The credit crunch and looming recession is definitely a hot topic in the press at the moment. Children are also keenly debated, or to be more specific, the supposed threat of obesity and lack of physical exercise that children nowadays are supposedly exposed to.

Both of these could be good for business if your business is soft play. This is because the credit crunch means that many stay-at-home mothers will have to find work to bolster the family income, and parental concern means they will be looking for childcare that offers active play. However, with more and more childcare and soft play facilities springing up, how can you stay one step ahead of the rest?

Softplay Wonder Wave

The secret to setting up and running a successful soft play facility is offering what both parents and children want. Parents want a clean, safe and secure environment where they can leave their children, happy in the knowledge they will be well cared for. Children just want to have a whale of a time. Both can be achievable, but in order to get things right, it is important to do your homework before you start building your business.

Safety First

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents gives excellent advice on their website (http://www.rospa.com) together with a list of safety standards that will need to be met, such as those for covering fire, lighting, toilet facilities, electrical installations, gas equipment, etc. They also detail the safety inspections and associated record keeping, that will be needed, together with notes on cleaning routines and training of staff.

St. John Ambulance (http://www.sja.org.uk) offers various first aid courses, a must for those working with children. Their Early Years First Aid course is aimed at professionals working with younger children and shows how to deal with various accidents and emergencies that can occur, for instance choking, asthma and diabetic emergencies, head injuries, seizures, etc.

Safety and first aid training for staff is extremely important to ensure that children are kept safe. In addition, all members of staff should undergo a CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) check as part of the recruitment procedure. Information on how to use the Disclosure Service can be found on the Criminal Records Bureau website (http://www.crb.gov.uk).

Business Considerations

Setting up a business, especially one connected with children, and the associated safety concerns, can be daunting. Everything from Risk Assessments, Planning Permission, Design and Maintenance to arranging Bank Loans can seem like a minefield. The most important thing to remember is that the point of a business is to make money, so financial considerations must be at the top of your list. Seek business advice on the viability of your business to be successful, Business Link (http://www.businesslink.gov.uk) is a good place to start. Search out a well-qualified accountant to make sure you receive sound and independent financial advice. The Institute of Chartered Accountants (http://www.icaewfirms.co.uk) offers a full list of members who specialise in business advice, such as feasibility studies and company formation.

Sportsafe UK Ltd Softplay Service

Sportsafe offer design and installation of soft play centres as well as offering individual soft play equipment ( e.g. Softplay Wonder waves, Softplay Cogs, Softplay Mushrooms,Softplay Columns,Softplay wedges to name a few) Based in Colchester, Essex (http://www.sportsafeuk.com) can offer a nationwide service which includes a total project management service if required. Whether you need advice on premises or even help with planning permission, they can plan everything and even offer assistance sorting out the finance and leasing options.

What facilities to offer

The best way to decide what facilities to offer is to ask parents what they would like to have available to them. Clients can be very choosy – getting them through the door is hard enough, but keeping them coming back for more is even harder. Go out into the marketplace and ask questions. This will give you more of a feel of what is expected. Explore other successful centres and ask yourself why they are successful and how they could be improved – think like a consumer!

Deciding on Soft Play Premises

The most important consideration is the size of the building. Basically, it needs to be big enough to accommodate all the soft play equipment and structures, toilets, canteen facilities, office areas, etc. Most often soft play centres are out-of-town locations which may have the benefit of adequate parking, but parking is often an issue with regards to obtaining the necessary permissions. Planning permission will generally need to be sought for a change of use and you will need expert advice with regard to this. Contact the Local Authority Planning Officers and ask for their initial thoughts on the project. It is also very important to make sure you have good disability access

Choosing  Soft Play Equipment

Before deciding what equipment you need, the most important thing is to choose the right supplier who can offer high-quality equipment, together with maintenance and repair services. Make sure they are very experienced in the leisure industry, with full knowledge of the necessary regulations governing your business. Basically, before you part with your money, make sure they are experts and that you will benefit from their expert knowledge. If you are unsure exactly what layout you require specialist firms usually offer a design service, and some such as Sportsafe U.K. (0844 581 0550) offer site visits for free.

Although there are many firms offering to provide equipment cheaply, their ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ policy generally means a poorer quality product with no back-up. This will prove very costly in the long run.

You will need to decide what age range you will be catering for and use equipment that is age appropriate. Also, you need to make sure that the equipment encourages lots of different play activities to promote exercise, balance and coordination skills.

Further Ideas

Once you have decided on the play equipment – here are some other ideas to think about:-

  • Ensure you have adequate and safe parking facilities in the vicinity. If your customers cannot get their children to you easily they will go elsewhere.
  • Make your soft play facility a great experience for adults too.
  • Quality food is very important, both for children and parents. Make it a taste sensation. Offer proper vegetarian and vegan meals on your menu and remember cross contamination issues – don’t use the same serving utensils for vegetarian and meat dishes. Healthy snack options are essential but also think about having ‘quality’ cakes and dishes for parents. Even a simple panini can be well presented. Think quality cappuccino and skinny latte – this will encourage parents to spend time (and money) and could spin off to a café that is every bit as successful as the soft play element, especially if it provides a convenient but very pleasant meeting point. Provide high chairs for busy mums.
  • Make it spotlessly clean – dirty facilities will send alarm bells ringing for prospective clients – it is probably the number one complaint you will hear from disgruntled parents who have used other facilities.
  • Your staff will make or break your business. Keep them well trained and motivated to do well. Have more than adequate supervision to allay any worries that parents may have.
  • Have separate toilet facilities for adults and children if possible. Consider low sinks for washing tiny hands, non-slip flooring surfaces, hygienic dryers. Have quality soaps and hand lotions in the adult facilities. Think ‘quality hotel’ feel – even using the loo can be made a pleasant experience for mum! Ensure there is adequate space in the toilet facilities, after all, if mum is taking little Johnnie to the loo, she may have another two children with her and it can be very uncomfortable negotiating three children in a cramped area. Don’t forget wheelchair users and make sure you offer good disability access. Above all keep the toilet facilities absolutely spotless and have a regular rota to make sure they are.
  • · Have a separate area for babies and toddlers which is very well supervised and keep older children out. It would be very easy to have a five-year-old running into a much younger child and causing an injury. Think ‘accident’ and make sure it cannot happen.
  • · Consider a private area for breastfeeding mums.

Marketing

Parents will not find you if they don’t know about you, so shout it from the rooftops! Marketing is a necessary and often expensive exercise, so look for ways to get your message across for free. Your local press is always looking for stories, so give them yours and tell them what it is you want to achieve. If there are other centres in your area, think about what you offer that is better – ensure you are maximising the potential of your unique selling point.

Have a grand opening ceremony and invite as many people as possible, including the mayor. Get your picture in the papers and keep it there by letting your local papers know when you have a special promotion or new activity coming up. Most schools run a newsletter for parents, make sure you get a mention. Have your leaflets in all the right places – anywhere you can think of where potential clients will be.

Above all, take time to think through the various factors and if you still feel you have the commitment to the idea, but perhaps find some aspects a little overwhelming, call in experts to help you out.