Soft Brick enjoying strong market

As the UK’s number-one manufacturer of soft-play structures and soft-play products, where The Soft Brick Company go many others follow. So who better to gauge the temperature of the indoor-play market and point towards the drivers and trends within the sector? This is what the company’s sales manager Simon Ward had to tell us…

Can you tell us about some of your most recent projects?

Simon Ward: We’re doing all sorts of projects in all sorts of places. Some interesting projects, some unique ones and they’ve all have been really successful so far. We’ve had some really good feedback from customers.

One of the most significant was Millets Farm in Oxfordshire. It’s in a purpose-built building - it’s quite large in terms of its physical scale, about 11,000sq ft, in the grounds of Millets Farm. There are some very bespoke theming ideas, so the look of it and the features we’ve created are all related to Millets Farm. It’s been fantastic. We’ve got a delighted customer there. I’m really pleased with it. It took quite a lot of time; it’s been about a three-year discussion project.”

Why do you say it’s unique?

Because we designed the play area first and that saw us awarded the contract. That’s quite unique in terms of a process. I presented about three years ago and they selected us as the supplier they wanted to work with. Even at that point there wasn’t a physical building and we didn’t have an idea of how big the building was likely to be. So really we went back to the drawing board and we started to talk about sizes and we then designed it bespoke for the building. [We were chosen] as the supplier; then we started to talk about the physical building after that.

So it was quite a collaborative process?

Yes. The other thing that made this unique was we looked at Millets Farm as a destination - as a tourist attraction, basically. We then looked at all the elements it has there and tried to turn all the play features into those things. For example, it has a trout lake so we made the ball pool into a trout lake. There’s a maze on the farm, so we put maze into the play area and so on. We’ve replicated the shops on site - the butchers, the ice cream shop and then the stables… all these things have been incorporated into the design. It’s fast; it’s interesting. It’s been massively popular since it opened last December. There are days when it’s had 150 people queuing up outside to get in at 9am.

And what has been the response?

Delighted. I did a further presentation there with another potential customer and it literally ordered with me there and then. Which is pretty unheard of. I presented for a couple of hours and at the end of that the people said, right, what’s the next step? I said ordinarily people would go away and think about what they’ve seen, but they wanted to know what the deposit amount was! Obviously that doesn’t happen very often, but Millets is such a wonderful place. I think it really inspired the potential customer.

Who was that?

Trago Mills in Merthyr Tydfil. Trago Mills is a large discount retailer based in the South West. What it’s created down there is an enormous retail site from scratch and alongside that it’s built a building for a playbarn. Again, somewhere in the region of 11,000sq ft.

And you have just undertaken some projects in the Middle East?

We’ve just built a play area in Doha, Qatar, for a company called Caboodle. It describes itself as a crèche; it’s in a shopping mall. Not as big as Trago or Millets, but still a nice size one when you consider where it is. It put it in as an extra offering in the mix. It has a crèche, a children’s hairdressers and we’ve put in a large role-playing area.

How long have you been working overseas for?

About seven years. Well, we did some projects before then, but significantly, we’ve been working abroad for seven years.

How have these projects transpired?

What we’ve found is people overseas do value the British brand. We do like to fly the British flag; we’re very much British made. All of our soft-play product is made in our factory in Warrington. It’s a very handmade, hand-finished element that can have a bespoke aspect to it. I’ve done a number of exhibitions over in China and Hong Kong and people do notice. When you talk to people over there they comment that the quality is much better than their domestic supply. We’ve supplied in excess of 15 play areas in China, most of which are quite large. They are very time consuming, there’s a lot of planning involved because of the shipping aspect, and also getting the labour over there. We use our own labour teams to install these things. We might use a bit of support from local labour but predominantly we use our own guys, because it’s about the brand. There might be potential cost savings to use local labour, but unfortunately you lose out on the quality that the customer is looking for.

These customers are looking for the gold standard then?

Oh, yes. They want the best. There are some well-heeled malls that we work in. I’ve had various meetings with people in China and they really do value getting the real thing, rather than a copy. They want the British brand, the British product. They’ve seen it in malls over there and it’s what they want.

From your perspective what do you see as being the key drivers in the indoor-play market?

What I would say at the moment is there’s certainly a move towards aesthetics. How things look has actually been getting more important for a few years now. A lot of people are requesting natural-looking products - natural colour schemes. A move away from your fairly garish, primary colour schemes - a lot more muted, pastel, natural and organic colour schemes. It of course depends on the site really. If you have a boutique coffee shop offering, people often want to blend it in with this nice, relaxing environment. Whereas if you’re putting a play area into a trampoline park, they want a dramatic and quite grown-up, adrenaline-pumping design - blacks and greys and other striking colours. It really does depend on the environment.

Is the market still growing?

It is. Whenever you think things might be slowing down the phone rings or an email arrives and the next big project has arrived on your desk. It always astounds me, but we’re very strong on our marketing. Our website is very prominent. And people do come to us. They come to us as their first point of call really. Which is good, but when you’re speaking to them you’ve still got to give them a good reason for doing business with us. So we have to give them something that is unique and something they can’t just get from someone else who might be a little cheaper.

Are there any other trends worth mentioning?

We have a lot of maintenance contracts in place. Maintenance contracts and routine maintenance are important. Even though you could argue that in the short term you have some outlay, you can hopefully argue that in the longer term your overall outlay should be a lot lower because you’re not having to replace as much product because you’re staying on top of things. Your customers do notice. People do have a choice after they’ve picked up their car keys and their wallet. I think if you make sure you’ve got a safe-looking and well-maintained play area people are a lot more comfortable in taking their children there.

How is technology affecting the sector?

We have various light and sound features that we make in-house and we incorporate a lot of these into our play areas. We have them as additional bolt-on ideas. Our eye-spy panel is very popular at the moment. This shows live action footage and we can mount these in the floor of a play area. Children can play around or on top of the feature. Meanwhile a fish or shark is swimming past or a lizard is running past via this screen. It’s proven to be very popular. It looks like a seamless part of the play area. We can theme the perimeter of the panel - so if you had an under-the-sea area we can theme it as a rock pool and you might get crabs crawling past. We’ve included that in a number of our new builds and refurbishments recently.

This can give indoor-play centres that edge - as you say consumers and parents have a choice.

Exactly. It might be something that the other indoor-play centre hasn’t got. It’s a memorable feature. The other thing we like to include is an educational aspect or some treasure hunts - something interactive so it’s a bit more than just running around. A little bit of child development.

And that’s important?

We think it is. And we think it’s becoming more and more important for parents. I think our play area customers are noticing that. It’s something nice they can put on their website, that there are educational items involved. So it’s playing to learn.

Anything else happening?

We also did a project in Washington, America. It’s been open for six or seven months now, called Scramble. That features our World of Play range. It’s the first Soft Brick World of Play product in the States. That project took me about four years, because the guys had such trouble with landlords. Last week he had his 100,000th visitor. And that’s in a 7,000sq ft building.

What are your operations like in America?

That’s our second play area in America. We’ve already got one in San Diego.

Is that a market you’d like to do more business in?

I think so. I think wherever you start to supply one business you’d like to do another one. We understand the American market. They have stringent regulations over there, but we do everything by the book and make sure that any country we enter we understand the regulations that a play area requires.