How to Start a Climbing Gym Part 1: The Idea with Vertical Solutions

Early sketches of the 35,000-square-foot Oso Climbing Gym coming soon to Dallas, TX. All images courtesy of Vertical Solutions
Early sketches of the 35,000-square-foot Oso Climbing Gym coming soon to Dallas, Texas. Photo by Oso founder Chris Whittaker, sketches by architect Nick Dean, courtesy Vertical Solutions.

So, you want to own a climbing gym.

Are you well versed in the industry? Do you know how to formulate a business plan or how to seek investors and funding? Are you familiar with the do’s and don’ts of designing a usable and inviting space? How about finding a decent and sensible location for your facility? Do you know how you’ll protect your assets, or how you’ll defend yourself in potential lawsuits? Are you already thinking of opening day and programming, but forgetting about how you’ll train your route setting team? How will your business mitigate risk in an inherently risky industry? Which type of holds will you screw on your walls? What flooring and padding will you use? What is your plan for onboarding a trustworthy, dependable staff and ensuring your workplace is an attractive environment for new hires?

There are countless aspects to opening, owning and operating a climbing gym. There are even more for starting your own business – two endeavors that are extremely difficult. But, not impossible.

Perhaps you’re reading this while sitting in your cubicle, tired of the monotonous drone of nine-to-five life. Maybe you’re seeking an entrepreneurial adventure and indoor climbing is your journey’s mode of transportation. Or, possibly, you’re already a successful, lifelong businessperson who is wisely paying attention to the sport’s growth, and you want to cash in.

Either way, opening a climbing gym and starting a business always begins here: with an idea. Though, it seems you’ve already discovered it. And thankfully you arrived at the best place for kickstarting your crusade.

Friends and family gather for a wedding reception in 2018 held at The Front Climbing Club in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Understanding the Landscape

According to the SBA’s Office of Advocacy, only “about half of all establishments survive five years or longer,” meaning you have a 50-percent chance at success. But the climbing world is reaching new heights and it will continue to do so thanks to the sport’s upcoming Olympic debut and subsequent mainstream media attention. In the State of Climbing Report by the American Alpine Club, the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) estimates that the climbing gym industry will be worth $1 billion by 2021…$1 billion!

You could be looking at a lucrative and successful future should you be willing to put in the hard work and time necessary to build a business and own a climbing gym that you can call yours. But many challenges await on the road ahead. Funding your endeavor, formulating a business plan, finding a suitable location and surrounding yourself with bright, passionate and kindred spirits are your next steps. None are easy tasks.

It’s never too early to start preparing for these challenges. Go on, the clock is ticking.

A climber takes on one of the bouldering problems at The Front Climbing Club in Ogden, Utah.

Why Listen to Us?

So, why would you trust us at Vertical Solutions? Good question.

We don’t want to brag; we’re simply proud of our roots and our transformation. We have become one of the leading climbing gym builders in the United States since Dustin Buckthal and John Stack first founded our company in 2007. Since then, we have built over 100 gyms/projects.

Operating climbing gyms is in our DNA, too. Before founding Vertical Solutions, Dustin purchased Salt Lake City’s The Front Climbing Club with the help of “friends, family, fools” and a seller-carry. With a small but scrappy team, he operated the facility and learned valuable lessons as the years went by. Others eventually noticed the gym’s birch walls and wanted them in their facilities. This is what led to the creation of Vertical Solutions.

The aesthetic birch walls from Vertical Solutions at The Crag in Nashville, Tennessee.

After 13 years of business ownership, Dustin and John have grown from naïve entrepreneurs to climbing industry professionals with unparalleled expertise. They have since expanded into a vertically integrated company that includes Habit, Proxy Productions and Sugarhouse Holds. Each subdivision cranks out different products – including climbing holds, flooring and pads – designed to meet clients’ needs.

And through Vertical Solutions, Dustin utilizes his experience as a gym owner to guide clients through industry-leading consultations, which provide guidance for those who are on their own entrepreneurial path.

Climbing wall and flooring production specialists of Vertical Solutions and its subdivisions at work.

The Next Steps

An increased number of successful gyms helps strengthen the sport of indoor climbing and the entire industry. A stronger, larger industry means a better bottom line for everyone involved. So, we want to help as many people as possible.

If you’re not quite ready to immediately consult with us, then stay tuned! This is simply the first of many articles we’ll be releasing in our “Starting a Climbing Gym” article series. Over the next several months we’ll cover everything you’ll need to know in order to own a climbing gym of your own.

We’ll review business formation, the process for securing your project’s funding and financing, the importance of protecting your assets, how to find a proper location and facility, the do’s and don’ts of gym design, planning for opening day and much, much more.

And you won’t just be hearing this information from us! Throughout the series we’ll spotlight different clients that we’ve worked with in the past and showcase their proven, successful projects.

We cannot wait to begin the journey with you. We hope you’re excited, too.


This story was paid for and produced by the sponsor and does not necessarily represent the views of the Climbing Business Journal editorial team.
Harness Consulting