Sky’s the limit: Franchisee is bringing fast-growing wall climbing business to N.J.

By Meg Fry
Howell | Jul 10, 2018 at 6:45 am
From our print edition

Imagine what it must be like to scale the Empire State Building like King Kong or to climb along the bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex. 

That is the exciting premise of ClimbZone — and it is coming to New Jersey. 

“We do what nobody else does,” Keith Levenson, chief operating officer of ClimbZone Franchising, said. “While the core of our concept is centered around the climbing experience, we go the extra mile to completely integrate one’s climb within a theme.” 

Keith Levenson, chief operating officer of ClimbZone Franchising.

ClimbZone, a family entertainment and indoor climbing center with dozens of individually themed walls, will open its first two locations — and create nearly 100 jobs — in New Jersey over the next year. 

“We found it was a great opportunity for us,” Yechiel Ebstein, partner of Five Star ClimbZone USA, said. 

As New Jersey franchisees, Five Star ClimbZone USA will open its first ClimbZone location in Howell later this year, and its second at the American Dream Mall in East Rutherford at the beginning of 2019.  

“Overall, as an investment, this business has much lower overhead and operational costs than other family entertainment businesses,” Ebstein said. 

Founder Nico Buik created the concept in New Zealand in 2008, after having operated traditional rock climbing gyms for more than a decade. 

“He wanted to create something more interactive and less intimidating for children,” Levenson said. “So, he started creating themed walls out of plywood to make entirely climbable scenes.” 

The concept expanded from there, but New Zealand simply wasn’t a large enough market. 

“So, the idea to come to the U.S. formulated in 2013, and, after conducting a market research study to find out where the most homes were being built in the country, Maryland popped up on the radar,” Levenson said.

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ClimbZone’s first U.S. climbing center was built in Laurel, Maryland, in 2014. 

“We’ve had climbers as young as 2 and as old as 83,” Levenson said. “If a 2-year-old is adventurous and over 40 pounds, with parental guidance, they can use our auto belay system.” 

It is what keeps climbers from plummeting to the ground, he added. 

“In a traditional rock climbing gym, if I were climbing, I would need someone at the other end of the rope to belay,” Levenson said. “But at ClimbZone, anyone can walk up to the wall, clip into the hydraulic system themselves, climb as high as they’d like and, when they are ready, release, jump and come back to the ground slowly and safely.”

Climbers between the ages of 2 and 5 cost $12 per three-hour session; climbers ages 6 and up cost $25. 

“We charge a fair rate for our product, and, because of that, we certainly are not going to make you buy a bottle of water from us,” Levenson said. “A lot of family entertainment businesses don’t allow families to bring in their own food because they want them to buy food there. 

“But if you’ve got to buy a piece of pizza from us in order for us to keep the lights on, we have done something terribly wrong in how we not only design and build our walls but also provide service.” 

ClimbZone franchisees, Levenson said, also would rather simplify their focus. 

“What we do really well is create cool walls and treat people well,” he said. “If we focus on those core parameters, we can let the guy down the street who has owned his pizza shop for 20 years deliver pizza to you here. 

“He can focus on what he does well, we can focus on what we do well and guests will have a great experience.” 

The real challenge, Levenson said, will be in switching from operator to franchisor in a relatively short period of time. 

“We opened in November 2014 a crazy-themed climbing facility that no one had ever seen before in this country, and we went from that point to opening franchise locations in just three years,” he said. 

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After opening a second location in Middle River, Maryland, ClimbZone will continue expanding into more high-profile areas, such as Sterling, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Chicago — and New Jersey. 

Another wall, right, with doughnuts and a police officer, entertains and challenges climbers.

“There are many reasons that people like us want to be in New Jersey,” Levenson said. “For one thing, there are a lot of people in a small area, and the median-income levels are good. That works out really well for family entertainment businesses like ours.” 

“And, for another, we also do not find New Jersey to be an unfriendly state for business. In our experience, we have found Maryland to be much more difficult.” 

While an initial investment between $1.9 million and $3.1 million may sound steep, the franchise fee of $40,000, 2 percent marketing fees and 6 percent royalties, are rather low for a family entertainment center. 

It’s just a matter of finding locations with 30-foot clearance heights, Ebstein said. 

However, Ebstein’s partner, Ovadiah Manies, had the right connections, as a manager of multifamily complexes. 

After Manies visited a ClimbZone location with his family, he was hooked, Ebstein said, immediately enlisting Ebstein (his nephew) to pursue a franchise agreement. 

“We live in Lakewood, so we knew there were not currently a lot of family entertainment businesses offered in the area,” Ebstein said.  

Based on the ClimbZone location in Laurel, Maryland, the pair said they had anticipated hiring 30 full- and part-time employees for the location in Howell.  

“But then, one of the employees who works for Five Star Store It — Manies’ father’s storage facility company and our investment partner — knew the point person deciding tenant placement in the American Dream mall,” Ebstein said. “People have had a very difficult time getting into the American Dream mall, and this was practically handed to us.”

That will certainly increase the number of employees for Five Star ClimbZone USA, Levenson said. 

“They are estimating that 40 million people will come through the American Dream mall each year,” he said. “If they see just 1 percent of that volume, they will need closer to 65 employees.”

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Ebstein is not fazed by growth.

In fact, he’s thinking of developing one more location in Burlington County. 

“We never were looking to open a single location and be done with it,” he said. “We wanted to grow the ClimbZone brand, not just in New Jersey, but nationwide.” 

Outside of New Jersey, the partners are considering locations in Miami and Minneapolis. 

“But that is jumping ahead,” Ebstein said. “Right now, we are completely focused on our Howell and East Rutherford locations. 

“Once these facilities are open and established, then we will continue to grow the brand.”

Custom fit

ClimbZone was recently contracted to build a themed wall for the Philadelphia Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park, Keith Levenson, chief operating officer of ClimbZone Franchising, said. 

“We opened it in April at the ballpark,” he said. “They had taken a section and revamped it into what they call The Yard, complete with a whiffle ball field, a baseball pitch, a large replica of downtown Philadelphia and a 20-foot-tall Phillie Phanatic.” 

It could be a possible game-changer for the business, Levenson added. 

“The Philadelphia Phillies wanted to know where we had purchased the walls from, but we own our own 36,000-square-foot production studio in which we design and build the walls ourselves,” he said. “That allows us to customize whatever a product might need to be.” 

A custom-themed wall at the Howell location will feature a celebration of the Jersey Shore, Levenson added.

Conversation Starter

Reach Keith Levenson at: keith@climbzone.us or 410-686-1490.

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3