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How Coronavirus Changed Retail, and What I’ve Learned in the Past Six Months

Posted By Todd McCormick, Tuesday, October 6, 2020
Climbing Gym Retail

COVID-19 has required an incredible amount of flexibility and adaptation in all of our lives, inside of the climbing gym and out. Like many other industries, climbing gym retail has taken a hit this year, but it’s not all bad news.


Based on data from a convenience sample of three gyms that I work with, Sales (revenue generated from retail) are down, Margin (profit from retail, by percent) is about the same, and Dollars per Check-In (average revenue generated from retail per check-in) is up since gyms began cautiously re-opening. This was initially a surprise until I started thinking about who is using gyms most right now: members, who are also likely to spend more money in a well-stocked retail shop.


If your gym has a retail shop, you may have noticed a few changes in what people have been purchasing over the past few months. For example, training products were initially flying off the shelves, with people adapting to spending more time in their homes. That wave seems to have died out. Although we’re still in the middle of a pandemic, time hasn’t stood still. Trends continue to emerge, so keep up!


What Isn’t Selling

First, think about what likely isn’t selling well right now. With check-ins down, it should be no surprise that concessions are down. You are probably selling fewer sports drinks and energy bars so far this year compared to last. Plan for this by stocking fewer concession items. Those items also have a shorter shelf life than most of your other products, so avoid waste by slimming down your concessions until your check-ins pick up. Also, since a lot of your users right now are members, they probably have a chalk bag and they are through their first pair of climbing shoes. So, slimming out your selection of chalk bags and entry level shoes might be a good move right now as well.


What IS Selling

So, what are people buying? Given that your members are likely to have more outdoor climbing experience than day-pass users, they’re a lot more likely to be purchasing ropes, crash pads, guidebooks, harnesses, helmets, and other items so that they can go climb outside more during the pandemic. Stock a few extra ropes, a handful of guidebooks to your local crags, and a few helmets. Try some new things! See what works and have a plan for what doesn’t.


Next, keep in mind that your members are some of your most loyal customers. They like your brand and they’ll happily rep it out in the world! Keep a good stock of branded items on hand, especially ones that can be seen by other people (t-shirts, hats, water bottles). Steer clear of items like branded nail clippers and bottle openers, which tend to get tossed in a pack or a drawer and don’t help to get your brand out in the world. Be creative! Hit up your local printers or suppliers to see about branded face masks or neck gaiters. Talk to your customers, see what they want!


Expand Your Retail Reach

You’re seeing fewer people through your doors on a daily basis, so how else can you reach your customer base with retail items? One possibility is to build out a small retail shop with essentials online.


An online platform could help you move some retail products and gives your loyal customer base a way to support you without coming in. Focus on branded items, like your most popular logo tee or your most popular hat (or hoodie and beanie for the upcoming cold season). Lots of online retail platforms offer a free trial, which is a great way to try it for a month or two and see if it’s right for you and your business. But don’t take on this task lightly—it is a lot of work (even the setup for a free trial!). You’ll need to think through things like a return policy and a plan for efficiently shipping items (one way to simplify this a great deal is to do curb-side pickup only).


Lastly, don’t give up on programs or events that have historically been successful for you and your gym. Just be creative with how to do it now. For example, shoe demos typically result in big shoe sales, but some hesitation about holding an event to purposefully attract more people to your space is warranted. Try an outdoor shoe demo while the weather is still nice! Close off a few parking spaces on the night of the event, and mark off spots 6-feet apart leading up to the demo table as a visual cue to help people practice social distancing.


We all know it isn’t business as usual right now, and no one knows when it will be again. But one main theme for me this year has been to be creative. Let’s not just give up and wait for everything to “go back to normal.” Rather, let’s strive to reframe what we’re good at for the current environment. Don’t be afraid to try new ideas and keep pushing forward with what we all love.


Todd McCormickAbout the Author

Todd McCormick is the sole owner and operator of Keystone Climbing Consultants, helping gyms become more efficient in their retail operations. Todd holds degrees in Industrial Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh and in Math Education from the University of Kentucky. He has been an avid climber for 17 years and has been managing gyms, guiding new climbers, and working in outdoor recreation ever since.


Tags:  coronavirus  COVID-19  customer service  management  retail 

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How to Create Business Plans That Move, Support, and Adapt

Posted By Climbing Wall Association, Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Adaptable Business Models

Starting and maintaining a business, as well as expanding a brand, can be challenging enough in an ordinary business landscape. Now, during a global pandemic, to evolve your business model can seem daunting and confusing, maybe even dire. But the best-laid plans for a business are the plans that move, support, and adapt to the changing times.


To address the challenge of how to evaluate your business model during the pandemic, the CWA’s Survive & Thrive Workshop offered speakers with experience during the Adaptable Business Models session. Erik Lambert of Bonfire Collective, Marc Koehler from Lead with Purpose, and career coach Sam Thiara explained the best ways to help a company survive in the most chaotic of times and offer new ideas to make a business ironclad.


Here are a few highlights from their session:


How to Adapt

From recentering and restructuring your team to crafting realistic and attainable goals for every quarter, these experts outline the best strategies and insights to keep any business afloat:

  • Be clear with the company’s mission, vision, and values
  • Be honest and transparent with employees, even if you don’t have all the answers
  • Set achievable goals within small segments (30, 60, 90 days) - small steps add up to big change
  • Show empathy during these difficult times

Hold Firm on the Company’s Identity

  • Confidence with a company’s identity and what that company stands for in the community can create a brand that people will trust and flock to. Of course, it is easier said than done, but moving forward with confidence and direction is paramount now.
  • Trust your strengths. Write a plan and embrace the process: being honest with what is working and what is not. Find ways to adjust accordingly with the help of experts in their fields and grow to meet the challenge.

