This article was published in the September/October 1997 issue of FEC Management magazine

The Nine-and-Under Niche

by Vicki L. Stoecklin

People who provide entertainment for families deserve credit for trying. They've labored to bring everyone who lives under the same roof - parents and kids of all ages - into their centers. Problem is, they've looked at families all wrong and every day it costs them money.

In the location-based entertainment (LBE) industry, the faulty definition of "family" means that a focus on families is no focus at all. While on the surface it makes sense to try to get everyone in the door, in reality, successful LBEs are the ones that delight a select market segment.

The U.S. Census Bureau defines family as "a person and one or more other people living in the same household who are related by birth, marriage or adoption." That covers about everyone except those living alone, with roommates, or in institutions. Is that a meaningful target? Not likely.

Our company, the White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group, has done extensive research on many LBEs, using both focus groups and customer intercept surveys. We have found that "family" has a very precise meaning, and that successful family facilities have tailored their design and operations to that definition.

The Key: Keeping a smaller group coming back for more repeat business and positive word-of-mouth guarantees any LBE, and especially a community-based facility like a FEC, a good shot at success. To do this requires carefully defining the target customers and then delivering an experience that meets their needs and exceeds their expectations. Fewer industries provide more competitive choices than the LBE industry - and there's always the choice to stay at home - so you either delight the guest or wave good-bye.

Delighting guests depends on selling more to fewer people rather than selling a little to vast numbers of folks you can't hope to turn into repeat customers. This means going after "share of guests" rather than share of market, focusing on a clearly defined niche rather than offering tidbits of everything that will delight no one.

How do you delight a market segment? You learn what is important to them and how their group differs from others. Then you tailor every element of the business accordingly. When you offer an in-depth assortment of attractions, product, programs and services tailored to a narrowly-defined market segment, it's called "focused assortment." Think of it as target shooting with a rifle instead of a shotgun. Focused assortment is key to successful LBEs, especially community-based LBEs that aren't megaplexes.

Now let's translate those concepts to "family" entertainment.

On What Planet Do Sophomores Hang Out with Mom, Dad & Little Brother? Oh, sure, they occupy the same house, but it's the unusual family that finds even young adolescents at play with their parents, much less their younger brothers and sisters, and much less in public. When it comes to LBEs, "family" means children accompanied by their parent(s) or other significant adults. While children are defined by law as anyone under 18 years old, we all know it doesn't really work that way. The real age ceiling for children who come with their families is half that - 9 years old.

We remember what it was like when we got to be about 10. We started wanting to spend more time with friends and less with the parents. And by the time we were teens, most of us could stand being around the folks just long enough to snare the allowance and wheedle a ride to the mall. It's nice to know that the same behavior that so exasperated our parents was, in fact, developmentally appropriate.

Starting at about age 10 and stretching into the teens, young people need to develop adult social skills, learn how to relate to the opposite sex and develop their own identities. This is best accomplished among their peers where they can experiment without risking ridicule from adults. Teenagers today develop just like we developed - by hanging around with other gawky adolescents, away from adults and as far away as possible from pesky younger children.

So once the kids hit 10, they're pretty much out of the market niche for family entertainment until much later when they have little children of their own. This runs counter to conventional thinking in the industry, which says that teens should be included in the family market niche. But look around. Teens rarely come to LBEs with their families, and most families with younger children don't find that groups of teenagers create a welcoming environment.

While it may seem counterintuitive to write off teenagers as a part of the market, an analysis of U.S. demographics shows that that still leaves a lot of potential customers. The White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group has conducted many market feasibility studies for clients in both urban and suburban settings. Our findings have been generally consistent:

  • 57% (+ or -) of all children 0-17 years are 9 years old or younger. This is attributable to the echo baby boom birth rate that continues to hold its momentum.
  • 47% (+ or -) of all families with children have at least one child younger than 6.
  • 25% (+ or -) of all families with children only have children younger than 6.
  • Although 37% of all families with children have a non-working adult at home, 40-45% of all families with children younger than 6 have a homemaker. This percentage is even higher in the higher socio-economic segment of the population - the prime customers for LBEs.

Cutting out everyone from 10 to 18 should make things really simple, right? Not exactly.

LBEs Should Incorporate Five Stages of Development

Designing for families (and remember, families are parents or other adults accompanying children 9 years old and younger) takes more than just ditching attractions targeting teenagers. Childhood is a complicated part of life. Proper design requires an understanding of how children, and their relationships with their parents, change as they grow.

Children are best defined by their developmental skills and needs, which evolve as they grow. Although these changes are gradual and vary from child to child, there are five different developmental stages that children pass through before they reach 9 years old:

  • infant;
  • older infant to early toddler (we affectionately call them belly babies and wobblers);
  • older toddlers;
  • preschoolers; and
  • early grade school (6-9 years old).

Designing LBEs for families means designing to meet the needs and abilities of all five developmental stages of children, along with the needs and expectations of their parents. For children, it requires offering a variety of attractions and events that will appeal to each and all stages. With variety, you have engaged delighted children; without it, bored kids that don't want to return.

The mistake many LBEs make is focusing on children in grade school or older, while overlooking the needs of younger children. Doing this cuts out a large segment of families from their market. In fact, about one-half of all families with children have at least one child that is 5 years old or less.

