The Sliding Scale at Tufas

Flashback to In the summer of 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic was changing the way we all lived and the murder of George Floyd moved the country to act in the face of injustice. Here in Philadelphia, the team at Tufas Bouldering Lounge began asking themselves what we could do to create change and support our local community.

From the time the bouldering gym opened in 2018, the founders had a goal to expand access to climbing for anyone who had an interest, regardless of where they came from or their ability to pay. The gym’s owners and staff recognized that climbing often excluded members from marginalized groups and they decided to look at what was in their control to change. How could Tufas create a culture that was more inclusive of all people finding their place in the climbing community?

So with the gym closed by the pandemic, the team met week after week to discuss how they could make a difference. When Tufas reopened to the public in August 2020, they introduced their new idea: the sliding scale.

Every member or visitor was asked to pay what they could afford, allowing higher-income climbers to help subsidize those with lower incomes by paying more than they had in the past. It was a risk, but the Tufas community responded with an outpouring of support that reinforced that this was an idea folks could get behind.

“It was incredible,” general manager Andrew Deming says of the response.

After reaching out to existing members to explain the new pricing model and its purpose, dozens of climbers quickly wrote back to say they would pay the “sustainer” rate – $90 for a monthly membership – so that others could climb at the discounted rate of $60 a month. Some offered to pay even more so their membership fee could help expand access further.

At the time, the pandemic was wreaking havoc on  the economic stability of many people across Philadelphia. Meanwhile, conversations were swirling in the climbing community at large about long-existing barriers facing climbers of color and how the sport could begin welcoming a more representative and diverse group than the mostly white, mostly male climbers who had historically been at its center. The sliding scale sought to address both issues at a local level.

Some members dropped to a discounted rate when money got tight, then returned to the higher rate when their finances stabilized. Others have acknowledged their gratitude to the community that has allowed them to continue as a member in the face of financial uncertainty. And over time, the sliding scale and other Tufas initiatives have been credited with helping diversify the gym and turn more people on to climbing.

“We wanted to do what we could to get more people climbing and really start changing the industry,” Deming says.

Head routesetter Rory Coughlin shared that a sliding scale is not uncommon in other industries. He has been getting acupuncture for years at a business that uses a sliding scale. Mental health practitioners often implement a sliding scale, too. But the team couldn’t find any examples of a U.S. climbing gym doing so until they took the leap.

For a small business that relies on membership fees to stay open – and was working to keep the doors open after being closed for months by the pandemic – variable pricing could have been a disaster. Nonetheless, the gym’s owners and staff trusted that it was the right thing to do, and their members responded.

“We launched the sliding scale at the right time,” Coughlin says, “but we’ve seen continued success because there is a sense of community.”

That sense of community is reinforced by other programs at Tufas that make it a welcoming space for everyone who wants to climb.

Partnerships with local schools and member-supported scholarships give students from the nearby neighborhoods a chance to explore climbing, and members and Tufas regulars serve as inspiration for the sport’s next generation. Additionally, BIPOC and Pride Night meet-ups have provided a welcoming space for hundreds of climbers seeking community among Tufas’ boulders. On those nights, the membership sliding scale is introduced as an incentive and initiation fees are waived to encourage new members to help continue to break climbing’s traditional mold.

The sliding scale is at the center of it all.

“Once people are interested, it allows them to have continued access when they otherwise might not,” Coughlin says.

Beyond the Tufas community, the idea is catching on. Deming and Coughlin say they’ve fielded calls from several gyms and other businesses that want to know how Tufas has made it work.

At the Denver Jewish Community Center, program manager Daniel Siegel was thinking about whether he could apply a sliding scale to the programming and events he runs, in hopes of breaking down any financial barriers keeping people away. As a climber himself, his research brought him to Tufas as an example of one business doing just that. After learning about the gym’s success with the sliding scale, he instituted one as well. He’s watched as new faces come in the door – and then keep coming back once they’ve found community.

Siegel is enthusiastic about Tufas’ mission to do what it can to make an impact in the climbing community.

“Climbing needs to diversify,” Siegel says. “We can’t just think climbing should only be a space for people who have access to wealth. We have to make sure climbing – and specifically gyms – can be a place where everyone feels welcome, and you need to make sure there’s an economic mechanism behind that.”

Nearly three years since it launched, the sliding scale is entrenched as a part of Tufas’ identity. It’s among the first things a climber sees when they walk in the door – an immediate acknowledgment that climbing can and should be for everyone, regardless of income.

“We want Tufas to be a place where anyone can learn and grow as a climber and a person,” Deming says, “and the sliding scale has helped us make that a reality.”