Empathy Within Leadership

This is the time to be a leader for your team and in the industry to uplift and inspire. Keeping realistic goals at the forefront of any plan and engaging your capable workforce helps to keep everyone involved and pointed in the right direction.

  • Trained and Trusted Employees: Turning to employees and supporting them with trust, confidence, and emotional intelligence will benefit the company.
  • Supported Employees: The employees who carry the brand, the ideas, and the business experience to the customer – they show and give their support every day, so learning how to offer unconditional support will only boost their excitement and productivity.
  • Be a Leader in the Company: Lead by example and be confident with your decision-making. Show humility and accountability when the plan has to change.

Continually striving to build a business goes a long way. Maybe when you first started your business you worked hard to craft something that speaks with clarity and can stand on its own – now is the time to do that again.


Dealing with uncertain times is never easy, but these are a few ways to thrive through these difficulties with new resolve, emotional depth, and realistic expectations. Almost every business is struggling, but there are ways to make these times more manageable and explore the opportunities that you may have been sitting on all along.


Join the Survive & Thrive Ecosystem

If you want to dive deeper into this subject and more, on-demand registration is still available! Your ticket gets you access to networking tools with all attendees, an ongoing Community Board forum, and more valuable content like this session! Once on the platform, you’ll have access to the content and networking tools for the next 6 months. Ticket sales end September 30. Register at




Tags:  branding  business development  company culture  coronavirus  COVID-19  employee engagement  leadership  management  member communications 

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What do in-person events look like during the pandemic recovery?

Posted By Garnet Moore, Tuesday, September 22, 2020
in person events

During a recent CWA Community Call, our members discussed some of the problems and solutions around hosting in-person climbing competitions and events. Getting back to large group gatherings is far off in many areas of the world, but we still need to provide a sense of community and fun for members, potential new customers, and athletes.


We focused our session on first describing some of the problems facing gyms who are trying to bring these events back, and then we brainstormed different solutions to the challenges. In each brainstorming phase we looked at the positive marketing and growth opportunities, some of the technical solutions to social distancing and capacity issues, and creative solutions to provide similar experiences to traditional events. At the end of the session we chatted about alternative event types that could involve local partners, focus on members, or involve your entire community.



You may have guessed some of the key problems a gym faces hosting a competition in the current environment. Social distancing, capacity, and risk management are big headline problems that face all areas of gym operations. Competitions, however, have some unique considerations such as travel, sponsorship, judging, isolation areas, and audience ambience. The gyms on our call had some great ideas about how to mitigate these risks, and, in some ways, make their events even better!



Competition Formats

  • Multi-day competition with time slots allowing for cleaning between time slots
  • Individually paced competition over a week or more
  • Create an isolated area for the competition to take place and film competitors without an audience, similar to the NBA or soccer

Routesetting Considerations

  • More of the gym could be used for comp routes than events with an audience
  • Consider grading differently if only liquid chalk is allowed
  • Routes may need more spacing than normal to maintain social distancing

Marketing Opportunities

  • With multi-day events, build FOMO after the event starts and make signups available longer
  • Climbing presents a socially distant, contact-free way to engage in competitive sports. Can be a great alternative to many of the contact sports that have been cancelled
  • Video creation opportunity for at-home competition training
  • Present logos from sponsors for online scoresheets/leaderboard

Climbing Leagues

Leagues are a great way to keep climbers engaged over a long period of time. They are also a great way to help facilitate new connections and build community when people can’t be together in person. The members on this Community Call had some excellent ideas on ways that leagues could help promote gym member participation and deeper friendships.


How to Create Teams

  • Create virtual meeting rooms for people to self-select
  • Gyms can put teams together based on the climber’s availability and schedule
  • Drafting based on self-made profiles with silly questions
  • Through a registration page, people can join with a team or as a "Free Agent." Teams are created this way in many other sports and recreational leagues

How to Score League Competitions

  • White board in the gym with team names
  • Scoring can be completely customized using apps
  • Bonus points for climbing in the morning or reduced points for peak hours
  • Weighted scoring, using a VMAX score to keeping things even

League Formats

  • Multi-month leagues based on total climbs
  • Digital platforms allow you to run ongoing leagues, or one every 4 weeks
  • Bi-annual - summer/winter or spring/fall (one could be indoor, another possible outdoor)

Marketing Opportunities

  • Leagues can organize around a system board, the Moon Board, or the Kilter Board
  • Market as a way to get back into shape (undo "quarantine 15")
  • Use a digital platform to save time and energy
  • Create a space to allow for "quarantine buddies" to form and keep each other motivated to stay fit
  • Charge for league participation to help bring back some revenue or use as a member retention tool

Other Events

On this call some of the owners and managers had excellent ideas on new types of events that could bring in extra income or help your local community and your climbing community.


What events can involve local partners?

  • Sponsored routes in the gym. Everyone who climbs this route is entered in a drawing for some donated swag
  • Charity fundraisers for community organizations (virtual raffle/auction)
  • Home school group PE programs
  • Climb-a-mile type comps where people can get sponsors for the distance they climb in a certain timeframe

What events can involve the whole community?

  • Outdoor or drive-in movie night
  • Climbing Bingo. Hand out cards to be turned in at the end of the week for prizes
  • Live music outside, if you have the outdoor space
  • Gear-centered events: something like a shoe donation to gyms in need
  • Using outdoor space, set up tables and a small wall to get other companies involved

What events are best for members only?

