Market Intelligence France: rock climbing - reaching out to a new type of climber

Thursday, May 17, 2018

By Emmanuel Gravaud, Outdoor Experts

From the Olympic Games in Tokyo to the north face of the Drus in Chamonix, by way of the huge rise in the number of bouldering gyms, climbing in France continues to grow at a fast pace thanks to the hard work of the FFME (French Climbing and Mountaineering Federation) and the FFCAM (the French Alpine Club), as well as local city governments, gear manufacturers, and climbing gyms who all have decided to invest heavily in the sport.

Today, the two major trends in climbing are bouldering, a sport that started in Fontainebleau, and indoor climbing, which has grown steadily with the increasing number of climbing gyms. These two phenomena prompted the huge rise in the number of bouldering gyms in France and, as a result, opened up climbing to a much wider public. Other subcategories of climbing such as deep-water soloing and urban climbing (ex.: along the banks of the Garonne River in Toulouse, France) are also growing at a steady clip, demonstrating just how dynamic climbing is today.“Climbing is thriving,” explains Benoit Gazagnes, Director of Sales for Petzl. “Climbing outside at the crag or the boulders continues to grow and multi-pitch climbing remains stable. However, the real growth in the market comes from indoor climbing, especially the strong growth in the number of climbing gyms.”

In France, it is hard to estimate the total number of climbers, all disciplines combined. The FFME (primarily focused on sport and indoor climbing) has 93,000 members, and the French Alpine Club has 92,000 members. However, these figures to not reflect the number of people climbing at privately-owned climbing gyms. To provide a idea of scale, the group Climb’Up (with gyms in Lyon, Aix-en-Provence, Dijon, …) has almost 100,000 pass holders. However, many people “climb on their own” without joining a club or a gym. According to Pierre You, president of the FFME, this represents the majority, and he estimates that there are approximately 1.2 million climbers in France. Certain professionals, such as JB Tribout, CEO of XXL, a company that distributes Arc’Teryx in France and manages several climbing gyms, estimate the figure to be closer to 2 million.

The new climber
Urban, a young thirty-something, or a student, the new climber in France usually starts in a privately-owned climbing gym. Twenty years ago, rock climbing served as an escape for the climber or mountaineering living in the big city. Today, the gyms appeal to an urban clientele looking for a new activity.

"The client base has changed. We have transitioned from sport climbers who use the climbing gym as a means to train for rock climbing outdoors at the crags to a new urban clientele where 80% never climb outdoors," explains former world champion, François Petit, now general manager for the group Climb'Up.

"Climbing has become a cool activity for staying in shape. We now have a much younger clientele overall that started out bouldering and climbs 90% of the time indoors," says Gérard Goupil, the founder of Murmur.
The new climbers is different from the typical FFME member, who is usually younger (40% are under 15 years old and are 22 years old on average) and more interested in competition climbing, which shows in how hard they climb. For Pierre You, head of the FFME, "the average level has gone up since kids start climbing at a pretty young age. Those who start today will be climbing 7a or even 8a by the time they are 14-17 years old." Whereas in privately owned gyms, François Petit observes that, "the average level has dropped from 6a+ to 5c for route climbing. There are more and more climbers who dabble in many different sports."

Philippe Mathieu, marketing director at Altissimo, has observed the same phenomenon, "There are more very strong climbers, but there also are more people overall at every level, with the average climber hovering around 5c."

"The average level outdoors at the crag is 5c," confirms Benoit Gazagnes.

The new climber is also a new type of consumer who, "is interested in the technical details of high-end climbing shoes and who cares more about style and how they look," highlights Nicolas Geydet from Plein Nord, Scarpa's distributor in France.

"We need to move away from the cliché of the dirtbag climber who lives out of his van and who eats granola morning, noon, and night. Today's climber has money for lodging, coaching or guiding services, gear…" says Pierre-Henri Paillasson, technical director for the FFME.

Contrary to the pure outdoor climber who spends most of their time at the crag or in the mountains, the new climber who started and spends most of their time in the gym will more likely identify with the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, where climbing will be an official Olympic sport for the very first time. "This is a good thing for climbing, which will gain greater visibility over the next four years," says Gerard Goupil. This should be measurable as early as the Climbing World Championships from September 14-18, in Paris.

Beyond the differences, the different styles of climbing and climber indicate a dynamic sport and genuine market opportunity.

This article is a condensed translated version of an article originally published in French in the September 2016 issue of Outdoor Experts.

Outdoor Experts is one of France's premier trade magazines for the outdoor industry in France.

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