to engage in the sport. Since gyms aren't limited to rocky environments, climbers in flat locales, like Miami, can get their fill of climbing too.

Climbing gyms recreate natural rocky structures by using synthetic materials that take two basic forms. The first replicates natural boulders -- vertical slabs complete with cracks, crevices, divots and overhangs. They look very similar to artificial structures often seen in zoos or on miniature golf courses.

The second type of wall is relatively smooth, but quite vertical with plenty of overhangs. Strategically placed plastic grips cover the surface and give climbers the handholds and footholds necessary to scale the face.

Bruckstein is an avid climber and saw the opportunity to take the sport indoors. "I did a lot of work with Albany University [New York] Outing Club and organized rock climbing trips. I've always loved to teach and guide trips, so I thought it would be great if I could ever find a way to own a business and teach climbing."

Solid Foundations

Even though he doesn't have any formal business training, Bruckstein avoided many of the pitfalls encountered by ill-prepared entrepreneurs. "I read all the marketing, accounting and finance books that I could. Then I sat down and wrote a 70-page business plan."

Still, high start-up costs can punch holes in the best-laid plans. To start with, climbing gym owners need to find an appropriate facility to house massive physical structures.

"You often have to make structural improvements to an existing building, or find a large building that's already strong enough for your needs," says Bruckstein.

To support a medium-sized clientele, Bruckstein says a gym needs at least 3,000 square feet of space and 20 feet of vertical height.

"Not many buildings are built to a sufficient height for a climbing gym," he says. "If you're lucky enough to find one, it's usually located in an industrial district, which may not an ideal place for a gym."

Even after you've found a suitable building, would-be owners still have other large financial obligations:

  • architectural and engineering services
  • building permit fees
  • tenant improvements
  • contractor costs to design and build a wall
  • rental gear costs
  • staff training costs
  • insurance premiums
  • advertising and promotional costs

Not every potential gym owner has to have all the start-up money him or herself. Wayne Campbell, senior designer at Radwall, is initiating a leasing program. Using this program, entrepreneurs only need to find a suitable building instead of consuming themselves with finding investors.

Campbell is also spearheading an effort to standardize construction methods, so local builders can bid on jobs using Radwall's design documents. This will allow a gym owner to lower construction costs without sacrificing quality.

Smooth Climbing

Once owners get beyond the large financial commitment required to open a gym, they're facing an ideal situation. The simple law of supply and demand comes into play -- there are lots of people who want to climb but relatively few gyms.

To drive demand, numerous health clubs, universities, and summer camps have small or temporary walls that introduce people to the sport. And statistics show that once someone tries climbing, they're hooked. It just may take a bit of time.

"When we started, we had some zero-dollar days," says Bruckstein. "You really question your sanity when you open the doors and nobody comes in. At about the three-month mark we were doing much better. As time goes by, we see the results of our advertising efforts."

The Numbers

Nate Postma, of Vertical Endeavors in St. Paul, Minnesota, says the sport's popularity is definitely on the rise. That may be because the nature of indoor climbing appeals to people of all ages. While the age of gym users shows two spikes -- nine-to-13-year-olds and 30-to-40-year-olds -- people from age five to 55 are enjoying the sport.

According to the Climbing Wall Industry, there are over 375 indoor climbing walls in the U.S. and at least one in every state.

Sky's the Limit

With the increasing popularity of indoor climbing, it's only a matter of time before companies with money begin to exploit the less obvious and untapped -- although profitable -- markets. "Pretty much any medium-sized city can support a small climbing center, especially if it's paired with a sports center-type concept," says Bruckstein.

Even if you're not willing to take the plunge and finance a full-blown rock gym, you can still get in on the act. There are companies that sell portable walls that can be set up at special events, housed in existing buildings or erected outside. They cost about $22,000, but if yours is the only wall in town, you may be able to recover these costs in a relatively short period of time.


Indoor Rock Climbing
Tips on technique, gear and facilities

Climbing Wall Association
Promoting responsible growth and professionalism within the industry

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