By Alex Beld
Less than two decades after the first commercial climbing wall was built, professional wall building companies started building their first “fun climbing” centers. The concept is mostly the same, in that participants use ropes and the objective is to get to the top (most of the time), but the audience, design and business model is drastically different. Though not as popular as typical climbing gyms, which total at about 415 in the U.S., there are now about 20 of these new climbing amusement facilities and the market seems growing.
The brightly colored venues are geared towards kids, birthday parties and even corporate team building retreats. Though traditional climbing gyms have long catered to kids and groups, and many offer dedicated party rooms, these amusement venues take it to a whole new level, and don’t require space to be shared with anyone besides other kids on a frosting sugar rush, their chaperones and apparently the odd group of adults escaping the conference room.
Though Walltopia and Entre-Prises are two of the biggest names involved in these new venues, the brand imprinted on the faux rock, brightly colored puzzles pieces and other Dr. Seuss contraptions that populate theses facilities will say Clip ‘n Climb or Funtopia. Funtopia, as may be obvious, is the fun climbing arm of Walltopia, and Clip ‘n Climb is EP’s version.
Clip ‘n Climb wasn’t always involved with EP. The fun-climbing concept was first conceived in 2005 by John Targett and Tim Wethey in Christchurch, New Zealand. In 2010 they signed a manufacturing license with EP to provide production services in Europe and North America. Ten years later Wethey left to pursue other interests and EP took a strategic stake in the business. Today there are 99 Clip ‘n Climb centers worldwide.
Another vendor, ClimbZone, doesn’t have ties to the traditional climbing gym market but is dedicated exclusively to the fun climbing market. The New Zealand-based company was founded in 2008, and signed their second franchise deal in the U.S. just this month.
Whether an entrepreneur looking for a business opportunity or an existing climbing gym owner looking for some expanded income, there are two main options for getting into the “adventuretainment” side of the sport.
It is possible to either franchise or simply purchase some specialty walls (or challenges, as the vendors like to call them), like any owner would do for a new climbing gym. The decision between the two offers two significantly different paths in the business and either one requires a fair amount of capital.
Both options require the business owner to assume the cost of the location, the walls, and the day-to-day operation. The big difference comes in the form of ownership.
The Ownership Model
The way of doing things through Clip ‘n Climb doesn’t stray from how someone would open a typical climbing gym. An owner purchases or builds a location and works with the company to figure out a design that works best with their space. After the walls are installed, you’re mostly left to operate your business.
Gyms or other amusement venues also have the option to add a few of the challenges rather than building an entire Clip ‘n Climb facility.
EP Sales and marketing Director Todd Chester said completing a project is considered healthy if done in four to six months and can be done in as quickly as three if decisions are made quickly. The venues typically see more social and viewing areas than a typical gym.
It terms of return on investment, EP has noticed more success with these venues than they have with typical climbing venues. This may be due to the different way users pay to play. At a Clip ‘n Climb facility the climbers are paying by the hour rather than buying a membership or a day pass.
“That’s the way we’ve seen it work the best,” Chester said. “No matter what you have to be a good business person.”
Chester explained that owners will want to look to programming as a way of keeping the venues in business and in use during low turnover times, just like a hardcore gym. EP offers programming ideas along with their marketing materials.
With ClimbZone future operators sign a 10 year franchise agreement that typically includes a $40,000 initial franchise fee, plus ongoing royalty fees of 6 percent of the gross monthly revenue and 1 percent brand and marketing fee. Franchisees can be expected to spend an additional $1.5-3 million to purchase and outfit a location.
The franchisee can select from ClimbZone’s 75 custom walls, five of which have more traditional holds while the rest offer integrated holds. Each wall offers its own theme, like Mount Rushmore, King Kong and pirate ships. “We really immerse the wall in the theme,” Levenson said.
At the end of the 10-year period franchisees can re-up their franchise agreement and continue the business. Their other options are selling it to a new franchisee or returning the walls to ClimbZone. ClimbZone does this to protect their brand and ensure their product is not involved in the injury or death of someone involved in using it incorrectly.
Today ClimbZone has just one U.S. franchise in Laurel, Maryland. The company is rolling out their franchise option slowly with plans for three franchise units by the end of 2017 and six more by the end of 2018, targeting markets like Chicago, Atlanta and Las Vegas.
ClimbZone COO Keith Levenson said, “The idea of franchise really hadn’t been on the radar,” adding they were approached on several occasions before the company considered making the transition.
It turns out to be a change that makes sense for expanding the brand quickly. It allows the name to pop up in locations across the country without the company paying for the space or the walls they produce.
Levenson said instead of opening five on their own they can open 100 instead. “You don’t have to reinvest to open another store,” he explained.
Walltiopia Goes For Both
Walltopia offers owners the option for a Funtopia franchise as well as the ability to purchase a variety of Fun Walls, slides, rope courses and other challenges offered under their Adventure division. A venue could either use the walls for a portion of their facility, like Upper Limits did about a month ago in St. Louis, or operate a dedicated facility made completely of walls and challenges branded by Funtopia.
Like most fun wall brands the challenges are typically between 20-26 feet high. Though each brand has its own themes, or spin on a theme, the one common element is a complete dependency on auto belay systems, TruBlue being a common one.
According to their brochure, Funtopia has 22 completed fun wall projects, one of the most prominent being Sender One in Santa Ana, California.
But is it Good For Climbing?
Purists of the sport of climbing are known to frown upon this newer side of the indoor climbing business, as purists are typically known to do when things change. Though there is not data to support the theory, the less intimidating setting seems to be a new way to introduce people to the sport of climbing. It’s a similar softening of the learning experience that indoor climbing gyms created for outdoor climbing.
ClimbZone General Manager Liesl Kenrick said “It’s an add-on for the sport,” explaining that since there’s no belay classes to take (all the activities use auto belays for protection), you don’t have any barriers that could deter someone interested in giving the sport a chance.
And though many people may only try it out a few times and be done with it, it would be reasonable to expect some bleedthrough into the more serious side of the sport, something Upper Limits Founder Chris Schmick has witnessed first hand.
Upper Limits, a St. Louis-based chain of gyms, recently opened its fourth gym in Chesterfield, Missouri and it houses a typical gym along with a “Wacky Walls” area with walls provided by Funtopia. The short gym, standing at 24 feet tall, has proved to be an ideal set-up for bouldering and amusement in its suburban setting.
The reception of the gym with its two approaches to the sport have been well-received and appear to offer a funnel from the wacky side to the more serious part of the gym. The two areas are separate, but immediately visible to both parties.
“I think our members realize to have new holds we have to have birthday parties,” Schmick said. “It’s going to be a big thing for our climbing team and youth programs.”
Schmick has witnessed some kids move from the pay-per-hour Wacky Walls to the bouldering area and purchase a day pass in the same day, which shows that separate but visible may be the way to go for other gyms considering mixing the two.
Schmick said this method appears to be the right approach at about a month into being open with the new concept.
And though the purists may have their own names for it, for tax purposes the venues are typically labeled as family entertainment or amusement parks. Others like to refer to it as “climbing for the non-climber” or climbing for the masses. Whatever it is called, it could become the avenue for the next set of great climbers to find the sport and be the key to bringing the sport into the mainstream, therefore boosting membership and day pass sales.