Owners Perspective: Movement Climbing

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Anne-Worley and Mike Moelter

Anne-Worley and Mike Moelter
Anne-Worley and Mike Moelter

In 2008, just two months before the financial crises hit the US, Anne-Worley Moelter and her husband Mike Moelter finished the final round of fundraising for their climbing gym in Boulder, Colorado. Their gym, Movement Climbing and Fitness, would become one of the highest profile climbing facilities in the country, partly because of its prime location in the heart of climbing’s own “Hollywood”, and partly because of the laser-like focus of the operation itself.

CBJ talked with Anne-Worley and Mike back in October of 2014 while they were in the midst of building their second facility in Denver, Colorado. Here are their insights, in their own words, on expansion, real estate, luck, the climbing industry and community.

Building a Second Location

Last time, when we started Boulder, we had all these ideas. How do we make them real and how are they going to work. [Now] we at least have an idea of what we’re doing. We have the experience of Boulder and learning about the gym industry.” AWM

We’re doing another ground up so we can control a lot of the variables. If we were using an existing building the second time around it would feel a lot like the first time. We wouldn’t know what the final product would look like, what the interactions will be like in the social areas. But since we are doing ground up again, it’s a lot more fun, a lot more enjoyable because we know what the finished product will look like. When you walk in you’re at this stage where it’s a big construction site, you don’t freak out that it’s going to be a construction site forever. That it’s going to be filthy and paint or sawdust. It all gets cleaned up and becomes a finished building.” MM

We went with a really specific offering in Boulder and we just want to translate that to Denver. But the community is going to be vastly different. I think the median route grade in Boulder is 5.11b and down here [in Denver] it’s going to be 10b.” MM

We know what the Denver market is. But we don’t know what the Movement Denver market is. Who they are specifically? We’re going to come in with our best efforts to meet them. Then over time it will evolve.” AWM

We typically have one big focus group. We had a group of people that ranged from…the youngest age was 24 and the oldest age was a mother in her mid forties. It was a wide enough range to give us diversity. From pro climber, to enthusiast, to never climbed before.” AWM

In Boulder we did a similar thing. There we did an exercise to clue in on what core values resonate with them. Our commitment to community, does that work, are we on track with our branding. And here in Denver for example, we had them circle words that they think describes climbing. Everything from exhilarating to scary, from great work out to social gathering. We also talked about what they thought makes for good customer service.” AWM

One thing that came out of that process is that we’re considering opening earlier in the morning here in Denver. Because it seems that the work crowd starts earlier than they do in Boulder. We also got really helpful feedback on what good customer service is. Things like, even if whatever the customer is saying is incorrect, showing empathy and that you can at least hear them. This seems kinda basic but it was really helpful to get it down in their own words. We got some feedback about child care that was really good. Just that there be some programming behind it and not just come in and someone watches your kid.” AWM

Movement Denver
Movement Denver

Real Estate and Timing

Boulder was very different. In Boulder we didn’t know if it would work because the property was so valuable. We put together all these different models. At one point we had a 12,000 sf climbing gym with like 8 condos on the property… and a lot of other financial models. Then we just said if we can’t make the financial model of just a climbing gym on the property work then we need to find a different property.” MM

If you were going to tell me 6 years ago when we were building Boulder, that between then and now no one would have built a [new climbing] gym in Denver I would have been really surprised.” MM

The Denver metro area is 2.8 million people. Denver itself is around 700,000. I think down here [in Denver], based on what we have seen elsewhere in the country, that there could be a number of gyms here and they would do just fine.” AWM

In 2012 when we started looking in Denver for the property things were just unfreezing from the financial crises. In 2013 we actually bought the property…there was this window of about a year and now [the price of real estate] has skyrocketed. If we were looking now, we probably wouldn’t be able to do it. We’d have to lease or…I don’t know what we’d do. Timing wise we got really lucky.” MM

We’ve had significant developers come in here just to check things out. And they’re just like, tear down the walls and build a [marijuana] grow house. You could have 50’ tall plants and you could get $65 a square foot for a lease.” MM

Financing is always a lot of work so I don’t want to make this sound like a breeze. But it was markedly easier than it was in Boulder. The first time was the classic situation, you have 20 meetings and you get one investor. A lot of the ease [this time around] is because we had a proven track record and we had a relationship with a local bank. And then with the investors we filled our commitments and still had people asking to be involved which was a fabulous experience to go through.” AWM

The Industry

A lot of gyms are … people use this term … land grab. People say, ‘we gotta be the first to go here and here and we can have seven gyms in four years’. For us, that’s not our model.” AWM

In 2009 very few [gyms] had gone out of state. It was this move to bigger gyms. Now you see all the little pop-ups. The industry is changing and evolving. I think people are really looking to see what fits their demographic. Is it a big gym, is it a small gym? Is it bouldering, is it ropes?” AWM

The argument that we’ve been saying is, yes, [the industry has] grown a ton, and it’s going to grow even more. But I don’t know if its necessarily changed. People for the most part offer the typical climbing gym. They don’t necessarily have a ton foresight towards routesetting and they think they’re going to do groups but they’re not sure, they’d prefer not to. But they feel like they have to default to doing birthday parties and autobelays. And so in my opinion there hasn’t been a ton of change but there’s been a ton of growth.” MM

Right now the real estate that the gyms are on is more valuable than the business. But for us personally Movement is way more about community … for example this one member of ours in Boulder had a bunch of surgeries and I was sitting with her and a friend. She was telling me that her twice a week interval instructor at Movement came to see her and all these members went to visit her in the hospital. And that’s the kind of stuff for us that…that’s why we do this. The climbing is amazing, all the added yoga and fitness components are great. But at the end of the day it’s really about having people feel like they belong somewhere. That’s always been before the financial opportunity.” AWM

I firmly believe, at the end of the day that a climbing gym run by climbers is going to prevail. That’s my person opinion. I could be wrong but the sport has been around long enough, the communities are strong enough, there’s enough people around that know what a good climbing gym is and they know what they want out of a climbing gym that climbing gyms will start to prevail.” MM