  • Long-form events that run over weeks or months
  • Outdoor climbing tour with staff
  • Gear/clothing swaps
  • Trivia, photo contest, live performances, virtual happy hours, and Netflix parties

There are a number of event types that can help keep your members excited and maintaining their membership. If you market these programs correctly and connect with the needs of your community, you may even be able to get some new members regardless of your capacity limitations. The long-term prospects for climbing are excellent and now is the time to find the events, programs, and features that resonate with your customers!


Garnet Moore Head ShotAbout the Author

Garnet Moore is the Interim Executive Director at the Climbing Wall Association. Garnet brings more than a decade of experience in the climbing industry, serving gyms, manufacturers, and many climbing friends and partners.


Tags:  community development  competitions  coronavirus  COVID-19  marketing  member retention  operations  programming 

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Maneuvering Through COVID-19 with CARE

Posted By Climbing Wall Association, Tuesday, September 22, 2020
Sam Thiara Keynote

The pandemic was a shock to the climbing industry. In addition to other disruptions to daily life, gym closures have been devastating to the entire industry. It’s clear that the path forward cannot be the same one previously taken. A new path forward has to be forged.


The Climbing Wall Association was equally impacted, canceling its annual in-person conference, the CWA Summit, to instead focus our efforts on creating resources for our members and the climbing industry at large. We began hosting twice-a-week Community Calls, published a Roadmap to Reopening and more than two dozen other helpful articles, and organized our first-ever virtual workshop, the Survive & Thrive Workshop, which is still accessible on-demand.


The workshop goals are simple:

  • Provide actionable strategies to survive this uncertain time
  • Generate ideas to strive for growth and forward thinking
  • Foster connection
  • Inspire - spark creativity and a sense of optimism
  • Have fun!

Within the first 30 minutes of the workshop, gyms were empowered to look inward for the answers. Opening keynote presenter Sam Thiara, a business coach with Ignite the Dream Coaching, is also a calm, introspective storyteller and professor.


He showed a picture of a monk in yellow robes and commented that he is not that monk, he does not have all the answers. But he can provide a framework for listeners to define their questions, reframing their challenges to find solutions. What follows is a quick overview of Sam’s keynote session.


You have the answers, and here’s how to find them:

  • Collaboration
  • Adaptability
  • Resilience
  • Empathy


Now more than ever is the time to lean on your team. Bring everyone together and first make sure you’re in alignment on your company’s mission, vision, and values. Only by understanding where you are presently can you move forward as a team, and in so doing build trust and fortify those relationships. Strengthen your relationships by taking care of your team (and don’t forget about yourself). This will create more solid footing in a global environment that feels anything but solid.



It is an understatement to say that climbing gyms have had to get creative during these unprecedented times. Change is tough, but a few tactics can make it easier. These tactics have to do with your own mindset toward change.


As opposed to resisting change, accepting and even embracing it can allow for greater creativity. We are now back to square one in a way, so having that “learner’s mind” and an “improvised mind” can really help. Moreover, getting strategic so that you are being proactive versus reactive shows leadership and empowers your team to try things and keep adjusting. Just remember, when implementing organizational change:

  • Be transparent with those around you
  • Communicate in the most efficient way
  • Engage others to let them be a part of the change (not top down)


We know now that COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. This is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s more important than ever to look after yourself and those around you. The best way to build resilience are with these tactics:

  • Acceptance
  • Define yourself (don’t let the situation define you)
  • Use this as an opportunity to learn
  • Demonstrate gratitude

Creating a supportive environment centered around trust, appreciation, reflection, and collaboration will create strength and unification, two major pillars of leadership.



Great leaders care for those around them. Really put yourself in the shoes of those around you. What is their mood? What might be going on in their lives, outside of the assumptions you may hold? The only way you can know the answers to these important questions is by establishing a greater level of communication.


When engaging, really listen. Be present. Just as self-care works for you, treating your team with empathy is a form of self-care for them, which has a trickle-down effect for the customers they interact with and, in turn, the way these customers feel about your business. This is called the “Service-Profit Chain Model,” another tactic you can take with you from the Survive & Thrive Workshop.


In summary, when we focus on the solutions versus our deficits, we are doing what’s called “Appreciative Inquiry.” Reflecting on how you got to where you are (what Sam Thiara calls your “base”), where you’re going (your “dream”), how you’re going to get there (your “design”) and delivery is a great way to structure your team’s approach to this unique moment.


And just remember, you’re not in it alone.


Join the Survive & Thrive ecosystem to gain access to networking tools with all attendees, ongoing Community Board forum conversations, and more valuable content like this session! Once on the platform, you’ll have access to the content and networking tools for the next 6 months! Ticket sales end September 30. Register at




Tags:  company culture  coronavirus  COVID-19  employee engagement  leadership  virtual events 

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Is More Stimulus Coming?

Posted By Garnet Moore, Tuesday, September 15, 2020
small business stimulus

The timeline for more federal coronavirus stimulus in the US has been delayed for at least a month, but there is still some chance that we will see legislation passed before November 3. A lot of the public discussion around stimulus pertains to unemployment benefits and Economic Impact Payments, and while those seem less likely to be included in any upcoming stimulus, there are several likely provisions that will help small businesses.


But first, here’s where we’re at in the negotiations. Additional stimulus has been actively discussed since the CARES act first passed on March 27. Very quickly, the House introduced the HEROES act which did not gain traction in the Senate. The Senate responded on July 27 by introducing the HEALS act, which pared the cost of the relief package and focused heavily on business needs.


The price tag on this bill was still in dispute and Senate Republicans crafted a new smaller proposal titled Delivering Immediate Relief to America’s Families, Schools and Small Businesses Act. This proposal seems to indicate the direction that future relief packages may take focusing narrowly on certain sectors or interests rather than attempting to cover the needs of the entire country. This bill has not been successful yet and alternate packages are being discussed.


