WHEN EDDIE Catz picked up the Multi Site Operator of the Year title at September’s Aspire Awards, Darren Johnson hailed it as a triumph for the “smaller operator”. Indoor Play detailed some of the reasons why the company won the prize in our last issue. In October, we popped into the busy Eddie Catz site in Putney for a question and answer session with Darren and his wife and business partner Maria.
What did winning the Aspire Award mean to you?
DJ: We have won several awards in the last few years and the Aspire Award is another sign that we are being recognised as a company that knows what it’s doing. You can wear a big hat and talk the talk, but unless you know how to back that up with actions, the words mean nothing. A lot of people in the industry have called us and that has been great; I think the smaller operators out there can see where we’ve come from and I hope it gives them a sign of what’s possible through hard work and dedication. As I said on the night, it was a victory for the smaller operators out there, for the many husband and wife or family indoor play centre owners who put their whole life into this business. It’s proof that you don’t need huge backing or to spend millions on a site; what you need to do is to get the basics right, keep your centre clean and tidy and give yourself every chance of making a real difference.
MJ: We had no fat bank throwing money at us and as an operation, we could not afford to make too many mistakes, so every move we have made has been well considered and carefully planned out. We don’t have a fancy marketing company working for us; we do everything in-house. I think one of our primary points of difference was that at no stage did we want there to be one Eddie Catz. I had a background in business consultancy and advertising, while Darren was a former professional on the international squash circuit, as well as manager of a Cannons health club in Fulham. We came into this with a very clear view of what we wanted to achieve. Before we opened in Putney, we had a long-term business plan. We already had a 52-page operating manual, which we update and still use today, we had a marketing plan, a board of directors and ambitions to expand. Our development was always going to be gradual and the biggest challenge when expanding is that you need all of the stars in the constellation to line up.
DJ: Sometimes you might find the perfect location when the money’s isn’t quite there, at others the financials add up but the location might be wrong. We have stuck to our plan throughout, always knowing that the key issue is how you are going to pay for yourselves and your staff.
What are the key attributes in a successful play centre?
DJ: I’d say location. You can have the best kit in the world, the best people and the best operation, but if it’s in the wrong place, you’ll still struggle to drag people through the doors. Having said that, you can also have the best location, but the wrong procedures and standards and that won’t work either.
MJ: It’s really important to understand what your customers want and give them that. I look at it like buying Christmas presents, there’s no point buying your child an X Box if he wants a Playstation. We have added a number of dimensions into our business after realising early that it would be impossible to survive on play alone. In Putney, we run 17 classes for pre-school children each week in our studio, as well as classes and events for local schools. We were the first in our industry to introduce classes on this scale and we were also the first to create summer camps, which have been extremely successful. We are also very big on seasonal events; more than 700 children attended Halloween parties at our three centres this year and we make sure we do it properly. If parents are paying for a ticket, they deserve it to be a big deal and we make sure it is. We also have a Beauty Bar called Mini Diva, which provides beauty treatments for ladies and parties for little girls. We don’t want to simply be seen as a destination for play, but also somewhere that children can come for pre-school development and education.
DJ: It’s extremely important for any centre to constantly be refreshing its offer. There are so many ideas out there that can be adapted for indoor play. If you come into any of our centres, you’ll see things we’ve taken from other sectors and made our own. But do it your own way, for your customers – simply copying other peoples’ ideas is not the way to be different. If you want to inspire your customers, come up with something new.
Was opening your second and third centres different to your first venture?
DJ: We learned from our experiences in Putney and our Wimbledon and Newbury sites are different. In Wimbledon, we took over an existing play centre, which was doing well and making money, but it was becoming tired front-of-house and the back-of-house operation was awful. We could see it had a loyal customer base and believed in its potential, so we took it over and for the first month, ran it under its previous name without changing anything. We then got the cleaners in for two days and got rid of the grot, replaced things like ripped posters, swept the car park, trimmed the hedges. Basically, we gave it a complete spring clean, but we didn’t change very much at all. A customer who had been there two days before came in and said ‘I love the refurb’, which just shows the impact a good clean can have. The site in Newbury was different again – we were looking for a new opportunity and this site was a previous indoor play area that had shut down two years before. When we asked around, it was a similar story to Wimbledon, in that everyone used to use it in the early days and liked it, but it had become run down and tatty and parents had stopped wanting to take their children there. We probably spent around a third as much money on Newbury as we did on our first site, because you certainly learn where and how to invest your money and which areas are most important to your customers. The Eddie Catz brand and Eddie as a character has become iconic in and around your centres. That must be very rewarding.
MJ: We designed him ourselves, and when it came to the look and feel, the kids were very important; we wanted a character they would want to hold and cuddle.
DJ: It’s great when you walk down the high street and see children hugging the Eddie Catz doll in their pushchairs – you feel like you’ve really made an impression. We trade tested him with our customers. We put two out on the counter without saying anything to anyone and the kids always went for the one we preferred, which is the Eddie we sell now.
