Grégoire de Belmont answers our questions
When and how did Arkose come about?
The first facility opened in 2013, in Montreuil, near Paris. At the time this was a kind of empty area where the bouldering offer did not exist. The four of us predicted the climbing business was about to grow fast and we had to anticipate it by opening new locations. Two of us were dedicated to operating the gyms and two to developing new ones.
What’s the background of the four partners?
We are complementary in terms of education, background and hobbies. Steve Guillou graduated from one of the most prestigious French engineering schools and has been a climber since the age of 25, as well as doing lots of mountaineering, ski touring, paragliding and kite surfing. He partners with me in taking care of strategy and development, as well as finance.
Samy Camarzana graduated from a business school and used to work in IT sales; he takes care of the front office, sales and HR. Lyes Mekesser is also an engineering school graduate, who has previously worked in IT and sales. The back office and restaurants are his responsibility.
I have been a climber since the age of 16 and graduated from an engineering school in Grenoble, where I did a lot of rock climbing, ice climbing, skiing and mountaineering. I moved to Paris to do an MSc in marketing and economics and worked as a product manager in the consumer electronics industry for several years.
Previous to Arkose I had eight years’ entrepreneurial experience as a marketing and operation officer at European level. As well as working with Steve on strategy and development, I take care of marketing and communication.
What is the Arkose concept?
We developed a unique concept of full stack blocparks, offering an innovative, ethical and fun sports and leisure environment aimed at urban individuals, mainly aged 20 to 35. Bouldering is more than a trend: it’s fun and healthy, strongly aspirational, easily accessible, highly motivating and promotes social interaction. To us, it seemed natural to mix this with chill out spaces, a restaurant, bar and yoga classes. And it is! People love it.
What is on offer at the gyms?
Bouldering, yoga, collaborative libraries, art galleries, concerts and events, as well as restaurants with homemade food using solely local and seasonal products; bars offering organic juice, locally brewed beers and natural wines.
What made you believe it would be popular?
Climbing in general, and bouldering in particular, meet many needs of urban active people. It’s a fun sport, inspirational, easily accessible (in terms of long opening hours and no equipment needed) and it is also good for meeting people.
We were confident the sport had a lot of potential, and that with the right marketing and communication, people would come and try. In today’s market the offer generates the demand: the more gyms, the more climbers.
What have been the main challenges with setting up and expanding the chain?
Numerous! Financing and fundraising has been the biggest challenge, followed by setting up an organisation where staff can grow and gain experience alongside the company. We believe being ethical with your company management is the path to follow, so we chose to hire people who are able to grow stronger with us.
Processing the operations with clear and efficient processes is another challenge, as well as keeping the finances healthy, which is even more difficult as expansion is accelerated.
Further to this, we have diversified the business, with a brewery in Paris which produces the craft beer we sell in our blocparks and also sell to external bars, restaurants and shops. We have also purchased a French gear and apparel brand, Snap, which we are reshuffling and pushing internationally with a full collection of dedicated to our customers: young, active urban dwellers who are looking for comfortable, trendy clothes for their daily life and sport activities.
What do you look for in a location?
Downtown locations in large cities, which are connected to a subway or tramway, or some means of green friendly travelling, and accessible by bike. The space needs to be a minimum of 1500sq m and 6m high for at least half the area.
Who designs the blocparks?
We do it ourselves. Although we’ve improved since the first one, the basics are the same. The main counter is also a bar, which optimises manpower. The restaurant is separated from the climbing area, but still within view, because this is what makes it so special. Flow is also very important, and as we mainly renovate old buildings we adapt the design accordingly, so each blocpark is unique. We now have four architects employed to work on blocpark designs.
How do you market new sites?
We always need to educate the market, but each year the awareness is bigger than the year before. So we use all the usual marketing and communication methods: google, community management, online and off-line communication and PR.
What are your future plans for Arkose?
To expand outside of France: we already have two undisclosed locations lined up in neighbouring countries, as well as pushing our side brands – Mroc, Snap, Oskare and MurMur, our brand dedicated to lead climbing. We also want to work to lessen our impact on the environment and spread this message as largely as possible.
What do you predict will happen in this market?
There will be a consolidation, with big chains consolidating small and independent players. Since the quality of the new facilities is increasing, they will become bigger with more side activities offered. I believe the small and specialised facilities will suffer a lot and may disappear. Because the investment required to build a new facility is linked to the quality of the offer and the size, it will become more and more difficult for small independent to start, except maybe in small towns where big facilities are not profitable.