While a final bill may or may not incorporate some relief for climbing gym workers who are still experiencing unemployment, the possible areas of support for small business seem to be less contentious and there are several potential provisions that gym owners should be tracking:

  1. You may gain some extra protection from the liability of coronavirus related lawsuits. Excluding gross negligence, employers are likely to be shielded from many lawsuits. Potential complaints would have to demonstrate that any damages they incurred were due to exposure to coronavirus and that the business did not make reasonable efforts to comply with government standards or guidance.
  2. For small businesses with at least a 50% reduction in gross revenues there may be an option to secure another loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. Similar to the first instance of the PPP, these loans may be forgivable if significant portions are used for payroll costs.

    The exact rules are likely to continue to be discussed, but as of now, it is possible that these loans could equal 2.5 times your total monthly payroll cost for a defined period maxing out at $2 million.
  3. There may be an expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit to cover more workers, larger businesses, and lower the reduction in revenue needed to qualify. There is also the possibility that businesses could now make use of both this credit and the PPP, although not for the same payroll costs.
  4. This most recent bill did not include the possibility of automatic loan forgiveness for PPP loans less than $150,000 but this idea has broad support and may come back in future proposals.
  5. On a fun note, the HEALS act allowed for a 100% deduction of business meals through the end of 2020. This was missing in the latest proposal, however if it does return in future legislation make sure to cater a nice meal for your staff and support a local restaurant.

We will continue to monitor the status of stimulus for small businesses and advocate on behalf of the indoor climbing industry. There is still some chance that further aid will be available in the coming months, and as soon as more details are available, we will report on the key provisions that affect our industry.


Garnet Moore Head ShotAbout the Author

Garnet Moore is the Interim Executive Director at the Climbing Wall Association. Garnet brings more than a decade of experience in the climbing industry, serving gyms, manufacturers, and many climbing friends and partners.


Tags:  advocacy  coronavirus  COVID-19  finances  public policy  stimulus 

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Fostering Connection and Inspiration at the Survive & Thrive Workshop

Posted By Laura Allured, Monday, September 14, 2020
Updated: Tuesday, September 15, 2020
Kristin Horowitz Marc Gutman Laura Allured

On September 2 and 3, 2020 the CWA hosted the Survive & Thrive Workshop, its first-ever all virtual workshop. The event was built to give gym owners and senior leadership a framework for success during COVID. 150 people from over 25 states and 3 countries, including more than 40 different gyms and 20 sponsors, joined online for two days jam-packed with learning and activities.


The “venue” in this case was a virtual event platform called Whova, a hub site where attendees could navigate to different sessions and also message other attendees, join virtual meetups, visit interactive sponsor pages, and contribute toward discussions on the lively Community Board. Community Board topics include, “Work from home parents,” “Diversifying climbing communities,” “gyms still closed,” “new pricing structures,” and “competition ideas.”



Day 1 kicked off with a keynote address by Sam Thiara, an expert business coach who emphasized the importance of CARE: Collaboration, Adaptability, Resilience, and Empathy. Attendees then had the option of joining Track 1 or Track 2, 90-minute deep dives into two areas: Adaptable Business Models and Leading Through Coronavirus. The track sessions were a mixed format of presentations, panels, and Q&A, with a robust virtual chat and question threads happening during presentations.


Day 2’s tracks focused on Financial Positioning & Self-Advocacy, with panelists from a variety of gym sizes, locations, and years in operation, and Marketing & Community Engagement. Each day also included breakout sessions into pre-assigned “pods” with names such as “Pod Belay!” “Pod Save the Queen,” and “Orange is the New Pod.” These fun pods provided a more intimate, confidential space for groups of 10-15 to open up and share challenges with one another. Problem Solving sessions also allowed pods to tackle a problem together using the interactive brainstorming tool, Miro, then a delegate from each pod presented their takeaways.


Financial Survival and Advocacy


The two days of live programming wrapped up with a closing keynote with business coach, Marc Koehler presenting on how to build a strong team culture, and a special guest speaker, Tommy Caldwell, speaking on overcoming adversity. Attendees walked away with more confidence, more connections, and new skills to tackle very immediate issues facing their gyms. One attendee wrote, “Magical occasion to connect and exchange with other people from the industry in #2020craziness. 14/10 would recommend!”


Additional activities include a photo contest, leaderboard to show those who were most engaged, a sponsor passport contest, sponsor and raffle and giveaways, running through the end of the month! Raffle prizes include holds, volumes, massage chairs, climbing gear, and more.


Purchase an On-Demand Ticket to watch this valuable content and gain access to the interactive ecosystem. Once on the platform, you’ll have access to the content and networking tools for the next 6 months! Ticket sales end September 30.




Tags:  advocacy  business development  community development  company culture  coronavirus  COVID-19  customer experience  diversity  employee engagement  financing  human resources  JEDI  marketing  member acquisition  member communications  member retention  programming  public policy  regulations  risk management  staff retention  staff training  virtual events 

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Communication Strategies for Mask Requirements

Posted By Holly Chen, Friday, September 11, 2020
Communicating Mask Requirements

It is quite common for the customer service team of a climbing gym to wear multiple hats; performing the roles of front desk staff, retail, communications, floor patrol, and now—public health and safety officers.


As climbing gyms and fitness facilities have rolled out reopening plans, certain protocols have become major sources of conflict between businesses and their customers. Despite diminishing levels of panic and fear, the risk of spreading COVID-19 is still present, and business owners must be intentional about communicating and enforcing their policies.


A common point of tension is the question of masks. Business owners have a right to require masks and to refuse entry or service to an individual not wearing one as long as there is no discrimination involved. The logic is comparable to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policies we see regularly.


