Earth Treks is climbing higher


Earth Treks' Climbing Center is moving higher on more than mountains these days.

The 11-year-old Columbia company, which started as an outdoors guide service and grew into one of the largest indoor climbing gyms on the East Coast, has also tripled its revenue in three years to more than $1 million.

Owner Chris Warner said he is ready to expand his business.

"Business is booming," he said of the gym that saw more than 60,000 climbers scale its 45-foot- high overhanging walls last year.

"We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to create a profitable and sustainable business in this industry," he said. "We built this gym with the idea we would expand, so we're looking for a space now."

Warner would not say where he wants to locate a second gym, but the plan is to build a regional chain, and he hopes to be under way with the new gym within the next year, and a third within five years. The move would make Earth Treks a stronger competitor for Sportrock, the only such regional chain in this area, which has locations in Rockville, and Alexandria and Sterling, Va.

Key to Earth Treks' growth, Warner said, is creating customers, whether through offering basic classes on rock climbing, children's birthday parties or providing on-line chats and journal entries on the company's Web site during his dangerous expeditions.

This spring, students from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia followed Warner's travels as he and a party of 33 others scaled Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain. The feat - Warner is thought to be the first Marylander to do so - has paid off in more than personal satisfaction.

"If you just look at the traffic of people going to our Web site, it relates to filling up summer camps, filling up birthday parties," Warner said. "I built the business on [the premise that] if we could teach a lot of people about rock climbing, we'd sell to them the international mountaineering experience."

It seems the business model has worked. The company is in a high-growth industry, according to a report by the Outdoor Industry Association. A 1997 market survey showed the Climbing Gym Association membership had grown from 89 gyms in 1994 to more than 200 in 1997. Today, more than 400 climbing gyms are in business, according to CGA Chairman Rich Johnston, and hundreds of other climbing walls have been built in community centers and at schools.

From a one-man, part-time guide service in 1990, Earth Treks has grown to a multifaceted business with 15 full-time staff members and 20 part-timers, Warner said. In addition to selling memberships to the climbing gym, the company offers classes in rock climbing, training for competitive climbers, corporate and group climbing programs and a retail shop with climbing gear and clothing that has grown to provide nearly a quarter of the company's revenue.

Another section of the company sells mountaineering expeditions around the world. With 11 trips a year, the company has a far-reaching reputation.

"I had never been to Earth Treks, but I'd heard about it from colleagues up here," said Owen West, a commercial futures trader in New York, who went with Earth Treks to climb Mount Everest this year.

West chose to attempt the climb with Earth Treks because, he said, in following the company's 2000 climb of Mount Everest, he thought the staff was "really level-headed when everyone else was under real personal duress."

"I actually convinced my wife I would be safer with these guys," he said. "You're really talking about reputations of individuals."

Fred Stacey, a special agent with the U.S. Customs Service, has been on several short trips with Earth Treks and also climbs at the gym. He said he has seen the business become renowned in the climbing world.

"I've climbed at a lot of gyms and that's by far the best one I've climbed," he said. "He's had some of the best climbers as instructors there."

But to Warner, the company's accomplishments are just a plateau.

"One of the things that keeps me enthusiastic is there's so many opportunities for us," he said. "Especially when you're talking about working with schools ... we're just at the tip of the iceberg."

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