Jean-Marc de la Plante is involved with four climbing gyms in four provinces in Canada. From the east to west coast, his efforts have helped create fun indoor climbing spaces for thousands of Canadians.
He has long been involved with Allez Up in Montreal and his second gym was Seven Bays Bouldering in Halifax.
In 2016, he became co-owner of BoulderHouse Climbing in Victoria and in January of this year and with Tour de Bloc’s Luigi Montilla, Up the Bloc in Mississauga opened.
We touched base with de la Plante at his home in Montreal earlier this year.
What was the first climbing gym you climbed in? I first tried climbing in 1998, I was 16 years old.
My neighbour who was a few years younger than me convinced me to try rock climbing at Allez Up one afternoon during summer break. His mom drove us down to the gym and we got belayed by Ryan for an hour.
I fell in love with it instantly. The climbing was cool, more so was the atmosphere and the sense of culture that was there. It was a day that changed my life.
Did you ever compete? I love competing in climbing, however I have never done so very seriously.
One of my favourite anecdotes is sometime in the early 2000s I went to a competition in Burlington, Vermont and somehow made finals, finding myself in isolation with Chris Sharma, which makes me sound really cool.
Talk about the four gyms you’re involved in. Right now I am involved in four gyms. Here they are in order of size: Allez Up in Montreal. For me this is the flagship gym that aims to be the best all-around climbing gym in the country.
Up the Bloc in Mississauga is a dedicated bouldering gym in Partnership with Luigi Montilla who owns and runs Tour de Bloc, Friction and Bouldering Canada.
This gym is designed with competitions in mind (wouldn’t expect less from the owner of Tour de Bloc) and is shaping up to be a contender for best gym in the GTA (in my humble opinion). BoulderHouse Victoria and the smallest is Seven Bays Bouldering in Halifax.
A question people often ask me is why the different names for all the gyms? Why not focus on one Brand? My response to that goes back to that first day I walked into Allez Up.
What made me fall in love with Allez Up in the first place was this amazing sense of ownership that the clients and the staff had of the place. A climbing gym has the potential to be a thriving, solid community and I just don’t believe that in the long run can be achieved with a national chain. It’s just not the right feel.
Both these new ventures have their own brand identity and are run by a local partner/shareholder who really sets the tone of the gym to what they want. This is not a model you learn in business school, but I think it suits the climbing world nicely.
Another thing people often inquire about is, while everyone else is boasting bigger and bigger gyms, why am I building smaller and smaller gyms? I’d rather keep them guessing for now.
Do you build your gyms with comp climbing in mind? Always. Even though comps are two to three days a year, to me they are an essential part of building a good community. It’s important to think about them when you design a gym.
What has been one of the hardest parts of opening a new gym? The reality is, when you are constantly doing projects, sometimes you fail.
You can work really hard and succeed at something but it is often at the expense of something else: A missed opportunity, a friendship that goes cold, or a project that gets abandoned.
For me the hardest thing has been learning to balance all these projects and still having a family life, climbing and remembering why I think building gyms is so fun.
Will you be opening more gyms? I hope to build more gyms yes. I would like to expand each brand regionally. Right now there are a few projects I am starting to lay the groundwork for, but first I have to work with my partners to get BoulderHouse and Up the Bloc up to cruising speed.
What is your favourite part of owning climbing gyms? I love design, I love solving problems and I love how much people enjoy the final product. I also like challenging people’s perception of the limits of climbing.
When I hear pessimistic gym owners tell me “climbers are cheap” I just shake my head. No man, just like anything else, people are willing to pay for quality and atmosphere.
I am so thankful to be part of an emerging industry that I am passionate about. It’s a very good feeling.
Do you think the growth of the gym climbing industry will continue for the next two, five, 10 and 20 years? I won’t pretend to know the answer to that question.
All I can say is, climbing has an immense potential if we can avoid the classic mistakes some sports make.
I had the privilege to have Tonde Katiyo on our team for two years and he had an expression that I think says it all, “Don’t dumb down climbing.”