CWA Summit 2024 – Observations From the Floor

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CWA Summit 2024
Climbing gym and brand professionals from around the globe came together at the 2024 CWA Summit—held at the Oregon Convention Center (pictured) in Portland—for a week of networking, learning, exhibiting and, of course, climbing. (Photo by Scott Rennak)

The industry’s big week did not disappoint. For a third straight year, the Climbing Wall Association’s annual CWA Summit—the largest climbing industry gathering in North America—took place at a new location, this time convening climbing professionals in the West Coast city of Portland, Oregon, from May 13-17.

By the numbers, the weeklong event included:

  • 3 certification courses, 1 professional routesetting provider course, and 8 pre-conference workshops for gym owners, managers, coaches and trainers;
  • 44 educational sessions and roundtables on topics ranging from “How to Pursue Climbing Legislation in Your State” to “Ethics of Routesetting” and “The Gym-to-Crag Pipeline;”
  • At least 14 product presentations from leading brands that covered a step-by-step “Pay What You Can” toolkit, ways to leverage data for gym management and routesetting, and much more;
  • 93 exhibitor booths showcasing cutting-edge products and services during more than 14 Expo Hall hours;
  • 2 keynote presentations by 3 industry stalwarts Sasha DiGiulian, Tommy Caldwell and Alan Watts;
  • 2 “Coffee & Collaboration” networking sessions and a 2nd edition of the “Woman’s Fireside Chat” for women and nonbinary people in the industry;
  • and 1 rocking afterparty at Portland Rock Gym.

Trango Holds Pardners

There’s always a ton going on at climbing gyms during the Summit week, and this year began with a Setter Showdown at PRG Beaverton, followed by a pre-party and Caldwell slideshow at Movement Portland, CWA appreciation event at Rock Haven, and CBJ Grip Showcase at the official afterparty that saw 11 talented setters slinging fresh grips from 22 innovative brands.

Like past years, members of the CBJ team were onsite taking in the action, walking the floor, attending sessions, and keeping an eye out for new developments. In case you missed the show, below are some observations from the CBJ crew on the floor. Be sure to stay tuned to CBJ for updates on the next CWA Summit, scheduled for a return to Salt Lake City on April 17-19, 2025.

1. Our Industry Is Ready for More Growth by Naomi Stevens

2. We’re All in This Together by Jamie Strong

3. Celebrating the Community of the Climbing Business by Scott Rennak

Rockwerx

 


 

Our Industry Is Ready for More Growth

By Naomi Stevens

This year I attended my second CWA Summit, which in some ways felt like a new beginning for the industry. The Salt Lake City CWA Summit in 2022, during which the industry was still feeling the effects of the pandemic, had been my only appearance until traveling to Portland. This year, however, climbing business professionals seemed to see the industry in a fresh light, where innovation, collaboration and leadership can thrive.

Sasha DiGuilian delivering her keynote address
Sasha DiGuilian kicked off the CWA Summit with a keynote address that noted the importance of building strong teams, valuing diverse skill sets, and having a shared vision. (Photo by Naomi Stevens)

I met many prospective gym owners, ready to take on the next step of networking, finding wall providers, and figuring out insurance. I also met prolific hold shapers while getting to climb on the newest shapes in the CBJ Grip Showcase, including on holds that may be seen in the 2024 Olympics. Because the sessions were numerous and spanned a wide range of topics, I was fortunate to have attended seminars covering both coaching and routesetting, in addition to hearing keynote speeches given by Sasha DiGuilian, Alan Watts and Tommy Caldwell. These learning opportunities exposed me to different perspectives from various leaders in the industry, who discussed the importance of establishing a solid team, the changes we’re seeing in the industry, and the development of sustainable practices.

Here are my biggest takeaways from the week:

1. The Team Is the Glue Holding Your Operation Together

In the keynote address, Sasha DiGuilian advised crew leaders in the room—business owners, head routesetters, managers, team coaches, and others—to carefully craft a strong team. In order to accomplish this goal, DiGuilian recommended building a team of people who connect with each other and share a common vision. She also advised managers to add team members with varying skills, strengths and weaknesses, in order to eliminate blind spots in the business.