The decision to have staff, members, and guests wear a mask or not often depends on local, state, or federal requirements. If those requirements are absent, it is ultimately up to the gym owners to decide.


Whatever the decision is, it is important to have a communications plan in place to proactively address any new public health protocols for your facility. Here are some strategies and insights to guide your planning process around communicating mask requirements:



  • To avoid contradictions and confusion, the language of new policies should be accurate and consistent across all platforms, including digital, physical, and verbal. Share the policies on websites, in newsletters, on social media platforms, and post signage around the gym as a reminder.
  • Many gyms are choosing to host new orientations, even for returning members. Consider including new policies in your orientations.
  • Meet with the staff and ensure everyone is on the same page. Are masks required? If yes, are there exceptions? Can you pull it off when you are climbing? If the facility has an outdoor area, are guests allowed to go mask-less outside? Your customer service team will appear unreliable if a member is told they can pull down their mask while climbing by one staff member only to be told otherwise by another an hour later. Help your team by making sure procedures are clear.
  • More of these tips can be found in our series on communicating with customers about the new realities of running a gym in the age of coronavirus.

It’s important to note that you could do all of this and more, but still encounter customers who disagree with you. While many have adapted quickly to new policies such as reservation systems, liquid chalk, and zoning of gyms, the question of masks is slightly more complicated.


The unfortunate reality is that, for some, the act of masking up has been twisted from a helpful public safety measure to a personal political statement. Given the circumstances, approach these conversations delicately and with care.



  • When interacting with a member or guest, address the customer by name, if possible. In many close-knit climbing gym communities with loyal regulars, this is possible more often than not!
  • Remember to express your delight that they have returned to the climbing gym.
  • Take note if they need any assistance adjusting to the new policies and offer a friendly reminder or suggestion if needed. For example, maybe their mask is not fit for exercise? Many masks are double-layered, have insecure attachments, or are improperly fitted. A helpful suggestion could be to provide them with a disposable mask. If your gym does not provide or sell facial coverings, consider stocking them!


  • If the customer expresses their disagreement, listen, even if you disagree. People are more likely to have a positive reaction to policy enforcement if it begins as a conversation rather than a confrontation. Keep in mind that people have been starved of community interaction and person-to-person connections, so most are more than happy to engage in a conversation.
  • Avoid interrupting to make a point. Hold space for them to vent their concerns.
  • Use language such as, “I/we understand,” when they express frustration or anger.
  • Find common ground with them, the easiest one being: “Climbing/working out in a mask isn’t ideal. We know, and we miss the old days too.”
  • Make the point that without these policies in place, you may not be able to operate at all: “We all want gyms and businesses to stay open, and in order to accomplish that we must work together to combat the spread of COVID-19. We really appreciate the cooperation of our members to help keep the climbing community safe and the gym open.”
  • For additional tips, read our article on avoiding and de-escalating customer conflicts.


  • Misinformation leading to misconception is rampant in the age of rapid content delivery. Prepare answers for common misconceptions such as:
    • Masks cause hypoxia
    • The 6ft social distancing guideline makes you unsusceptible to COVID-19
  • Cite and refer to reliable resources such as the CDC for misconceptions on facial coverings and COVID-19 transmission.
  • Cite and refer to local, state, or federal requirements on public health and safety requirements if needed.


  • Returning to the information accuracy section above, meet with the staff and ensure everyone is on the same page on policy enforcement. Your customer service team will appear inconsistent if some staff are strictly enforcing mask policies while others are letting it slide.
  • If the conversation with a customer escalates and all forms of de-escalation strategies fail, be firm on the policies. Treat your gym’s public health and safety policies as you would climbing safety policies.
  • If serious verbal altercations occur, note it down for future reference and for the training of other employees who were not on shift to witness the disagreement. This is also a way to track those who are multiple offenders of disregarding safety protocols.
  • Dealing with hostile language and disgruntled members, while disheartening, is an unfortunate part of the customer service job description. Stand your ground and stick to your values.
  • If the customer refuses to comply, politely ask them to leave the facility. If they do not, contact local law enforcement.
  • There have been several cases of physical violence towards customer service employees who ask customers to wear a mask. While there have been no cases of physical violence in the climbing gym industry so far, it would be smart to remain vigilant.

Keep in mind that these guidelines are not rules. There is no singular way to approach the communication of a sensitive topic in such an unprecedented time. The ability to gauge a customer and adapt on the fly is the hallmark of a good customer service team member.


For those who are customer service veterans, keep an eye out for your teammates who don’t have as much experience and lend support when needed. We all want to continue climbing, and for that to be possible we must not grow complacent to the threat of COVID-19.


Holly Chen Head ShotAbout the Author

Holly grew up in Taiwan, a tropical island smaller than the state of Colorado where she often dreamed of living somewhere colder. She began working in publishing at a young age, authoring a National Best Seller in her home island at the age of 17 before moving across the Pacific to attend the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her professional interests lie in communications, brand strategy, and using written and visual storytelling to inspire creation and recreation.


Tags:  company culture  coronavirus  COVID-19  customer service  leadership  management  member communications  operations  risk management  staff training 

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How to Plan Activities for Groups and Teams During COVID

Posted By Headwall Group, Monday, August 17, 2020
COVID-19 Activities

As COVID-19 threatens the health of our global community, climbing gyms across the world are facing challenges unlike any we’ve seen before. As climbing gyms begin to reopen, operations cannot be business as usual.


In this time of uncertainty and change, the indoor climbing industry has been implementing creative and innovative new approaches in order to meet the challenges it’s facing and get its community climbing safely again. Aspiring young climbers are a huge part of that community, and they are as eager as anyone to start climbing with their friends again.


