ClimbZone raises the bar on family entertainment offerings
with centers full of artistic climbing walls.
By Staci Davidson, Knighthouse Media
It’s not often that kids have a chance to climb the mast of a pirate boat. Or scale a firefighter’s ladder to the top of a “burning” building. Or step on balloons to climb into the sky. And it’s not even legal for kids (or anyone) to climb the presidential faces at Mount Rushmore. But at ClimbZone, kids have the opportunity to accomplish all of these feats, and more.
ClimbZone offers unique family entertainment as a climbing center where children of all ages can scale 80 different 28-foot-tall walls at each location – vibrant walls that have been designed and built to look like spiderwebs, a U.S. map, a haunted house, an ocean wave, King Kong atop the Empire State Building and more. Climbers ascend walls at their own pace while wearing a harness that has a cable connected to ClimbZone’s hydraulic auto-belay system. This system lowers climbers safely to the ground when they are ready.
Founder Nico Buik established the company in New Zealand in 2008 and brought the concept to the United States in 2013 with the help of Tiemi and Liesl Kenrick. The first U.S. location opened in November 2014 in Laurel, Md. “Business took off quickly and by the next January we had people asking to us to franchise the concept,” COO Keith Levenson says. “By April 2015 we were bombarded with inquiries so we started to research franchising. Nico wanted control of the product and how people were serviced if his name was going to be on it.”
The State Department’s Select USA program helped Buik navigate the process of coming to the United States as a foreign entry, which can be difficult. Select USA suggested the company attend the International Franchise Expo (IFE). There, Levenson met franchise attorney Lane Fisher and franchise consultant Mark Siebert, who have helped ClimbZone build its franchising plan.
“The family entertainment industry is taking off by leaps and bounds, so this is a great time for us,” Levenson says. “Our walls are completely unique – other climbing centers don’t take their walls to the levels that we do. We have six or seven artists in our production facility hand-painting and building the walls, and then at our centers we service people in a unique fashion. Each location is spotless and clean, and guests can bring in their own food – we don’t pigeonhole them into certain packages. Kids always have screens, but parents want to make sure their kids are getting exercise, and with our product, parents are encouraged to participate alongside their children.
“We hit the market at the right time,” he adds. “ClimbZone is not a trampoline park and it’s not Ninja Warrior – we offer climbable art. We don’t hire 15-year-olds – we look for people who are college-age so they are more mature and personable. We are really picky about who we hire because we want them to engage with the guests and help make this a good experience.”
ClimbZone wants to grow, but right now it’s focused on doing that slowly and organically. The company doubled the size of its production facility to meet demand, but it is still growing the brand. It brought a portable climbing wall to this year’s IFE to create buzz, and this past spring ClimbZone installed a wall at Citizen’s Park in Philadelphia, allowing kids at the park to climb the city’s skyline and a 20-foot Philly Phanatic.
“We developed and designed the wall with the Phillies, and our ability to create and build these products ourselves allows us to better support our franchisees,” Levenson says. “We’re having discussions with NFL teams and Major League Soccer – our name is out there because the product is so unique. We are beginning to be a go-to for climbing walls, but we are truly the little guy. The people at the Phillies were so gracious and so great to work with, so that helped make that project fun.
“We also have that same mentality on our team,” he stresses. “Whatever the job is, we will go do it. For example, the woman who runs our office knows how to install a wall, and she went up to Philly to help get that job done. It makes all the work worthwhile when you have a great team of people – it’s really satisfying.”
ClimbZone is looking for more great people to join its team, and right now its franchisees have a few characteristics in common. First, they are financially viable because ClimbZone locations range from 19,000 to 30,000 square feet in size. Additionally, right now all of its franchisees are parents or grandparents who want something their families can do with them, as well as a business that makes them feel good at the end of the day.
“A successful person has gone there because of their good ideas and strong work ethic, and that is a great person for us,” Levenson says. “We are going from operator to franchisor, so we need folks who will challenge us and come to us with great ideas. One franchisee wrote a business plan on how to add ancillary attractions to a ClimbZone location and make it an adventure park. We are partnering with great people who also want this business to go from a business to a brand. If you don’t listen to the folks who are doing the day to day, you are missing out on a tremendous resource.”
ClimbZone is growing its support system, but it continues to work with its franchisees on establishing new locations such as by finding sites and buildings and determining lease agreements. From there, the company helps franchisees determine how many walls a site will need and how they will be arranged, and then training on how to run a site while keeping it safe and clean for families. Levenson notes the ClimbZone team is key in ensuring the brand’s growth.
“Franchisees and employees – we have a good group of people,” he says. “We have really genuinely good people who are fun to be around. We do something incredibly unique and if we had boring people here, it wouldn’t be as fun. There is no handbook for what we do, but we are solution-based. We go for it and we do it, and if it doesn’t work we take a note and we don’t do it again. This is a place where we spend a lot of time thinking ‘wouldn’t it be cool if … ’”