Serious investment in research and development is helping a Christchurch-based company establish a global market for its funky climbing walls.
About 20 Clip ’N Climb centres are operating in places as far flung as Cambodia, Spain, Canada and the UK, thanks to new technology and clever marketing by Sheer Adventure owners John Targett and Tim Wethey.
Targett, who migrated from the UK in 1992, had managed adventure holiday camps for kids, headed recreation facilities for expat workers in Saudi Arabia and sold everything from to mobile discos to bumper boats.
Wethey, a chemistry graduate and keen rock climber, had a business designing and building climbing walls.
The pair met when Wethey installed a climbing wall in a scout den where Targett was a leader. The pair quickly realised they were kindred spirits in a business sense.
By pooling their knowledge of the climbing scene and the entertainment industry, they set out to make indoor climbing a mainstream activity, rather than something hard out rock climbers do on a wet day.
Sheer Adventure is the parent company for three brands: The Climbing Company traversing walls, Ezi Grip climbing grips, and Clip ’N Climb, a timed circuit of climbing challenges designed for the general public.
The latter was made possible by the introduction of automatic self-belays that allowed climbers wearing safety harnesses to scale a wall and control their own descent without relying on someone on the ground holding the end of the rope.
The first Clip ’N Climb opened in Christchurch in 2006 and an Auckland facility followed (that was later onsold).
But the auto belays - adapted from technology used in the mining industry - had major drawbacks. Brake shoe maintenance was expensive and the belays were hard on the climbing ropes.
In a joint venture with engineers Holmes Solutions, Sheer Adventure created the Trublue auto belay, which uses non-contact braking based on magnetic eddy current technology. As climbers descend, the braking is provided by metal arms that go out between very strong magnets, without actually making contact.
R&D for Trublue cost $250,000, but Targett says the timing was fortuitous because the old auto belays were taken off the market after problems identifying the source of an intermittent fault. “It was damn lucky we had this product under development.”
Sheer Adventure sold its half share of Trublue to focus on the international rollout of Clip ’N Climb, but retained global distribution rights to all Clip ’N Climb facilities.
The company’s latest innovation is a device connecting the climbing rope to the harness, replacing more conventional carabiner-type attachments. “It requires the climbers to follow a specific sequence of actions and unless they do it correctly they can’t leave the ground,” says Targett.
The connector, developed in conjunction with Christchurch mechanical design consultancy Design Energy and made by Contex Engineers, represents a $100,000 investment.
Sheer Adventure is seeking patents and CE certification, a stringent safety audit that must be completed to sell in the European Union.
Targett says the device could have other applications such as in zip-lining (long distance flying foxes) so they may decide to onsell it the way they did Trublue.
According to Wethey, successful innovation is assisted by good management. “The goodwill we have with our network is very important; it contributes a lot. From a business point of view we try to be good to deal with. We always pay our bills on time, so when we need something, we can ask for it and it will be received with willingness rather than 'oh, no.’"
Contex Engineers CEO Brian Willoughby, who worked on the connector and Trublue projects with Sheer Adventure, says it’s difficult when customers ordering a prototype are so nervous about IP theft they won’t even reveal what it will be used for.
However, Wethey and Targett were clear about their expectations and prepared to listen. “In the case of Trublue it was important we understood what they were going to do with it, so we organised a day down there (at Clip ’N Climb) and used their gear.”
Inventive, brightly coloured, nine-metre high climbing challenges are the key to Clip ’N’ Climb’s appeal. They come with catchy names like Stairway to Heaven, a series of huge green poles that won an honourable mention in the best new product category at the International Association of Amusement Park Attractions show in Florida last year.
Licensing the manufacture of bulkier components in the UK and US to leading climbing wall manufacturer Entre-Prises UK reduced freight costs and delivery times.
Entre-Prises had never previously owned climbing gyms, but Targett says the cashflows generated by Clip ’N Climb prompted it to open a facility in Devon, which doubles as show place for the product and a training centre for new operators in Europe.
“It’s capacity-building for us because we can’t produce everything here, and it’s partnering with people that have local knowledge and credibility.”
Shopping malls are an emerging market, too. With the loss of major retail tenants in the economic downturn malls want to fill vacant spaces with up to five Clip ’N Climb challenges to provide family entertainment and increase foot traffic.
Do you feel better off than at this time last year?