Behind the Desk… is a series that interviews people who are part of the climbing industry—those who run companies, manage staff, and own gyms. And while there has been a lot of talk about gyms’ reopenings (or, in some cases, grand openings) during the COVID-19 pandemic, this week CBJ reached out for a Behind the Desk segment with owner Ben Waggoner, who is aiming to sell his gym. The tone of the interview is positive, however, as Cave Climbing in Texas has created a lot of positive memories for a lot of people over the years. And ideally a new owner will be found who will continue to operate the gym for many years to come.
Name: Ben Waggoner
Title: Owner, Cave Climbing
Location: El Paso, Texas
CBJ: Tell me a little bit about the decision to sell the gym.
WAGGONER: The decision to sell the gym was made last year, in 2019. I opened the gym with help from my wife and the local community back in 2016. I have since been divorced  and have been seeking the next phase of life, whether it be continuing in El Paso or changing locations. I started a relationship with a woman near my family on the other side of the country and…I asked her to marry me in June! When the new relationship seemed like it meant I would be moving, I was trying to decide if I should keep the gym running from afar or just sell it. I was getting advice from businesspeople telling me that the ease of residual and almost passive income was making the choice to maintain ownership hard to pass up.
In 2018 and 2019 I had travelled extensively to visit family and climbed often to satisfy the requirements for the AMGA Rock Guide Course while maintaining the gym and checking in on occasion. Not too difficult. But with the current state of the world taking away a lot of the revenue we normally see, I would rather sell the gym sooner than later so that I can move and get married without the stress of keeping it afloat from across the country. With the right offer, I would prefer to sell. If I don’t get a proper price for the value of the gym, then I’ll have another decision to make—either keep it going or take it down to re-open a new gym in my next location of life.
CBJ: There’s kind of the elephant in the room right now for any gym discussion, in the form of the pandemic. How has Cave Climbing been impacted by COVID-19?
WAGGONER: We closed our doors (voluntarily) on March 16 and opened them back up on June 15. I could have opened up on May 18, but the gym needed to get a facelift, so I extended the closure a little longer, paid my staff to help add a couple of new features, re-paint the walls and re-cover the floors with carpet after throwing out the old vinyl. Such a small gym doesn’t need a whole lot of visitors to stay afloat, since we are paying only one staff to manage it from the front desk each shift. We are climbing under 20 percent capacity—eight climbers per two-hour session with two more in the tension board room…and we are doing ok—just above “breaking even” with new members signing up and day pass climbers slowly starting to return.
There are many people who are still not ready to return to the gym, and we have lost the capacity to have the normal revenue of easy and busy days of summer—our peak season. Last July saw an average of 40-60 climbers per day, half of which were day passes; now we are getting 20-25 climbers, most of which are members. We raised our prices a little after COVID and no one has batted an eye or complained. Most people are very grateful to have the place to climb and are excited to see the improvements we’ve made. Moving forward, and for the time being, the question is how to keep the gym profitable during these times—what changes should or could be made?
CBJ: Of course the hope is that someone else will purchase your gym and continue to run it. But as you look back on your tenure as an owner, what are some of the highlights of the gym?
WAGGONER: To list a few:
- Getting to know and love an incredible community of climbers
- Getting to be involved with the birthplace of so many climbers who now crush hard at Hueco
- Learning from and working with Jason Kehl and Ty Foose—both have been staples on the setting team and both have had huge impacts in my formation of the gym and design. They both have frequently brought in their freshest holds they’ve shaped and have been kind enough to let us climb and set with them. I simply cannot say enough about this privilege.
- The community events like our bi-annual competitions, black light parties and showing of the Reel Rock films.
- Guiding at Hueco Tanks—bouldering, top-rope, sport and trad…(yes—there’s great climbing in addition to bouldering; you might be surprised how many people don’t realize that Hueco has more than boulders.)
- Kids camps and clubs. We’ve run camps during the mornings in the summers and we’ve had success in both homeschool p.e. classes as well as after-school clubs.
- Hosting and helping children in the summer camp for the visually impaired as well as other El Paso Community events.
- Attending the Climbing Wall Association Summit yearly, reconnecting with friends in the industry and returning with a selection of new holds from one of the many vendors who set up a booth.
CBJ: Are there any lessons you learned—or wisdom you could impart to others who want to open a climbing gym?
WAGGONER: Count the cost. How much time and money will it take to build this thing?…then double it.
