Kids Theme Areas. Part 2

Thursday, June 21, 2012 11:31
Posted in category Business

Themed play areas for health clubs

Because of an increasingly mobile populace connected through personal communication devices, the home is becoming less important as a logistics center for coordinating family activities. To accommodate this vast market of busy, mobile consumers, businesses across the country are modifying their public spaces. Shopping malls include business centers and family changing rooms. Urban redevelopment projects incorporate health clubs, libraries and youth centers, in addition to retail stores and movie theaters. In short, many businesses that rely on families as a customer base are diversifying their offerings. The more needs that these businesses can meet, the more likely they are to attract families.

Does this mean that a health club will not survive if it doesn’t offer all things to all people? Of course not. It does, however, mean that those health clubs that wish to compete for family memberships must anticipate the needs of the entire family when developing business and marketing plans. While these family-friendly plans will include accepted measures such as supervised childcare and children’s programming, they may also include dedicated, themed play areas for children.

What is a themed play area? A rudimentary definition of a themed play area could be: “a dedicated children’s space that encourages imaginative, educational play.” By this definition, many commercial health clubs have already ventured into the themed play arena. Newtown Athletic Club, for example, has a “dramatic play” area in its Youth Plex that Biernbaum says includes “a diner, a house with benches, a kitchen, (fake) food and lots of imaginative play [areas].”

As was the case with earlier family-friendly initiatives, however, the first innovators to incorporate themed play attractions into fitness facilities were YMCAs and community centers. The Salt Fork YMCA in Marshall, Mo., installed its Kids’ Gym in June 1999, “in response to the community’s need and Y’s mission to be a destination for people of all ages,” according to executive director Steve Howland. The Kids’ Gym includes tonal tubes, slides and an arch over an “adult” walkway. While the Kids’ Gym falls into the definition of rudimentary theming (it does not incorporate elements that incite a specific imaginative experience), Howland has found it to be an effective way to engage “children ages 5 to 10 in athletic activities [and encourage] interaction with other kids and creative, energetic play.”

An example of advanced theming can be found at the West Valley City Family Fitness Center in West Valley City, Utah. West Valley City’s 6,000-square-foot “Edutainment Center” is a self-enclosed universe with a village theme that houses many of the center’s children’s programs and a space-themed modular play unit. According to Nancy Day, facility director, “The village includes several facades, such as the firehouse, in addition to several buildings that have actual play spaces. The room itself is quite high — twice the height of the rest of the facility. The playhouse has a kitchen and the grocery store has play food that kids shop for and [that] is sponsored by a local grocery store. We used the sponsorship money for our scholarship fund. We also have a garage with little scooters that the kids can use to ride around the village and underneath the space play area.” The space area consists of foam-wrapped pipe and incorporates athletic activities such as climbs and slides. Day continues, “We did a focus group before we installed it and the response was almost universal: Kids love the space theme.”

West Valley City did a lot of research before building their several-hundred-thousand-dollar play area. “The first thing we looked at,” Day says, “is the population for our city and the area around the facility. Forty-two percent of our population is school-age children. We wanted a place that they could experience. A lot of rec centers don’t offer activities that just appeal to this age group. We wanted something that they could do either with their parents or by themselves.”

The West Valley City Family Fitness Center and the Salt Fork YMCA each can justify the expense of these large activity rooms because of a non-profit mission statement that demands efforts to include young people in their activities. Many commercial health club owners will have a more difficult time dedicating funds for large play areas. But looking at the benefits of themed children’s play areas may change their minds.

Play area benefits

Themes attract. Themed play areas are highly visible attractions that can bring traffic toward a facility. In the case of Salt Fork YMCA, placement of their Kids’ Gym resulted in an increased recognition of the value of the facility.

“The community that we operate in is pretty small,” Howland explains, “So we don’t do a lot of advertising. We placed the Kids’ Gym right next to the lobby. It’s one of the first things that you see.” This high-visibility location has paid off for Howland. He estimates that 80 percent of members with kids between 5 to 10 use the kids’ facility. That usage rate could result in higher traffic for Salt Fork YMCA, but according to Howland, “It’s too soon to tell.”

The installation at West Valley City also encouraged a barrage of free attention. “When we first opened, the unique nature of our facility generated a lot of press for us. We had a lot of local media attention,” says Day. That media attention may have contributed to the success of West Valley City. More than 85 percent of its members are families; some of those members drive across town just for the family atmosphere. Day says, “There are lots of places where people can go in the valley to shoot hoops or play racquetball or even swim, but there is no other place like this.”

Themes build value. Themed play areas can increase the value of a health club in a variety of ways. They can be used to build ancillary revenue, they can increase the perceived value of a family membership and encourage families to renew, and they can build value for a fitness center within the community.

Many health clubs originally offered childcare or youth programming services for an additional fee. Newtown Athletic Club, for example, originally had fee-based programs for children. “Now the youth programs are bundled,” Biernbaum says, “And family members know the value of their memberships.” NAC still uses its Youth Plex to generate additional funds: It hosts 10 to 15 private birthday parties a week for members’ children.

Salt Fork YMCA first offered its Kids’ Gym on a fee basis to offset staffing costs, but it is moving toward incorporating the cost of usage into its family memberships. “We hope to develop some options for families that give them different levels of access to the play area,” Howland says.

By keeping Tweens engaged in the health club atmosphere, themed play areas can also help health clubs develop lifelong relationships. “For children who are too old for childcare and too young for adult weight rooms, [play areas] serve as a fun way to gain value from a club,” according to Bond.

Themed play areas can also help a health club contribute to a community. Often the Tween years are when kids begin troublesome behavior. By providing a place for those kids to positively interact with kids their age, health clubs can contribute to their communities.

It may be a while before commercial health clubs follow the steps of their non-profit cousins and install themed play areas, but a history of family-friendly innovation among non-profits and the benefits from themed play areas indicate that this may be the next competitive step that health clubs make to appeal to the family market.

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