MJ: We have created a community, but we are also an integral part of the community around each of our sites. In Putney, we are the provider of children’s entertainment on the high street and Eddie has become something of a local celebrity, to the extent that he is helping to switch on the Christmas lights this year. We have been very active in each of our local communities since we opened, working with local schools in particular and both hosting and attending events.
Eddie Catz has obviously been successful, but how have you dealt with the tougher times?
MJ: There came a point, when we realised that we were investing so much time and energy in the brand, we had started to lose sight of the real people in the business. So in the last couple of years, we have done an about face and looked to put some of our own identities back into Eddie Catz. We have always promoted from within and I think the customers can appreciate that. They are happier to know that there are people involved with real investment in the business and sometimes they can be more forgiving because of this. There is a definite connection being made between the government and big business at the moment and people respond better to a family-run, customer facing firm company.
DJ: The team working with us has been exceptional. This is not an industry where you’ll make £150,000 a year as a centre manager, but you do get a broad range of experience of food and beverages, health and safety, dealing with customers and leading a team.
MJ: Sometimes, admittedly, you can wonder why you’re doing it, but we have 200,000 visitors a year coming through our doors and we get an average of one complaint on email a month, and that shows we have a team that’s proud of what they do.
Your children were an inspiration behind you moving into the indoor play arena. How have they impacted on the business since then?
MJ: Our children are very much involved in the business and they have helped us in so many ways. It’s amazing how many times something that seems so complex can be so simple when you ask a child. We were looking at buying a centre in Scotland, for instance, and our 10-yearold said ‘daddy, if you’re flying to Scotland and back twice a week, you won’t be making very much profit will you?’. Of course, that was right, but we hadn’t looked at it like that. Our daughter is now 13 and she helps out a lot in the centre. She has a very good eye for the staff and picks up things that we don’t always see.
DJ: A lot of people get into this business because of their kids and we’ve evolved as our children have got older. We have introduced laser quest and our mini diva parties to reflect the changing tastes of our children. The really important thing is that you don’t pay too much attention to that while taking your eye off the needs of the younger children.
Have your attitudes to customers changed after six years in retail?
DJ: When we do get that one complaint a month, we have become more aware of the need to push back a bit, as long as we are 100% confident in our procedures. We always go into detail, defend the centre and engage with the customer who has complained. More often than not, we can turn that complaint around into a positive and, if it comes from a regular customer, that’s sometimes even better.
MJ: We all come into business having being told that the customer is always right, but in a recession, they’re not always right. It’s even more important now that you stand by your staff and your belief in your standards. Running our centres has changed me as a consumer. I used to look for reasons to complain, now I have a completely different perspective.
What future plans do you have for the Eddie Catz empire?
MJ: We are looking to expand further and want to grow the Eddie Catz brand around the country and into Europe. This could happen in a number of ways, including franchising or opening new sites, but what we’re searching for at the moment is existing sites that are welllocated but have perhaps lost their way or have owners who have decided that the indoor play sector is no longer for them. We have the experience and track record now to take on these opportunities and as long as the location is right, there is always a good chance we can turn a business around. We would be very interested to talk to anyone who feels they might fit our criteria.
Having been recognised as the best in the business, what advice would you give to other operators?
DJ: You have to take the time to step back and look at your own business. The easiest thing in the world is to criticise other operators, while ignoring your own faults. Go and see other indoor play operators, but don’t just look at our industry, constantly be on the lookout for ideas in other sectors. See how people do things, how they present themselves, how they deal with customers. Use your friends. Get them in to use the facility and give you honest feedback. One of the reasons we worked so hard to make Putney right was that we live just down the road and it became like an extension of our living room. You can’t have your friends round when the place isn’t clean and you can’t have their children picking things up off the floor. I didn’t want to embarrass myself and to this day lack of cleanliness drives me potty.
MJ: My advice would always be take your business plan and cut it in half, then assume you as the owner will take no salary for the first three years. Can you still survive? If the answer to that is yes, then you’ve got a chance. If it’s no, then don’t bother. This is not a quick payback industry – after six years, we have worked extremely hard to get three sites. We were disenchanted with what we were doing before and the lack of time we could spend together. But we knew the business would take time to develop. Now, even though we spend more time working, we are together a lot more and it’s under our control.
DJ: More people starting out should listen to the people in the industry who have been there and done it already. Sometimes, just talking to someone else who has experienced the ups and downs could be the key to your success. Competition is getting more intense for all of us, but we’re all in the same boat and we can all learn from and help each other. Speak to your competitors. It’s a difficult time, but there is nothing to be gained from stabbing them in the back or plagiarising their ideas. Pick up the phone or have a beer with other operators, you’ll be surprised how much you can get out of it.
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