Indoor Climbing Expo 2023 – Observations From the Floor

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Indoor Climbing Expo routesetter roundtable
The inaugural Indoor Climbing Expo last December brought together businesses, professionals and climbers for a fresh take on climbing industry gatherings stateside that offered a little something for everyone. (Pictured: the routesetting roundtable panelists; all Expo photos by Andrew Gonzalez @agonzaphoto)

In 2023, multiple climbing industry trade shows took place for the first time in North America, and in the United States that trade show was the Indoor Climbing Expo. Over 40 industry brands and organizations had booths at the event’s debut, held at the Chattanooga Convention Center in Tennessee from December 12-16. The weeklong gathering featured roundtable discussions on hot indoor climbing topics, educational seminars on gym development and operation, hold shaping/maintenance and rope art activities, certification courses and routesetting/training clinics at local gyms, a job fair, a board competition with pro athletes, a CBJ Grip Showcase and more. And when not touring the vendor booths in the Expo Hall or networking with other industry insiders, attendees were often out climbing the trad, sport and bouldering crags or hitting the trails around Chattanooga.

OnSite

Also of note about the Expo, besides the business-to-business (B2B) happenings, was the business-to-consumer (B2C) side of the event. While not the first trade show in the climbing industry worldwide to combine the two concepts—the Salon de l’Escalade in France, for instance, which premiered in 2019, includes a B2C focus—the inaugural edition of the Expo was perhaps America’s most noteworthy climbing industry gathering in recent memory to be marketed to both insiders and the general public. The trade show was also billed as having low financial barriers to entry. “We want everyone there,” the Expo’s founder, Travis Williams, had said on the CBJ Podcast ahead of the event.

In case you missed the show, below are observations from some of the attendees on the floor, and stay tuned to CBJ for updates on year two of the Expo, set for March 19-22, 2025.

  1. Trade Shows Can Be for Everyone by Mario Stanley
  2. The Industry Isn’t Slowing Down by Gavin Heverly
  3. Innovations Are Around Every Corner by Zachary Joseph
Rockwerx

 

Trade Shows Can Be for Everyone

By Mario Stanley

This past December, I attended the first Indoor Climbing Expo in Chattanooga, TN. My focus was on representing The Global Climbing Initiative and recording podcast episodes for my show, Sends And Suffers.

This event was a vibe…a throwback to 2008, hanging out in the climbing section of Outdoor Retailer. There was a genuine sense and feeling of community in that room at the Chattanooga Convention Center; I think that feeling was amplified by the general public having access to the Expo, in addition to insiders. I heard people talking with excitement about attending a clinic or session, and they didn’t even have an industry job.

Exhibit Hall at the Expo
Exhibitor booths in the Expo Hall showcased a wide array of businesses serving gyms and climbers, from apparel companies to gear manufacturers, software companies and more.

I tend to get lost in the motions of these trade shows sometimes, but this one was different. I spoke with Jack from Sōshin, a t-shirt design company based in Florida that may currently have the best drip in the game. Climbing has kept bringing him and his six childhood buddies back to Chattanooga for years, helping to keep the bond strong between them all.

I spoke with routesetters at the Expo who are passionate about important topics, like fair pay and the creation of career pathways within our industry—topics I believe need more consideration in our industry.

During my time, I had the opportunity to sit down with Pete Woods, a Canadian climbing legend and sportscaster who is looking for new opportunities in the sports world. I spoke with Katie Jo Myers, an accomplished climbing athlete and creative who has suffered a significant loss in her life but still creates and carries on.

These are just a few of the people who sat down with me at the Expo. We talked about the journey that life has taken them on and how to make the most of the time we have now and be present in our lives.

The Indoor Climbing Expo is an event that is here to stay. It is not OR, not CWA, nor does it strive to be. It’s a unique event that has a real chance of bringing the consumer climbing community into a much closer relationship with the commercial side of indoor climbing. In a way, that connection really could lead to the next stage of organic growth and evolution in our industry. It is no secret that over the past ten years, indoor climbing has seen rapid growth in the number of gyms opening across the United States, combined with the popularity of climbing films hitting the mainstream and an upcoming appearance in the Olympics. We will continue to see climbing grow and new climbers enter the sport.

The Indoor Climbing Expo was a place where we can all come together and collaborate on new concepts. I believe it has the possibility to do so well into the future. I look forward to going next time and hope you’ll join me in Chattanooga in 2025 for year two.

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About the Author

Mario StanleyMario Stanley has been a leader in the climbing community as an indoor climbing coach for just under two decades and an outdoor climbing guide for several years. You may have heard him hosting conversations with industry climbers and professionals on one of the 80 podcast episodes at Sends And Suffers, a show which has been running since 2020. Additionally, he was a contestant on the upcoming HBO Max series The Climb. This experience gave him a unique perspective on both the B2C and B2B side of the climbing industry.

 


 

The Industry Isn’t Slowing Down

By Gavin Heverly

To me, Chattanooga was an excellent and almost symbolic choice for the inaugural Indoor Climbing Expo. Chattanooga is somewhat of a sleeper climbing town. You rarely hear much about this town in the climbing world. Chatty is not a coastal city, it’s not Boulder or Salt Lake or any of the places the industry tends to gravitate toward, but the Great Smoky Mountains just outside of town host what is surely some of the most amazing climbing in the U.S.

And much in the way that Chattanooga is not the heavy hitting, superstar rock climbing town, the Indoor Climbing Expo has arisen seemingly out of nowhere to be a viable complement to some of the more established summits, conferences and trade shows in our space.

As someone who has been in the industry for 25 years now, I can say with confidence that this profusion of new industry gatherings is a good thing. Optionality creates option value. Competition keeps the market more honest and gives consumers choice. When this evolution happens, it is a sure sign the industry is growing.