As gyms begin considering the possibility of reopening their youth programs, they are realizing the overwhelming logistics involved. In our previous post we discussed some general considerations gyms must consider when mapping out the reopening of their youth programs. Now, we want to discuss how to approach the planning and implementation of activities and share an example of an activity that highlights this approach.



At Headwall Group we like to stress the importance of program planning. When considering running a youth program in the time of COVID-19, planning is even more important.


Each practice should have a detailed program plan that includes health and safety considerations for all activities coaches will facilitate during a practice. Program Directors should make it very clear who is responsible for creating these plans and continually audit program plans to make sure that all health and safety considerations are addressed in the plan. This should continue as long as any health risks exist in order to avoid complacency.


The plan should answer three questions for each activity:

  1. What will be done to mitigate the environmental risk? e.g. how does the setting contribute to an increased risk of exposure to COVID, how can this be mitigated (not eliminated)?
  2. What will be done to mitigate the equipment risk? e.g. how does the use of equipment contribute to an increased risk of exposure to COVID, how can this be mitigated (not eliminated)?
  3. What will be done to mitigate the social risk? e.g. how does the manner in which your group is expected to interact contribute to an increased risk of exposure to COVID, how can this be mitigated (not eliminated)?

Creating quality and consistent program plans acts as a roadmap to program goals and helps with efficiency and group management. In these times, a program plan will also allow a coach to think through and plan for any health risks.



When facilitating activities that require a group to behave in a certain way in order to mitigate health risks it is important that the coach presents these expectations clearly. For example, if your program is requiring social distancing, the coach should explicitly state where participants should be during an activity.


Try to find creative ways to build these expectations into the rules of the activity so that the participants feel engaged in the process and as a coach, it is easier to encourage appropriate behavior. For example, if you are transitioning the group from one area of the gym to another, rather than just telling participants to stay six feet away from each other as they walk, give them a task that requires it, such as tying a knot every six feet along a climbing rope that each participant can hold as the group transitions together. For younger groups, a story can be added to make it more engaging.


The reality is, no matter how well the coach has planned and no matter how clearly expectations have been stated it is impossible to guarantee all participants will follow all the expectations all of the time. If reopening your program depends on 100% compliance with social distancing and hygiene expectations, your program should not reopen as that is an impossible goal.


However, planning and clear communication of expectations can help establish new norms that programs can practice and adapt to. Below is an example of an activity that addresses the three risk categories that we have identified as of the largest concern: Environment (space) risk, equipment risk and social risk.



Category: Skill Building
Objective: Climbers will work together to find the secret sequence from a Start Hold to a Finish Hold.
Equipment Needed: Spray Wall or Traverse Wall



  1. The only person that knows the secret sequence is the Coach.
  2. Climbers take turns climbing and always start on the start hold.
  3. From the start hold, the first climber chooses any other hold that is within reach and grabs it.
  4. The coach who is holding the map, tells the climber if that is the correct hold or if it is an incorrect hold.
  5. If it is a correct hold, the climber is allowed to advance and try another hold, if it is not, that climber’s turn is over.
  6. The next climber then begins at the start hold, completes any of the moves that have already been discovered and then gets to try another move.
  7. If a climber fails to climb the correct sequence (even if it is a part of the sequence that has already been discovered), their turn is over.
  8. Once the Finish Hold has been gained, climbers take turns climbing the entire sequence.
  9. The team is successful when each climber has climbed the entire sequence.

How To Instruct: For younger climbers it can help to apply a storyline to the game (navigating their way through a swamp or up a mountain but there are pitfalls along the way). Emphasize the importance of paying attention to sequencing in climbing, that if you get pulled into the wrong sequence on a boulder problem or route, you will have to downclimb, wasting energy, or you might even fall. This game can highlight how difficult it can be to figure out the “beta” or right way to do a route or boulder problem, and that when you have “unlocked” the beta, it is important to remember it for future attempts.



  1. Make sure to pre-map the sequence before teaching the game and write it down on a piece of paper so it is easy to identify as climbers are climbing.
  2. It can help to play this game on the ground first to help climbers understand the concept. This can be done by laying out a grid of spot marks (4x4 or 5x5 works well) and playing by the same rules.
  3. Make sure the sequence is equitable across all climbers in the group; sequence should be challenging but attainable for all climbers.

Health Considerations:

  1. Environmental Risk: Small space, space shared with members
    • Mark spots on the ground where participants will wait their turn (6ft apart)
    • Section off area during the activity for team use only. Create a physical barrier with a sign.
  2. Equipment Risk: Climbing holds are frequently touched many times by all participants throughout the game.
    • Coach provides hand sanitizer before and after each turn for each participant.
    • 20 second handwashing following the activity.
    • Encourage participants not to touch their face during activity.
  3. Social Risk: This is a group activity, so it requires multiple participants.
    • Break the team up into cohorts and have cohorts take turns with the activity.
    • Masks required during the activity.
    • Team has to start over every time someone touches their face/touches or gets too close to another participant.


Bix Firer and Pat Brehm Head ShotAbout the Headwall Group

The Headwall Group distills the lessons learned as educators and leaders working in dynamic and high risk environments and brings them to youth-serving organizations. The Headwall group provides trainings, consultation, and curriculum development services that are rooted in our experience as outdoor experiential educators for climbing gyms, summer camps, and schools.


The Headwall Group was founded by Bix Firer and Pat Brehm. Bix Firer (MA, University of Chicago) is currently the Director of Outdoor Programs at College of Idaho and has worked as a wilderness educator, trainer, facilitator, and experiential educator for over a decade. Pat Brehm works as a professional organizational trainer and has spent his career as a climbing coach, facilitator, and outdoor educator.


