Family—and Climbing Family—Come First: Behind the Closures with Jesse Waldorf

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Jesse Waldorf, Co-Founder of Straight Up Climbing in Sechelt, British Columbia. All photos courtesy of Jesse Waldorf / Straight Up Climbing

Behind the Closures…is a new series that interviews gym owners, managers and employees—and looks at how the ongoing Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is impacting facilities and communities around North America.

In this installment, CBJ puts the spotlight on Strait Up, a 2,400-square-foot gym in British Columbia that has been closed since March 17. The Canadian government has since promised small businesses $40,000—interest-free—for a year, which “might be just enough to save a lot of Canadian gyms,” according to Strait Up’s Jesse Waldorf. Time will tell.

But Waldorf tells CBJ that founding Strait Up was a “family dream” for him and his wife, Leanne Waldorf, and it remains a “family affair through and through” for both of them, even amid the closure.

Behind the closures with Straight Up Climbing's Co-Founder Jesse Waldorf.
Jesse Waldorf, Co-Founder of Strait Up Climbing in Sechelt, British Columbia. All photos courtesy of Jesse Waldorf / Strait Up Climbing

Name: Jesse Waldorf
Title: Co-Founder, Strait Up Climbing
Location: Sechelt, British Columbia

CBJ: First, how are you doing amid the ongoing crisis and gym closure, and what does your day-to-day look like now?

WALDORF: I also work a day job for the local First Nations and at the moment the Emergency Response here locally is keeping me exceedingly busy.

Our typical day as a family would have looked like this: Wake up at 6:30 am to get our five-year-old ready for school. Our just-now-three-year-old would follow Mom around for the day. I hit the day job office at 8:00 am daily. Bookkeeping and gym planning happens with Leanne from our home office—hold orders, planning for routesetting, organizing spring and summer break camps.

On a weekday, the gym opens at 3:00 pm. Leanne, my wife, opens the gym just after grabbing our son from school and the kids climb for an hour. On the days that we don’t have after-school programs I man the gym and work on gym inspections, inventories, and booking parties and corporate team building events…which recently was a booming business for us.

Weekends I take Saturdays, 10:00 am to 9:00 pm, and Sunday we often had a local young climber watch the gym for us to allow us a family day.

 

These days I am working remotely from home, helping the Sechelt Nation plan for the impact of COVID-19. I don’t have nearly as much time to stress about the gym as my wife. Kids are not in school, as the closures here are still in effect. We work together in the evening once the kids are in bed to try and plan how we are going to get through this.

CBJ: In terms of getting through this, are you doing anything to manage that stress?

WALDORF: I have been trying to take breaks to meditate on the situation between conference calls. Being at home with family—despite the stress of having two kids at each other—is actually a big help to keep me focused on the important things. The climbing gym is our dream, but it doesn’t come before our family, and it doesn’t come before our climbing family either. This is why we made the hard call to close the gym before it was mandated by the government.

Behind the closures with Straight Up Climbing's Jesse and Leanne Waldorf.
Jesse Waldorf (left) and Leanne Waldorf (right), partners in climbing and gym operations.

CBJ: On the Strait Up’s Facebook page, it mentions wanting to do everything possible to make sure the staff is looked after. Would you mind expounding on that?

WALDORF: Our only full-time staff at the time of closure was the two of us. But we have several routesetters that counted on us for side income, and we had recently worked agreements with a gym further up the coast to farm those setters out. It was an exciting growth opportunity for the gym and our setters to get into the world of commercial routesetting. We are working with those two setters to try and keep them employed in the gym for cleaning and planning for ‘reopening with a bang.’

Once the gym has been closed long enough that infection should no longer be a problem, we will be bringing those employees back for hold stripping and setting. We are working on the social distancing plans now. No longer can your buddy throw you up that hold that you just dropped. People will have to work solo on their side of the gym.

CBJ: Would you mind sharing how the closure has impacted Strait Up financially?

WALDORF: Strait Up has seen a 100-percent-drop in revenue. We have not had to issue any refunds to members, but we have refunded all the fees for our spring/summer camps. We are waiting to determine the long-term effects on our after-school program. Our gym is in a small community and people are really supportive of small businesses. We are hoping people stick with us in that regard. We have paused all memberships and dues—no additional monthly payments, and duration already paid-for is paused.

 

CBJ: So, how will you know when it is an appropriate time to reopen?

WALDORF: We closed before it was mandated by the government; however, we plan to follow their guidelines for reopening. It is up to the local public health agency to lift this ban on non-essential businesses. (All non-essential businesses were mandated to close this week in British Columbia).

CBJ: Are you dealing with any situation regarding lease payments?

WALDORF: We lease our space. We share a building with a dance school and yoga/Pilates studio. The building owners are saints and have reassessed the lease with us for the next three months to cover only their costs…to be reassessed in the next three months as things roll out. It is an incredibly generous gesture that we are hugely grateful for. The owners had a dream when they built the building that it would be used for something like it is now—not just another coffee shop, etc. They have made a lot of accommodations to keep us and the dance school as anchor tenants.

Behind the closures with Straight Up Climbing - the gym before closing.
A look inside the Strait Up Climbing facility in Sechelt, BC, before the closure.

CBJ: Even once gyms start reopening, do you think people—climbers included—might be a little reluctant to gather in large groups…including in places like gyms?

WALDORF: I think it will take time for a lot of the world to get back to normal. I think all places where people congregate will take a hit. I also think the climbing community is too strong not to pull through this and continue on once the pandemic is over. The biggest impact to gyms will be loss of new climbers. I think we were all excited to see big growth from the 2020 Olympics (now cancelled), and the boom of new climbers this was breeding as parents started to see climbing as not just a rebellious activity but a real sport.

CBJ: The question is: will there be any gyms left after this storm?

WALDORF: ‘How long can we all hold out?’ will be the question. Those gyms that perhaps just opened with huge capital costs financed will be in the worst place. Hopefully landlords are willing to work with anchor tenants like gyms who have a lot invested in the space. I don’t think there will be a huge demand for leased space as the economy comes back online. They would be smart to keep their tenants any way possible.

For now, we hunker down and try and reduce overhead…reduce insurance, turn off the lights and heat and hunker down for the long haul.

 

CBJ: You mentioned wanting to ‘reopen with a bang.’ Can you give some specifics of what you have in mind for that?

WALDORF: We got lucky and unlike some gyms didn’t pull the trigger on a huge hold order recently. Our plan (when we get through this) is to take those funds, order the holds and get all our staff and some extra routesetters in (we bring in guest setters from The Hive to spice it up a bit once and awhile) to do a massive 3-4 color reset. We recently had huge success with a climbing league that ran each month. We were charting on-sites, flashes and red-points with bonuses for leading. This would follow on that momentum. The format this time will include prizes and membership bonuses.

Share your story

Are you leading a climbing gym through this unprecedented period of gym closures? Or, do you work for a gym that is now closed and have a story others could benefit from hearing? If so, please contact us and tell us about it.