Ask questions. Be teachable and flexible…humble and eager to listen. Desire feedback, criticism and growth.
Expect nothing from friends and supporters…and/but be extremely grateful for any help they give.
Continue to feed the hunger. When the time seems right for you and those closest to you, go for it without wavering and ride the waves of emotion, negative thoughts, rumors of other gyms… and with resolute determination, see it through to completion. Yeah—there’s no shortage of parallels to climbing and the insatiable desire to send the project.
Work hard, enjoy the process, and smile. Smile though you may be approaching the biggest crux of your life.
Sure, you can learn a lot from Facebook groups and YouTube videos about building walls and volumes, but do not neglect the expertise of the Climbing Wall Association and other professionals in the industry.
CBJ: For many people around the country, a gym is their only source of climbing. But does a gym’s role change when it is near a world-class outdoor spot like Hueco? What is coexistence like that for an indoor facility and an outdoor gem?
WAGGONER: El Paso is a unique kind of “climber” city for several reasons, but with Hueco right next door, there exists certain challenges to overcome. The goal for this little gym has been to see Hueco as an opportunity and asset rather than as a competitive factor. More specifically:
Regarding Hueco’s off-season: Cave Climbing’s peak season arrives when other gyms seem to slow down—over the summer. Even when it is just too hot, there are still several locals and routesetters who still prefer to suffer in the heat of Hueco. But for the most part, there’s room for the Hueco and gym climbers and summer camps from June through September to enjoy the comforts of indoor climbing. The Cave has also used Hueco as an access for “gym to crag” days. In the summer months, mornings on north sport routes and trad lines are shaded through the coolest part of the day, until about noon.
There are those (my former self included) who would consider indoor climbing as only training to become a better outdoor climber. Some preach this and can make those who only enjoy plastic judged as a “second rate” climber. These kinds of crushers can promote an elitist, “don’t-bother-me” environment. A healthy balance of both types of climbers has been kept well through the years in our El Paso gym, as the typical day includes a good mix of climbers who are helpful and friendly towards each other, working on projects and cheering on beginners. Routesetters (who all strongly prefer Hueco) are commonly found in the gym and are ready to help decipher beta when asked. Some, if not many of the gym climbers eventually climb themselves out of the gym and become an outdoor climber during the season and then come back for a summer membership when that time comes. Understanding that it’s OK that not all climbers want to go outside, even when it’s a world-class crag like Hueco, has been a huge change of philosophy as a gym owner, and that has had an impact in cultivating the accepting and friendly community of the Cave.
During the Hueco Season: From November through March the gym sees an influx of seasonal Hueco climbers who come in on rainy days. Having the climbing world fly into town has brought more than a few big names and professional routesetters and climbers into the facility. While this in itself does not maintain business during these months, it certainly helps. For the most part, the flow of the gym has served the business well to have members climb mostly during the week while local families and birthday parties climb on weekends. While bouldering tours don’t generate a large source of revenue, renting crash pads and shoes while guiding the occasional Saturday trip for beginners can supplement income and offer a way to make some money while having the chance to climb in the park.
CBJ: What’s the ideal future for the gym, in your opinion, and what should someone do if they are reading this and think they could take it into its next phase?
WAGGONER: I believe that this little gym could be an ideal situation for someone who’s ready to make the transition to ownership but may not have the deepest pockets. Someone who has been working in a gym for a while, knows the ins and outs of management, setting and operation costs, and has a passion for climbing community and a healthy gym environment—this would be a great fit. It doesn’t hurt that Hueco is right next door as it would certainly help the new owner to be in El Paso for the first couple of years. The gym can be run with only one staff present at the front desk, so staffing is cheap, keeping costs low if the owner is willing to work several shifts herself/himself. The new owner could keep the facility centered on beginner to intermediate climbing, or see the gym grow as a more serious training facility for the stronger Hueco climbers. Further adjustments to the business model could include expanding to 24-hour access. When things settle down, having a profitable business should be easy, as it has been for myself, even with the possibility of newer facilities opening.
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Are you leading a climbing gym or brand through this unprecedented period? Or, do you work in the industry and have a story that others could benefit from hearing? If so, please contact us and tell us about it.
John Burgman is the author of High Drama, a book that chronicles the history of American competition climbing. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient and a former magazine editor. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team. Follow him on Twitter @John_Burgman and Instagram @jbclimbs. Read our interview Meet John Burgman, U.S. Comp Climbing’s Top Journalist.