Behind the Desk…is an ongoing series that profiles people influencing and advancing the industry in gyms around the country. This time CBJ does something a bit different and chats with two people at the same time. In fact, it’s an ongoing team effort for Lara Grosjean and Heather Robinson at CityROCK in Colorado Springs, Colorado. And since the gym has gone through a massive remodel and celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, there is a lot to discuss.
Name: Lara Grosjean and Heather Robinson
Title: Majority Owner and General Manager (respectively), CityROCK
Location: Colorado Springs, CO
CBJ: CityRock was kind of one of the trend setters for having a small bar in its lobby—and I’ve read online that that bar was what initially brought Heather to be employed at the gym. I’m curious to hear how a bar uniquely impacts the dynamic of a gym.
GROSJEAN: The bar/meeting house was my husband Joe’s idea. The gym is in an old movie theater, and we had a large area up front that was the concession stand. In the first few years we were open, we used it for different things, including CrossFit for a while. From the early days of our first gym in Monument [Colorado], we had always served snacks and coffee from our front desk. Joe thought a pub in the front would keep climbers in the building and make it a more pleasant experience to come to CityROCK.
One day, Joe and Steve Hitchcock, leader of a local nonprofit called UpaDowna, started chatting. Steve offered to partner with us to open a pub. The original vision was that we would split the profits with UpaDowna if they helped staff it and get it going. It quickly became apparent that with discounts to our members and the low profit margin of a restaurant, there really wouldn’t be any profits to split. We also realized that running a restaurant was more work than any of us could take on given our skill sets. That’s when Heather came into the picture.
ROBINSON: I think the coolest part of having The Ute & Yeti in the gym lobby is the sense of community it encourages. It creates an amazing vibe as you enter the gym. After our guests finish climbing, they have a destination to rest their sore pads on an ice cold beer. It offers our community a place to gather and take part in events. Whether it’s movies, trivia, slideshow presentations, they can sit comfortably and enjoy a meal or a drink while doing so.
The restaurant is not open during the day, so we use the dining room as a community work space, complete with complimentary coffee during those hours. Many of our members come in early for climbing, cardio or yoga, and stay for hours afterwards working on their computers. We have also made the restaurant very family friendly, which works with our youth programs. It’s really warming to be able to offer a space that can accommodate so much for the people that frequent our gym.
CBJ: What are some keys to successfully combining a climbing gym with a bar?
ROBINSON: We have structured our menu at the Ute to be climber-friendly: made to order, always fresh, almost all made in house (we don’t bake bread or make mayonnaise), keto, gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, and if we don’t have what you need—you name it and we’ll modify it. Climbers can be very specific in what they eat, so we have catered to their needs from the beginning.
At CityROCK, kid-friendly and affordable items are a must, and we need to be able to get the plates out fairly quickly. Beer is definitely well received. The Ute & Yeti has a rotating beer list that boasts anywhere from 75-90 beers at a time, all craft and always changing. We host 16 taps, two of which pour hyper-local Springs Culture Kombucha, and the other 14 are crafts of all styles. Every tap changes each time we blow a keg. We have one of the best beer lists on the Front Range.
I think the most important key to being successful in conjunction with the gym is the friendly service and always being happy to see our members. They really are the reason The Ute has been so successful. We have an awesome clientele.
CBJ: CityRock went through a massive remodel several years ago, and you were both involved with that. What sort of remodeling was done, and any lessons learned from that by each of you?
GROSJEAN: The remodel actually began in the spring of 2018 and is just wrapping up now. Joe and I were in the middle of a three-year sailing trip with our children when we heard there might be another gym coming to Colorado Springs. We decided we needed to take a break from sailing to make sure that we had done everything we could to position CityROCK to continue to serve the climbers of southern Colorado.
We have made continual improvements to CityROCK over the years but, in order to add everything we wanted to build this time, we had to make some massive changes. Joe has a background in mechanical engineering and, in the past, has done much of the building himself but this time we decided to bring in an architect and hire contractors because of the scope of the work we were doing. Heather bore the brunt of managing the project since we left a few months into it to resume our sailing trip, so I’m sure she has many comments about inheriting someone else’s vision.
