Apparently Australians like to boulder. From the Grampians to the Blue Mountains, the climbers of Oz have plenty of options for pebble wrestling. But it seems they also like to pull on plastic.
According to recent CBJ research there are currently a total of 46 climbing gyms in Australia serving the country’s 24 million people (522,000/ppl per gym). That means that Australia has more climbing gyms per capita than the United States (746,000/ppl per gym) and just behind Canada (493,000/ppl per gym).
The first gyms in Australia opened in 1993 – 1994, and the industry saw moderate growth through the 2000’s. Many gyms still carry the hallmarks of that era: dead vertical walls and 90 degree roofs, shredded rubber flooring and classic “graffiti” color schemes can be seen from New South Wales to Western Australia.
But in the last two years it’s bouldering gym operators that have begun to move the Australian climbing industry forward. In fact no full service climbing gym has opened up in Australia since 2013 and none have been publicly announced for 2016. But in that same timeframe, 3 bouldering-only facilities opened and two more are expected to open in 2016.
One of the major players leading the push to modernize the Australian climbing scene is Alex Cox-Taylor, Director and Co-Owner of the Brisbane-based Urban Climb, which by next year will be the largest gym operator on the continent. Cox-Taylor is originally from London but took over management at Urban Climb in 2007 and quickly initiated a series of expansions to the original facility, which opened in 2004.
Part of that expansion plan is two new bouldering gyms in Brisbane scheduled to open in 2016 (the only new gyms that have been announced in the country). Cox-Taylor admits that his plans are ambitious but told CBJ in a Skype interview that, “Every time we’ve added something new to what we have, we’ve been able to make the most of that. We’ve grown quicker than expected, that’s for sure.”
Cox Taylor said that Urban Climb has hit capacity on several occasions recently and instead of raising rates on his members he and his team decided to expand to other areas of Brisbane.
Cox-Taylor listed all the typical advantages to opening a bouldering gym in lieu of a full-service traditional gym: lower capital costs, lower operating costs and easier access to real estate in what Australians call the Central Business District or CBD. As important as those factors are to the development of a climbing gym, Cox-Taylor was primarily interested in a bouldering-only model from a business perspective: he was convinced it would be successful.
The first evidence for this theory came after Urban Climb added 1,690 square feet of bouldering to the original 11,000 square feet of climbing terrain. The popularity of the bouldering terrain, and what it did for their business as a whole, convinced Cox-Taylor bouldering was a good business model. The other proof came from visits to London and US bouldering facilities, where he witnessed first-hand how bouldering gyms have taken off.
“I can’t speak for others who have started bouldering gyms in Australia,” Cox-Taylor summarized, “But those two things combined gave me a lot of confidence in bouldering as a strong aspect of the business and what it can do for climbers and what it can do for our community.”
Urban Climb isn’t the only operator sold on bouldering. Just down the coast from Brisbane lies Sydney and it’s newest addition to the climbing scene, 9 Degrees Bouldering gym run by Dr. Martijn A. van Eijkelenborg, a Dutch/Australian who holds a PhD in Quantum Physics. With their La Marzocco espresso machine boasting beans from local Sydney roasters and an interior design aesthetic borrowed from Grandma’s living room, 9 Degrees has been getting a lot of press lately and is the hipster-est of climbing gyms. It’s not all about the looks however. Van Eijkelenborg hired routesetting savant Niklas Wiechmann from the German bouldering gym Stuntwerx to put up the first set of boulders.
Van Eijkelenborg sharred the sentiments of Urban Climb’s Cox-Taylor by telling CBJ, “Anyone who does their market research properly will see that boulder gyms are the way to go. They have much greater potential for a return of investment, and judging from the trends in Europe and America, they have a great future ahead of them.”
The Urban Factor
You can think of Australia as one giant desert surrounded by a handful of large cities, and with big cities come big real estate prices. These metro areas already have a number of well established, if aged, full-service climbing facilities
This geography and urban density, which is similar in many ways to Canada, may be why bouldering gyms are taking off rather than traditional gyms. “It is hard to find suitable buildings for full service gyms due to the heights required,” said van Eijkelenborg.
And as their name would imply, Urban Climb actively looked for property close to the Brisbane CBD. Their two new facilities are actually quite close to each other in the heart of town. Even though Urban Climb’s new Milton bouldering gym is just across the Brisbane river from their original location, Cox-Taylor said there is a physiological barrier to crossing it. “We want to be where people live, where people work so we can become a part of their lifestyle.” That’s why he chose property in neighborhoods that are surrounded by universities and apartment dwellings. “We want to be where lots of people live on our doorstep,” Cox-Taylor said.
Down in Melbourne, the second most populous city in Australia, one company is single-handedly bringing bouldering to the masses. The city’s iconic bouldering institution the Lactic Factory which was the city’s first bouldering gym, was bought by “a bunch of psyched boulderers” who took on the task of updating the facility. “It wasn’t long before it became apparent we were going to need a bigger space to accommodate the masses of Melbourne boulderers that would regularly descend on our little gym,” their website states. That’s when they decided to open Northside Boulders. A mere 22 minutes from the Lactic Factory and smack dab in the middle of town, both gyms are holding close to the urban market strategy.
The real question for van Eijkelenborg is, why has it taken so long. He believes that a 5 to 10 year delay is often found between the emergence of a new trend in Europe or America and its uptake in and somewhat isolated Australia. “This certainly applies to the climbing industry,” he said.
Bouldering gyms are now a recognizable and trusted business model in the US and Europe. Even Japan has a healthy urban bouldering scene, arguably prompted by the large, dense cities and astronomical real estate prices.
Van Eijkelenborg believes that the climbing industry in Australia is just starting to embrace what others around the world have been doing for years. “Until recently all climbing walls were generally of a ‘home-made’ style, designed and put together in a different way for each gym by different local builders resulting in walls of varying shapes and quality,” van Eijkelenborg said.
Quality holds and professional wall builders have been difficult to get ahold of in Australia. Now, thanks to importers and retailers like ICP which is a distributor of Flatholds, IBEX, and also a sales rep for Walltopia, Australian gym developers have access to the latest products. ICP also puts out their own brand of climbing holds that are easily the most popular grips in Australia. “With a one-stop shop looking after your walls, holds, features and volumes, starting a gym is now easier than ever,” van Eijkelenborg said.
With many of the obstacles starting to fade away, opening a climbing gym in Australia, whether a boulder gym or a traditional gym, should only get easier. But like all emerging markets it’s going to take some serious and experienced entrepreneurs to get in the game.
Van Eijkelenborg of 9 Degrees thinks that Australia is primed for a climbing gym explosion. “There are a lot of interesting business opportunities across Australia, and more 9 Degrees boulder gyms are likely to spring up around the place,” he said. “I think we are clearly at the start of the boulder gym revolution in Australia.”