Indoor Soft Play Centres: No Ball Pit to Break the Fall

indoor soft play centre ball pit

Written by Chris Sharman

Chris Sharman is Co-Founder and Chief Marketing Officer for Topodium Group.

July 27, 2020

A weekend of rainy weather across the country has added more salt in the wounds for owners of indoor soft play centres, as we enter into another week with no information on when they can reopen their doors. As reported by the BBC, soft play is heading for a cliff edge and there is no ball pit to break the fall.

This weekend marked the reopening of indoor gyms and trampoline parks as they now start their very real fight to regain customers, engage membership, drive revenue and stay in business. As for indoor soft play owners, they now sit alongside nightclubs as one of the final business sectors to be allowed to reopen by the government, with a number of centres closing their doors for good in the last three weeks.

As a previous owner of two indoor soft play centres, it’s truly devastating to see friends and former colleagues in a position where many are likely to have to close their businesses before being allowed to reopen due to an inability to cover the ongoing costs of simply keeping closed. The industry is ready to reopen and reopen with a strict regime of cleaning and social distancing measures which in many instances have cost thousands of pounds to implement at a time where money isn’t coming in.

Last week saw representatives from the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions join forces with owners from indoor soft play centres across the country, many in well-known mascot costumes which centres use as important marketing tools, descend on 10 Downing Street to raise awareness of their #RescueIndoorPlay campaign and hand in a petition, which so far has the support of over 25,000 signatures. Is it however too little too late for an industry that seems to have been forgotten by the government in recent weeks.

Why are Indoor Soft Play Centres important?

Indoor soft play centres are at the heart of many local communities. They are the safe and fun place for kids to run-off steam, for parents to get some much needed social time with friends, and the location for important memories and celebrations with thousands of children’s birthday parties each week. They host invaluable pre and post natal classes, parent groups, after school activity clubs, weight-watcher programmes and much, much more. More than that, they provide kids with a non-sports focused way of keeping active. After the government’s recent comments on turning the attention to obesity and the health of the nation, how will the rapidly growing number or indoor soft play centres needing to close their doors be seen (or not) as part of a coordinated solution?

The indoor soft play business is a tough one. The roads aren’t paved with gold and typically it’s become a lifestyle business for independent operators who make up most of the 1,100 centres, employing circa 30,000 people across the country.

Indoor soft play centres had to close in late March and like most business sectors have been hibernating until guidelines on reopening are released by the government. They missed being open in the crucial Easter and May Half Term Holidays, where owners pray for rain in order to drive revenue.

The summer months are usually quieter, though with an increase in staycations due to travel anxieties and restrictions, the start of the summer holidays this week could have seen an unusually busy and hugely important 6-weeks.

The autumn and winter is all about boosting the bank balance whilst it’s cold, wet and dark, ready for the quieter summer months where families are spending time outside and on holiday. Many centres will lose money in the summer months but will hope to recoup in the winter to provide the cash flow needed to see through another year.

The last few years have seen the sector diversify in order to grow; many centres have expanded to offer day nurseries which provide consistent year-round revenue, or outdoor play and farm parks to ensure that revenue stays high even on the hottest of days. The Partyman Group and their successful Marsh Farm brand have been a great example over the past few years of diversifying in order to not only grow but also to expand into one of the very few chains operating in the sector. They are currently one of the biggest chains with 17 sites.

Support for Indoor Soft Play Centres is crucial

It’s been a few years since I’ve operated in the sector, however I still wake up on summer days like today and although I don’t pray for rain now, I fully appreciate how important seasonal business is to the sector and just how much industries will be disrupted by recent events. After all, a wet weekend in the summer can be the difference between a few hundred pounds in the bank or a few thousand!

Unlike gyms and most other businesses where chains are commonplace, indoor soft play is built up of predominantly independent business owners who need our support more than ever to help raise awareness for the #RescueIndoorPlay campaign, and when they are able to reopen, to go and use the centres and give a little something back to a much needed staple in your local community.

Topodium Kids provides strategic consultancy and training for professionals working with children and young people in the sports and physical activity sectors. Check out our services and get in contact if there’s any way we can help you and your business thrive.

This article was written by Chris Sharman, Co-Founder at Topodium Group.

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