The New Face of Indoor Play
In the lead up to the Family Attractions Expo in Birmingham, the Association talks to industry specialist about the changes it is seeing.
The post-Covid world of Indoor play is proving to be a refreshingly different experience to the benefit of customers and playcentre owners alike. It is an industry that welcomes 60 million children a year yet was the last sector to re-open post-Covid indoor. Play operators courageously embarked on implementing costly radical changes to the way they do business and it has paid off.
Queues and crowds are a thing of the past. Online booking and speedy entry have revolutionised the customer experience and, in some cases, even food, events, classes and activities are bookable in advance in a cinema-like style. It's great for the customer, but it also helps playcentre owners keep entry prices fair thanks to the ability to plan staff ratios in advance and keep costs under tight control while ensuring great customer service.
The biggest change, and challenge, was introducing timed entry slots; with entry queues slashed and guaranteed entry space, as well as the ability to select quieter time slots if desired. It has allowed venues to better manage loyalty schemes and facilitate communication to customers about special events. Prior to online booking, most customers would turn up at the same time (often mid-morning) which resulted in queues on the door and at the café, especially on rainy days. Now venues can manage and spread bookings throughout the day so everyone has a vastly improved experience.
The cleaning and hygiene protocols that the best play venues had perfected before Covid hit were rolled out across the industry in 2020. The Association of Indoor Play (AIP), and its Operator Members pledged to protect customers and staff alike, definitively casting aside the grubby image of softplay.
AIP was formed at the start of the pandemic to save an industry that could have collapsed. It worked up a brand-new set of industry guidelines with the support of Public Health England, with Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam coming to visit one of their venues. They work in consultation with Government Departments and UK Hospitality and their Member venues were offered accreditation with the Visit England/Visit Britain scheme.
The new guidelines reached far beyond masking and social distancing, with levels of hygiene that now impress even the most concerned parent and savviest EHO inspector.
Some new trends have exploded into venues across the UK. One is the rollout of new, interactive play games such as digital interactive climbing walls, interactive floors and speed reaction games. Another is Role Play, whereby children act out everyday scenes from cooking, delivering the mail or fixing cars, all in themed play settings designed in perfect size for little ones to feel at home in. Role play areas are dedicated to early years aged children with resources that nurseries can only dream of. They offer a nurturing, heart-warming and bonding experience between parent and child. There are now a growing number of stand-alone Role Play centres and many have also have been added to large Family Entertainment Centre.
And what should we expect with food? With the help of the AIP and their trade partner, Regency Purchasing Group, many venues used lockdown to give menus a complete facelift improving the quality and speed of service using new technology to offer online booking direct from your table or before your visit.
Who is driving these changes? The indoor play industry is predominantly made up of independent, family-run businesses. Many initially took a big risk to set up their business and their innovation and spirit has shone through to make all these changes at a time when the industry was on the brink of collapse. Rising out of the pandemic are play venues that are vastly improved: cleaner, improved play offerings, less queues and a better experience for children and parents.
The industry is not out of the woods for financial challenges yet. It will take a strong 12 months of trading to even start paying back all the new debt they have had to take on whilst they also mitigate a rise in food costs, VAT, minimum wage and business rates, but the future of play is looking good for children and parents.