The climbing wall at the Student Recreation Facility at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) serves two purposes. The 43-foot-tall wall is both an architectural anchor and an open invitation to all students, faculty and staff to climb and conquer.

The $200,000 wall has a variety of features, including cracks, flakes, pockets and a climb-in cave, mimicking the great outdoors. These features and its prominent placement in the facility give the wall great eye appeal, says Greg Kaefer, associate director of UIC campus recreation.

“For many, it's about trying something different,” Kaefer says. “There are many routes on the wall, thus many challenges. There are definite fitness advantages to climbing.”

Advantages that the public is recognizing, too. The number of rock climbers, both indoor and outdoor, is on the rise. In 2001, 5.9 million people participated in artificial wall climbing, according to the Outdoor Industry Association's (OIA) 2006 report on outdoor recreation participation. In 2005, that number rose to 6.7 million. The OIA has not yet released its report on 2007, but many operators expect the growth to continue.

The total active outdoor recreation industry — which includes climbing, camping, fishing, bicycling, hunting and other outdoor activities — is a $730 billion industry, according to the organization.

Active outdoor recreation is an area that the health club industry could tap, experts and manufacturers say. Climbing walls provide a window for club owners to attract a new market of club goers looking to practice their sport and maintain their fitness year-round.

Attracting climbers isn't cheap or easy, though. Climbing walls require a substantial investment ranging from $50,000 to more than $500,000. Add in staffing, programming and insurance, and the costs add up, operators say.

As of April 2008, only 5.6 percent of health clubs surveyed by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) reported offering a climbing wall as an amenity. This is slightly down from 6 percent in 2007 and 8 percent in 2001.

“It can be an expensive feature,” Kaefer says. “I think it is purely a business decision. Obviously, a dedicated space is needed, so there are some architecture implications.”

However, for those facilities that do invest and put forth the time and effort in staffing, programming and marketing, the results can be worth it in terms of adding excitement to a facility and bringing in new members, operators with climbing walls say.

Fear Factor

Most of the clubs that are having success with their climbing walls are located in areas where outdoor climbing options are available because climbers use the clubs to practice and work out during the off-season, operators say.

However, a number of clubs also target non-climbers. It's not always easy, though, as walls and the equipment needed to climb them can be intimidating. At Big Vanilla Athletic Club in Arnold, MD, some climbing novices are wary about trying Big V Rocks, the club's fondly nicknamed 40-foot wall that caters to climbers of all levels.

“Aside from fear of heights or fear of falling, the other hesitation is embarrassment,” says Stephanie Zdanavage, the indoor rock wall manager of Big Vanilla Athletic Club. “They worry about how they'll look in a harness and helmet, plus they think they won't be able to actually do it.”

In response to this fear and to improve safety, Big Vanilla Athletic Club offers programs that encourage newbies to climb. In addition to offering one-on-one private rock climbing lessons (members are charged $20 an hour, non-members $30 an hour), the club hosts a rock wall certification class every Monday night. The three-hour class teaches basic climbing skills and different ways to tie knots.

The course also shows climbers how to belay, a technique of controlling a rope so that if a climber falls, they don't fall very far. Participants receive a certification after passing a belay test at the end of the class. The certification allows participants to have access to the wall anytime, even when it's not staffed. The class size is limited to four people, and it costs members $30 and non-members $40.

One of the club's most popular programs, Women Rock!, specifically addresses women's fears, Zdanavage says. The semi-regular, two-hour program is led by a female instructor.

“Women learn how to tap into their mental and physical strengths on the wall and in life,” she says. “The class is a combination of rock climbing and group discussion that has helped many women overcome some amazing challenges in their lives.”

The facility also offers a class for mothers and daughters. In both classes, the wall is used as a metaphor for life and life's challenges. Rockin' Together: Women Rock for Mothers and Daughters costs $45 for members and $55 for non-members.

Overcoming fear can even be an issue for college-aged climbers, Kaefer says. The UIC climbing wall is used mostly by students, about 60 percent of which are male. The UIC Student Recreation Facility offers a beginners' certification class that teaches users how to belay other climbers, Kaefer says.

It's not uncommon for a climber to get scared once reaching the top of the 43-foot wall, Kaefer says.

“We often let the climbers ‘float’ down with the help of our staff belayers,” he says. “Encouragement comes directly from our certified student attendants, other patrons using the wall and friends.”

Risky Business

Despite programs that address members' apprehension of climbing, members do have some reason to be cautious. Most facilities that follow climbing safety protocol never have an issue or an accident, but tragedy can strike at any time. The percentage of wall-related injuries requiring medical attention jumped from 31 percent in 1997 to 64 percent in 2002, according to a 2002 OIA survey (the latest report available documenting these numbers). Part of the increase was due to a larger number of climbing venues both within and outside of health clubs.