Geneviève de la Plante speaking at the "Diversity by Design" session
Geneviève de la Plante (center) presented with Flannery Shay-Nemirow (left) and Molly Beard (right) on how to improve diversity in setting teams, encouraging leaders in the room to approach diversity from a voluntary rather than obligatory standpoint. (Photo by Naomi Stevens)

The next morning, in the coaching roundtable, the group I was in discussed the importance of having a balanced coaching team, where different coaches have complementary skills. Then, in the “Diversity by Design: Improving Diversity in Setting Teams” session—led by Flannery Shay-Nemirow, Geneviève de la Plante and Molly Beard—the session leaders emphasized how a diverse team can be a more effective, well-rounded team, and how that diversity can also help eliminate blind spots in a routesetting program as well as a gym’s day-to-day operation.

At the center of these discussions was a common line of thinking: Your team can make or break your gym, so craft your team wisely.

2. Change Is Coming (and in a Good Way)

In the “Diversity by Design: Improving Diversity in Setting Teams” educational session, the presenters discussed why having a diverse routesetting team matters and, for those who need a financial reason, how diversity improves a gym’s product. Increasing diversity has been a deliberate act in the industry for several years, but the motives for this goal are shifting. Shay-Nemirow noted that, for a while, diversity on a routesetting team meant hiring a white woman, typically done to simply check the diversity box. Now, however, diversity is increasingly understood as including folks of all races, classes, genders, sexualities, abilities and religions, and diversity is becoming valued for more than tokenism. Furthermore, industry leaders are recognizing the innate value of workers with different backgrounds and voluntarily hiring a diverse team because diversity is a good thing for the team and the business, not just a checkbox. Industry leaders are developing a greater awareness of problematic and inefficient ways of thinking and operating, and there’s a desire to do better.

Roy Quanstrom leading his session
In addition to discussing how to structure routesetting work, Roy Quanstrom also talked in his session about why proper training is crucial for both setters and gyms to flourish. (Photo by Naomi Stevens)

Roy Quanstrom presented “Are Routesetters Asking the Right Questions?”, a session in which he proposed a more efficient structure for routesetting, forerunning, and appraising boulders and routes. Quanstrom also spoke about the limited training routesetters receive: Too often, routesetters are essentially given the physical tools necessary to set and then thrown into the job, making success more difficult. As proper training for routesetting increases and more gyms provide journeyperson and apprentice roles, routesetters will be better equipped to produce a better product, avoid overuse injuries, and pass on knowledge from generation to generation.

Jessica Doriot and Sharlee Strebel from the U.S. Center for Safe Sport covered best practices for coaching. Climbing has transformed from a rebellious, counter-cultural sport to a common youth activity with team, club, birthday party, and summer camp offerings. With an increase in youth climbers, there has also been an increase in processes put into place to keep children safe—a positive change, it goes without saying, that hopefully will only become more ubiquitous in the industry. USA Climbing requires Safe Sport training for industry professionals who work with or around children, and the collaboration between Safe Sport and USAC appears to be growing.

Elevate Climbing Walls

We, as an industry, now have enough information on what works, kind of works, and doesn’t work to grow wisely, and I feel we are on the cusp of a cultural breakthrough. Looking forward, I am hopeful we will see a more diverse workforce (because we want diversity, not because we feel obligated to hire diverse folks), better professional development for routesetters, and a cultural shift overall that fosters safe spaces for sharing, learning, and growing together.

3. Sustainability Is Needed in Every Corner

Closing keynote speaker Alan Watts described what climbing was like for him 50 years ago; back then, climbing gyms were non-existent, the community existed outside, and in many ways society didn’t welcome climbing culture. However, over the next decades, Watts saw climbing transform into a thriving industry, with thousands of climbing gyms now open internationally, competitions and climbers sponsored by big-name brands, and large plastics corporations invested in the industry. Watts said no one would have imagined a day where the number of climbers indoors would exceed the number of climbers outdoors. And because we are now a formidable industry with a larger impact, we must work to make our actions more sustainable.

