Boosting Your Setting Program: 3 tips for commercial head setters

Everybody working as a setter in the indoor climbing industry faces resource constraints. Whether it's your roster, a meagre hold budget, or limitations around not setting during opening hours. It's tough. Particularly for a small gym with a limited setting budget, it can seem impossible to make progress and expand your routesetting resources. Here is a simple concept, and a few practical tips and cheap ways to boost your setting program without breaking the bank.

The central concept to remember when it comes time to justifying an increase in your overall setting budget, is to focus on providing value.

Not to yourself, but to the customers and, by extension, to the gym operator. It often seems like a bit of a artistic faux pas to talk about monetary value in the context of route setting, but understanding the way in which you provide value to the facility you work for is key to expanding your setting program.

you need to find ways to increase the quality of your product, and to see this quality be reflected in increased engagement with the customers in your gym

Simply put, you need to find ways to increase the quality of your product, and to see this quality be reflected in increased engagement with the customers in your gym. Engagement in this context simply means getting customers talking about climbs in the gym, and better understanding the route setting process.

Communicate to the climbers

I've said this before, and I'll keep saying it: communicate to the people who are consuming your product. I don't necessarily mean literal, face to face chatting about route setting (although this is important), but communicating in the sense of ensuring the people who use your product understand it. By analogy, think about food. The more you understand about the process of cooking, and of how much effort the chef went to with preparing a meal, the more likely you are to appreciate it on a deeper level. Route setting is no different.

communication builds engagement, and engagement drives value up

It's so easy for route setters and enthusiastic, long-time climbers to forget what it is like to be a newer climber, or a first time visitor at a gym. Here's a tip: the vast majority of new climbers have no idea that the routes in a climbing gym are even changed, let alone any idea of the process and hard work that is involved in designing climbs, and they're not going to understand it, and then engage with it, unless you are able communicate it effectively to them.

It might be as simple as having your route setters work on the floor and chat to climbers, it might be through setting videos, or social media – the principle is the same: communication builds engagement, and engagement drives value up.


Anyone who's been to a climbing competition will attest to the infectious atmosphere they create. Unfortunately, running a big competition is a time consuming, logistical nightmare, that rarely sees great financial returns. Fortunately, not all comps need to be this way.

Try running mini-competitions utilising your existing route setting schedule. Let's say you regularly set 15 boulder problems every second Friday at your gym. Do some promotion in the preceding week, and instead of simply opening the set to the public as normal, take an extra half hour to devise some sort of basic scoring system and competition format, then have a setter or two stay behind for an hour to co-ordinate a mini comp with the climbers who are eager to get on the new set. A few tokenistic prizes (lollies, free drinks) is all you need. Not only does it increase customer engagement with your product for next to no extra cost, it allows your setters to gain important real-time feedback by talking to climbers and watching them try the new problems.

Ensure you are meeting the needs of your customers

What if you're doing everything I've mentioned, and yet there still doesn't seem to be a buzz about the routes or problems in your gym? You can have world class marketing consultants advertising your route setting program, but if your product sucks, it's not going to matter. Not only do you need to ensure that the quality of your route setting is high, but you need to ensure that you are meeting the needs of your customer base. What's the difference?

When we're talking about quality, we're talking on the level of individual routes and problems. We're referring to things like the flow, the hold use, the aesthetics, and the movement. If we're talking about meeting the needs of a customer base, then we're talking on a bigger, macro scale. About things like grade distribution, wall density, usability of your grading systems, safety, comfort, etc.

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To demonstrate the difference, let's imagine we are the head setter in a gym that has a single 25 metre lead wall. On it, we set 4 men's final ISFC World Cup lead routes. The hold use is sublime, the difficulty is consistent, the movement is varied, they look awesome, and they feature the latest shapes from the world's best hold manufacturers. The quality of these routes would be exceptionally high, and yet, to set your gym up in this way would be a commercial disaster. You would completely fail to meet the needs of your customers - very few climbers could get off the ground, and you can forget about your casual market.

It's unlikely that you've made such a drastic error as this at your facility, but you may well have made mistakes of the same kind. If you're confident in the quality of your routes, zoom out, look at the big picture, and ensure that you are providing a product that meets your customers needs.