Competition Keeps Us Honest – CBJ Podcast with Gavin Heverly

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CBJ Podcast with Gavin Heverly

Today’s guest is Gavin Heverly, consultant and founder of Rise Above Consulting. Gavin has been working in and around climbing gyms since the late 90s, helping grow gym communities of all sizes, from mom-and-pops businesses to multi-market gym chains. Over his two decades of managing climbing gyms, he’s become an expert in scaling, people operations, program development, risk management, and much more. Our conversation today centers on market saturation, differentiation, professionalism, and outdoor impacts as climbing grows.

Thank you OnSite for your support!
And thank you Devin Dabney for your music!


Timestamps

00:00 – Intro
03:00 – Gavin’s background
08:33 – Gavin’s favorite job position
10:01 – Evolution of the GM in gyms
12:28 – New professionalism of the industry
15:20 – Negative changes in the industry
18:40 – Is the market saturated?
21:52 – Getting ready for competition
32:47 – Gatekeeping
35:58 – Diversification in the industry
41:38 – Accessibility and membership pricing
48:45 – Stewarding the sport
57:28 – Making a career in the indoor climbing industry
01:03:33 – Gavin’s contact info
01:04:40 – Closing

OnSite Climbing Walls


Abridged Transcript

RENNAK: …You’ve had just about every job under the sun in a climbing gym. What part lit your fire? We always want to progress in our career and make more money. But if that was not a factor, what job would you have? Where was the real joy?

HEVERLY: That’s a great question. I will say, I honestly really enjoy being a general manager, gym manager, or whatever the title might be, depending on who you’re talking to. It gets you close enough to being boots on the ground, really understanding what’s happening in the business, really close to the transactional level and the customer service level of the business, but still in a leadership role, which is just where my proclivity is and I happen to thrive…It’s such a dynamic role, a critical and key role to the success of the business. And it’s just a lot of fun…

Since you’ve been doing that role for over two decades now, can you speak to how the general manager role has evolved?

…I think there’s some brass tacks of running climbing facilities that, unless something super wild changes, are just going to exist. Things like customer service, things like building a staff schedule, things like keeping your gym clean, things like risk management. All of those things, while each of them have maybe evolved from a customer expectation standpoint over the years, they are things that good general managers are going to have to be able to be competent in managing…Those are functions of the job that I think have just carried through, even if maybe technology around those things has changed.

Things that have evolved quite a bit, I think, is generally the level of expectation around climbing gyms. If you’re a general manager it’s the level of business, even perhaps the skillset that you need to have, the level of staff that you are managing, the amount of revenue and operating expenses you may manage. 30 years ago, these were probably pretty different from what’s happening today. I think gym managers and general managers today, generally speaking, are probably a slightly more professional breed…I think there’s been an evolution and sort of expectation of professionalism, things like managing sales, being more involved in marketing, things like that.

Eldorado Climbing

You speak to the new professionalism that’s taken over our industry. Is there a downside to that? I’m just curious. A lot of people talk about…how the soul has been crushed out of climbing, and that our culture is somehow being compromised in the process of this growth and professionalism. Anything you’d speak to on that?

Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I want to say first how I define culture. I define culture as values plus behavior. That to me is what equals culture, especially in a business sense or even in a community sense…I think it’s hard to say that because private equity money is coming into the industry, or because a gym chain buys another gym chain, that it’s just by default going to be bad for culture.

I once had a conversation with a longtime, good friend of mine about how, “You have to support the small businessman. You’re going to ruin culture and you’re going to ruin communities if you don’t support the little guy.” And while I understand the sentiment behind that, if everybody supported the little guy, guess what the little guy would become? The little guy would become the big guy because that’s just the way that it works. And so, it’s not necessarily about whether or not you’re the little guy or the big guy or the person with the MBA or a tattooed punk rock dude like me. Those things aren’t what matter. What matters is what are your values and is your business operationalizing and living those values…

And so, when I hear articles about how corporate climbing gyms are crushing the spirit of climbing, I just don’t personally agree with it. I think there are probably some corporate climbing gyms that are ruining climbing, and there are probably some tiny 6,000-square-foot gyms, owned by one person, that are also ruining climbing. I don’t think it has to do with size or how a company is funded that’s ruining the culture of climbing in our industry. I just don’t think that that’s the obvious thread.

Values plus behavior. That can come in any size.

