The chain challenge

Since opening its first site in 2007, Partyman World has expanded relatively quickly if compared with the industry around it. In the last of our series of three interviews, we ask Aaron Othman whether the pace of growth has met with expectations, what the main challenges have been and whether it has got easier with time and experience

“The Partyman World brand has been around for 11 years. It doesn’t feel like we’ve expanded all that quickly. We’re really hard on ourselves; we look back and think we could have done this a lot quicker and sooner. If I’m honest, we should have had 25 [sites] by now.

“Over the years, we’ve had several investors come to us and offer to invest some money into the business, so we could open up another 20 or 30 sites this year. We didn’t want that. We want to grow organically, when it’s right for us. Even with Ipswich, we didn’t plan to take this site on in November last year, but within 48 hours of finding out it was an option it just happened. We knew we could take it over and make it successful, so why not do it?

“We’ve made mistakes over the years. We didn’t do monthly memberships when we first opened and that was my mistake. My background was gyms, so I knew monthly memberships worked, but I thought it was hard work and aggravation. If we’d done that in 2007 though, it would have been game-changing for us as a business.

“But, if we’d put childcare in then and if we knew more about marketing in 2007, that would have been game-changing too. Core blimey, when we first opened, we didn’t know about marketing, we didn’t really understand [the value of] awareness or PR. We have learnt that as we have grown as a business.

“When we opened up Partyman World in Basildon, achievement for us was to be the best indoor-play centre in the area. We had the entertainment agency and we were going out doing shows and parties in school halls and community centres and we wanted a venue for our entertainers to work from, hence all of our venues have stages and entertainment now. Being the very best was our only objective – from the food experience, to the party experience, to the play experience, to the toilets. It also stretched to how we answered the phone – ‘Good morning, Partyman World. You’re through to Aaron, how can I help you on this magical day?’ – and how we responded to customers in emails – ‘Magically Yours’ rather than yours sincerely. We wanted to make a difference to what we were doing within society, to make memories.

“That same ethos has been transferred from centre to centre. If customers are out there saying “Have you heard Partyman World are doing this?” then that’s brilliant exposure for us. The next time it’s raining and people want to go to soft play, we just want the Partyman World name to be top of their list.

“I think we’ve achieved that at most venues and we have worked very hard at it. We call head teachers and PTAs at schools and tell them we do 100% attendance schemes and offer vouches to reward hard working students. We call up local businesses, introduce ourselves as the owners and given them some free passes to give to their staff. We contact the local press, local bloggers, family magazines just to say ‘we’re here’ and we constantly keep that up, so they don’t forget.

“When we started out, we had a MySpace account and then we got Blackberries with emails on our phones and we thought that was game-changing! I remember the day we got the first enquiry for a children’s entertainer through the Blackberry and it was mind-blowing, now we do so much remotely on our phones. The whole industry has evolved, customers have changed forever and they will continue to evolve.

Demographic challenges

“It’s harder because each venue operates slightly differently due to the demographics and the clientele. Things also take a bit longer [now we have so many different locations]. For us to make a decision, we come up with the idea, consult that decision with the senior management team, we then schedule dates of when the change is going to happen and rolled out. Something that might take three to four months now, when we were one site or even three sites, if something was going to happen this Friday, I’d pick up the phone, speak to the three managers, tell them what we’re doing and it would happen.

“It’s more difficult as we’re not owner operated in every centre. There are so many more staff - back in 2007, Jim and I did virtually all of the parties, for example, and I was doing all the training, showing them how to make a latte or clean the toilets! That’s had to change as we expanded - what we do now is video training – either done by myself, or the senior management team.

“The most difficult site to integrate was Braintree in north Essex, because there is a lot of owner-operated competition. So they can compete on price – for example, adults are free and their food and admission prices are cheap. It’s very difficult to compete on experience in the indoor-play market when the [customer’s] mindset is ‘well, it’s just soft play’. We try to, with the entertainment, engagement and enthusiasm that creates a great experience – that’s our ethos, we call it the 4 Es. But it can be difficult when there’s a play centre five minutes up the road that doesn’t charge for adults, knocks out cups of coffee for £1.50 when you’re charging £2.89, and has parties at £9 a head when your’s are £12-£13 a head.

“On the leisure side of it, we still haven't quite got there in Braintree. We’re fighting hard and we will win; we’ve got a really good team now and a great manager, whose definitely improved the experience. But we need to put childcare in. We have the space to do that, and once we’ve done that we’ll have a leisure venue that is doing OK and a Twizzle Tops day nursery with 50-60 places which is going to be at 80-90% occupancy straight away and generating a further income from the unit. That one location will then be doing very well. Childcare is another revenue stream that can generate half a million pounds [a year]. We can’t generate another half a million pounds in leisure – you can’t do it. So put in childcare and you have a business that is not weather-dependent, it’s a similar market in that you’re getting children (and their families) at an early age, they then fall in love with the nursery brand, with Partyman World and we’ve got them until they are 7-8 and then we might lose them to a trampoline park. But we’ve got them for eight years.

“Of course they might move on, but there will still be an element of those children who want a soft-play party, an arts-and-crafts party or a make-a-bear party at a soft-play venue, so we’re evolving to give them that. Foam dart parties, UV parties, glamour parties, we’re offering all of that. It’s refreshing to evolve your offer for customers too – they get excited when you do new things, so you have to keep doing it every year.

