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Gym Spotlight

2018: The Year of Small Bouldering Gyms

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With the inclusion of climbing in the Olympics, more people than ever are strapping on rentals and reaching their way up colorful walls of polyurethane. To meet the demand, more climbing gyms than ever opened in 2018. From mega gyms with 52,000 square feet to small gyms with just 2,500 square feet, new gyms opened up shop in both major markets and small towns.

“Statistically, the commercial climbing gym industry saw the most successful year ever and grew at a rate of 11.87 percent in 2018, with 50 commercial climbing gyms opening in the United States throughout the year,” Climbing Business Journal reported.

Almost half of these new gyms are bouldering-only facilities. Bouldering gyms tend to have high up-front costs, since every fall in the gym is a ground-fall, which skyrockets cost of insurance. Still, they’re easier to maintain and more accessible to a majority of people. Europe and Asia have long primarily constructed bouldering-only gyms.

The majority of the gyms opened in smaller markets. Gnarwall Bouldering Gym in Pfafftown, North Carolina, for example, caters to a town of just 2,000 people.

Now servicing the writers of Rock and Ice and Gym Climber is Monkey House Carbondale, a 5,200-square-foot facility that opened last July. Carbondale is another small town with just over 6,000 people.

“Small gyms are manageable to open and operate by a business/finance savvy couple or very small group of investors,” said Fabrizio Zangrilli, the founder and owner of Monkey House Carbondale. He continued:

“It is the perfect model for an owner operator like me. Debt servicing is low, daily overhead is low. If you are in a town of 10-15k population and gear the gym to your specific market it can be very rewarding financially, and socially. Gyms in a lot of ways become community focal points. Individual, schools and nonprofits end up enjoying the space equally. The downside is they are upfront capital intense; lots of the expenses big gyms have (route setting, holds, walls, flooring, HVAC, etc) can be divided out over many more customer user days.”

Monkey House Carbondale. Photo: Courtesy of Monkey House Carbondale.

Despite the infiltration of small gyms into the market, a healthy number of big gyms opened in busting cities as well. Opened in September, Earth Treks Englewood became the largest climbing gym in the U.S. The gym offers 52,000 square feet of space and approximately 500 routes and problems.

Of note among 2018 gyms is Memphis Rox, which operates on a pay-what-you-can membership model.  “We will exclude no one—regardless of ability to pay,” the gym states on its website. Located in Memphis, Tennessee, a town that has been struggling economically, Memphis Rox aims to bring restoration and healing to struggling communities by offering climbing for free to individuals that can’t pay.

There were only five gym closures in 2018. Four out of the five had  been in operation since the 1990s. For 2019, we predict the 2018 trends will continue: the proliferation of climbing gyms, especially bouldering-only, will continue!

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