What’s your background?
I launched an event catering business when I was 21, but after three hard years in the kitchen the appeal waned. It was about this time that my best friend introduced me to climbing in Dorset. Despite being scared of heights and initially nervous, I absolutely loved it – sleeping in a cave above a cliff, watching the sunrise and cooking on a stove. I decided to fold my business and learn how to teach climbing, which eventually led me to launching The Climbing Hangar in 2010.
What is The Climbing Hangar concept?
It’s a bouldering facility, which means less height than traditional climbing and no ropes. It is supported by high quality food and beverage and event spaces. We run a pay-as-you-go and a membership model and we give people the opportunity to progress their climbing through coaching and other exercise classes, including circuits and yoga.
It was designed and built by Crispin Waddy, who became my business partner and major shareholder. I put together the rest of the offering, drawing on my experience as a teacher to create the courses and my background in catering for the food and beverage element.
I persuaded Britain’s number one competition climber, Shauna Coxsey, to come and work for us. Since then she has podiumed at the World Cup twice, been awarded an MBE and secured sponsorship from Red Bull and Adidas, which has been good for our profile when seeking private equity.
Why did you choose Liverpool for the first site?
Glasgow would have been my first choice, as I lived there, but another large climbing centre had just opened there, so I looked for the next big city without a climbing wall, where I would be prepared to live, and that was Liverpool.
How has the company developed?
Our second site, in Parsons Green, was an acquisition of a failing facility in 2015. Only 40-50 people a day were visiting, despite it being next to a tube station. We reinspired the staff and created more of a climbing culture. Within 18 months we’d doubled the turnover and now we’ve more than tripled it.
We launched Plymouth in March 2018, taking a punt on the location. I had lived in Plymouth previously and knew it was under-served in terms of leisure, but has a strong base of outdoor enthusiasts in Devon and Cornwall.
This is our flagship centre and everything is design-led. We have a spacious Scandi-style café, selling locally sourced products. It is glassed off from the climbing centre, keeping the climbing chalk dust away and making everything so much cleaner. We recruited staff for their attitude rather than skill and then trained them up to deliver our customer journey and nurture the right type of culture.
Our newest site is in Swansea, which launched in March. We chose this because our property director found an incredible deal and the demographics are right.
As climbing is an outdoor sport – are climbers happy to climb indoors?
Mostly yes. Our target market is mainly 20 to 40-year-old professionals, so it’s usually not feasible for them to climb outdoors during the working week. They like to come to our facilities to keep in shape and when the weather is terrible. Then we don’t see them for dust on the summer weekends!
How has the market changed since you launched your first site?
I wouldn’t have predicted that climbing would become so popular, or become an Olympic sport. Our Liverpool site was the seventh bouldering facility in the UK, now there are 90, including four within a one hour radius. Generally, though, good centres build the audience rather than take people away and there’s now much more awareness of the sport and less concern about safety, as people don’t see it as an extreme sport anymore.
What are your future plans?
With climbing confirmed for the next two Olympics, we’re confident there’s plenty of growth potential – Liverpool is our oldest site but has just had a record three months. Despite this, we’re designing our businesses to be resilient.
We’ve just completed our first round of private equity investment, so plan to have 10 centres by the end of next year. The next site will be a second one in Liverpool and we’re busy looking for more in the UK’s top 20 cities. We should have six up and running by the end of this year and open one a quarter next year.