Climbing the walls
The UK indoor climbing market is scaling new heights.
The Association of British Climbing Walls (ABC) estimate that over a million people climbed indoors in 2017, with more adults regularly participating in climbing and mountaineering than football.
Growth shows no sign of slowing: climbing wall visits were up 16% in 2018 and are expected to rise by a further 12% this year. The strong momentum behind this market is set to continue, with new sites opening across the country and competitive climbing appearing at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.
Climbing's recent surge in popularity can be explained through its close alignment with many of the key trends impacting the sports and outdoor industries.
The skills required for climbing value flexibility and technique as much as strength. As a result, climbing eschews the macho and exclusive impression of traditional gyms, providing a welcoming and inclusive environment. Climbing walls cater to a broad range of ages and offer an activity that can engage the whole family. In particular, climbing offers a fun and engaging way for children to exercise: the growth of child-friendly operators such as Clip n Climb (seen above) mean that around 400,000 under-18s are currently climbing under supervision in the UK.
Climbing taps into a growing interest in alternative exercise, rejecting the confines of the traditional gym and embracing activity specific movements and the great outdoors. There has been an explosion in fitness classes covering everything from pole dancing to parkour, while activities such as Tough Mudder and Be Military Fit have grown in popularity for their combination of extreme exercise and outdoor focus. Climbing appeals to both of these trends – the act of climbing is a natural movement synonymous with the evolution of mankind, while scaling indoor walls act as a segue to tackling real cliffs in the great outdoors.
The gap between working out and socialising has never been narrower. The popularity of group activities such as Crossfit and Psycle have emphasised the importance of the collective, that who you work out with, and the wider benefits this brings, is almost as important as the activity itself. The social nature of climbing is perfectly aligned with this. The floors of climbing centres are a buzz of conversation, as climbers exchange tips and get to meet like-minded new friends. Climbing centres themselves are often community hubs, offering wider services such as cafes, bars and social areas where members can hang out and socialise when they are not climbing.
Despite the recent surge in interest, the UK climbing market is still at a nascent stage. There are few established multi-site operators of scale, presenting opportunity for a market leading brand to emerge, either through organic growth or M&A. Investors have begun to look at the sector with interest: NVM recently invested £3m in The Climbing Hangar, an operator with 4 climbing walls across the UK and plans to rollout further. The scale of opportunity is evident: Clip n Climb, a New Zealand based franchise known for its eye-catching child-friendly walls, now has over 40 sites in the UK and 250 worldwide.
In 2015, a Bloomberg article referred to the indoor climbing market as a "quietly expanding exercise industry ripe for a Crossfit-like explosion." While this explosion has not yet materialised, the fuse has definitely been lit.