FEATURE: A degree of success

Burgeoning FEC business 360 Play, is about to open its fifth centre in the Midlands, having hit upon the winning formula of a one price, family-inclusive experience that has created destination venues across the UK. Ronnie Dungan spoke to founder Duncan Phillips about how it all started and what happens next…

As a member of the founding family of the Gulliver’s Theme Park business, Duncan Phillips grew up around family attractions, so he knows a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

Or, at least, he thought he did.

It wasn’t until he became a young father that his experiences as a consumer gave him the insight and inspiration to start the 360 Play FEC business.

Phillips found that some of the soft-play centres he was visiting were essentially separating children from parents and prohibiting the opportunity to play together.

PHILLIPS: "Where FECs are going is one of the more exciting growth sectors in leisure".
PHILLIPS: “Where FECs are going is one of the more exciting growth sectors in leisure”.

“I went to some conventional soft-plays and it wasn’t how I would have wanted to do things,” he says. “I went in there as a dad and it seemed like people felt I was there to snatch their kids. As an adult it was also difficult to play alongside my son because everything was too small. So I had a negative experience and I thought the problem was it wasn’t designed for people to enjoy as a family. So that’s where I came up with the concept of 360. It was a desire to create something that the whole family could be engaged in. Developing children’s and families minds together.

“So we designed features like 360 Street to encourage creative play, because it’s full-sized so mum and dad can play in there as well and that was the starting point of it all.”

Phillips exited the Gulliver’s operating company in 2008 and set up DP Associates with a view to using his talents in project development, consulting on planning, layout, configuration, rides and so on.

“Then one day I took my son to a soft play centre because I had more time to spend with the family and I thought, ‘crikey! There’s a market here’.”

Soon after, the first 360 Play opened in Milton Keynes in 2009 realising Phillips’ vision of providing a more family friendly day out where there was no restriction on time and parents and children could play and learn together.

Since then, the firm has opened in Basildon, Leicester, Stevenage and is about to open its fifth centre in Redditch, Worcestershire.

“In all of these things the right site is key to success,” explains Phillips. “The product is key of course, but it has to be in the right area. We select them very carefully. In fact, 90 per cent of my time is spent on site selection and data analysis. So many of our decisions are based on data analysis of demographics, communication links, infrastructure and so on.”

One of main differences between 360 centres and the more common or garden soft-play venues is that 360 aims further afield than its immediate local area, becoming destination “day-out” venues.

“If you look at a site like Stevenage, the catchment there is the A1(M) corridor. And that’s a big change from soft play where it’s a very local market.”

Indeed, the story of its Stevenage site has an interesting sub-plot in that it has helped transform the town’s Leisure Park from a trouble-spot centred around bars and nightclubs into an area aimed at families. The siting of the 360 FEC has had a positive effect on surrounding family-oriented businesses such as the neighbouring Hollywood Bowl and Cineworld cinema. The area is no longer considered to be the problem it once was.Garage-car-large-1030x684

And this has also been mirrored at its Basildon site, which used to boast four of the UK’s biggest nightclubs, but is now heading in a similar direction. FECs, it seems, bring an unexpected societal benefit.

“What’s happening in the UK is that we are changing from a very wet-led orientation designed for the 17-21 year olds market.

“The FEC industry is very positive and it’s a good area to be in. As customers demand more diversity, FECs will have a more diverse offering. Millennials desire to have more than one experience per day. They’re looking for a two to four hour dwell time so everything is changing about what we need to offer.

“Where FECs are going on a global scale is one of the more exciting growth sectors in the leisure industry. More so than the theme park sector, for instance.”

The firm’s Redditch venue will open in February and marks a departure for the firm in that it is the first to open in a retail environment (a former Woolworths unit, in fact) at the Kingfisher Shopping Centre. Phillips says he wants to “see what it can do”. The major difference is that the space is not spread out on a ground floor like most of its centres.

But, like other 360 centres it mixes rides, messy play, soft play and role play, all inclusive and with no limit on the amount of time families can spend in there.

Phillips maintains that it is this variety of experiences that is key to its success.

“Our most successful product is the diversity of activities that we offer. I can’t really say there’s one thing that makes us successful. What works is our diversity, not one item.

“We will not have iPads, slots, or VR. It’s about back to basics play. We live in a world where we’re bombarded at home with that stuff, so this is a chance to get away from that.”

“Keeping it fresh is key. In the theme park business we would always look to put in one major new attraction every year. We’ll maybe not do it often as that, but there are always new elements arriving.”

As a privately-owned venture DP is under no pressure to undergo an aggressive expansion policy and Phillips is difficult to draw out on any specific growth numbers, but it’s clearly set for further growth.

“I’m always very cautious about audacious growth strategies. In the leisure market, you’re dictated to by the pace of the business. I’d like to grow more, but it’s not a case of us being under pressure to open five more in the next 12 months or anything. It’s very much our ambition to take the concept into new markets, but how many depends on the pace of the market, availability of sites and the strength of the economy.”

The growth potential of FECs is in little doubt. The economy? That’s anyone’s guess right now, including the Government it seems. One things for sure, Phillips has a winning formula in one of the fastest growing leisure sectors and that’s a pretty good position to be in.

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