Specs: What started as an “academic exercise” has become a reality for Kona Cliffs, a new climbing gym in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Nym Raske, a Wharton graduate and CEO of Kona Cliffs, was introduced to climbing while attending business school and “fell in love” with the sport right away. Upon moving back to Hawaii in late 2020, he found himself wondering if there was a reason for the absence of a gym in Kona. Raske researched the climbing gym business model for the area to determine if it would work and concluded that not only did the business model make sense, but the population in the region could support a gym of Kona Cliffs’ scale. “When I started researching the business and the business model, I saw how excited the community here was to have an option for climbing,” Raske said.
In Hawaii, as one travels southeast along the island chain, outdoor climbing becomes less accessible, according to Raske. The environment—a tropical rainforest—prevents climbers from reaching the rock, which he described as jagged, sharp and ill-suited for climbing. And because the other commercial climbing gyms in the area are on the opposite side of Big Island, his research project eventually led to Raske exploring the viability of funding in 2021 for a gym on the west side. At the time, banks in the area were excited about his business model but couldn’t lend to a retail business due to COVID. He and his partner, Christopher Kane, pivoted and decided to self-fund the facility with the help of investors.
The pair found a viable facility in a redevelopment district near the Kona Brewing Complex, which has been revitalized over recent years. The Brew Block where Kona Cliffs is situated has “a lot of new energy, a bunch of the better restaurants in town, a high-end coffee shop, and a world-famous brewery,” Raske described, also noting the high foot traffic and sufficient parking options in the area. Kona Cliffs held its grand opening in July, as part of a two-part launch. Phase 1 consists of testing the bouldering-focused business model, with over 80% of the space dedicated to climbing and the remainder containing a front desk, storage and rentals. “The strategy for this is to do one thing really well and build out this gym as the first of its kind here in Kona, and show that the community’s really excited by it,” Raske detailed. “And once that’s confirmed, then expand into everything else.” Phase 2, planned for a year after the opening, will double the climbing space, adding roped climbing and tertiary amenities to the facility.
A challenge unique to a market enmeshed with the tourism industry is learning to engage both Kona locals and visitors. While Raske described some gyms in the continental U.S. as being more metropolitan and catering to a “huge range of people,” for Kona Cliffs the trick has been keeping a tight scope for the gym’s community focus that’s tailored to both locals and visitors in the community, as well as continuing the process of learning “how to create a smaller intimate space that’s a great experience for both groups of people, even when they don’t necessarily share all the commonalities,” said Raske.
CRM Software: Approach
In Their Words: “So far, one pillar of my strategy has just been focus. It’s why I’m doing one thing and doing the bouldering focus and not doing tertiary services, keeping the products and the offering very singular. If you truly care about executing and you want to minimize the risk of your buildout and the risk to your budget and your timeline and the rest of your project, saying no to things is fundamentally crucial. And that’s what I’m hoping will pay off…” – Nym Raske, Kona Cliffs CEO
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