“At Ipswich, we did a free Easter party, for social awareness and great PR. People entered for tickets on our Facebook page, they had to like, share, tag etc… on their own pages and once they’d done that we gave out 75 family ticket and had about 200 people here doing face painting, balloon modelling, entertaining them on the stage, handing out mini eggs… It created a great buzz and that’s excellent PR. It’s what we needed here at Ipswich and we’ll do it again for Halloween. We’ll probably repeat it at Braintree too and we’ll also hold a free Christmas party at one of our venues.

“Some things can be more or less standardised. The menu’s 95% the same at every venue – at Wembley, for instance, we have a few products on there that we don’t do in Eastleigh, which is slightly different to Basildon. We have a few items, a few specials, but when we take over a venue, we know this is our menu we’re going to roll with. We know who’s going to provide our coffee, slush, food and drink, just like we know who is our flooring contractor. We have an internal maintenance team who are absolutely fantastic. I’ll say what exactly I want them to do with the toilets, or to refit the café counter with a specific identity and they make it happen.

Adult charge

“The only negatives we tend to get when we take a centre over tend to be ‘why have they put prices up, they haven’t changed anything?’ or ‘why do they charge for adults?’, ‘why are their birthday parties more expensive’. In Ipswich, we changed our admission prices slightly – they went up by 25p. No-one was bothered about that, but a lot of people jumped on the bandwagon and said ‘why are they charging for adults – they should be free?’ even though there was a charge for adults before.

“There is a mindset amongst the privately-owned, owner-operators in this industry that adults should not be charged. It has created [customer] negativity across indoor play. We could call ourselves a family entertainment centre, but you have to see it through you’re customers eyes and their reality is that they see it as soft play, they are bringing a child there, so question why they are paying as an adult. Our reality is that 45% of our customers are adults, so 45% of the people coming through our building causing wear and tear, using our furniture, making a mess, creating waste. So it’s crazy not to charge for them. It’s probably not going to change. The industry needed to start charging for adults when it first started growing 20 years ago. Like they do at farm parks, crazy golf etc… There are not enough of us charging, but we have to. If we don’t we will fail as a leisure business because it’s not commercially viable. It’s ridiculous.”

When Indoor Play rocked up in Ipswich earlier this year, Aaron was on the phone to a customer whose daughter had unfortunately injured herself in the centre over the weekend. It wasn’t the first conversation they had – he was checking on the little girl’s well-being and reassuring the parent that Partyman World would co-operate fully if she wanted to take further action.

“Thankfully, it’s not a regular occurrence, but every operator knows these things happen. It’s how you deal with them that counts.

“I still take full responsibility for everything we do as a business. You can’t pass the buck. I can’t be there all the time, of course, but it’s all about policies and procedures and how you handle them. We have an open and a close across all our venues, which is monitored. It’s a live system, so we know what’s happened every day. Then it’s about training, training and training – making sure that all the staff are aware of what is expected from them. There are times when I go to a venue and notice dust on a plug socket, a broken table or unbranded marketing material. That’s my responsibility. As a director, I need to look at the training, policies and procedures and ask myself whether I’ve failed our staff because we didn’t go through them properly with them. You have to take proper ownership of that – if we get things wrong, it’s my fault and that’s how I always look at it. If we take on a member of staff and they aren’t very good – that’s my fault, because maybe I haven’t trained my management team quite well enough on our recruitment policy or maybe that policy needs to be updated or improved.

“We actually contemplated opening up a trampoline park about two years ago now, did all the research and it was going to be under a different brand. But when we analysed it, we decided it needed to be owner-operated and while it stacked up financially if you had a good deal on rent and equipment, it would be hard to keep the momentum going and there was the worry of the accidents. Touch wood, we have had very few serious incidents at Partyman World over the years, but the insurance claims dealing with serious accidents creep up with trampoline parks. Having to deal with that, and the negativity that creates around your attraction would hurt. Accidents happen and you have to deal with it. It’s not nice, but I need to do it as the business owner and the face of the company, because it shows respect for our customers. I will speak to any customer with any complaint and I’m proud of the way we deal with it.

“Trampoline parks need to evolve, put soft play and toddler session in, look at the fitness market a bit more, different types of birthday party. I expect they will.

Controlled approach

“You’ve got to be in control – when I have got time off, I have to be sure my team is on it. So when I am on holiday I have a business services manager and a senior team at Marsh Farm that picks up on everything I do, monitor everything as I would. I have whatsapp groups and private Facebook groups for each business, then there are the emails and phone calls, so I don’t really switch off.

Customers are booking parties through Facebook and tweeting us to ask if we’re open today. We have live chat on our website because customers don’t want to pick up a phone any more. They want the convenience, they don’t want to speak to someone! We still do a courtesy call to say thank people for booking with and to let them know they can contact us if they need anything and we also send a hand-written letter to every customer to thank them after the party. It’s adding to the experience and theatre – even when the customer isn’t asking for it. Getting a letter through your letterbox in the Partyman World purple envelope and it’s hand-written is going back to the old school. But because businesses don’t do that any more, it’s memorable.

“I’ve been doing that more internally too – hand-writing letters to members of staff to say thank you and well done if they have done something. I like to say well done, keep it up and stay amazing and again, it’s about making a difference to people’s lives. I say to any one of my team, if you’ve done something today to make difference, even if it seems so small, then that’s what we’re all about. If everyone does that, we’re onto a winner.”