Touchstone Climbing Incorporated has been operating climbing gyms in the San Francisco bay area for almost 20 years, and only recently ventured south into the Los Angeles area with the opening of LA Boulders early in 2013. This initial foray into southern California was followed by the announcements this year of three additional facilities in the LA area: A traditional gym in Pasadena and another in Culver City plus a bouldering-only facility in Hollywood.
What does it take to run this empire and at the same time expand it? CBJ reached out to Touchstone to see how it’s done.
Finding the Right Partners
Entering a new market presents a variety of challenges. Not least of these is making sure that you are placing your business in the best location possible. You have to consider quantifiable things like the demographics of the neighborhood, highway access and real estate prices, but also factor in the intangible vibe and culture of the community. For Touchstone, tackling this successfully meant finding good partners.
“When we began to look at the Los Angeles area, the first step was identifying the underserved communities that felt right to us,” said Touchstone Climbing CEO Mark Melvin. “Creative Space, a real estate broker in the Arts District, understood our logistical and cultural needs in a building and community. They have done a good job finding us four locations in LA that we’re excited about,” he said.
Finding a good partner also seems to mean sticking with a good partner. Since 2012 Touchstone has been working with Walltopia to design and build all of their climbing walls. “We love working with Walltopia … They are innovative, leaders in the industry, and are excellent at turning our detailed design requirements into a reality,” said Melvin. Perhaps more importantly, Touchstone is confident that Walltopia is fully capable of building three locations at the same time and has the ability to keep pace with the company’s rapid growth.
“It’s all about who we work with. A broker that prides itself in pairing a business with communities that will embrace it, contractors that will travel to work with us repeatedly, and a staff that gets excited about challenge instead of shying away from the greater work involved,” Melvin added.
Keeping it Local
With nine locations in operation and three more on the way, Touchstone takes a decidedly small scale approach to the branding of their gyms. Each location has its own name and logo that reflects the community: Dogpatch Boulders, Great Western Power Company, Mission Cliffs.
This diversity is not accidental. “While having nine different names and logos might be seen as a branding nightmare, it makes sense for Touchstone,” said Marketing Director Lauryn Claassen. “Each location is so different because it is comprised of different communities. We try to focus on allowing that identity to grow organically and serve that membership base accordingly.”
Allowing each location to develop its own identity and culture may seem to dilute the value of the Touchstone brand, but it does help each gym grow a loyal following. “It works out for each location because they take pride in saying ‘I’m a Dogpatch Boulders member’ or ‘I climb at The Studio’, and it works for us because we’re not consistently trying to force them into a mold,” Claasen said. “It’s more flexible and empowering for everyone.”
As the biggest gym developer in the country, CBJ expected that Touchstone’s management might be looking to other industries for inspiration and guidance as they grow. We were surprised to hear that most of their inspiration comes from other climbing gyms around the country.
“We don’t really look to outside companies; there are plenty of great ideas within the climbing industry from which to draw inspiration,” said General Manager Jeffery Bowling. “We frequently visit other gyms and speak with gym owners and employees to see what others are doing, and that pushes us. We are lucky to be in such a creative and passionate industry.”
Touchstone’s move away from traditional climbing facilities into operating bouldering gyms was one such idea they borrowed from the climbing community. “Dogpatch Boulders would never have been built had we not been so inspired by a trip to Seattle in 2012 to visit Seattle Bouldering Project, Vertical World, and Stone Gardens,” said Bowling.
Other aspects of successful climbing gyms will be showing up in Touchstone’s next facilities. “The Brooklyn Boulders Summerville location has inspired us to put more ‘work collaboration’ spaces into our new gyms,” Bowling added. “EarthTreks Golden has a great kids area. And the dedicated training area at the new Momentum gym has inspired us to have a greater focus on training for future projects.”
Even though Touchstone is the big kid on the block, it seems that the evolution and growth of the indoor climbing community is forcing them to continue to improve their own operations and to looking forward rather than backward. “Being able to see what others are doing in the industry has helped us push ourselves to be on our toes rather than sit back on our heels,” said Claassen.