The summer of 2020 was supposed to feature climbing’s Olympic debut, a highly anticipated World Cup circuit, and numerous new gyms opening around North America. The COVID pandemic changed all that, with the Olympics, World Cup events, youth climbing camps, and numerous other competitions being cancelled or postponed. Fortunately, there have still been some recent new gym openings, which are refreshing indicators that the industry is successfully adapting to the ongoing challenges. But this has certainly not been the summer anyone expected or planned for.
Yet, since it is the summer we have, it is worth reflecting on how we got here and picking out some key wisdom garnered during the initial pandemic stretch from spring to summer.
Like most gyms around the country, On The Rocks—an 8,000-square-foot facility in Elyria, Ohio, that features bouldering, autobelays, top roping and lead climbing—temporarily closed in mid-March, when various government agencies began recommending the suspension of non-essential travel and public activities. On The Rocks’ autopay memberships were thus frozen, and the gym soon partnered with several brands—such as Trango, Butora and eGrips—to offer promo deals during the shutdown. Virtual yoga and fitness classes—and even virtual Bingo—were quickly offered by the gym as well, until the facility finally reopened on May 26th with new COVID safety protocols such as recommended masks and registered climbing time-slots for members.
“Our reopening announcement came only a couple of days after most gyms in the area, and in hindsight, for us, that extra time seemed to be what was needed to make sure everything was sorted for what we believe to have been a relatively smooth relaunch,” says David (D.J.) Snell, the General Manager at On The Rocks.
Snell shared with CBJ some of the specific lessons learned from On The Rocks’ temporary closure and that “smooth relaunch,” while also noting that none of the acquired wisdom was necessarily unique to the pandemic. “Rather,” explains Snell, “the pandemic seems to have required the employment of the lessons more frequently.” [Note: This is not to imply that the pandemic is a thing of the past; if anything, Snell’s lessons might prove useful as the industry continues to adjust with COVID in the present tense.]
LESSON 1: Keep Adapting. Making adjustments as situations change improves the likelihood of reaching a goal
Situations changed a lot for On The Rocks starting in early March. The gym had a number of programs scheduled, including monthly parties, an information session with the Ohio Climbers Coalition, the planned appearance of a local iCrave food truck, college night for Oberlin College students, and various other community initiatives. Those plans not only got upended, but On The Rocks has had to continually integrate various COVID-related mandates from the state of Ohio, an action that Snell refers to as “the name of the game for affected businesses.”
Snell says that one of the most significant integrations for the gym has been encouraging physical distancing given the relatively compact size of the facility. “For us, this has meant, among other things: creating two time slots per day of two hours—45 minutes in which a maximum of 30 people can climb, and creating a rotation in which every other top rope is ‘off’ for the day.” On The Rocks has also spread out seats and even removed some seating in areas where the previous layout promoted congregation.
Another small adjustment—to reach the ultimate goal of customer COVID safety—has been the implementation of additional cleaning procedures, and particularly a more robust cleaning schedule at On The Rocks. Categorically, the gym has a COVID-specific cleaning schedule before guests arrive, between waves of guests, and at the end of the night in addition to the facility’s normal cleanings. Unique to COVID has been a focus on disinfecting high-contact areas such as door handles, counters, faucets, lockers, handrails and the credit-card machine. Hands-free washing stations around the floor encourage guests to keep hands clean after each climb too. (“We figured that people are more likely to wash their hands if they don’t have to walk to the bathroom,” says Snell.) At the end of each night, whichever top ropes were used during the day are washed. Lead ropes—which are only allowed to be checked out once per day—are washed at the end of the night as well.
Snell says that increased cleaning has made a noticeable difference in the gym’s appearance—even though the gym already felt consistently clean even prior to the pandemic. Such additional cleaning has been effective and is likely something that will remain part of the gym protocol even in the ideal future when the pandemic is long gone.
Finally, the pandemic forced On The Rocks to make some difficult decisions regarding revenue and expenses. On The Rocks’ reopening with limited capacity resulted, of course, in a dip in profits and also a reduction in the need for staff. “Fortunately, we have an incredibly selfless, understanding [staff] at the gym that have collectively been able to find ways to make fewer hours on their paycheck work in their lives, and it cannot be understated what an attribute having hard-working, compassionate people that care about the success of their workplace is,” says Snell.
LESSON 2: Learn from Criticism. Employing a “growth mindset” improves the likelihood of making appropriate adjustments.
Snell is quick to point out an affinity for psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” over the alternative “fixed mindset.” A growth mindset employs persistence and welcomes challenges, and advocates learning from criticism. A “fixed mindset,” in contrast, avoids challenges and ignores useful feedback.
Snell summarizes the growth mindset in a climbing context by recommending gym managers “embrace challenges with effort,” which includes brainstorming frequently. And Snell sees a corollary between the amount of effort put forth by staff and the product—the gym itself and its programming—that is eventually put forth for the customers.
“On a macro level, there has been a good deal of communication amongst staff regarding new operational procedures; if we are not on the same page, there will most likely be issues with parts of the guest experience (booking, policy in the climbing area, etc.), and these hiccups and inconsistencies would probably lead to frustrated and unsatisfied customers (and staff members),” explains Snell. “This [pandemic] is obviously not an ideal environment at any time, but seems to be especially important now for those that use climbing as a physical and/or psychological escape, particularly as diversions seem to be in shorter supply (and therefore possibly more therapeutic than normal) for many due to COVID-related restrictions.”
Inherent in the growth mindset is a willingness to learn from criticism; and since the pandemic and its safety protocols are all so unprecedented for gym members, there is a lot that customers might question or even blatantly disagree with: “Listen to what guests and staff are saying, and listen to listen—don’t listen to talk,” advises Snell. Remember: what seems like a fringe issue to one gym employee or one gym staffer might be a large matter for someone else. In practice, learning from criticism could be as simple as changing confusing language on the gym website—something that On The Rocks has had to do—or making larger alterations to the gym’s floor plan to distance customers.
LESSON 3: Patience Is a Virtue. Many answers to questions and concerns are not needed right away.
The heightened anxiety that comes with the pandemic causes many people—not just climbers—to seek concrete explanations and clarification immediately. This is understandable, but it is also acceptable for a gym to take some time to think deeply about any given subject and investigate an issue in order to give an optimal answer.
Snell notes that this is especially important when the stakes for providing a poor answer might be high. “This was especially prevalent as Ohio was beginning to release plans for opening gyms and other climbing gyms in the state started making reopening announcements—and we were being contacted by people ready to climb again; it would have been very tempting to make empty promises about re-opening before having a solid idea of how we were going to abide by and implement the new protocols in the name of keeping up with everyone else,” says Snell. “But we chose to give a general statement along the lines of ‘We’re working on our reopening plan and will make sure that it’s communicated as soon as it’s finalized.’”
Gyms might feel pressure to expedite reopening plans—On The Rocks certainly did, Snell admits. But the consequences for doing it wrong “far outweigh taking some extra time to make sure it is done as best as possible,” says Snell.
Share Your Story
Are you a gym owner, manager or staffer who would like to share what you’ve learned from the ongoing pandemic challenges? If so, please send us a message here. And stay tuned to CBJ for additional “Lessons Learned from the COVID Crisis” featurettes in the future.
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.