The climbing industry came under fire from state and local governments after the 2003 death of a Missouri woman whose frayed auto-belay cable snapped as she was climbing a portable wall and after the 2005 death of a Massachusetts woman who fell into a parking lot while climbing an inflatable wall. The Climbing Wall Association is quick to point out that these accidents happened on a portable amusement ride or pieces of equipment that look like a wall but don't have the safety or support of a fully anchored wall. The association is lobbying the Consumer Product Safety Commission and state governments to prevent climbing walls from being regulated as amusement park rides.

Of the 3,500 health clubs that Association Insurance Group insures, only 15 of them have climbing walls, says Ken Reinig, senior vice president. The group requires owners of those clubs to complete a separate application that addresses the exposures of a climbing wall, including questions about the height and width of the wall, material used in the landing area, staffing, and safety and training rules. Club owners also should have their climbers sign a liability waiver.

“Knock on wood, we have never had a claim filed as a result of a climbing incident,” Reinig says. “We surcharge the clubs that have climbing walls $1,250 to $1,500 a year.”

Bouldering, a style of rock climbing usually done without ropes and within a limited height, has also come under fire lately as a potential source of injury, but Reinig says that, on the whole, bouldering is safe and of little concern. None of the clubs interviewed for this story reported any serious injuries from their climbing or bouldering walls.

“A member is much more likely to get injured on a treadmill,” Reinig says.

Because bouldering walls are shorter and their addition doesn't require a remodel, many clubs add them to their facilities. That was the case for Broadwater Athletic Clubs and Hot Springs in Helena, MT. Seven years ago, operators installed a 20-foot wall in a racquetball court. The wall has four pitches and an overhang for climbing. Users can boulder up to 12 feet. If users go higher than that, they must be in a harness and have a certified belayer working with them, says Mike Taylor, club manager, who adds that the club offers a climbing certification course.

“We figured two people at a time were using the court, [but by] putting in a climbing wall, we could put 15 people or so in at a time,” he says. “It was space management.”

New School

Although climbing walls are not a common feature in health clubs, they are becoming popular in university and college recreation and fitness centers. Many schools use their walls for educational purposes.

Weber State University in Ogden, UT, opened its climbing wall in January for just that reason. The wall includes three sections. The first two sections are each 35-feet tall and 35-feet wide and are used for general climbing. The next section is a 15-foot tall bouldering wall that stretches across 45 feet.

Although some might call the wall recreational, programs that use the wall make it educational, says Daniel Turner, coordinator for wilderness recreation at Weber State. In the first three months that the wall was open, about 2,000 users tried the wall during open climbing times.

“Climbing courses and classes have been taught at Weber State for almost 30 years,” he says. “We have good access to climbing in the area, but this a controlled environment that can be taught safely to students and beginners.”

The wall, which cost almost $500,000, also is used for intercollegiate and high school competitions and for local climbing festivals.

The climbing wall at Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center (MHRFC) at Wayne State University in Detroit is used mainly for general fitness and sport, says Chris Nolan, director of campus recreation. However, the climbing wall is also used by the university's Outdoor Adventure Group and by the students of Life Style Activity 1310: Rocking Climbing, a one-hour credit course that teaches the basics of rock climbing. MHRFC personal trainers also use the wall with their clients, Nolan says.

“With such a positive response throughout the campus, the MHRFC climbing wall is here to stay,” Nolan says. “Over the years, the climbing community at Wayne State University has become a vibrant part of campus life, and we are an integral part.”

The wall also is used for a kids camp, she says, where urban youth ages 4 to 16 learn how to overcome challenging situations. Climbing serves as an educational metaphor.

Many times children are the most attracted to — and are not afraid of — climbing walls, says Paula Potter, club manager of the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, CA. In fact, kids are the biggest users of the Airport Health Club's climbing wall.

“Kids summer and holiday camps have brought in the most revenue,” she says. “We charge to rent harnesses and shoes. We also charge for a kid's climb four times a week where our staff will belay the kids and provide harnesses.”

Other facilities are having success with parties. Big Vanilla Athletic Club offers one- and two-hour rock climbing parties. Fees for the parties range from $90 to $285 and include information on rules, harnessing and climbing instructions.

“The rock wall is one of many amenities we offer that is attractive to both parents and children, thus increasing our potential membership base,” Zdanavage says.

Climbing wall manufacturers say facilities are on the right track by targeting younger members, since they are the next generation of climbers and members.

Rocky Revenue

When it comes to deciding whether or not a facility should invest in a wall, operators should look at their demographics and location, in addition to the finances and staff available to make a rock climbing wall work. All fitness facility operators interviewed for this article noted that adding a rock climbing wall is a steep commitment.

