According to the preliminary results of our “State of the Industry” survey, a climbing wall is one of the top five activities operators are considering adding to their parks—with good reason. This report, from our monthly “Park 360” on adventureparkinsider.com, highlights the
versatility of climbing walls, and how they can be an important element for just about any type of facility.
Imagine in one corner John Travolta, arm thrust upward with disco lights flashing and a mirrored ball spinning. Imagine in the other corner Ansel Adams, with tripod and camera, capturing in black and white the natural grandeur of Yosemite. There are plenty of variations on the concept of a climbing wall, but in many ways, it breaks down into a kind of Travolta-Adams dichotomy. Put in simplest terms, the Travolta/disco approach is the way to go for an interior installation, while outdoor walls are more likely to go in the Adams/Yosemite direction.
THE INDOOR SCENE
According to Adam Koberna, president of Walltopia, interior installations represent the lion’s share of the business, and the objective is to create “a social space—a space that people want to be in and stay in.” Bright colors, lights, and music are all in play, and while clinics and competitions are, as might be expected, part of the event mix, so too are purely social functions.
At Planet Granite in Portland, Ore., for example, Singles and Swingers Night gives participants a chance “to find that climbing partner.” There is also Parents Night Off, Trivia Night, and Movie Night. Rather than try to simulate an outdoor environment, says Koberna, places like Planet Granite “are embracing the indoors.”
Redouble that concept with bouldering, which is “an extremely social version of climbing,” says Christina Frain, director of marketing and sales for Eldorado Climb Walls. Bouldering entails multiple brief attempts to solve short climbing problems. Typically, a few people are on the boulder at any given time, with onlookers supporting the climbers and awaiting their turn. The objective in a bouldering installation, then, is to create “a lounge feel,” says Frain, for all the onlookers.
WIDE OPEN SPACES
A place like Epic Discovery at Heavenly Resort in South Lake Tahoe, Calif., is, on the other hand, an entirely different concept.
Heavenly is part of the Vail Resorts family, which has been expanding Epic Discovery centers at its resorts, “adding one or two adventure activities every year,” according to Chris Eckert, Heavenly’s assistant manager of activities. Those activities include zip lines, mountain coasters, and ropes courses—all outdoors.
In 2015, Heavenly chose to build a 35-foot-tall climbing wall with 17 routes on both sides. But rather than trying to generate a bright, festive environment a la Planet Granite, Heavenly wanted its wall to blend in with its natural surroundings. The materials used were designed to simulate the color and texture of native Sierra rock.
Both the function and target audience of the wall at Heavenly are entirely different from the kind of wall you might encounter at a typical climbing gym. Rather than sell wall-only tickets, Heavenly includes climbing as part of a multi-activity pass aimed mostly at visitors with little or no climbing experience. With this in mind, routes are generally no more than moderately challenging, with 5.9 the hardest rating, according to Eckert, and plenty of options easy enough for kids.
In some ways, the climbing wall at Heavenly functions as a holding tank to keep guests occupied as they wait for other activities to become available. It can accommodate more guests at any given time than the other Epic Discovery activities; hence, according to Eckert, around 30 to 35 percent of the resort’s visitors participate in climbing. That’s far better than having 30 to 35 percent of all guests standing in line for the zip line or mountain coaster.
But perhaps the main reason to install a wall isn’t to relieve the ennui that comes with waiting in line; it is to meet popular demand. According to Frain, “The climbing industry as a whole is booming.”
Koberna of Walltopia agrees. In the last five years, he says, business “has grown exponentially.” Interest is high at places with little or no climbing tradition or natural opportunities to climb—places like Kansas or Ohio, according to Koberna.
A climbing installation does not, however, come cheaply. Koberna estimates the cost of Walltopia installations range from $200,000 to $1.5 million, with about $500,000 being the average. Frain gives a more modest price range, starting at $70,000 for a fiberglass tower, $400,000 for a more elaborate structure.
To minimize installation costs, Historic Banning Mills founder Mike Holder and his team at the adventure resort in Georgia engaged in a little out-of-the-box—or off-the-wall—thinking. Rather than hire a wall-building company like Walltopia or Eldorado, Holder decided to build a climbing installation in-house. That might not be a sensible option for many park operators, but Holder, as an experienced climber, came to the project with some expertise.
He also wanted something unique—something that would literally stand out from the crowd. The result was a freestanding climbing tower that, at more than 148 feet tall, has been certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the tallest of its kind in the world. It cost a surprisingly low $320,000, according to Holder, with an ROI of just three years.
In addition, the Banning Mills crew decided to integrate the tower with other activities, including seven zip lines coming and going from the tower. It gave the resort some real marketing oomph. (One example: it graces the cover of Adventure Park Insider Spring/Summer 2016). Holder says many guests “wouldn’t come at all if we didn’t have this adventure.”
Because the tower was so unusual, insurance companies steered clear of it initially; only high-premium, we’ll-insure-anything Lloyd’s of London was willing at first. But after a safety record had been established, “all sorts of companies are in on the bidding,” Holder says.
Indeed, climbing walls have proven to be a remarkably safe activity. In two years of operation at Heavenly, there have been no wall-related injuries, according to Eckert. The safety record comes despite this being an activity with few firmly established inspection methodology or safety standards. While some states, California in particular, might insist on safety requirements, it is more likely that insurance companies are the driving force behind installation standards, regular inspections, and guide training.
The lessons to be learned here? For starters, be true to your environment. If you are planning an interior installation, embrace the indoors. If you are planning an exterior installation, try and blend in with the local surroundings.
Keep your audience in mind. The vast majority of climbing-wall participants are novices, not experts training for an ascent of El Capitan. And finally, consider an installation with a unique cachet. Remember that climbing walls are independent, man-made structures, not installations depending on a particular environment or topography. Make of it whatever you want. Anything goes.