There’s definitely something to be said for doing additional planning and we certainly could have done more of that. I know some of the work Joe and the team did early on was torn out and redone, which is unfortunate. However, I also know people who have spent years and years making plans to build and they end up with many of the same issues that seem to come up any time you remodel or build.
I think you have to make a plan with what you know and be prepared to revise and address issues as they arise. It also helps to have a detail-oriented person like Heather overseeing the project. Were we to do it again, I would try to find the right upper-level person on the staff (that wasn’t the GM) to liaise with the contractors and manage the project to take some of the burden off Heather.
ROBINSON: Yes, we are actually finishing up the remodel now. We changed around 30 percent of the rope walls, 90 percent of the bouldering walls, replaced the rope climbing floor, added a training room, a cardio and fitness room, a third level yoga studio that looks out over the entire gym, amphitheater seating on the lower rope level, expanded the Ute kitchen and updated the dining room, remodeled the front desk and orientation area, added a private party room for the gym and restaurant to use, installed an HVAC system complete with Airus fans, updated the electrical/Ethernet/security systems, sprinkled the entire building, added staff offices and a break room, and built a garage for our new boom lift. The last leg will be to add a sunroom-style patio to the front of the building to address additional seating needs for the Ute dining room.
This project was massive! It was done in steps and we remained open for all but a minimal eight days of closure, which were broken up over the 16 months of the bulk of the remodel. While we tried to minimize the impact on the members as much as humanly possible, it was not a small impact and the community around this gym blew my mind with their patience. I’m not saying we didn’t upset people with the construction, but as a whole the members of CityROCK were so forgiving and supportive of this project.
The biggest lesson I learned: our members really love us and will put up with a whole mess of shenanigans for a shiny, new climbing facility! To be serious, the construction crew and gym staff did a phenomenal job with this project. Our staff built all of the climbing walls, rope floor and had a huge hand in much of the cosmetic changes to the facility.
CBJ: I saw that CityROCK has an adaptive climbing team. How did that come about?
GROSJEAN: In the first few years that we were open downtown, we did a team building for the Olympic Training Center (OTC) to encourage athletes to meet and build relationships with those outside their sport. One of the events was for all members of a team to get up “The Wall,” a typical team-building event.
Joe was watching along with Peter Haberl, a sports psychologist at the OTC. Most of the participants were world-caliber athletes in their sports and had no difficulty scaling the wall. However, one of the team members was a Paralympic swimmer who was born without full limbs. As the event progressed, almost all of the athletes had scaled the wall, not thinking about physical limitations, since they had very few. But the Paralympic swimmer did not have the capacity to climb the bouldering wall without help and was left on his own at the bottom.
When the other athletes noticed this from the top of the wall, they were mortified. Joe reminded the Paralympian that, according to the rules of the event, he could make use of certain tools. He looked around for a moment, then found a nearby rope, swung it over to where his teammates could reach it and tied it around his waist, allowing them to assist him in climbing the wall.
After witnessing this moment, Joe was inspired to make climbing accessible to anyone who came into our gym. The seed for the adaptive climbing team was planted on that day and it has evolved into one of the most loved programs in our gym. It is successful because of the dedication of the team leader and the volunteers who work one-on-one with the climbers.
CBJ: I often ask people to describe what their community is like. I see on the CityROCK website there is an entire section devoted to “Community Support & Outreach.” So, what makes CityROCK’s community unique—and what does the gym add to it?
GROSJEAN: Climbing isn’t just a sport or a hobby—it’s one of our innate abilities as humans. That means that those of us lucky enough to work at a climbing gym are helping people do what they’re born to do. But climbing is just one part of who they are. They are also parents, students, artists, musicians, friends, cyclists, runners, pet-owners, actors, singers, and community activists. All of the wonderful people that come into our gym come to us with their own sets of interests, beliefs, opinions, strengths and weaknesses. As much as we can, we like to support their interests in and outside of our building.
