The year 2016 was a memorable one for climbing. In the competition world, sport climbing got its first ticket to the Olympic Games, set to take place next year―with multiple North American athletes on the roster. In the indoor industry stateside, the number of commercial gyms in the US rose above 400, and the growth rate in Canada was reported at a whopping 18 percent. 2016 was also the year the new climbing wall product provider and innovator OnSite charged onto the climbing gym design scene.
Based in Montreal, in just five years OnSite has designed dozens of climbing projects across Canada and the United States, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia and Philadelphia to Houston. But this year has been the biggest yet for the new cool kid on the block, in terms of builds across the border. Plans for three more gyms are currently underway in Florida, Michigan and Washington, proving the Quebecoise company is in demand from coast to coast in the United States―and here to stay.
With its specialized team of climbers, designers and architects, OnSite has concocted an increasingly-popular blend of assets for the climbing gym market. And the company’s sought-after craft is found at the intersection where coherence, class, creativity, customer focus and community find full expression.
Reimagining a Climbing Gym Product
The term “product provider” isn’t flashy, but it takes on new meaning at OnSite. Francis Larose, CEO and co-founder of OnSite, uses the term to distinguish the company’s design process from a more restricted approach to wall manufacturing. Rather than providing solely the service of climbing walls to clients shopping for the most wall surface at the cheapest price, OnSite takes a more thoughtful approach.
“We really built OnSite as a product provider, and by product provider what we are aiming at is creating a family of OnSite projects that tie together on a bigger scale, with everything interlacing together,” says Larose. “And we’re reimagining each of those climbing gym products as more than the sum of its parts.”
As the focal point of a gym, climbing walls are undoubtedly one of the critical elements to the design. But there are a host of other factors which also significantly impact the end user’s experience. And according to Larose, taking the time to consider them all together at the start of a project ultimately culminates in a final product which better reflects the client’s vision.
“The idea behind a product provider is that we understand your needs for the project as a whole, and even needs you did not foresee,” says Larose. “From start to finish, we’re integrating all the variables possible to make sure your space not only has the best climbing walls but is the best climbing gym.”
Factoring All Variables into the Equation
From walls to flooring and even lighting, there are plenty of x-factors which need to be factored into the design equation at the outset for a climbing space to best serve its purpose. A popular analogy in the industry is to compare a climbing gym to restaurants in this respect. Like chefs, routesetters provide the “meal” for climbers and are essential to cooking up the experience, but it’s also the intangibles―the layout, lighting, etc.―that help shape the overall atmosphere and keep customers coming back. And whether a community of climbers is looking for a full-service facility or a bouldering room, OnSite makes sure the form fulfills the function and that every variety of climbing gym project is a five-star experience.
“The cook/setter knows what they’re going to offer to the client, but there’s much more to the experience. When customers walk into the gym, as an owner you want more than just the routes. That’s where we come in,” says Pascal Godin, co-founder of OnSite with Larose and Head of Design. “What we add on top of that is how we can best fill the space and make it visually interesting, while keeping the function.”
In applying that philosophy to its climbing walls, OnSite primarily works with stain coloring. In the past, wall manufacturers would mix sand with paint to give their walls both color and an abrasive texture, which is often desired when climbing. But that process would consequently hide the most attractive dimension of the walls: the wood. By using its own technology to keep the coloring translucent, OnSite preserves architectural elegance across its gym projects, while providing a high-end climbing experience.
According to Godin the technology is a bit of a trade secret and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with clients praising the unique elegance and texture of OnSite climbing walls. “There are definitely some companies making some gorgeous walls out there, but the aesthetics that I’d seen in the OnSite projects really drew me in. Just some very clean, classic designs that had a modern feel to them,” says Kevin Vlach, owner of the new Elev8 Climbing + Fitness gym coming to Michigan.
Crafting a Continuum of Experience
As the first commercial climbing gym in his hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, Vlach was looking for his first gym to be an iconic one. In addition to state-of-the-art climbing walls, OnSite worked with Vlach to create coherence across all elements inside the building. With a massive 34 x 24-foot window adorning one wall, the lead and bouldering walls were situated to allow the maximum amount of natural light in. Additionally, there’s not much outdoor climbing in the region, and the wall setup is intended to produce an amphitheater effect like one would find outside, with the sun at the climbers’ backs lighting the way.
Much attention was also given to the colors and geometry of the walls. Vlach wanted an auto belay area for classes and youth groups, but there was only so much space to work with in the 10,600-square-foot facility. Space was conserved by placing the mezzanine above the bouldering wall, and both the lead and bouldering areas were designed to give the 6,000 square feet of climbing surface a big feel. Plus, the mezzanine offers a panoramic view for photo ops, to inspire more people to give the sport a try.