That’s exactly right. I don’t think there’s inherent positives or negatives to focusing on sales or focusing on revenue or not focusing on those things. It’s about whether or not you do what you say, you say what you mean, and are your values and principles operationalized in your business.

Gavin Heverly leading a strategic planning session
Heverly has been working and consulting in the industry for decades and encourages gym teams to explore diversification at every level, from programming to staff and climber demographics. “We just need to lead the way to a better future for the sport,” he says. (All photos courtesy of Gavin Heverly)

…Let’s pivot. Where is the future growth going to come from? As we’re popping the new gyms up, where are all these climbers coming from? How do we maintain that? …Are we saturated? That’s a trigger word in our industry right now. But are we?

I mean, look, I kind of hate this topic. And it always comes up…The bottom line is, I hate to say it to everybody that doesn’t believe it, our industry is just not saturated at all. It’s just not. It’s hard to get really good, up-to-date data on some of this stuff. But what I can find tells me that there’s something like 200,000 commercial fitness gyms worldwide…And I think, based on the CBJ data, there’s something like less than 20,000 climbing gyms worldwide. And so, there’s so much opportunity. You’re talking about less than 10% of the saturation you see in other fitness areas. So, I don’t believe that the industry is saturated in any way, shape, or form. And I think that owners have to, and prospective owners and current owners that are looking to scale, really have to think about what is the actual opportunity, and about how they are going to execute on it and sort of diversify themselves…

What I tell people all the time is, look, Starbucks isn’t stopping anybody from opening a cafe. You know what I’m saying? This industry is on a tear. Investors are sniffing around. I’ve been asked to talk about this with the Wall Street Journal, and with the BBC podcast that you and I were just in recently. The industry’s on a tear. It’s only going to keep growing. That will cap out at some point, but we’re just not saturated right now. We’re just not. People who are saying that are honestly not thinking creatively enough about how to continue to grow the industry.

A lot of times a small business will feel saturation because someone opens nearby and it puts some pressure on them. They say, “Oh, well, now we’re saturated. A bunch of my staff just got recruited over to this new gym, and I lost some membership to them.” Actually, that was my entrance to the industry. In the nineties that had already happened in Cincinnati, Ohio; a big gym opened down the street and put pressure on the little gym. But we survived. The gym that I took over is actually still there…So when you say that saturation is not even on the horizon, I kind of agree. One of my messages when I talk to these gyms is you’ve got to get ready for this. If it’s not today, it’s tomorrow. How do you get yourself ready for that competition, and how do you weather the—it’s a bit of a storm when it first happens. Would you speak to that a little bit? …What would you say to the incumbent? The gym that had the empty market for a while?

…You mentioned my career at Brooklyn Boulders earlier, which, as you can imagine, was tumultuous. But like you said, I was early on, and saw that whole life cycle of being the new gym chain that’s doing exciting things, coming into cities, doing something new. Maybe the brand that was making other people worry. Then towards the end, being the brand that was a little bit worried, because we had competition coming in Chicago, we had competition coming in Boston, competition coming in Brooklyn where you could literally walk out the door and throw a softball at the facility that had just opened. Literally. So, you know, I’ve seen the whole lifecycle of that, and I have clients now that are in a really strong and good strategic position because they’re first to market in a market. And I have clients that also have a slightly different strong strategic position because they’re second to market and get to learn about what’s working and what’s not working in the market. So, I would say being first to market is not necessarily the only way to win. There’s literally something in business called second mover advantage. And second mover advantage gives you the ability to look and see, “Hey, what did this brand do? What did they do well? What’s resonating with this market?

…So, if you’re a gym and you are sitting around right now and you’re not thinking about the fact that competition is coming, I would really encourage you to do so. Because the thing that I like about competition is that it keeps us honest. Competition keeps us honest. Right? If there’s no competition for your business, you can get really lazy, you can get really apathetic. Just bad stuff can happen. Customer service maybe doesn’t have to be good. The thing I always compare it to is the $12 banana at the airport because there’s no competition. You go into the airport and want to buy a banana, and they’re like, “$12.” And you look at them and say, “Are you kidding me?” And they’re like, “Yeah, screw you. What are you going to do? Going to leave and go buy a banana somewhere else? No.” So you pay $12 for the banana. A lot of brands that don’t have competition today are maybe operating a little bit in that $12 banana space…

OnSite

On the flip side of that, in every town I’ve ever lived in, and every town I’ve ever been to, you can probably think of where there’s car dealerships. Plural. Right? They’re next door to each other, literally, and across the street from each other. And they’re all still selling cars, you know? So, I don’t think that saturation is necessarily a bad thing…

