A Look at Soft Playgrounds

Soft playgrounds can be particularly good for skating centers because they tap into a market segment that stand-alone rinks are challenged to do. Playgrounds can attract the under six crowd. Some families that have both older and younger children avoid visiting facilities that do not offer entertainment to all siblings. Soft playgrounds overcome this objection. Attracting young children does more than just improve a skating center’s current revenue; it can have a long-term impact as well. Marketing research is showing that there are significant benefits to getting customers accustomed to visiting your facility at an early age. The youngsters that are playground customers now return later as skating customers. 

A well-designed soft playground should not only attract young children, it should significantly increase birthday party business. Birthday parties have become a major component of a typical amusement center’s income and installing a first-class playground will go a long way in boosting birthday party sales. As usual, deciding to add a soft playground is just the beginning of your decision making process. There are a variety of playground suppliers to choose from. Each company offers products that are significantly differentiated from each other, and each will try to convince you that theirs is the one you should buy. Since most adults are not playground experts, it only makes sense to do market research to determine which one is the best for your customers. When choosing a soft playground, you basically have the choice between a standard model and a custom designed unit. Standard models typically cost less and may be the route to go if you have very limited space and resources and just want to offer something for the younger children to do. If your goal is to generate long-term profits, then you are probably better off looking at a custom designed playground. 

The first step is to contact soft playground suppliers and have them send an information packet. You can get the names of the companies by doing a search for soft playgrounds by calling trade magazines such as Roller Skating Business or on the Internet. You can even call up the suppliers and ask them for the names of their competitors. If they hesitate to tell you who their competition is, that may indicate how confident they are in their own product. If you go this route, be sure to call several so that you are getting a complete list. Your best source of reliable information about these companies is other skating center owners that have already installed a soft playground. Contact owners and ask them about their experiences. Do they like their playground? Are they getting good service from their supplier? How much money are they making? If you don’t know many rink owners who own soft playgrounds, ask the suppliers you contact to provide you with a list of their installations in skating centers.

I want to take a moment at this point to encourage you to think creatively. Soft playgrounds can be so much more than just a toy you put in a corner. Soft playgrounds are almost unlimited in the ways they can be configured. They can span over game areas or entry ways. They can utilize otherwise nonproductive space above party rooms or offices. Some can even provide entertainment for your seated guests; there are very few limitations. After talking to current owners, you should have an idea of which companies you want to have provide you with a proposal. If your project is going to be new construction, or if you have accurate detailed drawings of your facility, then your playground supplier can work off of your construction drawings. You will need to tell them the areas available for the playground, what your budget is, and any special concerns such as wanting a controlled entry point close to one of your workstations, or whether you want a toddler area. If the playground is for an existing rink and you don’t have highly accurate drawings, it is advisable that you ask the suppliers you are considering to meet with you at your facility.

This is your opportunity to “pick their brains.” Take a few moments to outline your vision of what you would like to create, and to explain what you are trying to achieve. Give the supplier as many alternatives as possible so that they have the latitude they need to get creative. Try not to be too focused on your own ideas, but be receptive to alternatives that you might possibly like better. Do, however, know what you want to achieve, and be sure to communicate those points. Once you have proposals from the suppliers of your choice, it is time to do field research. Many operators feel that they are too busy to actually take time visiting various installations. If you have spoken to several owners andhave a high level of confidence in the advice you have been given, then you might be able to select a supplier without visiting installations. I personally suggest getting the opinions of “real” experts. Take a group of children of various ages to the playgrounds of the suppliers you’re considering. You shouldn’t have too much trouble finding a group of “product testers” willing to volunteer their time. Children are honest and opinionated. They will be very quick to tell you which playground they would prefer to return to. By now you have your proposals and sticker shock may be setting in. Soft playgrounds are expensive. How can you possibly justify spending $70,000, $100,000 or more on a playground?       

The answer is this: The right choice can return many times your actual investment while increasing food, redemption and other profit centers’ revenue as well. The only decision that is truly expensive is picking the wrong playground. Some playgrounds clearly do not generate much revenue, others clearly do. To produce as much revenue as possible, your playground will need to be promoted just like your skating center or any other major attraction. People in your community need to know that you have added a playground so they know where to book their parties and that they can also now bring their younger children to your rink. The supplier you ultimately choose will, in affect, be one of your partners in business for many years to come. It is important that you choose a supplier that you are comfortable with and one that will be responsive to your ongoing needs. Do your homework; you’ll be glad you did.