Tags:  coaching  coronavirus  COVID-19  programming  risk management  staff training  youth team  youth training 

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What happens when someone at my gym tests positive?

Posted By Emma Walker, Monday, August 17, 2020
Contact Tracing

Since climbing gyms have begun reopening this summer, gym owners and managers across the country have been bracing themselves for what feels inevitable: the news that someone who’s recently climbed at their facility has tested positive for COVID-19.


It’s a tough situation, and unfortunately, it can happen even if your facility has followed all the applicable local regulations—including social distancing, lower capacity, asking members to mask up and make appointments to climb, and extra-stringent cleaning policies.


We talked to three folks who’ve experienced this situation firsthand and come out the other side. Here’s what they had to say.



Cover your bases

Liability is far from the only thing gym managers are worried about right now—but it’s not completely off the table. In addition to their social distancing and sanitizing policies, several gyms have added temperature checks and updated acknowledgement forms to their entry requirements. Nick Werner, general manager at Upper Limits Chesterfield, says this simplified the process when he found out there had been an exposure at his facility.


“We have this member’s signature on a waiver saying he didn’t have any symptoms,” he explains. “The CDC says the situation would have been different if he’d had obvious symptoms.”


Sender One facilities are using screening procedures, too, says co-founder (and CWA board member) Wes Shih. In addition to the temperature check and COVID acknowledgement, climbers answer now-common health screening questions before entering: Have you experienced symptoms? Have you had close contact with someone who’s tested positive? Have you had a positive test? So far, no one has shown up with symptoms.


Follow contact tracing procedures––every time

Dynoclimb owner and CEO Britt Frankel was confident in his ability to reach out to potentially exposed members because of the gym’s detailed trace information. After a member contacted Dynoclimb to say they’d tested positive, Frankel pulled a two-week trace report containing all of that individual’s check-ins and check-outs. “We were able to pinpoint any exposure potentials down to the minute,” he says.


Sender One and Upper Limits are both using Rock Gym Pro’s updated contact tracing feature, which has simplified the process of understanding which members have been exposed. “If you’re vigilant about [check-ins and check-outs], you can figure out who overlapped,” he says. All three of our sources indicated that it wouldn’t have been possible to notify all those who’d potentially been exposed if their gyms hadn’t been keeping careful and consistent records.



Get in touch with your local health department

When Werner got the call from a member who’d tested positive on a Monday night, the first thing he did was get in touch with the St. Louis County Health Department. It was after business hours, and in the absence of their guidance, he made the difficult decision to close the Chesterfield facility. (“I think this was the right call,” he says.)


Werner later spoke with a nurse at the CDC, who told him his facility wasn’t required to take any action. “They have a very specific definition of ‘close contact’: two or more people within six feet of each other, without masks, for longer than 15 minutes,” he explains. This situation didn’t fall into that category, according to the CDC’s investigation (which included a conversation with the person who’d tested positive). Still, Upper Limits Chesterfield remained closed for two days so Werner could notify everyone on the contact tracing report and do a deep clean of the facility.


One of the trickiest things about knowing when to close is that “the rules are constantly changing,” says Shih. By the time a member notified him they’d tested positive, 10 days had passed since they were last at the facility––so it didn’t make sense to close, though Sender One did notify potential exposures. “We followed all the state and federal guidelines for fitness facilities where they apply to climbing facilities,” he says.


Communicate proactively and frequently

Thanks to the detailed trace information these facilities had, all three were easily able to notify everyone who might have been exposed in each instance. Dynoclimb notified individuals who’d overlapped with the person who’d tested positive, as well as sending an email to its entire membership to explain that there had been a potential exposure. At Upper Limits Chesterfield, Werner called each member who’d overlapped with the COVID-positive individual (and called them back if he had to leave a voicemail). Those facilities also posted on social media, where the response was overwhelmingly appreciative and positive.


View this post on Instagram

DynoFam and Athletes, Late this evening, we were notified that a multi-punch pass member tested positive for COVID-19 this afternoon after showing symptoms late last night (Sunday) and being told they had come into contact with another Covid positive individual outside of Dyno. With this news, we have decided to close DynoClimb effective immediately for 48 hours to allow for a full sanitization treatment on our facility. We will be utilizing UV sterlization on all surfaces, approved anti-viral agents on all common area surfaces, alongside our 24/7 HVAC - UV ingrated systems. With the use of our protocols and tracing we are able to pinpoint exposures down to the minute and will be reaching out directly to any of those who may have been exposed within the last 2 weeks. While we believe the exposure to any Athletes has been very minimal those showing symptoms or that have incurred a possible exposure can consider getting tested and/or taking other precautions as necessary. Exposure would have been in the main climbing section on 07/05/20 after 4:15pm, 07/02/2020 after 4:30pm, 06/22/20 after 6:27pm. We appreciate everyone's understanding, patience, and communication during these times. Ultimately we have the best interests of our direct and extended community in the forefront of our actions. Please follow our social media and on our website for any updates. If you have any questions or concerns please reach out to us directly on social media or by email We are all in this together.

A post shared by DynoClimb 🦖 (@dynoclimb) on


Shih also makes the point that under no circumstances would Sender One reveal the identity of the person who tested positive. “For this to work, people have to know there won’t be any repercussions for revealing that they’ve had it,” he says. “You want community buy-in—everyone’s in this together to make sure we don’t get sick.”



Reassure your guests

Members at each of these facilities appreciated being notified. In each case, the manager’s goal was to reassure members that they were taking steps to minimize exposure—as well as take care of their members.