That was a little abstract about just how I think about these problems, so I’ll be more direct about the things that owners have got to start thinking about right now…During a BBC interview I was recently asked, “What’s the next big sort of innovation or thing that’s going to help the industry grow?” And I said, “Sales.” And she was like, “What do you mean?” And I said “Sales. It’s sales.” I think she was expecting me to talk about tech or light-up holds or, I don’t know, whatever. And it’s not. It’s sales. The challenge that most gym owners are facing right now is that opening your door and turning on the lights isn’t going to cut it anymore. Just having a gym and opening the door and being like, “Okay hopefully people show up. We post on Instagram.” That’s not going to work anymore.

The fitness industry became the beast that it is today by recognizing this early on, and developing impressive data mining and sales strategies to grow, to get strategic control of their revenue. And I have a lot of clients, some of whom are decades into their businesses of running climbing gyms, and they’re just now working with me on developing sustainable ways to take strategic control over their revenue. And so, if you’re listening to this and you own a climbing gym—whether you have twelve of them or one of them or anything in between—if you’re worried about saturation, if you’re worried about competition, you’ve got to start building sustainable strategies to take strategic control over your revenue.

And then the second one is going to be, there has to be diversification of offerings in our industry. This is where I think the growth is going to come from, and why I’m not worried about saturation whatsoever. So, I’m sitting in Denver, Colorado, and in 20 minutes from my house, I bet there’s 40 fitness offerings that I could go to, from yoga to Pilates to CrossFit to huge 100,000-square-foot Lifetime Fitness, to everything in between. And so if we think about this perspective for climbing, I think diversification of offerings is where things have to go. 

I’ll say a little bit more about that. Everybody wants to build a full-service gym or a bouldering gym. When we say full-service in our industry, we mean we’ve got top roping, we’ve got lead climbing, maybe we’ve got auto belays, we’ve got bouldering, etc. There’s usually then some fitness, and there’s youth programming, and all these things. And then the only other real option out there today, for the most part, is a bouldering gym. No rope walls. And these two offerings, honestly, are already getting a little bit tired, in my opinion. That these are the only two options. What I would really love to see is someone doing something really unique…

If we want to really grow and if we want to get to saturation—which, like you said, is not even on the horizon yet, it’s just not there—we need to stop trying to be everything to everyone. Right? Figure out what you can be the best in the world at and go do that thing better than anyone else. ABC in Boulder, Colorado, is a good example. Most people know the ABC gym. It’s a very specific niche they identified early on, and they’re executing on that. And they’re not trying to be something else; they’re trying to be that thing. So, I just want to see climbing gyms that are like Chuck E. Cheeses that are just pure fun for kids and families to introduce people to climbing. I want to see gyms that find some specific aspect of our sport that they can make viable business out of. Everyone’s trying to get a slice of the pie. Very, very few people are out there trying to make their own pies. And that’s my pitch.

…Maybe I’m asking the useless question because you work with too many clients, but do you see something else? What’s the cutting edge of the innovation in terms of diversification that you see?

Yeah, I would say I’m NDA’d up on a couple of projects that I can’t talk about, but I think that we’re going to continue to see that diversification. And I’ll just reference the fitness world again. Right? There’s SoulCycle, where they do one thing. They specialize in stationary bicycle fitness experience. And then there’s, on the other end of that, maybe like Equinox or Planet Fitness or Lifetime Fitness that do everything. What we need to see in our industry is who’s going to be like Soulcycle or CrossFit or Pilates or yoga, taking a very specific aspect of what climbing might mean, or one interpretation of what climbing might mean…Who’s doing that? That’s what I want to see, more people doing that, because that’s where we’re really going to see the growth.

Because honestly, even from a real estate perspective, at some point the 50,000-square-foot gyms are just going to be tapped out. Do you know what I mean? Just from a straight real estate strategy, there’s only so many places you can drop one of those and then also have it be financially viable—meaning enough members, enough revenue, and all of those things. You’re not going to be able to go build a 50,000-square-foot gym in rural towns. Those work in big metropolitan centers where you can have, you know, two or three thousand members…

I would encourage anybody that’s listening, go out and find what your unique [thing] is. What’s the thing that you can be best in the world at and deliver on it. Because at the end of the day, sometimes when you try to be everything to everybody, you end up being nothing, right? You end up not talking to anybody…

Approach