The climbing wall at the Airport Health Club cost the club $60,000 when it was installed in 1997. Since then, the club has not seen a return on its investment, Potter says, aside from it being a good marketing tool when potential members tour the facility.

“I am not sure I would recommend an indoor wall,” she says. “It takes up a lot of space, and in our club, the percentage of members who use it is very low.”

However, Zdanavage at Big Vanilla Athletic Club recommends that facilities consider adding an indoor rock wall if they have the resources.

Turner at Weber State says a good facility with solid climbing programming can attract seasoned climbers and bring new people into the sport and into fitness. However, if it's a poorly planned program, it can turn people off climbing altogether.

At the UIC Student Recreation Facility, the wall brought in $9,000 in fiscal year 2008.

“We have limited pressure to make money off the wall,” Kaefer says. “Besides a major rental with a local corporation, our largest revenue stream comes from daily student passes. The reason is clear: We have 25,000 students eligible to climb for only $3.”

Despite the costs and risks, many fitness facility operators and owners agree that when done correctly, there's no better “wow factor” than a climbing wall.

A climbing wall can give members a fresh and unique workout, Zdanavage of Big Vanilla Athletic Club says.

“It also makes fitness fun,” she adds.

Tips for Adding a Climbing Wall to Your Facility

  • Visit other facilities

    Tour other clubs with climbing walls and see how they've made it work.

  • Become knowledgeable

    Learn everything you can about belaying, climbing and safety.

  • Hire the right staff members

    Find staff members who are good at motivating others and have experience in both climbing and climbing programming.

  • Follow the rules

    Follow manufacturers' safety guidelines for all equipment. Good manufacturers provide a wealth of information regarding guidelines of use.

  • Reduce your risk

    Have all patrons sign a waiver and liability release before they climb, and require them to take a certification class or test before they climb. Talk with your insurance provider about how you can further reduce risks and your premium.

  • Cater to all climbers

    Be sure to have options that challenge seasoned climbers and options that are appropriate for novices and children.

  • Ease fears

    Reduce people's apprehension about climbing by creating a short video that introduces the wall and your policies. This also delivers a consistent message to your members, so everyone who climbs is aware of the rules.

  • Get creative

    Create rock climbing programming that is unique, different and fun. Offer special events, such as team building and parties, to members and nonmembers.

  • Provide pricing options

    It's not a bad idea to offer both daily and discounted long-term passes. That way, new climbers have an option to pay per session, and your regular climbers are rewarded with a discount.

  • Promote, promote, promote

    A climbing wall is impressive, but it won't sell itself. Actively promote your wall in all club communications and hold special events that bring the community in to raise awareness of your club's new feature.

Of the 3,500 health clubs that Association Insurance Group insures, only 15 of them have climbing walls, says Ken Reinig, senior vice president. The group requires owners of those clubs to complete a separate application that addresses the exposures of a climbing wall, including questions about the height and width of the wall, material used in the landing area, staffing, and safety and training rules. Club owners also should have their climbers sign a liability waiver.

“Knock on wood, we have never had a claim filed as a result of a climbing incident,” Reinig says. “We surcharge the clubs that have climbing walls $1,250 to $1,500 a year.”

Bouldering, a style of rock climbing usually done without ropes and within a limited height, has also come under fire lately as a potential source of injury, but Reinig says that, on the whole, bouldering is safe and of little concern. None of the clubs interviewed for this story reported any serious injuries from their climbing or bouldering walls.

“A member is much more likely to get injured on a treadmill,” Reinig says.

Because bouldering walls are shorter and their addition doesn't require a remodel, many clubs add them to their facilities. That was the case for Broadwater Athletic Clubs and Hot Springs in Helena, MT. Seven years ago, operators installed a 20-foot wall in a racquetball court. The wall has four pitches and an overhang for climbing. Users can boulder up to 12 feet. If users go higher than that, they must be in a harness and have a certified belayer working with them, says Mike Taylor, club manager, who adds that the club offers a climbing certification course.

“We figured two people at a time were using the court, [but by] putting in a climbing wall, we could put 15 people or so in at a time,” he says. “It was space management.”

New School

Although climbing walls are not a common feature in health clubs, they are becoming popular in university and college recreation and fitness centers. Many schools use their walls for educational purposes.

Weber State University in Ogden, UT, opened its climbing wall in January for just that reason. The wall includes three sections. The first two sections are each 35-feet tall and 35-feet wide and are used for general climbing. The next section is a 15-foot tall bouldering wall that stretches across 45 feet.

Although some might call the wall recreational, programs that use the wall make it educational, says Daniel Turner, coordinator for wilderness recreation at Weber State. In the first three months that the wall was open, about 2,000 users tried the wall during open climbing times.