Alan Watts presenting during the closing keynote
The 2024 CWA Summit wrapped up with concluding keynote presentations by Alan Watts (pictured on stage) and Tommy Caldwell, who challenged everyone in the industry to approach growth responsibly and sustainably, striving to reduce negative impacts and increase positive ones. (Photo by Naomi Stevens)

Tommy Caldwell, who delivered the second closing keynote, said, “I don’t honestly know what’s going to happen in the world of climbing, but I know what I hope will happen.” He described how our larger numbers now allow us to do some good with our impact. He encouraged climbers and businesses to pursue ways to further reduce negative environmental impacts, challenging us to do better. As an industry, working together, we can accomplish much more than we could independently. When acting collectively, our beloved climbing areas are more likely to prosper, and so is the industry.

“As businesses we can be constantly learning and constantly improving our business practices,” DiGuilian said during the opening keynote. Marisa Michael, a registered dietitian of 22 years, talked about “How to be a Part of the Solution to Eating Disorders in Elite Climbing,” stressing that tools exist to combat eating disorders and disordered eating. And in the coaching roundtable, we discussed the long-term athlete development model for youth and adult athletes alike. At the core of these presentations was the essence of sustainability: We want this sport to exist permanently, inside and outside, and we want climbing athletes to have a sustainable relationship with the sport. In order to be sustainable, businesses, people and practices must change based on new information and new conditions. Whether intentional or not, all of the speakers of the sessions I attended compelled us to build a more sustainable industry, in the fullest sense.

I am excited for our industry. It feels like many of us have surpassed a large hurdle and come back stronger. That strength allows us to escape the “Fight or Flight” response at work: When we’re not in survival mode and can move beyond the metaphorical base layers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have more space to reflect, change, and ultimately grow. I am hopeful that this growth will mean increased diversity, sustainability, and success for the industry.

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About the Author

Naomi Stevens

Naomi Stevens is a personal trainer and a routesetter who has also worked at climbing gyms as a youth team coach. After starting college at Colorado State University in 2017, she wanted to make new friends and found climbing, fell in love, and now climbing dictates most of what she does. Naomi earned a bachelor’s degree in Ecosystem Science & Sustainability, and when not climbing she enjoys baking, gardening and crafting.

 


 

We’re All in This Together

By Jamie Strong

“Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success.” – Henry Ford

The CWA Summit in Portland this year was the fourth or fifth time I’ve attended since 2016, the year my business partners and I opened our own climbing gym. I’ve experienced the conference as a new owner, a coach, a routesetter, an experienced owner, and now also as an exhibitor with CBJ. As such, I’ve watched the industry grow and change for a number of years. It’s exciting to see innovations in every area, from new gym management software making debuts to sustainable products hitting the market, gyms creating processes around diversity and management, and even the industry at large seeing the need for organization around advocacy.

The educational sessions I attended were largely gym owner/operator focused. Here are my two biggest highlights and takeaways from this year’s CWA Summit:

1. The Strength of a Team Is the Team Members

Echoing Naomi’s earlier point, teamwork is everything. From the opening address of the Summit to the many conversations I had in the owner’s roundtable and in sessions I attended, there was a clear message that creating a strong team is paramount to overall business success. But a good team is more than just bringing together people with different personalities and diverse skill sets who can do a job. As an industry, we have come a long way from the days of opening a gym and hiring your climber friends; today, more and more gyms are running businesses with specialized employees, departments, and clear hierarchies. Good leadership strategies can go a long way toward growing and bringing out the best in a team.

Garnet speaking during the opening address
“From the opening address of the Summit to the many conversations I had in the owner’s roundtable and in sessions I attended, there was a clear message that creating a strong team is paramount to overall business success,” says Strong. (Pictured: Garnet Moore, CWA Executive Director, speaking during the opening address; photo by Jamie Strong)

The interactive session “The Best Way to Increase Employee Engagement and Satisfaction” with Marisa Hoff was a hands-on workshop covering this process. Learning from her and other gym owners, managers, and team leaders about their strategies for employee feedback, team building, and the importance of connecting on a personal level with team members was a highlight of the week for me. I love coming out of a session with simple, actionable processes and tips that I can take home and implement right away, and this session provided exactly that opportunity.

