Name: Pete Sancianco
Title: Director of Marketing at Rock Spot Climbing
Location: Northeastern United States
Behind the Desk…is a series that interviews people who are part of the climbing industry. In this installment, we chat with Pete Sancianco, Marketing Director of Rock Spot Climbing. Sancianco began working at Rock Spot in 2013 and has held positions as a marketing assistant and media producer. In 2017, he became the Director of Marketing and hasn’t looked back.
An eastern U.S. climbing gym chain, Rock Spot opened their 7th location last December and is about to celebrate 25 years of operation this September. Sancianco describes what has kept the business going strong for so long, from staff selection to gym location.
STEVENS: I see this past December you opened your 7th Rock Spot location in Malden, Massachusetts. Why did Rock Spot decide this was a good spot for the gym?
SANCIANCO: There were a few reasons, but one of the major ones was the location itself. Having the gym across from an Orange Line stop—and seeing all the people who passed by that area every single day—we saw as a great opportunity to introduce more people to climbing. Since we’ve opened, we are welcoming so many people who walk in right off the street, and they’re very curious about the sport itself and what it is—because a lot of people still don’t know what climbing is in our area. For us to give them an opportunity to see a very accessible entry point into the sport is something that we’re very, very excited about.
Does Rock Spot choose most locations with accessibility in mind, or is this something that has come to light recently?
Our tagline is “all ages, all abilities.” Both of Rock Spot’s owners—Lary Norin and Nadav Minkin—have been very adamant that any of the gyms we decide to build must make the sport more accessible. Many factors go into the selection of a facility and its location. But at the end of the day, you do have to go back to your core values and ask, “Is this location in line with those core values?” That question always guides the final decision.
So, 25 years of operation as of this coming September, and Rock Spot continues to expand. Do you think this success is due to the locations you choose, or is that only part of it?
Location is definitely part of it, because that aspect goes into the accessibility factor. But it’s more about the company’s core values and the staff training that we expend so much effort in to improve the experience for the climbers.
One thing that I believe differentiates us is where we invest our money; it’s transitioned into [staff] training. The staff member who is welcoming new people into the gym is at the front line of what we’re trying to accomplish as a company. Invest in those people and make sure that, especially as your business grows, the customer experience is maintained. Throughout the growth of a business, it’s easy to lose the spirit of what makes your company what it is, so it’s very important to hold onto all the nuances of the small things.
When you’re bringing somebody onto the staff, how do those priorities come into play?
The core values are built into the hiring process. You have to find the right person first, because not every single person that applies for the position has the same values as the company. And one of those major values is the accessibility and inclusivity of the sport. Staff selection is key—making sure your values align. And then on top of that, you need to have a singular vision of what this person’s position is and provide that person with the proper tools and training to succeed. As far as the training’s concerned, you have to have a very specific vision of what this person is doing, what they need to know, with materials for them to follow and training that helps them progress toward their next position. Especially as a business grows, it’s easy for these processes to get diluted. Training needs to be written down and reviewed every once in a while.
Aside from an environment of welcoming staff, why do you think newcomers choose your gym?
A lot of it is accessibility. It’s more than opening the doors of your gym; it’s about thinking through every aspect of the customer journey from start to finish. Everything should be slowly guiding new climbers toward the validation that they should do this. Explain your services as clearly as possible on the gym website, show them what to expect their first time out, make sure they fill out the waivers ahead of time, and make sure they go through all the safety information that you provide. It’s the small things. When they walk into the gym, all we want them to focus on is their experience on the wall and the relationship they have with overcoming their own personal fears. Try to alleviate any concerns or barriers a person may have so that can happen.
On the flipside, why do you think more experienced climbers choose your gym?
The routesetting. Showing off the setting in the gym on social media is the kind of stuff that gets more experienced climbers excited. They’re also more interested in particular amenities. If you’re a rope gym, they want to have a better feel for what climbing walls you have. On your website, show as much of the facility as you can to encourage more experienced climbers to try your gym.
While you try your best to provide something for everybody, there are certain people who are looking for something super specific. For us, it’s better to try to hit as many points as we can, as opposed to being too focused or overly specialized, because sometimes over-specialization leads to exclusivity. When you get overspecialized, it doesn’t become an accessible point anymore. We try to make the sport as accessible as possible, providing many features and as many styles of climbing that we can, without focusing too much on one thing or hyper specializing.
Is routesetting the primary factor contributing to member retention, or do you have other tactics like events and extra amenities that keep climbers coming back?
We’ve seen people come to us from other companies simply because of the routesetting and the route turnover. Also, we’ve partnered with an app called Pebble, which lets climbers see the climbs in the facility, the grade spread, and get notifications on their phone when a new set goes up—all small things that help with retaining members, especially newer climbers.
A newer climber is much harder to retain because they haven’t really decided whether climbing is something they want to make their sport, so you need to give them reasons to return to the gym more often. That decision is more psychological; it needs to be normalized for them that this new sport they’re getting into is something they can be part of, and that they identify as a climber. That shift has a lot to do with reps—giving them opportunities to come back as often as possible, meet up with new climbers, and get involved in the community.
Do you have any advice for other gym operators looking to build a 25-year gym legacy?
Stay true to what made you successful in the first place. Whenever I talk to the Rock Spot owners, they always talk about when they first started out, back when they took over the Rhode Island Rock Gym. They worked behind the desk just to get a feel for what it was like to operate a gym on the front lines, and to identify the small things that brought people back and got them excited about the sport.
As much as you grow as a company, those small things never change. Somebody’s first experience when they come to your gym is very similar to someone else’s first experience; they have similar fears and concerns. There could be many years in between one person’s visit and the next person’s visit, but that first visit should be surprisingly similar if you’re doing it right. There may be a few operational things that change, but the overall experience—the thing that made people want to come back—should never change. That’s why you’re successful in the first place. And if you lose that core, then there’s a loss of almost the soul of your experience.
Hold onto what made you successful in the very beginning. Make sure that those core values are shared by every staff member, because that’s how you maintain a similar experience across multiple locations, multiples regions, and then more.
What do you enjoy most about working for Rock Spot?
I love working for the company, the community, and with the entire team. Being a climber of color, I understand it is unique for someone of Filipino heritage to be an executive in the climbing industry. But I have always felt welcome within the company and the community, and the owners are committed to finding the best talent for their team—regardless of the color of their skin or anything else about them. Being of Jewish heritage, they have always understood what it means to be a minority. I’ve always felt honored and humbled to be in the position I’m in with Rock Spot Climbing. They’re a great group of climbers, and what we’re trying to do to make the sport more accessible and inclusive gets me psyched to work every day.
Naomi is a personal trainer and a routesetter who has also worked at climbing gyms as a youth team coach. After starting college at Colorado State University in 2017, she wanted to make new friends and found climbing, fell in love, and now climbing dictates most of what she does. Naomi earned a bachelor’s degree in Ecosystem Science & Sustainability, and when not climbing she enjoys baking, gardening and crafting.