The pandemic pushed FEC operator and AIP Committee Chair Janice Dunphy into a big decision, opening up new business opportunities
Janice Dunphy, Managing Director of the Web Adventure Park in York, United Kingdom, started the pandemic with one kind of business and ended up with quite another—one that has tripled in size and increased profits.
Dunphy first opened a 10,000-square-foot indoor family entertainment center (FEC) called Creepy Crawlies in 2004. Since then, the destination—and her ambitions—have grown. Dunphy doubled the indoor space. She added outdoor play facilities, including two high ropes courses, water and sand play areas, and an animal zone. She also introduced a children’s nursery.
By 2020, the business was ticking along nicely with around 250,000 visitors a year.
“We’d just spent a quarter of a million pounds on new additions inside,” says Dunphy. She had invested in a sensory area for babies and a new eatery , and she planned to complete a £65,000 Ninja obstacle course before lockdown on March 23.
“It was a worrying time,” she adds.
After closing the FEC’s doors and furloughing workers, Dunphy worked round the clock, mucking out animals and checking on staff. People kept calling to ask her to open the outside area.
“We knew we could open, but we wouldn’t get enough footfall,” Dunphy says. “It would cost us more than we would save.”
Then, while being filmed by a BBC Panorama crew for a “Businesses on the Brink” documentary, she had a lightbulb moment. “We needed something to make our outside area more attractive,” she says.
Dunphy called John Lowery, director of operations at Events by Cynosure, who manages leisure events and funfair attractions.
“I said, ‘Can you bring in some rides? We’ll do an event, and you’ll get a percentage of the ticket.’ That’s how it started,” she explains. “John would bring in different rides every month or so, and we would change up the offering.”
The team hurriedly made space for the new attractions. With the indoor FEC facing frequent closures, Dunphy says having the rides and outside spaces saved them.
So, Dunphy was determined to save Christmas too. “I said, ‘I am having Father Christmas, and the kids are seeing him,’” she says. Still, building a grotto with no budget was no easy feat.
“We were walking around forests, cutting down branches,” Dunphy recalls. She salvaged medium density fiberboard from climbing wall offcuts and created a gazebo where Father Christmas could give distanced greetings.
“It was fantastic when it was finished,” Dunphy says. “We were the only attraction in York that opened for Christmas.”
When the indoor FEC had to close, she brought in actors and created an outdoor winter festival.
An Emotional Roller Coaster
Right before the October 2020 school holidays, Dunphy caught COVID-19. “Thank God, I sailed through it with just a little discomfort,” she says. “The only thing that COVID-19 gave me was 10 days of rest.”
The lockdowns gave her breathing space to work on the business.
Dunphy, who helped found the Association of Indoor Play (AIP) at the start of the pandemic, was taking weekly calls from colleagues in tears who had lost everything.
“We’ve lost 15-20% of FECs in the U.K. that we know about,” she says. “I turned to the team and said, ‘We can’t live like this for the future. We don’t know how long this pandemic is going to be around. So, we’ve either got to go for it, or accept defeat and die.’” According to Dunphy, the park needed a “defibrillator.”
“We’d taken a CBIL loan (Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan), and I was thinking, ‘Should we keep what money we have safe in a bank account or spend it on a huge expansion?’”
Dunphy was inspired by her grandmother, whom she had lost to COVID-19.
“She’d say, ‘Pull your finger out and get on with it.’ I thought, ‘I’m 54, I’m never going to get this opportunity again,’ so we did. It was a leap of faith, but I’ve always been somebody who believes you’ve got to invest every year.”
So began an “exhausting, exhilarating, scary, ridiculously exciting” project to transform the park by July 24, 2021.
Seeing Through a Successful Expansion
The Web Adventure Park now has a new outdoor amusement park with 12 rides, including York’s only roller coaster, a Venetian double carousel, and a 1932 Helter Skelter (unlimited rides are included in the ticket price). There’s a new animal area, an events space, two marquees, a children’s entertainer, a mini-golf course, a new entrance, extra food facilities, the Ninja indoor obstacle course, and an Obie interactive game wall. “We’re giving this park what it’s always deserved,” Dunphy says.
She spent every penny wisely.
“I was on a digger all day helping, so we’ve done it frugally,” she says, adding that new rides are coming, including a juvenile wheel and electric jeeps. “The landlord’s right behind us, and we’ve got 42 acres to work with. We want to keep building and improving.”
Having done the expansion at breakneck speed, Dunphy aims to make sure everything that has been started looks great. Staff training is another priority. Dunphy wants guests to have “first-class service and an amazing experience” to match the higher ticket prices.
“We’re putting on some pretty pricey events,” she says. Seasonal offerings include a Halloween celebration and a Christmas Festival.
Increased fees are making the Web Adventure Park a more profitable business.
“August was triple what we normally take; we were doing 1,000-1,200 people a day,” says Dunphy. “We don’t have a massive marketing budget, so we need word of mouth. We want people to have a great time and come back again.”
She’s keen that the lessons learned during lockdown—looking after your team, cost control, prebooking, online ordering, and cleanliness—aren’t forgotten.
Birthday party bookings are also recovering, with people even having half-year birthdays for their children. But Dunphy believes that “the keys to recovery lie in the government’s hands.” She wants value-added tax for attractions frozen at 12.5%. She also believes in keeping reserves.
“We will always make sure that we have enough to survive,” she says.
The healing power of play for children, parents, and communities is the message Dunphy wants FECs worldwide to share.
“The parents who’ve always been to us are coming back,” she says, “but we need to show new parents the benefits too