From Lexington: Episode 1

Wall image courtesy of Eldorado Climbing Walls

Like countless other budding entrepreneurs, Nicole Brown and Chris Shotwell are in the process of opening their own climbing gym. This gym, called L’Escalade Fitness, will be located in Lexington, Kentucky. The couple reached out to CBJ because they wanted to share their gym start-up experience so others might learn from their successes and failures.

Over the coming year the Climbing Business Journal will post a regular installment of articles detailing their experience of developing a climbing center. Future posts will include their adventures in commercial real estate, business financials, the design process, construction and everything it takes to get them to opening day.

In this first article we learn about Nicole and Chris and the inspiration behind starting a climbing gym, as well as their philosophy on running a business.

In The Beginning There Was Only Climbing

Brown and Shotwell
Brown and Shotwell

by Nicole Brown and Chris Shotwell

We have been married for a little over two years now, a journey that began in a climbing gym in Indiana. Chris was working as a setter and a coach while Nicole was first discovering climbing. It wasn’t long before we went to the Red River Gorge in Kentucky to show her what great climbing really was. We have since traveled as much as possible, to discover the best climbing available. While the boulders of Bishop and Fontainebleau were spectacular and the impeccable limestone of Buoux was a ton of fun, the Red continued to feel like home.

Throughout our travels we visited many climbing gyms and unfortunately, several of these places didn’t make us feel welcome. Almost every time we walked into a climbing gym we were ignored, mocked, or flat out insulted. It wasn’t uncommon to find gyms that had bad route setting, rude, lazy staff, and a general attitude that the service we were receiving was what we should expect. We have even faced discrimination on more than one occasion. We are not happy with the consistent experience found in gyms across the country, and we are betting that the majority of customers are not either.

Finding The Big Picture

Our pursuit of opening a climbing and fitness business began in earnest about 6 months ago. Initially we talked about wall design, setting programs, and hold selection. Our involvement with outdoor climbing has shown us that it is possible to have very creative climbing that is fairly height independent; something we find to be exceedingly rare in indoor facilities. We both climb at exactly the same red point grade. This has caused us to view equitability in setting as extremely desirable. Additionally, it is very important to us to have the climbing in our facility be thought provoking, safe, and consistently creative. The tools and methods we use to produce this superb movement became the overwhelming influence in our initial planning. In certain ways, this caused a major delay in understanding the real big picture view.

Eventually, we began to talk about what a visit to our gym would be like. We looked at the very first moment that someone walks in the gym as the basis for our program design. Chris was influenced by summer camp administration employment that encouraged him to see each of these first impressions as an incredibly important event.

As we continued to devise programs and plans we determined that the only way to provide the desired experience was to develop a staff that understood our vision. Because Nicole comes from a family of successful entrepreneurs, she had a good understanding of positive management practices. The conversations we had taught us that keeping our staff happy, informed, and educated will give them the resources they need to meet our expectations.

It should be obvious that finding a way to adequately compensate qualified candidates will make a major difference in our ability to retain and promote great staff members. We want people to see the viability of climbing and fitness as a long term career, not a short term stopgap.

While most gyms pay lip service to the idea that a ‘community’ is important to the development of the venture, we are dead set on establishing one that is truly inclusive. By taking the time to teach our staff to model thoughtful and respectful behavior, people will feel like they are cherished. When individuals are appreciated, they are always more inclusive. We strongly believe that this will let us enact a program that is sustainable and can grow over the long term.

Where to Build The Dream

As we continued the process of building an imaginary gym, we chose to look at where we would like to open a real one. We investigated several other cities before eventually deciding that Lexington, Kentucky was the right place for us. From a personal perspective, it is very near to exceptional outdoor climbing, it is a place where we would be happy to raise a family, it has access to the lifestyle we want to lead, and is near to our own families.

From a business perspective, the city is large enough, active enough, and accessible enough for a climbing gym to be successful. Land prices are reasonable, as are labor prices. We strongly believe that Lexington is a growing community and are excited to be a part of it.

As a business, we think we can be a positive charitable influence in Lexington. We fully intend to support the community that we will be a part of by offering tutoring programs for underprivileged kids, nutrition programs, or other opportunities that can help people lead better lives. Our business is a lifestyle enhancer; we are far more than just a climbing or fitness gym.

Finally, it is worth noting that if you are capable of finding the funding for a major climbing and fitness facility, you can find the funding for many different businesses. We chose to start a climbing gym because we have a firm desire to make a positive difference in the lives that people lead. We are passionate, dedicated climbers that decidedly believe in providing the resources people need to make positive changes.

We know that activity centers like this become hubs in people’s lives, and we aspire to connect people with each other in a way that enhances everyone’s life.

We want all of our programs to be focused on encouraging personal goal setting and effort, and the generation of a substantial, local community. We know that we can establish a successful business around these principles and truly hope that our new neighbors will embrace us.


In the next installment Brown and Shotwell will share how they came up with their business structure and how they plan to fund the project.

Harness Consulting