INDOOR PLAY CENTRE

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When my children were young, our local shopping centre decided to expand to include an entertainment precinct. My sister in law and I saw an opportunity to start an indoor play centre to service all the young families in the region.

This business venture was totally outside our realm of experience as I had previously worked in advertising and marketing and my sister in law was a solicitor. Having said that, we both had small children and had visited many play centres and so we knew what appealed to us as parents and what pleased our children.

We created ‘Fair Play Café’, with fairground themed play equipment. We also hoped the name would direct kids to play fairly with each other! We designed the centre from scratch and sourced equipment from overseas. We were determined to ensure the equipment was kept clean, as we had visited many centres where we were concerned for our children’s health as they sucked on dirty balls and slid down grubby slides.

We incorporated a ball-cleaning machine into our ball pit, where the kids could feed the colourful plastic balls into the clown’s mouth. After being cleaned, the balls would whizz around in clear pipes above the kid’s heads then periodically the balls would rain down on top of the kids. This fun activity was helping to keep the environment clean for the kids. To ensure every ball got washed, once a week we had a staff member put every ball through the machine then they would vacuum and mop the floor. It’s amazing the things we found in the ball pit – lots of hairclips, plastic jewellery, coins and little action figures.

Having small kids, we thought it was an ideal business, as we could take our kids to work with us. They were happy to play whilst we reviewed the running of the business. The only problem was that my then two year old became a bit territorial. She started to tell other kids this was her playground and let them know whether she wanted them to play there or not. I had to make the decision to leave her with her grandparents when I went to work so that she wouldn’t upset the paying customers, as she wasn’t following the ethos of playing fairly!

I believe the business model of our business was sound, but we found it hard to succeed in a large shopping centre as our rental was so high. We also never had the passing customer traffic that was predicted when we signed our lease. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when our landlord decided to put a free playground at our front door. They tried to infer this would help our business, but realistically, who is going to pay for play when you can get it for free?

We entered into a David and Goliath battle against our landlord and eventually were allowed to get out of our lease. The whole experience was draining, so we chose to sell our business rather than relocate.

I don’t regret having the indoor play centre as I was proud of what we created, plus it provided a great learning curve and was a good experience to have when my kid’s were young. The business is still running today under its new owners who moved it into a warehouse space, which is where it should have been in the first place!

The way our landlord dealt with us wasn’t, in my opinion, Fair Play, but I gain satisfaction knowing that a generation of local kids got enjoyment out of our fairground themed play centre.

(Photo courtesy of kongski, freedigitalphotos.net)

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