EP Climbing

Signs of growth were everywhere I looked at the Indoor Climbing Expo, despite its modest attendance. I counted over 20 different hold brands showcased at the Expo. And of note, I had heard of maybe only half of them before. There were at least four software companies. Read that sentence again. Four. Software companies. At a climbing industry expo. There was also an insurance brokerage, outdoor clothing brands, and on and on.

I felt fortunate to have a front-row seat at the show. I ran a few seminars, all of which were well attended, with new faces, dozens of prospective gym owners, and existing chains hoping to scale. Importantly, the content from those seminars was also broadcast live from the Expo, and two recordings—Opening a Climbing Gym: Adjusting the Dials of Development and Scale Your Business, Scale Your Team: Professional Development and Org Structure Planning—are available for those who couldn’t make it.  To my knowledge, it may be the first time a trade show in the industry has held seminars that were broadcast live and made available on demand.

"Opening a Gym" seminar
In addition to discussions about opening and scaling a climbing gym business, other seminars and roundtables at the Expo delved into routesetting, insurance, gym-to-crag programming, and sustainability. (Pictured: Chris Ryan leading the “Opening A Gym” seminar)

I was on a panel about opening gyms, with people from every market imaginable asking questions, including Florida. There were at least four people in the room opening gyms in Florida. I discovered climbing while in Florida (R.I.P. Gainesville Rock Gym), so I am not at all hating on the Sunshine State. I am, however, saying that having multiple people taking on the Florida market is absolutely a sign of continued growth in our industry. I handed out more business cards and shook more hands than I have at any other industry event to date. People were excited about growth, opportunity, and seeing what’s happening in the industry.

I spoke to people who lived in Bali. I had a long chat with people who had just moved back to the U.S. from working at gyms in Australia. I spoke to business owners from multiple countries. I saw maybe three or four different podcasts being filmed.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. It was exciting to see it all come together, with a good showing of owners, aspiring owners, routesetters, managers, consultants and vendors, all showcasing that our industry is not slowing down any time soon. And I’m excited to continue my now 25-year-long journey in the industry watching and supporting its continued growth.

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About the Author

Gavin HeverlyGavin Heverly has been working in the climbing industry for 25 years and is the founder of Rise Above Consulting. He has spent most of his life pursuing his passion for growth, climbing, fitness and adventure. That journey has allowed him to apply a unique set of skills and experiences in leadership, operations, team development, and scaling culture and strategy to a variety of real-world challenges and opportunities. Gavin is also a volunteer with a mountain search and rescue team and an avid climber.


 

Innovations Are Around Every Corner

By Zachary Joseph

When I walked into the exposition hall for the first time, a familiar voice—Travis Williams’ of sToKed Climbing—was heard as Vanilla Ice’s classic “Ice Ice Baby” was blaring on the speakers. A strong sense of excitement permeated the air. As I walked down the corridors, I saw visually inviting, colorful, shiny globs of plastic expertly arranged on booth walls, and people were smiling as they shook hands and greeted one another in person for the first time. Many of these people, myself included, had spent years talking to other hold aficionados in the industry, but for many folks it was their first time meeting each other face to face. This was the Indoor Climbing Expo’s debut, and it was the first time I had personally attended a climbing convention.

The elephant in the room, when it comes to climbing grips, was that it was very clear that the climbing holds/macros/volumes sector is changing and adapting faster than ever to the growing demands of climbing gyms, competitions at all levels, as well as demand from routesetters and climbers.

Hold brands at the Expo
More than 50 climbing hold companies from around the world were represented at the Expo, which made for a colorful Expo Hall full of new creations and timeless classics on the grips market.

Innovations were around every corner—such as environmentally vacuum-thermoformed plastic from large companies like Blocz in Germany, which was at the show with Bold Climbing, as well as smaller companies like Absolute Climbing from Alex Waterhouse of Contact Climbing in the UK, who is also exploring reparation and recycling technology.

There were also new polyurethane creations on display—such as those of Ocelot Climbing, which has arguably risen to the brands at the forefront of modular climbing with their Shade Theory wedges and Mass Slopers, two complementary lines of wedges and spheres that can be placed on top of or beside one another in myriad ways.

Long-established companies were also present—such as Kilter Grips, which some may argue started the modular climbing trend through their various Complex series of holds. In addition, more companies are starting to produce and distribute overseas—such as newcomer Lacuna Climbing from China, as well as the new branch of Method Asia which was announced.

Across the board, the shapes were amazing. So, instead of singling any one out, here’s a bonus breakdown of every grips-related booth that was on the floor at the inaugural Indoor Climbing Expo.

Trango Holds Pardners

I have been not only routesetting for nearly two decades but also climbing on interesting holds, macros and volumes for over 20 years now. At the Expo, the progress we have made as a sport and as an industry was on display for everyone to see, and one thing was very clear: The holds sector will continue to move forward with new trends, technology, professionalism and shaping capabilities in ways that no one will be able to predict entirely. And all of this progress is made possible through the passion and hard work of these creators, shapers and setters.

Through it all, the team kids will get stronger, more athletes will compete and excel at all levels of climbing competitions—from local to regional, national international and Olympic stages—the average climber will climb harder, and more people than ever will be able to climb on great climbing grips, experiencing what made us all fall in love with this great sport. And that progress is worth celebrating. See you at the Indoor Climbing Expo 2025!

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About the Author

Zachary JosephZachary Joseph is a routesetter of almost 20 years and runs a social media company that has been around since 2019, called Climbing Hold News Reviews. So, you could say he knows a thing or two about climbing holds, and he’s always psyched to break down the latest and greatest shapes of hold companies big and small from around the globe.

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