PlaySmart Playgrounds Deliver BIG Value to Small Markets

As seen in June 2002 9th Family Fun Edition

Expandable playlands are an integral part of a family fun center, no matter what the size.

Families seek the same kinds of entertainment whether they live in a big metropolitan area or small town America. PlaySmart Inc. of Sedalia, Mo., recognizes that fact and has developed a business model particularly suited to smaller FECs.

The beauty of the model is that it includes all the desired elements, from food to games, and neatly fits into small fun centers from 6,000 square feet up to 12,000 square feet. The highlight of the model is the PlaySmart playground that is expandable and can grow along with the facility by the simple addition of new elements, or "events."

Those events are activities, such as trolley rides, that set the playground apart from a traditional tube arrangement play area. PlaySmart events are made of web strapping for a soft, impact-absorbing surface easy on little feet or bigger feet (as in adults, who are encouraged to participate with their kids).

The president of PlaySmart, explained the evolution of this model: "We looked for historical information on what was profitable going back as far in time as we had statistics. What we found was that games were consistent performers, as well as food, and that birthday parties seemed to be an up-and-coming thing that was setting a track record and doing very well."

The president of PlaySmart, explained the evolution of this model: "We looked for historical information on what was profitable going back as far in time as we had statistics. What we found was that games were consistent performers, as well as food, and that birthday parties seemed to be an up-and-coming thing that was setting a track record and doing very well."

Before going further, we have to ask price, since million-dollar facilities spring to mind. More is heard about mega FECs than small- to mid-size fun centers. He assures that opening a center using the PlaySmart business model can be done for just a little over $300,000.

He credits the success of the model to PlaySmart's playground that features unique equipment that focuses on group activities instead of a one-dimensional trail. "It's a significantly more complex playground than others," he said. "When you have a trail-oriented playground, after the child has explored it several times it is the same experience. Our playground focuses on interaction among the children so they have a different experience every time.

"One of the primary things is we give children room to play as they normally do, standing up. Your can easily see the children in our playground. They can play tag, chase, or make up any number of games. There are large activity areas where children can congregate and play together."

He challenges conventional thinking that a town of 40,000 to 70,000 citizens cannot support a first-class FEC. Good things do come in small packages, according to the current president, who has installed successful soft playgrounds from 800 square feet to 1,200 square feet in this business model.

He added, "We have been finding out for the last several years that smaller demographic areas are just starving for this kind of entertainment. As word has spread of the success of this model, we have been opening them at a more rapid pace and every one is reporting above projected earnings." The proof is in the long-term performance, which is being proven in facilities like Going Bonkers, The Great Escape, and Leo's Place. Quincy, Ill. (Population 45,000)

Going Bonkers opened Dec. 15, 2000, in time for the Christmas vacation. Proprietor Rich Houseweart, his wife, and another couple researched the project for about two years. They attended trade shows and small business courses. The Housewearts own other small businesses and had a good idea of what was involved in starting a new venture. Interactive events are a highlight of the playground at Going Bonkers.Houseweart said, "We took a very good look at the demographics, income levels, and the surrounding area to see what was available for the kids. We found a lot of sports-related activities but not much for families to do together. That led us to the design of the facility, which is fun for the entire family." The fun center is fully handicap-accessible with lifts to the second floor. Wristbands are used for security reason.

The facility encompasses 12,000 square feet indoors. There is a full-service restaurant0602FF-Playsmart4.gif with homemade pizzas, an attached frozen custard shop (Kazooz's), quiet room for parents and grandparents, extra-clean bathrooms with automatic faucets and separate changing room for babies, video arcade with 45-50 games (70 percent redemption), and redemption counter with prizes that go from a value of two points up to 6,000 points. Redemption prizes, which are changed weekly, range from trinkets and candy to lava lamps and small electronics .

The main attraction is the soft playground that goes from the ground up to the 28-foot-high ceiling and runs around the perimeter of the building on two levels. Restaurant seating is in the middle, which allows parents to watch the kids at play. Houseweart said, "We did not want a box design for our playground. By spreading the playground out it allows the kids to move in a bigger area. The downside is it added to the cost of the facility."

He continued, "We were very fortunate. The initial plan has worked better than expected. We were above all our projections. We were obviously busier the first three months, but we have a huge draw and are not seeing a slowdown in business, which surprised us."

Birthday parties are big at Going Bonkers. There are three individual rooms with accordion doors that slide back into the wall to accommodate anywhere from 15 to 50 people. Parents can bring in a cake or the center will get it for them from a local bakery. Something different at Going Bonkers is the option of birthday cookies, which is less wasteful and saves money. Party packages include the party room, tokens for the arcade, and pizza.

What factors contributed to the success of Going Bonkers? According to Houseweart, in addition to the facility itself, which is well known to families with children aged three to 14, college students have discovered the facility and are booking it for alternative alcohol-free parties. There are three community colleges in the area and one four-year college.

Houseweart has just completed an expansion to the playground with an additional bridge and alternate path. The facility has been so successful that he has been formulating a franchise plan that he expects to launch in mid- or late summer. "We have the building design, the model, the manpower requirements, and the computer system worked out," he said. "We have gone through several phases and have it well defined now. We plan to make it available in blocks to make it flexible in size to suit a variety of markets."

How did Houseweart and his associates pick the name Bonkers? Simple. "We have five children between us. One day my wife said, 'The kids are driving me bonkers today!' We took it from there."

