By Jack Simonson
In the last 15 years or so, a business model that includes full-service climbing, yoga, and fitness has come to dominate the indoor climbing industry, and this model is a huge part of what is driving the growth of climbing gyms to near double digit levels each year. These facilities serve hard-core climbers looking for places to train, young professionals looking for a new type of workout, yogis and (perhaps most significantly), families and youth.
In order to appeal to this diverse set of customers, climbing gyms have begun to develop targeted marketing strategies beyond Groupons, posters and social media. CBJ talked to several marketing directors and managers of various gyms across the country to learn more about marketing in the modern age of climbing.
State of the Industry
While the indoor climbing industry has become much more sophisticated, most gyms have not yet seen a need to hire professional, outside advertising help. The industry is still small enough for gyms to handle this side of the business on their own. Since most gyms can manage their own advertising, many have dedicated internal marketing departments, from single individuals to entire teams.
A larger company like Planet Granite, which operates four gyms in four different cities, requires careful marketing coordination between each of their facilities. According to Stephanie Pound, Senior Director of the Bay Area and Marketing for Planet Granite, “Our marketing is overseen by myself [along with] our Content Marketing Manager, Graphic Designer and local Marketing Coordinators.”
While this structure works for some of the larger companies operating multiple facilities, it can be overkill for smaller companies that only operate one or two facilities. A company such as Stone Summit, which operates two facilities in the Atlanta area, doesn’t employ a dedicated marketing team, according to their Director of Operations Alastair Steward. “Our upper management team develops and implements our marketing,” he said, adding that they don’t employ any outside advertising help either. Even though they may not have a marketing department per se, they do still have dedicated people working on advertising for the gym and implementing a coordinated marketing strategy.
Despite differing personnel decisions about who is dealing with the marketing, one trend that seems to be emerging from companies operating multiple facilities is the need to target advertising specifically to each location. “We have two locations and the local demographics differ, as does the length of time each location has been open. For those reasons, we utilize ‘global’ marketing to drive business to both facilities and facility-specific marketing for each location,” said Steward. The primary goal for these companies is to generate business overall, and an important element of that is to advertise the specific events, offerings, deals, discounts, etc. that are specific to each facility and draw in customers.
Similarly to Stone Summit, Planet Granite’s marketing strategy “differs based on geographic location and our goals for that gym,” said Pound. Each gym has a different clientele, and this structure allows Planet Granite to appeal to each customer base while simultaneously keeping the company’s overall goals in mind. With Yosemite, Bishop, Tahoe, and countless other prominent climbing destinations nearby, a lot of Planet Granite’s Bay Area customers are more dedicated outdoor climbers. Many of the Portland customers, while having Smith Rock nearby and Leavenworth within day trip distance, are more multi-sport outdoor enthusiasts. These differences are the kind that require tailored marketing approaches.
The trend in the climbing gym industry now is to have a broad, ‘global’ marketing strategy that informs whatever geographically specific advertising decisions the company must make. Maybe one gym offers a Groupon deal that another location, operated by the same company, doesn’t; perhaps one location is hosting a film screening, whiel another is hosting a local USAC competition. These are the types of everyday events that differ between various facilities, even if they are all under the same corporate umbrella.
Planet Granite operates two member competitions each year at each of their gyms—the Bloc Party, a bouldering competition, and the Friction Series, a rope climbing competition. Each facility hosts their event at a different time during the year and so they must advertise differently for each event to ensure that local membership is clear on the differences (i.e. The Friction Series event is called the PDX Pulldown at their Portland gym).
However, given the proximity of Planet Granite’s bay area gyms, the use tools such as social media and direct email marketing to inform members a larger pool of customers that a specific location is hosting a competition. Each event is run nearly identically at each gym, and as such the global marketing strategy of Planet Granite is evident in each event. Thus, the members all know what to expect at each event, even though the local logistics may differ. Global advertising strategies inform facility-specific advertising, allowing companies like Planet Granite and Stone Summit to appeal to different customer demographics while making the experience for their patrons as seamless as possible between their different facilities.
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A common way that gyms advertise is through social media. Almost every gym operates a Facebook page, along with an Instagram account, and possibly a Twitter handle. Using social media is a low cost advertising model where its possible for a company to generate a high level of brand awareness by having their customers and fans share branded content to a wide range of people.
Another common avenue for advertising is through the gym itself. While this doesn’t reach potential new customers as efficiently as having a social media presence, it is effective at turning first-time visitors into members. Gyms offer sign-up deals, class discounts, new member perks, and countless other benefits to get new members on board.
For a lot of these people, climbing can be intimidating and difficult to dive into. The perk of being a full-service facility, however, is that new members can be eased into climbing while taking full advantage of other services. According to Steward, “[We] market our entry-level fitness classes (especially yoga) to our newer customers so they know they have a good place to start.” These types of strategies are what can help a climbing gym bring in, and keep, customers who are new to climbing.
In addition to gaining new members, in-gym advertising helps the gym promote what is happening at their facility and what people should be aware of: classes, maintenance, new routes, etc. “Our most effective type of advertising is word of mouth,” said Pound. All of this is done to improve member experience and thus to help retain members.
While all of this is effective, what else can gyms do to advertise, especially to customers who are new to climbing as a sport? According to Dean Wenstrand, Online Marketing Manager for Looker a business analytics company based in Santa Cruz, California, “Paid search advertising is going to be a core strategy for these companies.” Paid search advertising, or search engine marketing, can take a variety of forms.
One avenue is to hire marketing companies to put the businesses name at the top of search results that match certain keywords relevant to climbing. Companies can also pay to have advertisements on the search engine itself. According to Wenstrand, this is one of the most effective advertising tools that small companies can use.
Another effective way to turn up in search results is to pitch a story to a local newspaper editor, local TV network or regional travel promotion organization. These media outlets are always hungry for stories and businesses to highlight. With a little legwork you could get a story on how climbing gyms are great rainy day activities, a profile of a member that used climbing to have fun and get in shape, or a feature story about upcoming events at the gym. In a addition to the immediate benefits of the news coverage, thanks to the internet the benefit will be long term; if someone Googles ‘fun family activities in my town’, the climbing gym could pop up in article about local recreation activities.
As the indoor climbing market has grown, the business side of climbing has grown up too. Finding innovative and cost effective strategies to find and retain new members has come a long way, but has lots of room to grow.