Making Life Better: Behind the Desk with Andrew Coffey

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Behind the Desk is a series that interviews people and professionals in the climbing industry. For this Behind the Desk segment, CBJ heads north (virtually) to chat with Andrew Coffey, Owner (and “King Worker Bee”) of The Hive gyms in Canada. Coffey and The Hive opened two new facilities in 2020, earning the honors of Developer of the Year in the CBJ Gym List Awards. We wanted to learn more about opening multiple new gyms during a pandemic, what distinguishes The Hive gym communities, and the buzz for 2021.

Coffey credits an “amazing staff team” and “incredible climbing community” as the two biggest factors to opening two new gyms in 2020. (All photos courtesy of The Hive)

Name: Andrew Coffey
Title:
Owner & King Worker Bee, The Hive
Location:
Vancouver, British Columbia

CBJ: What factors helped you open two new climbing gyms during a crazy 2020?

COFFEY: The first factor is our amazing staff team. We have such an incredible group of people serving our community day-in and day-out. Without their help none of this would have been possible. I must offer a huge thanks to everyone on our management team for leading our crew during some difficult times. Extra special thanks to two individuals is absolutely necessary:

We would not be operating in Winnipeg, Manitoba, without the initiative, energy and engagement of our Managing Partner, Kori Cuthbert. Kori found the building, laid the groundwork and welcomed us into the climbing community he had helped establish in Winnipeg. Thank you Kori and hang in there!

In addition, our brilliant Brad Blackwell―who is one of our facility managers in British Columbia―was instrumental in getting both gyms up and running: leading staff training, finalizing all the little details, and being a pillar of strength in uncertain times. Thank you Brad! You have paved the way with your wit, wisdom and tireless work ethic.

The second factor is of course our fantastic climbing community, who continually amaze me with their support, encouragement and gratitude. They have continued to support us through these difficult days, and they have been the beacon that has helped us see through the storm to a brighter side. From all of us at The Hive, we are truly grateful, thank you for supporting us!

 

Why did you decide to open these new gyms in the locations of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, and Winnipeg, Manitoba, specifically?

Personally, I have a soft spot in my heart for Winnipeg, having spent some formative and fantastic years there when I was young. This fine city was on our radar for quite a while, and when Kori reached out to discuss the challenges he was facing trying to open a gym, it was like meeting a long-lost brother. I understood those challenges and we clicked immediately. Knowing that the community in Winnipeg is absolutely exceptional and that opportunities for climbing were somewhat limited, it seemed like a natural fit and a wonderful opportunity. We can’t wait to reopen once the lockdown is lifted!

Here in BC, Port Coquitlam is one of the Lower Mainland’s most rapidly growing communities. With this growth, we felt there was increasing demand for recreation opportunities for youth and young families. Another big attraction in Port Coquitlam is the location itself. We secured an anchor-spot in a really unique building with lots of windows, tall ceilings, and adequate parking and zoning. It also boasts a huge range of retail services nearby. Being a part of this busy commercial complex is both something new for us and an exciting opportunity for growth. We can’t wait to have the Grand Opening party we postponed due to the pandemic!

The Hive―founded on the four pillars of Climbing, Education, Community and Health & Wellness―added a fourth facility in British Columbia in part to serve more youth and young families. (Photo by Andi McLeish)

What motivated your choices for a mixed gym in PoCo and bouldering gym in Winnipeg?

On a fundamental level, the base-building generally determines what we build; for example, if we found a 60-foot-tall space, we would probably build a rope gym. That said, those buildings are like unicorns. In Winnipeg, Kori had found and secured a fantastic building with ceilings that were high enough for really excellent bouldering, so that decision was quite easy.

In Port Coquitlam, we had the option of a little extra height, so we hummed and hawed about it for a bit, contemplating the possibility of ropes. In the end, we settled on a bouldering-dominant facility with a small section for auto-belays.

In truth, some of this decision was influenced by COVID-19. We were still finalizing the design of the walls in Port Coquitlam when COVID hit. With the challenges we were facing, we shied away from the additional challenges, costs and uncertainty of taking on a new style of operation during a global pandemic.

On a more meaningful level, if designed correctly, bouldering is an amazing way to be introduced to climbing, and we love this aspect of our facilities. I also like to think we kind of know what we’re doing on this front, so the familiarity was somewhat comforting in the face of the unknown impacts of a worldwide epidemic.

 

What were the biggest challenges you now face to operating five facilities during this period?

Like so many businesses, our biggest challenge these days is financial. With our capacities reduced substantially, it is difficult to make ends meet. Due to the measures in place, I would say our official capacity has been reduced by about 50%. In reality, half of this capacity occurs during the day-time, when facilities are typically slow anyway. So effectively we are operating at closer to 25% of capacity, with revenues reduced to a similar degree―down about 75%.

Another huge challenge is that we now operate on a reservation system, with limited time allowed for each booking. This means the gym is no longer a place you can just drop-in whenever you feel like it. We’ve lost a lot of that social scene that was so important for community building. I cannot wait for the day when we can hang out with friends at the climbing gym and project stuff together, celebrating our success and sharing our beta.