2. With More Players in the Game, the Industry Is Growing, So Prepare to Be Seen

A major theme I noticed this year was around larger, “big business” issues coming into the indoor climbing industry concerning risk management, unionization, insurance, and government regulation. In the owner’s roundtable on day one, owners expressed their uncertainty about risk management as it relates to equipment and their insurance coverage. Others asked questions related to experiences with new software systems and competition formats. It was a productive time of coming together and making connections in order to pursue further action around these huge issues outside of the conference.

An absolute highlight of the week was “How to Pursue Indoor Climbing Legislation in Your State,” presented by Michael Lary, Michele Lang and Tod Bloxham (board members from the Washington Indoor Climbing Coalition). In this session, they discussed their experience forming the WICC and the efforts to introduce indoor climbing legislation in the state of Washington. Learning from recent events there and seeing some of the hurdles and roadblocks they experienced in their work opened my eyes to potential concerns, how to prepare, and when to respond to issues that could arise in my gym’s backyard.

WICC booth at the Summit
Leaders of the nearby Washington Indoor Climbing Coalition—including WICC Chairperson Michael Lary (right)—were onsite at the Summit in Portland, sharing lessons learned around indoor climbing legislation and advocacy. (Photo by Naomi Stevens)

As the indoor climbing industry continues to grow, we can no longer expect to fly under the radar. As one of the presenters said, “ostrich mode is over.” With more and more eyes on climbing (which is a good thing for business!) comes more oversight. Existing and sometimes outdated regulations can impact your operations. But we can take proactive steps to protect our gyms, the employees and patrons of those gyms, and the sport of indoor climbing.

While not every indoor climbing gym has encountered unionization, a major incident, or a governmental crackdown, some have. And we can learn from the gyms that have, share lessons learned, and adapt to new environments. You might call such things growing pains, and if they haven’t already impacted your gym, it’s only a matter of time before they will. The good news is we’re lucky to have leaders and other gym operators with mutual interests who have gone through these changes and can share their experiences for the benefit of the whole industry.

Closing with a History Lesson and Vision for a Bright Future

The closing plenary with Alan Watts and Tommy Caldwell brought us back to the origins of indoor climbing and then left us with a vision for the future. It was fun to be reminded of how indoor climbing started in the States, and how that beginning was closely tied to the origins of outdoor sport climbing in Oregon. The Summit being hosted in Portland this year brought us full circle. Tommy’s message of hope challenged us all to think big and to keep sustainable practices at the forefront of our business practices, ultimately reminding us that maintaining a connection with the natural world is the only way forward.

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About the Author

Jamie Strong

Jamie has been working in graphic design and marketing for about a decade. She is a co-owner of a climbing gym, a youth climbing coach, and a certified yoga instructor. Jamie holds a master’s degree from University College London and a bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University. She spends her weekends and vacations traveling to climb throughout the U.S.

 


 

Celebrating the Community of the Climbing Business

by Scott Rennak

The word community gets used a lot at climbing gyms, usually in describing a quality of the facility that attracts members and customers. For many climbers, the social benefits of the gym community are even more important than the physical or mental benefits. These places are where we meet friends, old and new, and share stories and the act of climbing together.

After returning from this year’s CWA Summit, it crystallized to me how this annual event represents the professional community of our industry. No place else brings together so many of us. While we are all focused on building communities in our places of work, I think together we represent an important subset of those communities—one composed of leaders, teachers, mentors and innovators in the climbing business.

A gym developer roundtable in Portland
The largest industry gathering in North America, the Summit is a moment for all professionals in the climbing business to connect and reconnect, teach and learn. (Pictured: Andrew Potter sharing some beta on Approach’s software during a product presentation in Portland; photo by Scott Rennak)

In professional circles we use the term networking to describe activities in this commerce-driven setting, and perhaps that business term is appropriate. Admittedly it’s a space filled with exchanges of dollars for products and services, trades of knowledge and connections. Yes, that side of things is true; it’s commerce that underpins these events. But once we’re together, it’s our humanity that builds the deeper bonds. And for me at least, those deeper bonds have tremendous value.

