The Shifting UK Gym Scene

At the Mile End Climbing Wall in London. Photo: Andy Day andyday.com / Mile End

By Zofia Reych

Rooted in decades of hardcore rock climbing traditions, the British indoor climbing scene is now coming into its own an industry. In 2012, it was predicted that indoor climbing would overtake its outdoor counterpart within twelve months. Five years later, there are 386 public access climbing walls in the UK, with well over five million individual user visits a year.

Like anywhere in the world, the sport’s rapid growth in Britain is associated with climbing’s recent entry into the mainstream consciousness, partly due to the successful Olympic bid. Shauna Coxsey’s ongoing, triumphant march through the World Cup circuit draws, even more, attention to indoor bouldering.

For climbing walls across the country, this means a huge shift in operating environment. We talked to ten dedicated climbing centres in the UK, asking about their marketing activities and how they perceive their target audience. This is the first of our series of articles mapping out the UK climbing wall industry.

Challenges

Dean Straw, Marketing and Advertising Manager with Mile End Climbing Wall (MECW) in London, has been with the company for fourteen years. MECW is believed to be the oldest customer-facing, dedicated indoor climbing facility in the country. As pressures on marketing intensified, Straw’s role has developed organically into its current shape.

“When we started out, there was no need to market ourselves. The last eight to ten years brought a dramatic shift and it definitely takes more time and money to promote MECW today. Prices in traditional media advertising are prohibitive, so we now focus on social media and the website. The most important marketing tool remains the same: face-to-face contact with the customer,” explains Straw.

MECW’s operational model as a charity is unique but doesn’t mean it’s not in direct competition with London’s established venues or recent arrivals. This year alone, two new climbing walls are due to open in close proximity to Mile End.

“If the development continues, climbing walls unable to keep up with current market trends and evolving customer needs will be forced to close down. If you are located in a saturated area, without good marketing you will go under,” warns Straw.

Located a few miles from the town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, Evolution Climbing was forced to close down earlier this year. A few months prior, a more modern facility (Chimera Climbing) had opened in town centre. “At Evolution, they simply stagnated. Didn’t promote themselves, didn’t try to keep up,” commented an anonymous climbing industry professional.

While some struggle to stay afloat, others with more funds at their disposal face their own challenges in trying to expand their businesses. Highly urbanised areas offer access to a wide audience but finding suitable properties remains an ongoing issue. “The biggest problem in central London is short-term leases. Five years isn’t enough for a climbing wall,” says Rob Mitchell from Craggy Island who operates two centres on the outskirts of the capital.

His opinion is shared by Fred Stone, director at The Arch Climbing Wall. Stone says that finding the right property is the biggest hurdle to opening a new site. At present, The Arch operates three venues in central London but new branches are planned for 2019. “I don’t want to disclose the locations yet but as soon as the contracts are finalised, we will definitely let people know. I’m the most excited for our custom built facility which will be the first in the country,” added Stone.

Opportunities

For marketing savvy climbing centres, the future seems bright. “Successful walls realise there’s a massive potential and they’re buying additional branches. It seems that you can just look at the map, see where there’s no customer-facing climbing facilities and, with a little bit of investment, you can have a successful business straight away,” said a source who also wished to remain anonymous.

The same used to be true for older climbing walls such as Craggy Island and Manchester Climbing (now at four locations in and out of Manchester). “When we started out, Manchester didn’t have any satisfactory climbing facility. We simply took advantage of a gap in provision,” says Mike Lloyd. Craggy enjoyed a similar situation with no competition within a 50-mile radius unless you wanted to brave a trip to central London. Now both companies find themselves competing with facilities recently established in close proximity. In turn, new centres springing up in currently underserved areas are likely to face the same challenges in the near future.

To gain a competitive edge, many companies have adopted a business model of aggressive expansion through adding new sites. Among those are Arch Climbing Wall, The Climbing Hangar and Beacon Climbing. Tommy Chammings, from Beacon points to the operational advantages of running multiple centres: “In many aspects, you can simply multiply your work. Independent walls will always struggle to afford dedicated, professional marketing.”

Asked if independent walls can’t withstand competition with growing chains, Dean Straw answered with a question: “Did all independent coffee shops close after we got Starbucks? It seems that UK indoor climbing businesses have two choices: go big and become a chain, or stay small and carve a niche of cult following and a faithful customer-base.”

Vivien Underwood, Communication and Events Manager at the Climbing Hangar believes that “there’s room for both small, specialised climbing walls catering for the needs of a particular crowd and for more open, general public-minded places. But like with any sport that hits the mainstream, there’s gonna come a point when someone really big wants to start buying climbing walls.”

To withstand the competition, indoor climbing businesses need to be ready to stand their ground by creating strong brand identities.

Identity

Unique facilities are often an important differentiating point, with The Castle Climbing Centre in London being a prime example. In 1995, the company took over a former Victorian pumping station with its distinctive, castle-like looks and a huge surface area.

