Adaptation Ahead for LA Gyms

Photo: Hangar 18 - Riverside
Photo: Hangar 18 - Riverside
Photo: Hangar 18 – Riverside

As CBJ reported last month, the Los Angeles metropolitan area is seeing a boom in climbing gym construction. In 2013 developers and entrepreneurs opened four new gyms, there are at least five additional gyms scheduled to open this year and several already planned for 2015.

These new facilities are putting pressure on the older gyms in the area, many of which have been around for years. LA’s original climbing facilities must adapt to deal with the new competition; for some this will mean renovation and development, for others it will mean carving out a niche for lower cost services.

Race to the Top?

When the first LA gyms opened up, some were state of the art while some were not much fancier than the average home woody.  But what has been a common theme among many of LA’s original generation of climbing gyms is the lack of modernization over the years.

Historically gyms in LA have not had to compete head to head with other gyms. Even with the steady addition of new gyms to the LA area, most of the new development has focused on underserved areas of town and the existing gyms have not had to compete directly with newcomers. Without any competition, they have had little incentive to make capital investments on equipment that is still technically functional.

Even though a climbing wall is still functional after a decade of use, the countless climbs it has seen have added much wear and tear; layers of chalk and rubber, cracks and chips in the surface make it unappealing and uninspiring to climb. By this time the padding under the walls has gone flat and floor covering has become worn and stained. To keep the facility feeling fresh and to maintain member enthusiasm the facility needs to be updated.

First generation gyms also lack many of the features that attract members to modern climbing facilities: excellent lighting and air quality, well appointed fitness areas, spacious locker rooms with showers, and professional climbing, fitness and yoga instruction.

Photo: Rockreation

Of course making these improvements to a twenty year old facility is not cheap, so many owners have not had sufficient motivation to make the investment.

That’s about to change. San Francisco-based gym developer Planet Granite recently announced they are building a new facility in west LA, only a few miles from Rockreation’s LA location.

Rockreation’s LA location opened in 1995. Their Costa Mesa location opened in 1993, making their facilities some of the oldest in the area.

Blaine Eastcott, President of Rockreation, understands the new pressures but is confident they can compete. “We just have to concentrate on our business and make it the best it can be,” said Eastcott in an email interview. They hope to accomplish this by popping the roof of their LA location to allow for higher climbing walls and renovating both of their LA locations. They’ll be making a variety of changes, “from aesthetic improvements like new bathrooms, to amenities like new weight areas, and new climbing surface,” said Eastcott.

As new gyms continue to pour into the market, other gyms will find themselves with nearby competition. Louie Anderson, longtime SoCal local and owner of the Factory Bouldering gym told CBJ, “Some of these older facilities will likely weather the competition just fine, but others will need to consider updating or revamping themselves to stay competitive and relevant in today’s market.”

Anderson is taking his own advice. Just one year after opening the Factory, Anderson acquired the space next door and expanded not once but twice, and will be adding even more space in 2014. “We opened the doors with just under 4,900 sq. ft. The first expansion took us to 7,100. This last one took us to 9,800. Should be about 11,200 after this final one,” said Anderson.

While renovating may still be the best way to head off extinction, it is not the only way. “We are also … looking to expand into the Valley, and the South Bay,” said Rockreation’s Eastcott. “After that, we have some plans to move further south. Just like any industry, if you don’t change to match the times, you are in jeopardy of fading away.”

Hangar 18, which currently has five locations in the area, is also pushing to open more facilities in 2014. “We needed to expand Climb It Holds into a larger building and I found a perfect one off of [Interstate-15] that was large enough to add a bouldering gym,” said Zach Shields, Owner of Hangar 18 and Climb It Holds.  “Also, my old business partner from the original gym in Upland, Byron Shumpert, has been in the process of opening a bouldering gym in San Clemente and we decided to partner up as another Hangar 18.”  According to Shields both facilities will be opening in early 2014.

Some gym owners clearly see the need to modernize their facilities if they are going to compete with the influx of new compeition. Time will tell if the other gyms in the area will follow their lead, but they may not need to.

Less Bling, More Value

As any market grows it also diversifies. First-generation climbing gyms that maintain their classic look and services may aim to fill the niche of low-cost-operator.

Already the market is seeing a widening price gap between the oldest and newest facilities.  Most of the facilities built before 2010 offer annual pre-paid memberships from $390 to $699, while the area’s two news gyms, Sender One and LA.B both offer annual memberships for over $800.

Gym Operator Initiation Monthly EFT Annual Prepaid Year Opened
Rock City $0 $32.50 $390 1991
ClimbX $60 $40 $420 1996
Hangar 18 – Riverside $0 $46 $636 2008
Rockreation – LA $70 $57 $699 1995
LA.B $100 $73 $803 2013
Sender One $100 $75 $825 2013

The oldest facilities don’t offer big walls, free yoga or fancy locker rooms, but they do offer an affordable option to climbers in the community. This means the older gyms will compete against each other on price, while the new and modernized facilities will compete on amenities.

It remains to be seen how many climbers will be attracted by the value these facilities offer.  Certainly some students and young families will be drawn in by the lower prices, while some old-school climbers will simply prefer the older style of gym that they have known and loved.

Driver’s Choice

One advantage for all gyms is that LA climbers aren’t afraid to put in the miles to get to their preferred climbing gym.  Jeff Bowling, Senior Manager at Touchstone Climbing, was surprised to learn that some of the members at Touchstone’s new Los Angeles bouldering gym were driving 45 mins to get to their facility.  “People drive in LA. They drive a lot,”  Bowling said. Certainly some of their new members were driving right past other gyms in the area.

Only time will tell how many LA climbers will be driving past their old gym, with its tired padding, out-moded wall angles and old-school amenities — but low prices — to climb at the fancier but more expensive wall on the other side of town.