A big part of the value I derive from the Summit comes from seeing old friends, and meeting new ones—hearing about what’s happening with their kids or families, the next big trip they’re going on, objectives in the outdoors or at home. When we look deeper, it’s these aspects of our lives that really are important to each of us. Of course we need to work and put food on the table, but it’s our families and activities and personal lives that drive that need. Hearing about the “real life” stuff, sharing our own stories, connecting as human beings with passions—these moments are more valuable to me than just selling another thing to another customer. The Summit is about building relationships and, when multiplied across the whole room, building community.

Community Is Good for Business

I heard more than one vendor express sadly, “It’s always the same people here,” like they would want to see a fully different crowd every year. That perspective is myopic in my opinion, and misses a core benefit of this event.

First, it’s not true. Every year the Summit has many dozen (perhaps a hundred sometimes) prospective new climbing gym owners—the dreaming, visionary entrepreneurs who will soon be bringing climbing to a new population. Most vendors crave more interactions with this cohort because therein lies potential for, in their mind, the largest sales. But in our still small industry, admittedly there are few of these people in attendance.

A programming roundtable in Portland
Coaches and setters, suppliers and nonprofits…there’s always a diverse mix of industry professionals at the Summit and a little something for everyone. (Pictured: Dawn Young leading her “The Evolution of Yoga in Climbing Gyms” presentation this year; photo by Scott Rennak)

By far the larger group of attendees consists of current staff and owners of climbing businesses—industry leaders who have one year or decades of experience. They came back this year to learn and network, to share their stories and hear from others, to visit with friends and meet new ones—in short, to help people and businesses flourish, which by extension builds community. That’s a core attractive quality of the Summit, and it’s worth celebrating. Together these industry incumbents are the people choosing to expand their gyms or businesses, and they also provide counsel to new dreamers. They make purchase decisions themselves, give referrals to others, and also evolve in their preferences. The seeds of those actions are sown at the Summit.

So if you’re a vendor reading this, reconsider your sadness and rest easy knowing that while many faces are familiar, purchasing decisions are being made and influenced at the Summit. And if you represent a climbing facility at the event, know that your peers in the room can help you in your professional quest. The main gathering for the professional community in our industry is a good place for you and your business to be.

Community Drives Us Forward

Getting to warmly shake the hand of someone you had previously only emailed or spoken with on the phone is a moment that firms up your relationship. Multiply that moment by a thousand people, and together we’ve reinforced the climbing business community. Be they with professionals from across town or across the world, the relationships we build at the Summit transcend business and extend into our personal lives and outdoor adventures.

Like friendships outside of work settings, these industry relationships also add more than just “good feels” to one’s life. They help us genuinely thrive. In gyms, one member might ask another about how to do a move, or what they do for training. At the Summit, we ask for and provide advice on how to solve our business problems. Operations, insurance, financing, managing teams, running programs, setting good routes…sharing knowledge in these areas improves our businesses and, collectively, the entire climbing industry. Just like in our personal lives, sharing these challenges and triumphs is what bonds us together, fostering stronger communities and relationships.

Thanks for coming to the CWA Summit in Portland!
The CWA Summit in Portland has come and gone, but plans are already underway for next year’s gathering, set for a return to Salt Lake City in April. (Photo by Scott Rennak)

The keynotes underscored the value of relationships: Sasha DiGuilian talked about how rewarding it was to complete a new first ascent with Lynn Hill recently; Tommy Caldwell shared memories of the Dawn Wall ascent with Kevin Jorgeson; Alan Watts described friendships and the community he saw grow around Smith Rock with the advent of sport climbing. All of these experiences enriched their lives.

We likely won’t ever climb the Dawn Wall together, but our industry relationships can enrich our own lives. They help us through hard times, and together we celebrate our personal and professional successes. We lean on and uplift each other. I’m thankful for this professional community we’ve built together that serves climbers.

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About the Author

Scott Rennak

Scott has been promoting indoor climbing since 1997 when he bought Climb Time of Cincinnati and started what would become the American Bouldering Series. Since then, he has helped hundreds of small businesses grow, including climbing gyms and manufacturers. He is available for projects through Reach Climbers. In his free time, he still scours nearby hills for fresh boulders, skis all year, and is a dedicated father to his two young children.

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