Publication in September/October 1997 issue of FEC Management magazine

Is Soft Contained Play Dead?

by Randy White

Soft contained play started out as a solution to a serious problem - playground injuries - then turned into an incredibly fast-growing industry that reached into children's pay-for-play, fast food restaurants, and retail stores. Today, that industry is in serious trouble, as the heavy hitter of the soft contained pay-for-play centers is breathing its last and many suppliers are shutting down. Is soft contained play dead or only sleeping? The answer to that question has a lot of people nervous.

Soft contained play began with children's safety in mind

Soft contained play (SCP) or, as it was previously called, soft modular play, is now 15 years old. It was invented by Jack Pentes in 1982 to overcome the safety hazards of outdoor physical playground equipment, where the largest numbers of serious injuries are attributable to children falling to the ground. SCP, unlike swings or Jungle Gyms, encapsulates children so they cannot fall or hurt themselves.

Unlike traditional outdoor equipment, SMP is very compact, can have multiple levels and be used by large numbers of children simultaneously, making it ideally suited for indoor environments. This equipment opened the door for entrepreneurs to design indoor play facilities where children and their families could play in inclement weather.

The first indoor SCP systems were installed in Showbiz Pizza restaurants (now Chuck E. Cheese) and became standard components along with the token-operated kiddie rides and games and the animatronic shows. Shortly thereafter, Burger King learned that locating SCP outdoors in front of their fast food restaurants dramatically increased sales, and SCP play systems quickly spread to McDonald's and other fast food chains. During the 1980s, almost all the SCP fast food installations were outdoors.

As goes Discovery Zone, so goes the pay-for-play industry

In 1989, Ron Matsch and Al Fong, with backgrounds in physical fitness, opened the first Discovery Zone (DZ) in Kansas City. The first DZs were about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, but later grew to up to 15,000 square feet at some locations. Discovery Zones feature a large SCP unit with capacity for 200+ children as the anchor event. DZ manufactured its own units rather than buy from SCP suppliers.

McDonald's soon entered the scene with their own Leaps 'N' Bounds SCP pay-for-play centers. These were similar to DZs, but with larger SCP units supplied by Soft Play and Omni Little Tikes. Their centers were much better designed and managed.

In 1992, on the verge of bankruptcy, DZ was acquired by a group of moneyed investors and soon merged into Blockbuster (now part of Viacom/Paramount). Blockbuster then bought the Leaps 'N' Bounds chain from McDonald's to eliminate its main competitor, converted them to DZs, and expanded worldwide to a chain of more than 300 centers.

In March, 1996, DZ filed for Chapter IX bankruptcy reorganization and many of the centers have since been closed. Will DZ survive in its present form? It looks doubtful. The Wall Street Journal recently carried an article reporting that McDonald's sold its 9.5% stock interest in DZ for $1,000 on December 20, 1996. When McDonald's traded its Leaps 'N' Bounds chain for DZ stock in August 1994, the chain was valued at $111 million.

Shortly after the first DZs opened, many wannabe entrepreneurs observed the early crowds and opened their own knock-off SCP centers. Entrepreneurs included a slew of executives who were laid off from large corporations during the early days of corporate downsizing. Of the some 200 DZ knock-offs, only about one-third remain in business today.

Pentes Play, Inc. was the original SCP supplier. Just over a year ago, there were at least 20 active SCP suppliers in North America. Today, only a dozen remain in business and many have consolidated or merged with larger corporations. For example, Omni is now part of the Little Tikes division of Rubbermaid.

Believe it or not, SCP is really alive and well

With DZ on its deathbed, many other SCP centers closed and the shakeout of suppliers, many in the FEC industry question whether SCP was only a short-lived fad. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While SCP-based pay-for-play centers are down for the count, SCP is alive and well.

More than 6,000 SCP units have been installed worldwide - 1,200+ in 1996 - including not only fast food and SCP pay-for-play centers, but also family entertainment centers, large children's entertainment centers and theme parks. SCP is now appearing in car dealerships, supermarkets, cinema complexes, retail stores, shopping centers, bowling and skating centers, health clubs, laundromats, public playgrounds, casinos and many types of restaurants. Recently, fast food restaurants, including McDonald's and Burger King, have been installing large multi-story SCP units inside their stores, and the huge SCP units in some McDonald's PlayPlaces are almost as large as early SCP center installations. Rather than dead, SCP is fast becoming ubiquitous in family destinations. SCP is becoming much like Coca Cola and Pepsi in the food industry - it's something you have to serve to meet customer expectations.

SCP can't cut it as the anchor attraction

So if SCP is alive and well, what happened to Discovery Zone and other SCP centers? The answer is both simple and complex. The root cause of SCP centers' crash-and-burn is that SCP as the lone anchor will neither generate a large enough market of child customers nor the frequency of repeat business needed to support a community-based entertainment business.

