Standing Out In a City of Many Gyms: Behind the Desk with Michael Paukner

Michael Paukner

Behind the Desk… is an ongoing series that profiles people influencing and advancing the industry in gyms from coast to coast. For this installment, we travel to the Northeast—to Boston—where climbing is booming in one of the most tightly-packed urban landscapes in the country. We chat with Michael Paukner at Rock Spot about the keys to appealing to a broad customer base, the best ways for a gym to stay unique in a crowded market…and the best music to blare during those hard gym sessions.

Michael Paukner
Photo: Michael Paukner

Name: Michael Paukner
Title: Manager, Rock Spot Climbing
Location: Boston, Massachusetts

CBJ: Take us through your climbing background—and how you found your way to Rock Spot.

PAUKNER: I’ve been climbing seriously for about 6 years. My friend and his older brother brought me to a gym one day, thinking that I would enjoy it. Something clicked and it was all I wanted to do from then on. Not long after, I was climbing several days a week at the closest gym to my house, Rock Spot Climbing Boston-Dedham.

After spending about a year climbing indoors, I had made enough climbing friends to start bouldering and toproping outside. Lincoln Woods, Rattlesnake Rock, and Crow Hill were my local haunts for a while. It was around that time that I applied for a job at the gym. I started teaching youth program classes, eventually progressed to Supervisor, then to Program Manager, all the while making more friends and learning more and more about climbing. I started sport climbing at Rumney and Farley after being hired at the gym, and shortly after took a love of trad climbing.

After the (then current) gym manager left, I took his position and the rest is history. I am extremely lucky that I get to wake up each day and go to work at the place that I love, surrounded by people that share such an intense passion with me.

CBJ: With so many gyms in the Boston area, what’s unique about Rock Spot?

PAUKNER: Rock Spot’s motto is “All Ages, All Abilities”, and we stand by that sentiment. We’re a very beginner-friendly gym, catering to a variety of different age ranges, skill levels, and degrees of experience. Unlike some other gyms in the nearby area, our gyms have auto-belays, allowing someone with no climbing experience to come in, get a quick orientation, and be climbing in no time. From there, we have all the tools and resources anyone would need to take their climbing to whatever level they decide. Youth Program classes that start at age 4 and go all the way to age 18. There are also adult technique classes, and toddler specific classes for ages 1-3. We recently looked into our rental gear size options, in hopes of expanding our offerings to accommodate for different body types.

I think our single biggest strength at Rock Spot is our customer service. We care deeply about the safety of our customers, the experience they are having, and the time they devote to this wonderful community.

Michael Paukner
Photo: Michael Paukner

CBJ: So how would you describe that customer base?

PAUKNER: Our customer base varies greatly. We have thriving Youth Program classes, ranging from age 4 to 13+. Our competitive team has 20 strong, dedicated youth climbers, while the recreational classes service upwards of 120 participants depending on the season.

We are also a popular place for birthdays, team-building events, and school groups. From bachelor parties to events to pre-teen birthdays, we have seen it all.

Our members cover a large range of ages and skill levels as well. We have a large number of members that fall in the beginner-intermediate range, and a loyal bunch of strong, experienced climbers that train hard here. That being said, our community is extremely tight-knit. Everyone is willing to offer beta, climb with new people, and make the gym as great as it can be!

CBJ: Talking about the customers and your gym’s uniqueness…ultimately what does ‘community’ mean at Rock Spot?

PAUKNER: Community at Rock Spot Climbing is first and foremost. Our gym is tight-knit, and all of our members, guests, and regulars should feel at ease and comfortable here. We pride ourselves on being extremely welcoming and inclusive, and are always psyched to introduce the sport of climbing to someone new.

I’ve made some of my best friends through Rock Spot and rock climbing in general. It’s very humbling knowing that the sport I’m so passionate can have such a positive impact on a single person as well as a community at large. There’s something magical about seeing a new face in the gym, knowing that the awesome staff and community I have will welcome them to the family with open arms.

Michael Paukner
Photo: Michael Paukner

CBJ: Do you feel the climbing industry has changed in those six years since you started climbing?

PAUKNER: I think it has changed slightly, with larger changes on the horizon. With so many gyms, it is becoming more and more common to see strong gym climbers that have little to no outdoor experience. With climbing coming to the Olympics in 2020, I think we’ll also start to see more and more people introduced to the sport through gyms rather than outdoors.

On the flipside, outdoor rock climbing has been pushed so far in terms of difficulty and boldness in the past few years. Grades have been pushed to the brink, men and women are crushing some of the hardest lines imaginable, and more people are getting into nature to enjoy this sport we love. Let’s all remember the impact we make on these climbing areas, and do our part to protect the crags we are lucky to have access to.

CBJ: What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the industry?

PAUKNER: I think one of the biggest challenges the industry is facing is actually division among climbers. Rope climbing vs bouldering, and now indoors vs outdoors. We need to remember that everyone climbs for different reasons, and respect each other for that diversity. Rock climbers are an odd bunch, and whether you are a sport climbing rock-jockey, a crack climbing tradster, or a hardcore boulderer, we are all pursuing that feeling of accomplishment that comes with conquering your own version of impossible.

CBJ: Let’s switch gears. When you’re in charge of the music playlist at the gym, what’s playing?

PAUKNER: Our gym varies wildly from times of quiet to high activity, depending on the day of the week and time. During the day on weekdays, when the gym is quiet, we play relaxed music for the few members that come in for a solo session. I like putting on Modest Mouse or Radiohead for times like that. At night, when the gym is full of college kids and adult members, we play something more upbeat, like house music or rap. This contrasts with a busy Saturday, when the sound of birthday parties and families is a bit too much in combination with loud music, so even though the gym is full and lively, some quieter blues or indie rock actually does better.

CBJ: Finally, if you weren’t managing Rock Spot and didn’t have climbing in your life, what do you think you’d be doing?

PAUKNER: I would feel much less fulfilled, with way less friends, memories, and stories. For real though, I can’t imagine how my life would be without rock climbing. Sounds cliché, but it’s the truth.

Climbing Gym Management Series