Of course, the price point was also a consideration when deciding which company to work with for the design, walls and flooring, and there too OnSite came out ahead. According to Vlach, the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Canadian dollar kept the team’s expertise affordable. And with Quebec not far from the Michigan border, a synergistic relationship was formed to ensure both parties were creating a space they would be proud of―something OnSite hopes to achieve across all its projects.
“After talking with them in preliminary conversations, you come to realize that they’re all passionate climbers and they’re fully committed to the industry and to their craft,” says Vlach. “The people that work there are just great individuals, and they work well together as a team. They’re the type of people who I wish lived in my neck of the woods, so they could be part of our climbing community.”
Putting the Client and End-Users First
From the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest, OnSite has been helping gym owners bring new aesthetic and functional climbing spaces to more communities. Even in the climbers’ state of Washington, the Tri-Cities region out east lacked a true commercial facility prior to Rock Shop. Pat Howard, owner of the 9,500-square-foot gym opening this winter, wanted to bring the experience to his hometown. Finding a suitable building was key to getting the project off the ground, as was finding an affordable wall builder.
“Their climbing wall products were cheaper per square foot, and as a smaller company their customer service was amazing,” said Howard about OnSite. “Francis and Pascal even flew out to Seattle to meet me in person before we were under contract, to discuss all the details beforehand. Just in general, their staff has been super responsive and able to take all the ideas I’ve had and implement them in the gym.”
Deciding on a bouldering gym due to the facility available and as a boulderer himself, Howard discussed with his Head Routesetter and contracted Onsite to build a space for climbers and setters. With many experienced climbers in the state, an arch was added to provide steep terrain and a captivating feature. And to keep the remaining surface easier to set on, big striking and sweeping walls with fewer angle changes surround the arch, allowing setters to constantly adjust the terrain with large volumes.
Howard also opted for a black and white color scheme. Wanting more contrast than the birch-look of other wall companies, the unique stain technology of OnSite provided the perfect solution. The black stain contrasted with the light grey color without drowning out the wood behind it, maintaining the elegant, minimalistic feel Howard was going for and leaving the holds to splash the walls with color.
“I just can’t recommend them enough. It’s an incredible company to work with, their whole team. Even their installers, they’re here at the moment we need them. It’s a really great group of people, and that makes all the difference in a process like this. They’re climbers themselves and psyched on the project.”
Pushing the Boundaries of Design
From unforgettable walls to an unparalleled design process, OnSite’s bag of tricks is large, and there are more surprises up its sleeve which combine timeless and futuristic concepts. Perhaps most emblematic of that fusion is the towering 55-foot wall at the Psicobloc event in Montreal. Initially held in Salt Lake City, after the Psicobloc licensed event came to Montreal in 2018 the climbing surface for the wall was redesigned by OnSite and now boasts its signature stained wood panels.
Further south, a new gym is planned for 2021 in an old movie theater in Florida. Retaining the character of the original building, Alchemy Climbing will keep the same checkered tile floor, neon accents and “art déco” style. Even the climbing walls mirror the radial lighting and symmetry of movie posters that once adorned its walls. The coloring celebrates the local culture as well. Warm, bold colors may appear out of place up north, but the vibrant pattern fits well in sunny Florida. Using the same stain, the translucent colors take inspiration from sights one might see when strolling down Miami’s back alley or beaches.
The company also offers all-in-one climbing solutions for outside. More than just mobile walls, OnSite’s Monolith and Phoenix products would be better described as miniature climbing gyms. Already popular in Canada, during the COVID-19 period the products may find their way into everyday use stateside―in addition to being valuable as pop-up installations for festivals. And most recently during the homewall boom around COVID-19, OnSite released a brand-new series of products for homewalls which includes adjustable walls, padded flooring and hold kits―in addition to training gear and masks for climbers.
OnSite is making real rock more accessible too. In metro areas like Quebec, where it takes hours to drive to the nearest crag, the company’s Urban Boulders have spiced up parks and brought free bouldering to the city. The OnSite team literally takes previously unusable rocks and sculpts them with interesting routes for climbers of all abilities. There’s even an app that connects the circuit in Montreal and allows users to follow along. Often frowned upon within the climbing community to modify real rocks, Larose says the boulders were carefully selected with this idea in mind and the reception has been positive. It’s just one more entry point for new climbers to access the sport and city slickers to climb outside.
“We want to push the limits,” said Larose. “I don’t want to say that we succeed or that we’re good at it. It’s only a vision, it’s what we we’re aiming for. But this is what we’re doing every day at OnSite. We’re pushing the boundaries and dreaming big, to stay one step ahead of the next step for climbing.”
Climbing Business Journal is an independent news outlet dedicated to covering the indoor climbing industry. Here you will find the latest coverage of climbing industry news, gym developments, industry best practices, risk management, climbing competitions, youth coaching and routesetting. Have an article idea? CBJ loves to hear from readers like you!