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The State of Climbing Gyms Nine Months into the Pandemic

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In March of this year, just after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, government mandated business closures swept the nation. Climbing gyms all across the country shut their doors in compliance, to protect their customers and staff from the virus. Starting in late April, gyms began slowly reopening with sanitation measures and limited capacities. By September, 89% of climbing gyms had reopened at least some of their facilities. However, this does not mean that they are no longer at risk of closing their doors for good.

A survey conducted by the Climbing Wall Association (CWA) of over 100 gyms shows that one-third of gym owners are not worried about going out of business, one-third are unsure of whether or not they are in imminent danger, and the remaining third believe that they will go out of business within the next several months to a year. According to Garnet Moore, executive director of the CWA, gym owners are hanging on to their businesses for as long as possible.

“A lot of gym owners are climbers who are tied into their community very directly,” Moore said. “For them it’d be like taking away their family and their community. That is as much a part of their decision making as business factors.”

He continued: “You can pretty much assume that any climbing gym owner out there isn’t taking a salary or making any money for the last six months.”

When we see a big shiny climbing gym with superb facilities, there is a tendency to think that these places have a lot of money and will be around forever. Moore asserts that this is not the case. Opening under limited capacity is not business as usual and will not be a sustainable level of revenue for the costs associated with operating a climbing gym, such as expensive rent or mortgage payments for high square footage facilities, insurance costs, payroll, etc. The average gym is currently seeing 42% of normal revenue.

“There is a significant risk, if a climbing gym does close down in a particular community, that it might be a long time before another one opens, especially with the current climate,” Moore said. “It’s hard to say how long it would take for another climbing gym to reopen after one closes—a minimum of six months to several years. And we really don’t know how long all of this will last in the current world we’re living in. Those time frames could be greatly expanded.”

If you’re living in a community with just one climbing gym in a flat landscape like the Midwest or the South, and that gym closes, it could be years before you have an accessible outlet for climbing once again.

The good news, however, is that to date we have not seen many gyms close permanently. Moore believes this is a part of the communal nature of climbing: “A lot of the core climbers out there are already helping out. A lot of people kept their memberships waiting for the gyms to get back into full swing. It’s cool to see how our group compares to other sports and activities out there who haven’t supported their facilities.”

In fact, on average, climbing gyms have retained 63% of their total membership throughout the pandemic.

Gyms have been coming up with innovative ways to bring in revenue. Retail sales are becoming a stronger driver of business. Many gyms have been offering virtual or outdoor training programs for their members when appropriate. Some have also found new and creative ways to hold  competitions under the current restrictions: instead of bringing in hundreds of climbers for a one-day event, the comps are held over a period of several weeks and folks keep track of their scores.

For climbers concerned both about COVID-19 and potential gym closures, Moore encourages them to reach out to gym owners directly to see what offerings are available to support these places.

“It’s pretty interesting to note that a lot of climbing gyms closed down before it was mandated to do so, because they thought it was the right thing to do to protect their communities,” Moore said. “By and large the control measures you see in a climbing gym are much higher standard and the people there are more often complying with them.”

The CWA published their own industry standard for control measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission within climbing gyms. Moore believes the majority of gyms and climbers are operating with these standards. The fundamental strategies include communication, hygiene, distancing, and cleaning.

The CWA is in contact with many gyms in Europe—Europe has been about a month ahead of the United States throughout the pandemic, an indicator of what is to come—and climbing gyms in Italy and the UK are currently closed.

The United States is currently undergoing a third spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide, so it is not unlikely that we will see more mandated closures in the coming weeks and months. Be sure to keep you local climbing gyms in mind as we bear the pandemic together; we want these places be there when we get to the other side.