Community at The Hive hasn’t looked like this since pre-pandemic days, but a distanced bouldering league did begin in January, with benefits going to BelayALL. A workshop series with BelayALL, who work hard to foster diversity and inclusivity in climbing while reducing barriers to access, is also forthcoming.

How are each of the various Hive gym communities different, and what unites them?

I firmly believe that we are united in our belief that ‘Climbing is for Everyone’ and ‘Everyone is a Climber.’ These are two fundamental mantras running through my head constantly, and they drive much of what we do. We all share a love of challenge and adventure; and somewhere, deep down, we believe that climbing can teach us things about ourselves and each other.

Our communities differ somewhat in their demographics. For example, the North Shore and Port Coquitlam see a lot of youth and family traffic, while Surrey and Vancouver see strong support in the young professional and post-secondary age ranges. We are very excited to see what the community in Winnipeg shapes up to be. Sadly, Winnipeg has been closed for more days than we’ve been open due to a public health order, and this closure came just as we were getting rolling.

Regardless, I have faith that we will find like-minded people wherever we are lucky enough to grow, and it is our central focus on building a community of kind, caring and conscientious people that ties all The Hive facilities together―and makes our community so special.

 

What drives The Hive?

The first thing one learns upon joining our staff team is that our mission is to ‘Make Life Better!’ It’s (almost) as simple as that. In everything we do, we strive to ‘Make Life Better,’ and we focus on four key pillars to do that: Climbing, Education, Community and Health & Wellness.

In practice, this means that for each and every member of our community, coming to the gym has the potential to brighten their day. It may offer them a sense of accomplishment or create meaning through challenge and mastery. It might be a break from the stresses of life and provide time to reflect on big decisions. It could mean making new friends or learning about yourself and finding your truth. At root, it is always about staying healthy and keeping fit: physically, mentally and socially.

So, beneath this simple motto, ‘Making Life Better,’ means many things. On one level, we offer climbing and we try to do that to the best of our abilities. On another level, we build community, and this has been perhaps our biggest loss during the pandemic―it’s hard to build community at distance.

Finally, on the ultimate and most meaningful level, I think what drives us is that we all love what we do, we love the people we get to do it with, and we believe that we all win when we ‘Make Life Better!’

While not benefitting the new gyms in Winnipeg and PoCo, Coffey has received financial support from the Canadian government during this period. “Please know that your neighbours to the North truly feel for our colleagues South of the border, and we hope that everyone makes it through this next year to see a brighter day!” says Coffey.

How has the Canadian gym market been different from the US this past year?

In Canada, we are all operating under slightly different Provincial guidelines, so at the moment, some Provinces have lock-downs that have affected various sectors of the economy differently. In BC, our facilities are open with restrictions; in Manitoba, we are currently closed, as are other gyms in Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.

One thing that has set us apart from the U.S. climbing gym market is that the Federal government has stepped up and supported businesses with some really strong measures that help cover partial costs for rent and wages, and there are some programs that have facilitated access to funding for additional expenses.

While some of this falls short―in particular for new businesses such as our Winnipeg and Port Coquitlam gyms which are not receiving any of these supports―these programs have enabled existing businesses to keep employees on, made up for a portion of lost revenues, and in many cases allowed businesses to survive the challenges of reduced capacity and additional expenses.

I have never been more grateful to be living and working in Canada. My heart goes out to all the businesses that are struggling without such support―I do hope you are able to see this through.

Currently operating with strict safety protocols such as masks and reservations, one of the things Coffey is looking forward to is returning to the social scene and community gatherings valued at The Hive. (Photo by Andi McLeish)

Anything exciting coming up at The Hive gyms in 2021?

Part of me wants to say, ‘Wasn’t 2020 exciting enough? How about a nice relaxing, low-key, uneventful 2021?’ I long for the day when I don’t have to wake up wondering what new rules or regulations are going to be announced that afternoon, and what changes we are going to have to make to our policy, communicate to our staff, and enforce with our community.

I am excited for the day when there is no more COVID casualty count coming from our health officials; the day when we can go back to being there in person for each other in our times of need, when we can celebrate those special moments with friends and family gathered together without the fear of contracting the virus and giving it to our grandparents and co-workers.

I am excited to see the community come back to climbing stronger than ever, and perhaps we can begin thinking beyond the next few days or the next period of restrictions. I look forward to getting back to planning our next new project, our next National Competition, and our next community celebration.

I think the most exciting thing will be when we can walk into the gym and see people’s faces for the first time in over a year! Maybe we’ll have a ceremonial ‘burning of the masks’ in the parking lot. Though it feels like such a small thing, it will be exciting to share in the simple joy of seeing a friendly smile.

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Joe Robinson has been working in the climbing industry for over a decade and currently manages CBJ advertising and editorial. He traveled the world as the IFSC’s community manager during Olympic inclusion and across the US while writing for Alpinist, Climberism, DPM and CBJ. He also worked in local climbing gyms of the Pacific Northwest and West Michigan while advancing economic empowerment, educational equity, youth development and diversity programs of national non-profit organizations.