This past weekend more than four hundred industry professionals gathered in Boulder, Colorado for the the 8th annual Climbing Wall Association Summit. The event featured sixteen pre-conference workshops, more than thirty educational sessions and a sold-out exhibit hall featuring a variety of vendors.
The attendees came mainly from the US but there was a sizable presence from Canadian operators as well as a few from Europe, China and the Philippines. The mood throughout the conference was up-beat and positive with a general sense of optimism from the economic recovery and excitement about the double-digit growth rate of the climbing wall industry.
In the keynote speech that kicked off the event, So iLL’s Dan Chancellor stressed that professionalism needs to be the model if we want this industry to grow and be sustainable. This message was taken to heart by the attendees with many echoing Chancellor’s sentiment.
Southern Developers in High Attendance
CBJ attended, along with close to sixty aspiring gym developers, two pre-conference workshops designed to help gym start-ups with the planning and financing of their project. It was exciting to see such a diverse group of budding entrepreneurs from all over the country, with a sizable number of them representing southern states.
Cheyenne, WY; Charlotte, NC; Cleveland, OH; Louisville, KY; New Orleans, LA; Baton Rouge, LA; San Antonio, TX; Houston, TX; Tampa, FL; Missouri; Arkansas; North Dakota; North Carolina; and Los Angeles are just a few of the locations that may be seeing a new climbing gym in the coming years.
Insurance, Liability and Safety Were Hot Topics
While the conference featured a wide range of topics from social media to routesetting to employee manuals, insurance may have been the most discussed topic at the summit. With the CWA’s change of exclusive insurance providers this past winter, many attendees were still trying to understand the issues behind the switch and what it means for their business, and the indoor climbing industry as a whole. In addition, a number of gyms have been receiving notices of non-renewal from their insurance agency, causing much stress and anxiety.
Several times during the Summit the industry’s claim history was evoked to stress how perilous the insurance program had become (one presenter said it had been in “quicksand” last fall), but no one painted a clear picture about the trend in claims over the last few years or lessons learned from them. The exception to this was some very detailed discussion of recent lawsuits as they related to liability waiver language.
Bill Zimmerman, CEO of the CWA, did explain the circumstances behind the failure of the former insurance program’s Workers Compensation program. According to Zimmerman, a climbing accident involving an off-duty employee resulted in a $1M settlement that completely exhausted the reserves of the insurance pool that hundreds of gyms had been paying into each year.
Since taking over as the CWA’s insurance provider last December, Monument Sports Group now insures over 100 climbing gyms and their President, Mark Grossman, assured attendees that the insurance program is on much stronger footing. They have been working closely with gyms to improve their operational practices, and we heard from attendees that they have started to do on-site inspections of their facilities to assess safety and procedures.
Zimmerman also announced that CWA members could now request risk management reviews, which involve a peer evaluation of their facility to identify risks and propose solutions.
In the exhibit hall, participants were able to view this season’s newest climbing holds from, Groperz, So iLL, e-Grips, ETCH, Element, Rock Candy, Kingdom Climbing, EP, PUR and Holdtopia. There were several equipment companies including Petzl, Sterling Ropes, Misty Mountain, and Dry Ice Tools. Cascade Specialty, Futurist, Flashed and Asana were on hand to discuss their flooring options, while Walltopia, (who was the title sponsor of the event), Entre Prises, Eldorado, Rockwerx and Nicros showcased their walls.
Mad Rock displayed their newest climbing shoes, including a nice looking “markless” rental shoe that comes with a 6 month warranty. So iLL had a whole line of new holds from the mind of Jason Kehl, as well as a new 5-gallon and 18-gal setting bucket inserts. New wood volumes were on display from Flashed and Mad Rock.
Good Value, But Room to Improve
Most of the attendees we talked to were happy with the event. All of the aspiring gym owners we talked with said that they learned a tremendous amount from the sessions and pre-summit workshops.
Owners, managers and routesetters from existing facilities provided more mixed reviews. From our informal surveys we heard that a good number of the sessions did not provide enough detail or were too basic for their needs; a notable exception were the manager and owner roundtables which had lively and informative discussions. Despite this, many experienced participants found as much or more value from the networking that took place during and after the official program, as well as the opportunity to meet with vendors and discuss upcoming projects.
As the conference continues to grow and mature, we expect to see more presentations from professionals outside the industry, such as bankers, marketing firms and HR agencies, rather than relying so heavily on members to provide the programming. We also heard from several attendees that they would appreciate sessions devoted to general business issues like human resources, health insurance and accounting.
It’s an exciting time for the industry and the CWA Summit was a great opportunity to catch a glimpse of the excitement and to understand some of the growing pains the industry is experiencing right now.