“Climbing courses and classes have been taught at Weber State for almost 30 years,” he says. “We have good access to climbing in the area, but this a controlled environment that can be taught safely to students and beginners.”

The wall, which cost almost $500,000, also is used for intercollegiate and high school competitions and for local climbing festivals.

The climbing wall at Mort Harris Recreation and Fitness Center (MHRFC) at Wayne State University in Detroit is used mainly for general fitness and sport, says Chris Nolan, director of campus recreation. However, the climbing wall is also used by the university's Outdoor Adventure Group and by the students of Life Style Activity 1310: Rocking Climbing, a one-hour credit course that teaches the basics of rock climbing. MHRFC personal trainers also use the wall with their clients, Nolan says.

“With such a positive response throughout the campus, the MHRFC climbing wall is here to stay,” Nolan says. “Over the years, the climbing community at Wayne State University has become a vibrant part of campus life, and we are an integral part.”

The wall also is used for a kids camp, she says, where urban youth ages 4 to 16 learn how to overcome challenging situations. Climbing serves as an educational metaphor.

Many times children are the most attracted to — and are not afraid of — climbing walls, says Paula Potter, club manager of the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, CA. In fact, kids are the biggest users of the Airport Health Club's climbing wall.

“Kids summer and holiday camps have brought in the most revenue,” she says. “We charge to rent harnesses and shoes. We also charge for a kid's climb four times a week where our staff will belay the kids and provide harnesses.”

Other facilities are having success with parties. Big Vanilla Athletic Club offers one- and two-hour rock climbing parties. Fees for the parties range from $90 to $285 and include information on rules, harnessing and climbing instructions.

“The rock wall is one of many amenities we offer that is attractive to both parents and children, thus increasing our potential membership base,” Zdanavage says.

Climbing wall manufacturers say facilities are on the right track by targeting younger members, since they are the next generation of climbers and members.

Rocky Revenue

When it comes to deciding whether or not a facility should invest in a wall, operators should look at their demographics and location, in addition to the finances and staff available to make a rock climbing wall work. All fitness facility operators interviewed for this article noted that adding a rock climbing wall is a steep commitment.

The climbing wall at the Airport Health Club cost the club $60,000 when it was installed in 1997. Since then, the club has not seen a return on its investment, Potter says, aside from it being a good marketing tool when potential members tour the facility.

“I am not sure I would recommend an indoor wall,” she says. “It takes up a lot of space, and in our club, the percentage of members who use it is very low.”

However, Zdanavage at Big Vanilla Athletic Club recommends that facilities consider adding an indoor rock wall if they have the resources.

Turner at Weber State says a good facility with solid climbing programming can attract seasoned climbers and bring new people into the sport and into fitness. However, if it's a poorly planned program, it can turn people off climbing altogether.

At the UIC Student Recreation Facility, the wall brought in $9,000 in fiscal year 2008.

“We have limited pressure to make money off the wall,” Kaefer says. “Besides a major rental with a local corporation, our largest revenue stream comes from daily student passes. The reason is clear: We have 25,000 students eligible to climb for only $3.”

Despite the costs and risks, many fitness facility operators and owners agree that when done correctly, there's no better “wow factor” than a climbing wall.

A climbing wall can give members a fresh and unique workout, Zdanavage of Big Vanilla Athletic Club says.

“It also makes fitness fun,” she adds.

Tips for Adding a Climbing Wall to Your Facility

  • Visit other facilities

    Tour other clubs with climbing walls and see how they've made it work.

  • Become knowledgeable

    Learn everything you can about belaying, climbing and safety.

  • Hire the right staff members

    Find staff members who are good at motivating others and have experience in both climbing and climbing programming.

  • Follow the rules

    Follow manufacturers' safety guidelines for all equipment. Good manufacturers provide a wealth of information regarding guidelines of use.

  • Reduce your risk

    Have all patrons sign a waiver and liability release before they climb, and require them to take a certification class or test before they climb. Talk with your insurance provider about how you can further reduce risks and your premium.

  • Cater to all climbers

    Be sure to have options that challenge seasoned climbers and options that are appropriate for novices and children.

  • Ease fears

    Reduce people's apprehension about climbing by creating a short video that introduces the wall and your policies. This also delivers a consistent message to your members, so everyone who climbs is aware of the rules.

  • Get creative

    Create rock climbing programming that is unique, different and fun. Offer special events, such as team building and parties, to members and nonmembers.

  • Provide pricing options

    It's not a bad idea to offer both daily and discounted long-term passes. That way, new climbers have an option to pay per session, and your regular climbers are rewarded with a discount.

  • Promote, promote, promote

    A climbing wall is impressive, but it won't sell itself. Actively promote your wall in all club communications and hold special events that bring the community in to raise awareness of your club's new feature.