In this interview, we spoke with Emily Buckley, Director of Operations at The Cliffs Climbing + Fitness. She is someone who doesn’t do anything by halves and her list of qualifications and accomplishments prove it.
Emily is a Harvard MBA with an undergraduate in Sports and Recreation Administration / Management from the University of New Haven. She is a coach with training and certifications from USA Weightlifting, the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a certified CrossFit coach.
As if that weren’t enough, she is also a Nationally Ranked Olympic Weightlifter and CrossFit games competitor.
But that doesn’t even begin to paint the complete picture. Emily has volunteered in Nicaragua with Habitat For Humanity International, sat as the Gender Equality Chairwoman for the International Functional Fitness Federation and acted as a Steward for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy.
Also an avid rock climber and mountain biker, Emily is as accomplished outdoors as she is at work.
In short, Emily is the real thing — coach, athlete, entrepreneur, community advocate and manager. Somehow, amidst it all, we caught her attention long enough to have her answer a few of our questions.
Read the Interview:
We had the chance to ask Emily about what drives and inspires her. Read on for her thoughts on operations management, maintaining a good life balance, sustainability and the importance of community and inclusiveness when it comes to customer service.
Passion, Commitment and Maintaining Balance
For the past decade, you’ve been working in jobs all over the fitness industry. What sparked your passion for fitness, and what do you love about working in the industry?
What initially drew me to sports and, in turn, fitness, was a thorough enjoyment of physical exertion, the camaraderie formed when you work towards a goal with someone, and a genuine curiosity about what can be accomplished with hard work and discipline.
Over the years, those three aspects have always been incorporated into every job I’ve had, and I don’t foresee that changing. It’s what I love about working in the industry — I love being able to say that I love what I do and that I’m able to do it with relentless passion.
How lucky are all of us that work in the fitness industry, that we are among the few that get to go to work and truly believe in what we’re putting out there into the world? What an amazing opportunity every day.
What operational challenges do you think are unique to the fitness space?
The same passion that drives folks into the fitness industry can be the same passion that prohibits success in it.
As an example, I love to work out every morning, it’s what keeps me sane and able to pour myself fully into tasks for the rest of the day. However, I make sure I create the time to do this. I make time even if that means I wake up early when I’m in back to back meetings all day, or run at 8 pm on a winter night in February, which means I’m up until 11 pm answering emails (true story, this happened tonight).
The fitness space gets a significant amount of interest from former athletes and people who love to work out themselves. At times, there is a misconception that working in fitness means that you just get to work out all day.
Balancing work and play can be a challenge for employees, which usually means difficult conversations for their managers.
Coping with Covid – Challenges Bring Solutions
What changes have you made to your business model since the start of the pandemic?
The key to successfully making it out of this pandemic will depend on the following:
- How well are you able to pivot?
- How can you adapt your business model?
- How can you reimagine your profit centers?
We’ve had to readjust our approach from all angles: sustainability of membership retention, offering outdoor activities, providing curbside retail services, creating online services, and maintaining communication with our community.
We’ve unfortunately also had to navigate heartbreaking layoffs and, ultimately, restructure the org chart to maximize our survival chances and efficiency.
Each week of this pandemic has presented another challenge around the corner. Viewing these challenges as opportunities to learn and keeping our minds open has been our best approach.
What design iterations have your climbing gyms been through to improve your customers’ experiences?
In relation to COVID:
Having gyms in both NYC and Philadelphia, the government requirements were a bit different. Despite this, we kept our approach consistent across the brand. We set out to create an environment that mitigated the risk to the best of our ability.
We already utilize MERV 13 filters at all of our locations, but we also added in hourly cleaning protocols for our staff. In addition, our nightly cleaning crew deep clean and sanitize the gyms. We have PPE for our employees, as well as for customers who come in with a mask that is not CDC approved.
We are operating at limited capacity, we have contact tracing software, and we are providing liquid chalk as opposed to renting chalk bags.
Finally, we have restructured the entranceways to our gyms which now involve directional pathways, temperature checks and health screening questions.
Outside of COVID:
As the climbing industry continues to grow and the sport itself becomes more mainstream, this presents us with the opportunity of having an expanded target market. As we’ve seen this market grow, we realize it’s incorporating a larger demographic than climbing gyms traditionally attract.
Once upon a time, climbing gyms were only frequented by climbers who were training to climb outdoors, and young children’s birthday parties.
Rock climbing has gotten a significant amount of mainstream attention from movies like Free Solo and The Dawn Wall, as well as the announcement of it being in the next Olympics. It has also popped up in many “date night idea” articles.
With increased traffic from a slightly different demographic, we realized there was an opportunity to build high-end gyms with best of class climbing equipment, showers, saunas, retail shops, complete fitness areas, and yoga studios so you only need one all-inclusive gym membership.
As we roll out new gyms, you can expect more than your typical rock climbing gym — an all-inclusive experience where you can climb, take yoga, work out, hit the sauna, shower, and set up your laptop to work remotely and enjoy your day.
Sustainability, Customer Retention and Scalability
What efforts has your business made to operate more sustainably?
As climbers, we care deeply about our planet, how what we’re doing affects it, and making sure that it’s still around for our kids to enjoy.
Over the years, we’ve had many sustainability projects including limiting company paper use, ordering office supplies that are made from recycled materials, upgrading our HVAC systems to require less energy use, supporting brands and companies that have sustainability pledges in our retail spaces, decreasing our plastic concession inventory by 60% and, instead, replacing that with concessions that are packaged with sustainable materials.
We are and will continue to make decisions that will help us become a more sustainable company.
What are some key metrics you follow in order to improve your business model and its processes?
One of the most important metrics we follow is the conversion rate of day pass users to memberships. This conversion rate can tell us quite a bit about the success of our gyms, our teams, and give us insight into how we can provide a better first experience.
If we already have someone interested enough to come in and try us out, we want to know:
How was their first interaction with an employee? Did we set them up for success on their first day? Were they able to find a good balance of both climbing to the top of the wall and also be physically and mentally challenged to the point where it has them craving more? Did we have information available if they are interested in buying a membership? How was their interaction with staff while discussing membership options?
And, possibly the most important question of all — Did they feel welcomed, appreciated, and respected in our facility?
We are a company that strives to foster inclusivity and community, and we can learn a lot about what type of experience we’re providing for people based on studying this conversion rate.
If you had all the resources you could ask for, what is one strategy or solution that you wish you could implement to better grow your business?
I’d love to see us take our expansion efforts into more tier 1 and tier 2 cities across the country, whether this is through an acquisition phase or building more gyms, ourselves. That would be an exciting chapter to write!
Final Words — Accomplishments and Inspiration
What has been your biggest accomplishment in your role as Director of Operations?
I believe we’ve handled the pandemic in regards to our employees with integrity, compassion, humility and vulnerability. That’s something I’m proud of as it was a scary and uncertain time for everyone in the world, and yet at every turn we made the decisions that would best support our employees.
As an operations leader in the fitness space, what advice do you have for someone who is interested in taking on an operations role in your industry?
Be relentless in your work ethic, do the small things right every time. Be kind to everyone you work with, regardless of whether they are above or below you on the org chart. Be vulnerable, allow yourself to ask the hard questions and accept the hard answers.
What are your favorite fitness-related and operations/business-related books?
Do you have a personal motto that you live by?
I don’t officially have a personal motto, but I’ve had the same quote written on my mirror for somewhere around 15 years, and I guess that’s as close as it gets: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”