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Lifelong Learners: Audrey Pauls, on Innovation

Co-owner, Zenith Climbing Center LLC

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When Zenith Climbing Center LLC opened its doors in April 2016, co-owner Audrey Pauls says it filled a void for rock climbing enthusiasts. The only local full-service climbing gym had closed two years prior.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Zenith reached a 500-member milestone.

“That was our goal for a long time, and we had finally hit it,” Pauls says.

But the pandemic put a kink in growth as the gym was closed for nearly eight weeks. That prompted innovation by the owners, including Pauls’ husband, Everett, and sister, Jamie Strong.

She says research showed how other gyms were handling monthly billing, and they decided to adopt an opt-out membership model.

“We were overwhelmed with the support,” she says. “We kept 70% of members during COVID. That’s one of the ways we were able to survive.”

Pauls says the gym also began using the PeopleCount app on its website, allowing customers to see a real-time count of the number of people in the building. Other changes are an exterior hand-washing station and procedures for visitors, like bleaching shoes and answering a series of screening questions.

Pauls’ advice on innovation

Do your research
“Nothing happens in a vacuum. Other businesses have probably done this. Especially in bigger cities, we look to other climbing gyms that are cutting edge that we admire.”

Be customer focused
“Put yourself in the shoes of a first-time customer. That’s helped us innovate ideas to make it easier for people to start climbing. Rock climbing can be intimidating. We try to make your first time as easy as possible. We’ve purchased a piece of equipment called an auto belay. It’s basically a rope system you can use on your own; you don’t have to have a partner. First-time customers really enjoy those and now we have seven or eight.”

Culture matters
“Foster a community and build culture within your business. It allows us to learn from our customers and implement their suggestions. Usually it makes our business better. By nature, climbing is collaborative. We try to make our gym a third space between home and work.”

Leverage technology
“Put as much as you can online. We have implemented the PeopleCount app; we’ve also started an online gear shop. It will be another facet of income. We do have a gear shop in our gym, but we are really expanding that and beefing it up online. We have our annual membership sale the last week of March. Obviously, that hit at a really bad time this year with COVID. Instead of canceling it altogether or moving it back later in the year – to be honest, we really needed the income – we moved it online and extended it through the whole month of April.”

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