SCP is basically for gross motor play, physical play. Children, to stay occupied and return, require a much wider variety of play. They typically want to switch among many types of play. They need loose objects like blocks, water and sand; pretend and imaginary play; opportunities for problem solving and self discovery, social play and places for solitude.

Children also come in many different varieties with interests based upon their strengths in the eight different intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical/mathematical, spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal and naturalist. SCP can't hope to appeal to many in its target market because it offers such a narrow range of play.

An adult analogy might be restaurants. If a restaurant has only one item on the menu, no matter how good it is, the restaurant can't generate enough business to survive. People have different preferences for food and want variety on repeat visits. Even fast food restaurants, with their 'limited menus,' must offer variety.

Offering children SCP as their only option of play quickly becomes boring. It will work in a fast food or retail store, where it is secondary to the primary visitation purpose, free or inexpensive, and the child need only be occupied for a little while. Soft contained play will not work as the only anchor for a location-based entertainment facility. There needs to be more.

The increase in free SCP also has contributed to the demise of SCP pay-for-play centers. Parents don't want to shell out $5 or $6 for their children to play in an SCP unit when the McDonald's right down the street has one half as large for free.

Other mistakes help bring down the giants of SCP

It wasn't just the free SCP that brought down DZ and many other SCP centers. They also failed to understand the ingredients for parental and child comfort, including: acoustics, an environment where you could conduct a conversation at a moderate voice; the need for parents of younger children to visually monitor their children, and often more important, younger children's need to be able to see their parents while playing; zoning of younger children's play from older children; quality food; cleanliness and creating a customer service culture. DZ also failed to be innovative in the design of its SCP equipment. While DZ continued to install an early generation unit design, suppliers such as Omni and Pentes Play were rapidly creating new components and designs that are more playful and interesting to children.

Also, many SCP centers were developed on the mistaken premise that they would attract children up to 12 years old. Our company's studies indicate that SCP pay-for-play centers only attract 2- to 8/9-year-old children as their customers. This is a 30% smaller market niche than to age 12. The major brain and developmental changes that occur to children at around age 8/9 create a change in the type of play children like, which includes more emphasis on competitive games and socialization with their peers. Our focus group research also indicates that when children reach age nine, a 'sissy factor' sets in and they will rarely tolerate being around younger children.

Now that we know what doesn't work, are there better alternatives?

Is there a successful formula for children's pay-for-play or entertainment centers? Yes, if there is a wide variety of age-appropriate play and entertainment (of which SCP can be an important part) in a well-designed and -themed environment that is child-centered and parent friendly. Depending on the socio-economics and lifestyles of the target market, the emphasis can either be on entertainment and fun, or on play and discovery learning, which our company refers to as edutainment.

To offer the variety and amenities needed takes an indoor space of at least 20,000 square feet. And since children have such a strong preference for the outdoors (and parents, too, when the weather's nice) there also needs to be outdoor naturalized areas such as patio seating for parents and an adventure play garden for the children. Birthday parties will continue to be an important component of children's centers, and food has rarely been tapped for its full potential. SCP equipment can be an important part of this mix, as it not only satisfies children's need for safe gross motor play, but also gives them an environment to explore. But remember that as our society becomes even more knowledge-based, the changing nature of what parents consider out-of-home leisure will require an increased content of learning and self-enrichment, not only for the children, but also the parents.

The children's centers that will survive into the Third Millennium will understand that the software side of the business is even more important than the hardware side. This includes not only a heavy mix of programming and special activities, including informal learning, but also a staff obsessed, trained and given the tools and empowerment to delight guests and create lasting relationships with them. This requires a well-utilized customer database system and creating tools to continually obtain and use guest feedback. It also requires more than what is commonly called customer service for adults, but also play facilitation for children, whose culture is completely different from that of adults.

A shrinking world for children demands more from play providers

Children continue to be born in record numbers. Unfortunately, today's children live in a world that is much more restricted than that of their parents. Their physical boundaries have shrunk. Their access to play environments outside the safety of their homes is continuing to be restricted by the "Boogie Man syndrome" - parents' exaggerated fears for their children's safety outside their direct supervision. Many children are no longer free to roam their neighborhoods or even their own yards unless accompanied by adults.

Adults have tried to make up for the loss of freedom by providing structured, supervised activities for children, like sports and lessons. And when children do have free time, it often must be spent inside the house in front of the television or computers. Today, many children live in what has been referred to by one children's environmental design expert as a childhood of imprisonment. Children need unstructured time to play and just be themselves.

In our knowledge-based society, parents are increasingly concerned with seeing their children become well-educated, which includes exposure to learning experiences such as the informal, discovery learning that comes from open-ended play.

These market forces will continue to create a demand for safe children's entertainment and edutainment centers. The centers that prosper will address children's play and entertainment preferences and needs, along with parents' values, desires and needs. Soft contained play systems will continue to have an important role if included as part of a broad mix of play, learning and entertainment activities.