Soft Play-Here to Stay

As seen in January/February 2002
Roller Skating  Volume 2/Issue 1

Soft Play—Here to Stay
By: Dick Mason

 Jack Pentes, owner of Pentes Design, wrote an article for the RSA in the mid-90s; most of it was concerned with the question, “Is soft play here to stay?” I can honestly say in 2002, that I still share the belief with Pentes that it is here to stay. Officially, the correct terminology is “soft-contained play.” However, many people refer to them as soft modular playgrounds or just soft play. Admittedly, in the mid-90s, soft modular playgrounds were definitely in their “heyday.” There were 15 to 20 companies producing them for every entrepreneur that wanted to jump on the Family Entertainment Center (FEC) bandwagon. Now, just because they were in their “heyday” I am not advocating that every skating center needs to install a soft playground. I speak with many rink owners—a diverse group of people—in the course of my daily business. Some small, hometown businesses have happily existed for decades and do not feel they need to add a playground. For example, Sara Wheeler’s, owner/operator of Wheeler Skating Rink in Cookeville, Tenn., family has owned a rink for years. They love it and it is doing just fine. Am I going to tell Wheeler that she must have an indoor playground to survive? I think not.

There are many reasons to feature a soft modular playground at your rink. First, everyone knows that birthday parties are one of the most important business components of a successful rink. If local competition is stealing some of your birthday business and you learn that their package includes time on a playground, then you may want to consider one. Here is another reason to employ a soft modular playground: imagine you are building an expensive new facility in a certain area and you want to do everything in your power to discourage other businesses from coming in and competing with you. In this case, you would probably want a soft playground as part of your product mix. A third reason revealed itself during my phone conversations with rink owners. The recurring theme that I kept hearing was, “We thought that we were missing out on the youngest age group. Our soft playground has brought them to us.”

One rink owner who has had a soft playground the longest is J.A. Phillips of Skate Castle in Decatur, Al. Although his facility has always had a reputation for actively pursuing the business of two-to-six-year-olds, Phillips wanted to offer them more. He added a playground in 1994 where a little-used practice rink was located and brought in dozens of Roller Racers®. “We were not doing three-year old birthday parties. Now we do a lot of them,” said Phillips. “The daycare centers come in twice a week and we do six to ten private sessions per week. In the summer, that increases with camp business. During some of these “tot sessions,” no one ever puts on skates. They just ride the Roller Racers® and play in the soft playground. I love to get them A soft modular playground may increase birthday party sales, as well as draw the two-to-six-year-old crowd. Today, the FEC craze has followed the typical growth curve of any “new frontier” business, and the strongest companies have survived. The result is that there are probably only six to eight companies remaining that build soft modular playgrounds. (Personally, I am very familiar with most of these companies and can state with confidence that they are all good companies with whom to do business.) Space Requirements and Complexity I tell people that a 16-foot-by-28-foot footprint is a nice size for a small playground. Playgrounds are typically for two-to-twelve-year-olds. As the industry has matured, so has the sophistication incorporated into soft modular playgrounds. Innovations include interactive sound and light packages with laser trip mechanisms. Some playgrounds even feature computers on which children can play.

Cost
This stuff is expensive. Period. Customarily, $20,000 to $100,000 or more, is what you will spend. Your task is to determine what your market is demanding and what your budget can afford.

Maintenance
Any vital new attraction is going to require regularly scheduled maintenance. Playgrounds are no different, especially when parents are your constant inspectors. Owners tell me that picking up and cleaning constitutes a continuous task throughout the rink and in particular, the playground. The President of PlaySmart said, “Soft playgrounds are not something that you install and forget about. A popular playground will get a lot of activity and as a result, lint from clothing and general dust will accumulate quickly. You need to be prepared to invest significant time and labor in keeping your playground clean. It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to keep your playground clean and well maintained. Maintenance should not be a real significant issue if you go with a proven supplier, but you do need to be aware that playgrounds are not maintenance free.” Wiping down all plastic and vinyl surfaces will be a weekly job. There is an anti-static spray for the plastic slides. All hardware should be checked to ensure its tightness. Barrier nets should be inspected for holes. The weekly chore of cleaning ball pit balls has lessened the popularity of this event among owners, but kids still love them!

Conclusion
Are you considering taking the plunge? Any soft playground manufacturer can answer the questions you may still have. You may find that your “soft” investment will result in “hard” profits!


CONTACT INFORMATION 

PlaySmart, Inc., 107 N. Missouri, Sedalia, MO 65301; phone: 660-
829-0523; fax: 660-829-0526; e-mail: gboots@playsmart.com; website:
www.playsmart.com.