“Our facility is so unique that it’s sometimes difficult to communicate it before it’s actually experienced in flesh. We’re a destination centre,” says Amy Yates, who recently took over the position of Communication and Events Manager. Like many other successful walls, the Castle has an extensive development plan but in this case, it revolves solely around expanding the existing site. The centre is packed on every weekday evening and “every time a new climbing wall opens in the London area, we end up experiencing a surge in visits,” adds Yates.

For many of the country’s original climbing walls (such as the Castle, MECW, or the legendary Climbing Works in Sheffield), brand identities have evolved organically and have a recognisable presence within the community. At the same time, reaching out to new clients requires more commercially-orientated efforts. Mile End Climbing Wall refreshed their visual identity five years ago, while Beacon Climbing has recently developed a separate brand to use at their new branches.

“Our original centre in Wales is located in one of the country’s most important regions for outdoor climbing. As a training facility for dedicated climbers, we offer a high quality product that markets itself. The brand is spread by word of mouth among the close-knit community. It’s synonymous with North Wales, so we felt that it wasn’t relevant for our new locations. Under the new brand, Big Rock, we already operate one gym in Milton Keynes and another one is due to open in October. A third venue in Peterborough is in its early development,” says Tommy Chammings.

Close to the core

Asked about target audiences, multi-centre companies with aggressive expansion plans talk mostly of “building a community”, while smaller, independent walls point to the necessity of reaching out to the general public, even at the cost of retention. At the same time, most describe their customer base as split fifty-fifty between “climbers” and “non-climbers”.

Popular A-listers, like Europe’s biggest climbing arena, EICA Ratho in Edinburgh, or Westway Climbing in London, operate with the support of local authorities. Their strong brands are directly tied with their unparalleled facilities and sheer size (Ratho) or excellent location (Westway). “We’re directly under a motorway and in the evening we’re a stopover point for scores of commuters,” explains Jez Tapping, Head of Climbing at Westway. Both Ratho and Westway operate in liaison with larger leisure centres of which they are part. As a result, both function on a very different plane to most climbing centres in the country.

“It’s practically impossible for a privately owned climbing wall to be in direct competition with us,” points out Tapping. However, despite being a part of mainstream leisure centres, both Westway and Ratho wish to uphold identities closely connected to the core climbing community.

While fitness-orientated commuters take over Westway in the evenings, the centre fills up with outdoor rock climbers during the day. “That’s how we started out and we want to retain our appeal to core climbers,” says Tapping. Ratho ensures their connection with the outdoor community through a relation with renowned Scottish big-wall and alpine climber, Robbie Phillips, who acts as a routesetter and an ambassador.

While no existing or new gyms want to risk cutting their ties with the well established, traditional core climbing community, most agree on the importance of growing the market. Reaching out to new audiences is reportedly much easier in highly urbanised areas, where climbing walls have the luxury of choosing their audience.

“It’s really easy to have loads of kids’ parties or loads of families coming during school holidays and never coming back,” said Vivien Underwood from The Climbing Hangar. With its original location in Liverpool, a new take-over branch in London, and the third facility on its way, the Hangar builds its marketing efforts around “putting people in touch with each other and building new connections through the shared love of climbing. We’re mostly interested in building a community of people who want to contribute and come back. The real challenge is retention and our marketing strategy is evolving to reflect that.”

Professionalisation

The necessity to ground marketing in an appealing brand complete with a compelling visual identity is recognised by most existing climbing centres, but according to branding professional Kieran Riddiough, “for most of them it seems almost like an afterthought.” With no climbing background, Riddiough was invited to develop an identity for Yonder, a new centre soon to open its doors in East London.

Riddiough and the centre’s founders went through a huge list of names before they settled for Yonder. Then followed a process of designing a logo that would be suitable for every aspect of their project. Reflecting climbing’s entry into the mainstream, Yonder will be a bouldering facility integrated with a community centre, boasting a co-working space, yoga studio, exhibition venue, bar and cafe.

Yonder’s brand guidelines are so precise that custom coloured climbing holds had to be ordered. “If somebody visits us and takes a picture for their social media, we want the venue to be immediately recognisable,” explains Riddiough.

It takes only a quick look at the jobs section of UKC, Britain’s most popular climbing website, to notice that climbing centres old and new seek to include branding and marketing professionals, as well as content creators, within their teams. Manchester Climbing Centre is among those looking to employ a full-time campaigns coordinator. At the Climbing Hangar, Vivien Underwood was recently brought in-house after a few years of part-time freelancing. Rob Mitchell is seeking to outsource social media management with an online marketing agency, and Dean Straw regularly shores up his marketing activities with the help of an external consultancy.

“We will soon see an influx of specialised, experienced professionals into the climbing industry. Most skills are transferable. It’s no longer essential for higher management to be climbers,” says Straw, a thought that’s echoed by Mike Lloyd: “Climbing attracts creative people. At the moment marketing standards massively vary but they certainly will get pushed up.”

Beyond propelling individual businesses, vigorous marketing is the only way to expand the indoor climbing market in the interest of the whole sector. For now, the UK has seen no industry-wide initiatives at growing the market but Rob Mitchell from Craggy Island hopes it will change. “We need something that will promote climbing to the general public on a larger scale. For now, we all are too preoccupied with our own businesses but if we want the whole sector to thrive, at some point we will have to come together.”

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