The business of adventure

Triangle Rock Club: getting a grip on good business practices.

I began my journalism life writing about business, so sometimes, to my source’s surprise, I start asking more questions about marketing strategy and business plans than about nail-biting adventure. In some cases, my questions draw a blank stare. When that happens I make a mental bet with myself about how much longer this guy will be in business. Usually, though, there may be a brief blank stare — of surprise — before they light up and launch into all that is prudent to divulge about the business side of what they do.

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Every once in a while I start the day climbing with Joel Graybeal with the Triangle Rock Club in Morrisville. Joel started climbing at TRC not long after it opened in 2007, immediately got hooked, took a sabbatical from his work in the banking industry, started talking with TRC managing partners Andrew Kratz and Luis Jauregui about the climbing gym business, found himself a consultant, then, earlier this year ended his sabbatical by joining Andrew and Luis as a TRC managing partner. Although he, too, is an avid climber, he’s the business guy in the relationship.
At the beginning of the summer, the Triangle Rock Club announced that it was interested in expanding, and that it was launching the process by going before the Morrisville town planners. I was intrigued.
“So,” I asked Joel as we prepared to climb this morning, “what can you tell me about the expansion?”
He smiled and threw out some numbers, explaining that they would add another 6,700 square feet to the gym, roughly doubling the amount of climbing space. He said the walls would be 50 feet high, a little more than twice as high as they are now, and that they would emerge with about 24,000 square feet of climbing space, “making us, at least, among the 20 biggest climbing gyms in the country.” He said they would expand the number of programs offered, including strength and conditioning programs related to climbing. He said the target for opening is July 1, 2013.
“Tell me about the wall itself,” I prodded. “Fifty feet! What will that be like? What kind of features will it have?”
Here, Joel-the-savvy-businessman demurred.
“We want this to be like Christmas Day,” he said. “We want people to show up on July 1 and go, ‘Holy … !’
I was reminded of several years back, during my days at The News & Observer, when I got a call  from a guy who said he was going to build the biggest climbing gym ever, in Apex. Not only would the gym have 100-foot walls and more climbing space than Yosemite, it would have features never-before-seen in a climbing gym. I believe he said it would rain on the wall, that there would be grizzly bears encouraging climbers to go ever higher. Holds might even break away. It was the most fantastic thing I’d ever heard.
And it never happened. Never came close.
The best hype? No hype. I have July 1, 2013, circled in red in my calendar. I’m guessing other Triangle-area climbers do as well.

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This past weekend I earned my entry-level scuba diving certification through Gypsy Divers in Raleigh. My return to the world down under gave me a chance to hook up again with Dave Farrar, who owns Gypsy with his wife, Margie Rhodes.
Dave and Margie opened Gypsy in 1987, in a small shop off Edwards Mill Road. They did well, but realized that in the volatile world of running a dive shop, they needed a little extra insurance. They examined their core business, thought about the market they were in, and came up with a brilliant idea: open a scuba shop with a swimming pool.
The pool, which opened in 2001, has allowed Gypsy to do two things. First, it lets them offer more hands-on opportunity in their courses than can other shops, which must rent time at local pools. This is especially key for new divers, folks who may not be entirely comfortable with the notion of donning a life-support system and jumping into deep water. In my three-week class, we probably spent 20 percent of our time in the classroom, 80 percent in the water. When I got certified the first time, in the mid-1990s, the ratio was reversed. I can still remember the anxiety I felt when I became certified that first time, still uncomfortable with my skills in the water. This past weekend, having spent so much time in the pool, I was remarkably at ease. I felt as confident as Mike Nelson.
The other benefit of the pool for Gypsy: it gives them a separate revenue stream, through instruction, through swimmers showing up to lap swim. It’s location in East Raleigh, an area with few indoor pools, was inspired as well. While dive shops nationwide have gone through turbulent times over the past decade, Gypsy has done well. Dave thinks the pool has a lot to do with that.

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As part of Great Outdoor Provision Co.’s sponsorship agreement with, I do some writing for GOPC’s Web site. They hired me to blog about Diane Van Deren’s record-setting run in May on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and I’m working with them on a project to better inform folks of their outdoor options.
Of course, their hope is that what I’m doing will help them sell gear in the near term. But frankly, the investment they’re making goes beyond that. They’re trying to establish a community that will serve both GOPC and the community for years to come. Selling stuff is one thing. Building and being a part of a community that you hope will buy stuff is another. It’s a smart long-term view that you don’t see much in the business world anymore.

As a one-time business writer, when I see an outfitter or other outdoor-oriented business engaged in sound, long-term business practices it makes me think they’re adverse to risk. And as a wimp, that makes me feel better about putting my adventurous life in their hands.

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