New climbing gyms open every month. Now climbers have more choices. Eventually the market will hit a saturation point and the “build it and they will come” model will start to break down. For locals where there was no previous gym or history of climbing, it can take time and energy to develop a member base and a community where there was not one previously. In areas where new gyms compete against older established ones, the new and shiney but the older gyms have an established community. Differentiation will make a big difference. Routesetting, customer service and community engagement are a few areas in which gyms can stand apart from each other. There are many ways for gyms to use these differentiation points to grow their community. Digital technology can assist and be one of many points, that gyms use in building out these differentiations. A digital system starts with route management but extends into all aspects of the gym community, marketing to events and coaching. Digital technology can be enlisted to help develop a new gym community or add value to keep an older gym member base and meet the new generation of climbers in their digital world.
Climbing gyms, climbers and the climbing industry have been slower to move into the technological age than other sports. Digital technology can help athletes understand their sleep, rest, food intake, strokes per minute, strides and more. For gyms, starting with a route management system is a logical place to begin using digital technology. However, when talking to head setters and gym owners I hear a few excuses, the two that I hear the most are:
- We have a spreadsheet system that works for us, why should we change
- We don’t want our gym members on their phones while at the gym.
Lets address point #2 first, at the gym I go to regularly, everyone has a phone out next to their chalk bag when bouldering or by their shoes when on ropes. And people are starting to climb with wireless earbuds so their phones need to be nearby. To be fair, some people call the gym a “no phone zone”. It makes sense. No distractions. But embracing the digital world does not mean gym members will be on their phones more than they already are. According to the AAC’s “State of Climbing Report 2019” – OIA’s demographic data suggests that if you head to the nearest gym or crag, and you’ll see a lot of Millennials: 65% of climbers are between the ages of 18 and 35″. This means that most of your gym members have grown up in the Internet Age. They expect things to be digital. They want to see information on their phones. It’s important to meet your clients where they are and how they view the world
As for point #1, change is hard. It does not matter what that change is. . In a recent interview on Climbing Business Journal, Danny Burkhead states: “Climbing gyms today versus even five years ago are completely different. Climbing is more popular than ever and with that more climbing gyms are being built….Owners and managers should be willing to always try to improve and change their facilities but also their operations”. Embracing digital technology can help improve both. Moving away from the spreadsheet and paper by putting that information online in a format that members can interact with creates all sort of engagement possibilities. With a digital system gym members can easily keep track of what climbs they have completed, which ones have taken more attempts and more importantly, a qualitative way to understand why some climbs are harder than others based on real data like the terrain, hold types or styles of climbs.
From a gym manager and setter perspective, there are multiple reasons for moving away from the spreadsheet and into a digital system. Once a digital route management system is in place, it can be utilized by the different gym departments to engage with the gym community. Events like comps and leagues can take advantage of the ease of scoring. Training and coaching can keep athletes and parents of athletes informed and training can be easily analyzed. Marketing can use the system to promote fun climbing challenges. As well as providing an additional way to get feedback on climbs. Not to mention the helpfulness of the data when doing performance reviews for your routesetters.
Climbing leagues are becoming more and more popular. Leagues are great ways to meet new people and build friendships. From a gyms point of view, they can be a time sink with all the paper and tallying up, then posting info and getting the information out to the league. A digital system makes managing a league really easy. Gym members sign up to participate, then go online and join the league. Once they join, all the participants have to do is tick off the climbs they did on the night the league meets. The system does the rest.
Comps are great to get climbers psyched to push themselves and test their limits. Comps can come in a variety of styles from points, to feet/meters climbed. A gym can sign up hundreds of competitors over multiple sessions. Keeping track of all the divisions and points can be hard using paper, not to mention slow in posting results. Using a digital system makes running comps easy and less daunting. All the scored climbs are already in the system with a points assigned. Competitors just join the comp. The system has a timer on it, so no climbs can be ticked before or after the allotted time frame. There are many ways gyms can use comps to engage with their community, they don’t just have to be formal events.
There is a lot of talk and expectations now that climbing will be part of the Olympics. Gyms are bringing in kids like never before, from camps to classes to teams. As a former gymnastics coach, I know that documenting workouts and progress for kids on competitive teams as well as recreational classes, for parents is very helpful. Kids love keeping track of what they are doing and seeing progress. Not to mention the parents who want to know why little Janey didn’t do well at the comp or didn’t make the cup to the competitive program. It’s really important for a coach to be able to document what kids should be doing and what they actually are doing. Workouts and exercises can be assigned to athletes who then complete them. Exercises can be climbing related like 4x4s or strength based like pull-ups or deadlifts and are all tracked over time. Climbing related exercises are gym based, so that the coach can specify exactly which climb the athlete is to do based on their knowledge of the climbs in the gym and the needs of the athlete. Climbs are assigned to the athlete and when they get ticked off in the platform, they automatically complete the workout. There is a lot that can be done in this realm to assist coaches and make climbers better.
Gyms have all manners of ways to get feedback. Negative feedback is easy to come by. What is harder to get is positive and useful feedback. The best one is talking directly to members. But not everyone, setters, climbers and gym staff, is comfortable with that method. When a comment is added either through the app or website, the manager and setter both receive emails with the comment. This allows them to act on it if needed. Getting feedback from gym members is the goal. It doesn’t matter where or how this happens. The important thing to do, is to provide gym members with various ways to interact with the gym staff and the community, from a digital system to Facebook and pen and paper. Everyone is different and will be comfortable using different media to provide feedback. It is therefore important that gyms try different things. Not everything will work but as long as you make it easy to add a comment, provide a start and even more important, the gym staff responds.
The main demographic of climbers is 18-35. They are digitally savvy people. They understand technology and are willing to interact with an app if it provides them with helpful information, not just a push notification. Climbing gyms are currently not meeting their customers needs. Gym’s need a platform for their members that helps them become better at climbing not just provide information about what is happening at the gym. A platform that allows gym members to track their session, see their progress over time and provide information that is personally directed to help them become better climbers. The information that helps climbers become better completes the circle of data analysis that gyms need to provide comprehensive services when it is combined with a route management tool. Climbing gyms need to embrace technology not just current trends but as a way to engage with their community and keep pace with the youngsters as they grow into climbers. A digital platform will not be used by everyone in the gym all the time. But it will allow the gym to connect with their community in many different ways than they are now. It’s time for head setters and gym owners to give up control of their spreadsheets and open up the information to the rest of the gym community to use. At this point in time, if your gym starts using digital technology it will be ahead of the curve and it can be a point of differentiation from the gym a mile away.