There are so many interesting people and organizations in the Colorado Springs area, trying to make life more fulfilling for its residents. We believe it makes sense to work with those like-minded organizations to multiply our ability to serve our patrons. So we have a staff member whose role is to do community outreach and try to build partnerships that benefit all involved.
From our earliest days in Monument when we had to fight for every customer, we learned that people came back not because they liked us or because our routes were the best or because our gym was the cleanest (although those were important factors) and it certainly wasn’t because it was the most comfortable place to climb—it was freezing. They came back because they met other like-minded people at our gym. They stayed through the cold and the noise because their friends were there too. We’ve tried to remember that and we do everything we can to make CityROCK a place where you will find a friend.
ROBINSON: Our community is our story. Our entire business is based around our community. Without it, we wouldn’t still be here. We donate 100 percent of our initiation fees to non-profit organizations every year, many of which we let our members choose. CityROCK has celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and we celebrated our community for that occasion. We are a gym of all types of people and we invite all types of people to be here. I think our community is best summed with the word ‘inclusive.’
Grosjean suggested discussing some “challenges of being a woman in the climbing industry” and some “advantages and disadvantages of being a mother while simultaneously running a gym.” CBJ was happy to hear their thoughts on those topics.
GROSJEAN: Joe and I got married and opened our first climbing gym in Monument a month later. I always joke that the gym was our first child. The other three human children came soon after, and are now ages 6, 9, and 13. The biggest advantage to being a mother and having a business is that you can bring your children to work whenever you want. This is also the biggest disadvantage. I remember scoring climbing competitions while changing a newborn baby’s diaper, working on Quickbooks and nursing, pumping milk in a hockey referee’s closet, and frantically searching for my 1.5-year-old daughter—only to find her at the top of the bouldering wall where she was looking for the slide.
Like all working moms, I have found it challenging to balance time with my kids and my husband with the energy required by the climbing gym and its staff. There were many, many events that could have been better organized or communications that could have gone better. But, overall, I think we have a better gym because of this struggle. I learned to manage my time more efficiently and prioritize what really had to be done during the time I had. Our staff learned to be more independent.
I’ve always emphasized the need for strong children’s programs and the educational component of climbing. My belief is that by creating strong youth programs, we are building future climbers…I feel like there’s always a struggle in climbing gyms between a desire to have kids and families and the desire to have ‘serious’ climbers or more of a singles scene. CityROCK is no exception. Until recently, the vast majority of our staff was childless, and I felt like I was constantly trying to convince them of the importance of dedicating vast amounts of energy and resources to youth programs.
In response to strong pressure (ironically from my husband Joe) to justify the youth programs from a financial standpoint, I created a spreadsheet showing that each program could pay its own way in the gym and still generate a nominal profit. This spreadsheet has become a critical part of how we measure the success of our various programs and make decisions on how they evolve. While it’s important that youth programs contribute to the bottom line, I remain convinced that the positive impact that our team of coaches has on the kids is impossible to measure.
ROBINSON: I don’t really look at the challenges I face in this industry specifically as a female or male. I definitely envy the upper body strength of some men when I am being shut down on some of our overhung climbs, but that’s why I love slab!
The position of running a gym is definitely dominated by men, but that’s what makes CityROCK even more special. As a woman, I feel like there is a sense of family that may or may not be present at other facilities. My staff is an extension of my family; I love them all dearly. We are one unit and are only as strong as our weakest, therefore we function together and are consistently involved and aiding one another. While my staff’s personal lives are their own, I do everything in my power to be a support for them when they need it. I think that level of relationship is rare in business these days. It’s part of our local, small business feel. I am great because of those amazing employees who work with me.
My biggest disadvantage would be time management, but that’s not specific to this business. I am a single mother, so it’s really hard to juggle the schedule of day time admin duties and staff facilitation, the evening events we host (and we are always hosting something), member interaction (evening is our peak time), homework, after school activities, down-time, house work, and quality time with my daughter. The woes of a working mom! All and all, I think being a mother really helps me to be a better boss, hands down.
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John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.