At Upper Limits, for example, Werner says they’ve been very lenient about allowing people to freeze their memberships, for which he’s gotten a lot of positive feedback. Because Upper Limits has specific membership locations, they chose to allow members with Chesterfield memberships to climb at their other facilities free of charge during the time Chesterfield was closed. Werner also has an hourly cleaning schedule; employees sign off on cleanings of various equipment as they go.


Frankel leveraged Dynoclimb’s social media presence and email list to connect with members. “We were able to provide our community with an honest, behind-the-scenes look into what we were (and are continually) doing to create the best environment for our athletes,” he says.


Keep it up

“Hope is not a strategy,” Shih says. “You have to plan. And when it’s not stressful is the best time to plan.” That’s why the Sender One team has been carefully mapping out various scenarios, which Shih says has largely prevented them from having to make decisions on the fly. “There’s a chance we’ll have to close again, and it doesn’t help to just ignore that possibility,” he explains.


“I wish I’d been a little more prepared,” Werner says, “but I do think we handled it well.” Unfortunately, it’s tough to prepare in an ever-changing environment, but Werner—along with our other two sources—was glad to have had some systems in place before the exposure.


Emma Walker Head ShotAbout Emma Walker

Emma Walker is a freelance writer, editor, and an account manager with Golden, Colorado-based Bonfire Collective. Emma earned her M.S. in Outdoor and Environmental Education from Alaska Pacific University and has worked as an educator and guide at gyms, crags, and peaks around the American West.


Tags:  coronavirus  COVID-19  customer service  management  member communications  operations  risk management  staff training 

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How to Self-Advocate to Local Health Authorities

Posted By Climbing Wall Association, Thursday, July 16, 2020
Local Health Departments

If you own and/or operate a climbing facility you are probably facing the question: “When will I reopen?”


Everyone’s circumstances are unique - some gyms have already reopened, some may have been forced to reclose, others may not have received much guidance at all. If you feel that your state or locality’s decisions are not representative of your gym’s overall preparedness or public health and safety measures, there are some steps that you can take to initiate a dialogue with those agencies to help communicate your readiness to open and your care for public health.


1. Find out who your local health authorities are and how best to contact them.

2. Organize your data and your thoughts

Make sure that you have your data organized and your thoughts laid out. For example, here are some talking points to consider when you are building your case on why climbing gyms should be permitted to resume operations in your area:

  • Risk management is inherently a part of climbing and a part of operating a climbing gym. Climbers trust science (it protects their lives with every ascent) and understand the importance of carefully evaluating risk and taking recommended and tested steps to mitigate it. Unlike the public, climbers and climbing gym operators are uniquely positioned to adapt to and embrace new risk management measures to keep themselves and their entire community as safe as possible.
    • You manage risk every day and instruct your visitors what risks are present and how you expect them to cooperate to mitigate these risks.
    • Your visitors regularly comply with your policies while actively assuming some of the risks associated with climbing.
  • Evidence shows that coronavirus is difficult to catch from surfaces, and primarily transfers directly from person to person. This means that in terms of contact transmission, climbing gyms pose no more of a threat than does any other activity where one opens doors, picks things up, uses equipment, etc., when hand sanitizing and social distancing measures are applied.
    • Dr. John Whyte, chief medical officer for the health care website WebMD, says that the CDC's slight update brings clarity and helps to reduce fears. “Many people were concerned that by simply touching an object they may get coronavirus, and that’s simply not the case. Even when a virus may stay on a surface, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually infectious,” Whyte said. “I think this new guideline helps people understand more about what does and doesn’t increase risk. It doesn’t mean we stop washing hands and disinfecting surfaces. But it does allow us to be practical and realistic as we try to return to a sense of normalcy."
  • Highlight any measures your climbing gym is taking, such as:
    • Installing hand cleaning stations at frequent intervals
    • Making changes to your physical layout to help with distancing
    • Enforcing social distancing
    • Limiting gym capacity beyond what local laws allow
    • Requiring climbers to book time slots to control the amount of people in the gym
    • Taking temperatures prior to entry and asking health screening questions
    • Playing reminders between songs over the loudspeakers, asking climbers to please respect social distancing measures and to sanitize your hands before and after climbs
    • Requiring staff to wear masks
    • Requiring climbers to wear masks

3. CWA Roadmap to Reopening

You can use the CWA Roadmap to Reopening as a framework to record your own COVID-19 specific plan if you have not already documented your policies. Having a set of procedures, analyses, and protocols in writing will help demonstrate how seriously you take the situation and give the presiding authority a way to analyze your readiness to reopen or remain open.


In some areas, gyms have grouped together to present cohesive and non-contradicting plans to their governments. This may help drive your regulators to see climbing gyms as distinct from other businesses and help ease any decisions around closing and opening.




4. CWA Reopening Position Paper

We have published an official position paper, which can be used as part of a packet of information you provide to your health authorities. The paper presents the CWA’s views on reopening climbing gyms. It includes information to help public health officials understand the nature of the activities in a climbing gym, the history and culture of risk management in our industry, and the work that the CWA and many individual businesses have already done to identify and address new risks related to COVID-19.




5. Get in touch!

After you find out who is making decisions about your business, give them a call or email. They are there to represent you and your community, and they will be willing to talk – even if they are overburdened and strapped for time. It just may take a few tries and some patience.


You can also leverage your local business support organizations such as an SBDC or a chamber of commerce. The organization that is best positioned to help depends on what level of government you need to contact.


Better yet, if you, your members, or any other gyms in your state have connections to lobbyists or representatives, find out how to make that connection personal. Networking is a very effective tool in these situations.


Tags:  advocacy  coronavirus  COVID-19  leadership  public policy  risk management 

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