Reaching New Heights

by Katie Lee

— By Hayden Spiess —

Bouldering gym concept VITAL continues to expand and provide an increasingly climbing-curious population with standout facilities.

When looking for new markets that might be a fit for their brand, the owners of VITAL Climbing Gym, a bouldering concept, seek out locations that are “in the mix and part of people’s lives.” This is somewhat paradoxical with the genesis of the company, which originated during a long and very solitary bike tour more than a decade ago. Co-founder David Sacher recounts that he was alone in Argentina (having started his tour at Prudhoe Bay in Alaska) and struggling through a “windy, slow and tough” stretch when the idea for the first VITAL gym emerged as a sort of exercise in escapism.

California Dreaming

Sacher, who had climbed throughout college with his now business partner, Nam Phan, envisioned “a little climbing gym” with a “very laidback culture,” 24-hour access and a barbecue grill out front — in short, a place where he and his friends could “cook food and hang out and climb.”

In 2010, that dream became a reality with the opening of the first VITAL Climbing Gym in California, where Sacher and Phan attended school. In addition to achieving the atmosphere Sacher envisioned, which he describes as “happy,” “familial” and that of a second home, the facility did indeed (and still does) offer round-the-clock access for members. This is true as well for almost all of the additional subsequent locations, of which there are now seven. These gyms are located in Oceanside, Carlsbad and Murietta in California; Bellingham, Washington; Brooklyn and in the Upper East and West Harlem neighborhoods of Manhattan.

Scaling Up

A new facility will soon join the Manhattan roster — marking the eighth gym overall for the company — following the execution of a lease with Delancey Street Associates, the ownership of Essex Crossing, a sprawling mixed-use development located in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan.

Matt Strombelline, senior associate, development, with Taconic Partners — one of the companies that comprises the joint venture of Delancey Street Associates — says that for Essex’s landlords, VITAL represented the opportunity to add a health-and-wellness component to the development, which features other retail, culture and entertainment tenants including Essex Market, Trader Joe’s and Target, The International Center of Photography, Regal Cinemas and The Gutter bowling alley, in addition to extensive office and residential space.

On the other side of the lease deal, Sacher says that Essex offered a “gorgeous space,” one of the primary considerations when VITAL is looking at potential physical homes for its gyms. “We’d much rather be in an interesting old space with exposed timber and brick than in a new concrete building or metal warehouse,” adds Sacher.

Sacher is excited with the progress made so far on the new location in the Lower East Side. “The space is stunning, with lots of natural light, tall cathedral ceilings and beautiful architecture,” he says. “We are hard at work to make the most of this beautiful space, building the most incredible gym we can.”

CBRE and the Prusik Group brokered the lease on behalf of VITAL and the landlord, respectively, thereby fulfilling another exercise-inspired dream for Sacher, who says that while living in Brooklyn, he would often run across the Williamsburg Bridge, a route which took him by Essex Crossing. Though advised by brokers that finding a space within the mixed-use project was unlikely, he “thought it would be fantastic” and says that he is very excited for the fruition of the new location.

Upon completion, the Essex Crossing gym will total approximately 45,000 square feet, a size similar to that of the company’s Brooklyn space, which spans roughly 46,000 square feet. VITAL operates quite a range of different sizes, with the smallest gym measuring at 2,400 square feet.

“VITAL Lower East Side is similar in size to our Brooklyn location, and will have similar offerings, including climbing, yoga, fitness, cycling and even a cafe,” says Sacher. “This will be the fourth VITAL in NYC, and a membership at any location includes all of our classes as well as access to all of our gyms nationwide.”

Though size may vary substantially amongst the different VITAL locations, one commonality is that in each case, the gyms occupy space on a lease rather than by property ownership. According to Sacher, this has allowed the company to focus on the business and not the real estate side of things.

In addition to dedicated areas for indoor bouldering (a form of rock climbing which involves less substantial heights and is completed with pads but no ropes), VITAL locations also feature more traditional fitness offerings, including free weights and equipment for cardio. Programming at the gyms also includes instruction and classes such as yoga and cycling.

An open workspace is also included in the floorplan for the Essex Crossing location, much like the Brooklyn gym, where Sacher reports that many people “post up” to do homework or even work from the gym.

Brooklyn’s VITAL also features a rooftop café run by a third-party operator, though Sacher says it’s generally preferable to be in the neighborhood of existing food-and-beverage concepts, rather than trying to bring that element within the gym. Accordingly, VITAL does not plan to operate a café at Essex Crossing, though the location will include a kitchen to support events.

Community Through Climbing

Sacher describes bouldering as an inherently “very social way of climbing.” He elaborates that “you can show up, meet friends and work in with strangers,” as opposed to climbing with a single belay partner. VITAL further fosters this sense of community with activation in the form of events ranging from anniversary parties to seasonal celebrations. Though the specific happenings and calendars vary with each location, Sacher notes that one thing is consistently true — VITAL goes all out. Climbing competitions hosted by the gyms are a particular favorite, usually involving lights, decorations and a DJ. Sacher reports these to be the biggest events, observing that they “draw a lot of people.”

The co-founder attributes these crowds in part to the inclusion of advanced competition rounds, which he says are very fun to watch. Crowds are also not surprising in light of the recent growing interest in climbing. The sport has emerged as an increasingly popular pastime, and Sacher notes that there are now many hundreds of climbing gyms around the country.

VITAL plans to continue adding to this network of climbing gyms with its own continued expansion, though the company is not currently disclosing specific plans.

“I can say that the future for VITAL will look very much like the past, where we continue to identify projects that we think are really cool and exciting and try to do our best to build out fantastic gyms in those locations.

“Our goal is to create places that people love, and we hope that by opening in the Lower East Side, we will provide yet another reason to love your neighborhood,” says Sacher. “We are deeply grateful for the hard work from our team and the support of our members. We can’t wait to welcome you to the gym in 2024!”

— This article originally published as the cover story of the December 2023/January 2024 issue of Retail & Restaurant Facility Business magazine. If you are interested in having your retail company profiled on an upcoming cover, please email the editor, Katie Lee, at [email protected].

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