Uniting Canada's Largest Climbing Community

Windsor Rock Gym – Bringing Indoor Climbing to Canada's Southernmost City.

We caught up with Marco Fiori from the newly opened Windsor Rock Gym and discussed the challenges of building a gym in Windsor, how to stand out in an increasingly competitive climbing gym market and why cash is still king.
Windsor Rock Gym
Congratulations on opening a climbing gym in the Windsor area. How long have you been open?
Windsor Rock Gym: We officially opened August 2, 2016. We had a membership sale earlier in the year and let those members climb for free for a couple of weeks in July which helped bring people together.
Tell us about yourself and how you got into climbing?
Windsor Rock Gym: I’ve been climbing for close to 25 years and have been fortunate enough to explore many amazing world-class areas. My story is like many that get into the sport. In the early 90s, I was living in Ottawa and Coyote Rock Gym opened in the area. I was curious to check it out. Climbing has dictated my life ever since.
Why did you decide to open a climbing gym?
Windsor Rock Gym: To be honest, the thought of opening a gym has always been a very exciting idea for me. I've always wanted to do something that reflects my passion for climbing. I started spending a lot more time in Windsor last year and my first question was, “Where’s the climbing gym?” There was nothing here and there was zero outdoor climbing. The last gym that was in Windsor was open 10 years ago. My options were to build another home wall or build something larger with a more community focus. There are a ton of opportunities in this city if you are willing to take a chance. Windsor is at the end of the 401 and the last city before you cross the border. People know where Windsor is and not much else. I remember driving to Hueco so many times from Ottawa and never once did I want to stop in Windsor for anything. I’m hoping to change that.

The location of Windsor Rock Gym.

Can you describe the gym’s physical space?
Windsor Rock Gym: It's a 4000 square foot bouldering gym. Land costs are very affordable in Windsor, and everyone here tends to build out, not up. There are no tall buildings or 60-foot warehouses. We looked for over a year trying to find a tall building, but with no success. The space we settled on had 18-foot-high ceilings, so we made the decision to be a bouldering gym.

We built a highball gym with 16-foot walls, lots of angles and 18 inches of custom padded flooring. We also purchased a 24-foot-tall mobile climbing wall which is a great way to bring the climbing experience to people beyond our physical location.

Here’s a quick breakdown of what’s here:
  • 7-degree wall
  • 15-degree wall
  • 23-degree wall
  • 35-degree wall
  • Three vertical walls
  • Fingerboard station

To be built very soon:
  • 60-degree wall
  • 45-degree wall
  • Campus board

There’s also a cool mezzanine loft space with a 27-foot-long traverse wall, a library and chill-out area. It’s a real gym with no fluff that I would want to climb at to get strong and train.
Many climbers believe that it’s easy to start a climbing gym. Care to share some of your more challenging gym-opening experiences that may disprove this notion?
Windsor Rock Gym: Cash is king! There were so many extra costs that we didn’t even consider as part of the build. Here’s a great example. We had to change the classification of the space from Industrial to Assembly, which came with so many new requirements and costs. We also share two walls with a car wash, so we had to install fireproof drywall to be compliant. That cost an extra $15 000 that was never in the plans. I could go on.

Opening a purpose built climbing facility in a market that doesn’t exist is also a huge challenge. Where are the customers? Who are the customers? So much education and so much to consider.

Another challenge was working with the city and municipality. Many people didn't know about climbing gyms, so we needed a lot of meetings to get everyone up to speed. But it was so worth it in the end. Having a good landlord is really helpful too!
Windsor Rock Gym

Windsor Rock Gym

Ok, now that we got that out of the way, how about telling us about some of the more positive experiences you had while opening or operate the gym?
Windsor Rock Gym: Creating your own gym is awesome. Having full creative control while working within the constraints of an existing building is an amazing experience. This was a pharmaceutical storage space for eight years. Nobody even knew this space existed. Now we’re making it a destination.

People in Windsor are also very loyal. Once they commit to something, they are all in. I’ve had so many people offer to help, clean holds and be part of this project. We are also telling a good story online, which has helped create an incredible amount of support from so many people, other gyms and the climbing community in general.
Windsor Rock Gym

Windsor Rock Gym

How has the local community responded to the gym?
Windsor Rock Gym: People are really getting into it. We’ve only been open for 10 weeks and people are already getting stronger and our membership is growing. It’s amazing to see it happening and I'm proud to be part of a movement that is helping build a new climbing community. No egos, no bad habits, no excuses and everyone is very supportive of each other.
Windsor Rock Gym

Windsor Rock Gym

Do you offer any courses/programs or complementary activities?
Windsor Rock Gym: Programming is a big piece of what we would like to offer. It’s definitely on the roadmap and we look forward to it. Comps would be really fun too.
Who is the typical Windsor Rock Gym customer?
Windsor Rock Gym: There are not a lot of climbers here right now, so the typical customer is someone who heard about us and is curious about the sport. Safety is a big part of what we offer so with the intro and initial visits we keep an eye out to see what is going on. Bouldering is very frustrating when you first start out so encouragement and support goes a long way. After a few visits, we start to get to know everyone very well and they feel part of the family.
Windsor Rock Gym

Windsor Rock Gym

What do you offer that makes the Windsor Rock Gym special and helps it stand out from other gyms?
Windsor Rock Gym: There is no corporate anything here and we make our own rules. We are a real climbing gym for real climbers that are coming up. We are in startup mode, so things happen quickly and we can easily pivot with our small team. Our prices are fair for the size of the gym. We could charge more, but we don’t want the price to be a reason why people don’t climb here.
Like using loose chalk? No problem.
Want to climb with no shirt? No problem.
What music do you like? We’ll play it.
Want to set something specific? We can help with that.
We like Five Ten shoes so we sell them here as an authorized dealer.
Lapis brush? We got them.
Friction Labs stuff. Got that too.
Made in Canada swag? Cool.
We love to use Organic crash pads and now we can sell them to our members.
We get to curate everything in the gym – from the local bakeshop cookies to the gear people want to use. We have 1500 holds and we set new routes almost every week to keep things fresh.
How many other gyms operate that way today?
Right now, we don’t have grades on any routes or problems (eventually we will). We want people to be inspired by the lines and push themselves rather than being intimidated by a number.

It’s like the original Karate Kid movie. Paint the fence, sand the floor etc. People here have no idea how hard they are climbing because they have no reference point. They go to another gym or climb outside and they are cranking. Boom. They know karate!

Windsor Rock Gym

Windsor Rock Gym

More details about Windsor Rock Gym including operating hours and pricing are available at http://www.windsorrockgym.com/
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Gus Alexandropoulos is a freelance writer who has been involved in the outdoor industry for over 35 years. During his career he has been the editor at Canada’s national climbing magazine, as well as the gear editor for a national cycling magazine, triathlon magazine and running magazine. His work has been published in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, and he has been a guest on television and radio broadcasts. His passion for climbing began in Ontario in the mid-80s and he continues to travel extensively in search of crisp conditions and steep rock.