The Great Escape
Cleveland, Tenn.
(Population 70,000)

Dewayne Williams, who owns the 21,000-square-foot Athens Skate Center in nearby Athens, Tenn., recognized the need for an FEC in neighboring Cleveland and opened his 6,000-square-foot fun center in time for Thanksgiving 2001. The Great Escape is in a unique location, in the Bradley Square Mall, which Williams describes as "a community place where everyone goes on a somewhat regular basis."

There are additional advantages to being in a mall. As Williams explained: "We looked at other locations. What attracted us to the mall are the convenience (no complex directions needed), free advertising to mall traffic, the flexibility of hours, and especially being in the nucleus of where everything is. Some people say they want to be off the beaten path; I believe in being right in the mix."

He said he is asked all the time, "Don't you wish you could have a bigger space?" "Of course, you could always use more space," he said. "The trade-off is, we could have obtained bigger space elsewhere but we would not have seen the traffic. "

Williams will take the traffic anytime. Here's what keeps customers coming back: The Great Escape 's 18-foot high by 20-foot wide PlaySmart playground, 1,000-square-foot party room (called The Party Escape), 10 redemption games, and a food court area that features pizzas made in-house using the Pizzas of Eight program. Williams said, "We chose Pizzas of Eight for our pizza vendor through research. The flexibility of what we could do and the package put together for us was the final selling point."

The most popular events on the playground are the slides. Williams said, "PlaySmart makes the best slide in the industry--very quick, with no tubes to go through. We prefer an open-air play space where the children can be seen. Plus, the temperature factor inside those tubes is hot and humid and you don't know what's going on inside. Parents like it because it's soft on the knees and everything is very play-friendly, so friendly that parents often go inside, too. Parents can stand up straight on the second level of our playground."

Right away Williams saw the need for more party space, which is located on the side of the playground. Presently two parties can be hosted in an hour on a Saturday; he would like to be able to do three or four, depending on the day of the week. Williams is about to get that much-needed extra space soon. The mall has noticed an increase in its flow of traffic this past season and has given him approval to make a renovation and add more space by building outward.

The Great Escape offers a safe and secure play space and something extra: a child-sitting service for children aged seven to 12. A playground monitor watches the children while they play; tokens and a snack are part of the service. Parents get a pager that makes them accessible anywhere in the mall. "Parents can go shopping or have an adult dinner while we take care of the children for a few hours," said Williams. Williams did extensive research while planning The Great Escape. Having been in the roller skating business since 1982 as management, then owner, he was able to convert his knowledge of operating that facility over to the FEC side. He had a good working relationship with the local coin machine operator and traveled to amusement facilities within a 200-mile radius to get a feel for what kids were playing the most. Williams said, "We have good games, and they all are expected to make a certain amount per week to stay there."

The Great Escape and the Athens Skate Center are 35 miles apart but the opportunity to promote the two has not escaped Williams, who plans to have cups made bearing the names of both centers. "We want to let customers know that if they like the service at one location, they will like it at the next facility," he said.

Leo's Place
Idaho Falls, Idaho
(Population: 50,000)

There is nothing else like Leo's Place in Idaho Falls. The 12,000-square-foot indoor fun center features a 1,400-square-foot playground that runs 16 feet high and offers three levels of fun. In addition, 1,000 square feet of space is set aside for games (70 percent redemption); a well-stocked redemption counter with prizes ranging from one ticket value up to 6,000 tickets; and a restaurant that serves pizza, salads, specialty sandwiches, and more, and provides a spot where parents can view their children at play.

Owner Leo O'Ryan said Leo's Place came from "a desire to provide something for the kids to do so the parents can relax." He accomplished that goal when he opened Leo's Place July 10, 1999. He went heavy with redemption games because, as he put it, "There's something about winning. With redemption, everyone gets something." What make this place special? "The playground is my calling chard," said O'Ryan. He points to its amenities: slides and crossover bridges, bungee horses, and the knarly forest (all elastic and a hoot to play in). It's interactive and parents can play with their children. O'Ryan said, "It's a lot of fun. I've gone in there with my kids and played games. It's a really good playground." There's also a bonus when parents tag along. "If you see a parent in there you are more apt to behave," he said. O'Ryan liked the PlaySmart playground because it was not set up to be tubular. "It's enclosed in a net, and it's sturdy," he said. "With tubes, as a business owner, I would not know what kids were doing inside a tube. I like the idea that it's open so I can control the environment. Plus, it's good for the kids because they use their muscles; they are not just crawling on their hands and knees." "Seventy percent of my customers have children and come in for the playground and to have a little entertainment," said O'Ryan. "They want an affordable fun experience." That also translates to the birthday parties, which include a playland pass, 10 tokens, two slices of pizza, and soda for a bargain: $4.95 per child. An ice cream parlor offers 50-cent sundaes.

O'Ryan knew he would have to offer more than one attraction to keep customers happy. "One other place had games only and did not last," he said. "Much of the success of the business is built around the playland. If I had not gone in with a playground, I don't think I would be as successful as I am." That success meant adding on to the playland area six months ago. O'Ryan is looking into putting another Leo's Place in Pocatello, 50 miles north, with a larger playland. O'Ryan summed up his philosophy: "You have to be fair to the consumer all the time. Families, whether they are minimum wage or wealthy, all want their kids to have fun. It doesn't have to cost a fortune. When the kids have fun, mom and dad are heroes for a couple of days."

For more information on PlaySmart playgrounds, call (800)940-7529 or (660)829-0523; fax (660)829-0526; Web site (

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