A prime example of this mistake can be found in the standard formula for an outdoor FEC. Although miniature golf would appear to be the perfect event for family interaction, it really doesn't work for children 6 and younger. They have neither the attention spans nor the fine motor skills required to play successful. And, while go-karts and bumper boats allow children to ride with their parents, it requires that children be passive passengers. One similarity between children and adults is that both want to participate and feel competent.

The solution? Many FECs, amusement parks and theme parks think that it's to use mostly passive children's rides to satisfy younger children. Or, they go for soft contained play, which is now a standard feature in most facilities. The problem, though, with soft contained play is that, if it is offered to children from 2 to 12, the older children will dominate the unit and intimidate the younger children. And, if it is the only event, soft contained play appeals mostly to those children with strong motor skills and an understanding of spatial relationships, but not to the rest. Without a variety of events from which to choose, these children certainly won't be repeat customers.

There's another kind of play that offers what children need, but which LBE operators can find intimidating to manage.

Spontaneous Free Play Faces Barriers

Younger children don't need passive rides. They don't need to tag along, eye-to-belt buckle with older folks who can do things they can't do yet. What they need is spontaneous free play. It sounds simple, and in many ways it is, but its very simplicity means that while open-ended play has time-proven, high repeat appeal to children and their parents, it is one of the most misunderstood types of events for LBEs.

Very few LBEs offer free play. One explanation may be that quality play areas cannot be designed by just picking equipment out of a catalog, such as with rides and soft contained play and games. Appropriate play areas and events require thoughtful, careful planning. The events and environments need to be custom designed by a team of experts who understand the unique developmental needs of children, how they play with one another, and how the needs of parents can best be met. Designing play areas for children is much more complex than roping off a section of the LBE and dropping in some stuff with lights and buzzers.

Naturally, then, the custom design fees for children's play designers are much higher than design fees for LBEs that are warehouses for rides, games, and other free-standing attractions. Developers often shy away, saying that they can't afford the cost, not understanding that the design fees are really part of the cost of the event and different in nature than the usual architectural and interior design fees.

Developers also can be intimidated by the fact that there must be different areas and events for different developmental levels of children. Older infants and early toddlers need specially segregated areas with sensory and gross motor play appropriate to their development, where parents can interact and sit with the children. Older toddlers, preschoolers and six-to-nine year olds usually require other segregated or separately zoned areas because their developmental skills vary.

It is absolutely true that play areas can be more complex to manage than rides or soft contained play. The staff must be able to facilitate children's play, which requires a mature staff with specialized play leadership training, a commitment and investment that runs counter to the typical approach of hiring low-paid staff with little training and few skills to handle simple jobs.

Perhaps the biggest barrier is the perception by owners that free play has little value to families. After all, can't kids play at home? Not exactly. Keep in mind that most parents are afraid to let their children play in parks and even their own yards, and that children have little access to unsupervised and unstructured play. Parents will gladly pay a fair price to give their children access to safe, secure, high-quality play areas.

And it's not just good, it's good for them. Play is edutainment in its purest form. Children think it's a blast, but while they play (for heaven's sakes, don't tell them), they also develop their thinking, physical, social and emotional skills, including their imaginations, problem solving and creativity. Parents respond when play is marketed as discovery learning. And, by marketing play as edutainment, LBEs also can draw weekday business from preschool and grade school field trips, classes and workshops, after-school programs, play groups, and children's camps.

Done Right, Free Play Is a Winner

It takes more work up front, but a growing number of LBEs are reaping the benefits of an investment in high-quality, well-managed children's play areas. Busch Gardens now incorporates large outdoor children's play areas in all their parks. Traditional theme parks are adding children's play areas like the Berenstain Bear Country at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. Zoos and botanical gardens are adding special children's play areas, too.

And they are not alone. Many FECs are also jumping into children's play. At the Dinotropolis FEC in Caracas, Venezuela, the play area is as popular with young children and their parents as the rides and games. Some centers, such as Blueskies and Rainbows in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and Bamboola, the new children's edutainment center in San Jose, California, are basing their entire mix on children's play and have been highly successful in attracting a family market.

Designing for success with families requires not only understanding the market niche, but also understanding the unique needs of family members. What follows are some general considerations for the design and operation of a successful that includes children's play areas.

Infants and Toddlers. These kids require tons of gear and a lot of work by parents. LBEs need to make this as easy as possible by providing appropriate places for child paraphernalia like car seats, strollers and diaper bags; restrooms for both sexes that have quality, designed diaper-changing areas (not just wobbly fold-down tables); areas where a mother can nurse in private; and plenty of high chairs and booster seats. For safety reasons, infants and toddlers need a segregated play area that meets their distinct developmental needs.

Restrooms. Include child-sized fixtures and specially designed private family restrooms that one parent can use with children of a different gender.

Cleanliness. McDonald's learned early that parents won't take their children anywhere that isn't clean and sanitary. The needs to be designed to make it easy to keep clean, which means materials that are easily cleaned and sanitized and that are very durable.

Duality of Design. Although the children's entertainment and play areas must be designed for children's needs and preferences, their parents have needs of their own that must be considered. After all, both parent and child decide whether to come back. Keep in mind that adults and children are attracted to different things. Adults see the environment as background for the activities and judge it on its aesthetics. Children perceive the environment as part of their experience and try to interact with it in every possible way. Children's idea of beauty is informal and wild rather than the formal and ordered design preference of adults. This duality of often-conflicting needs, wants and aesthetics requires creative design solutions that work for both cultures.

Ambiguity. Children are virtual reality machines if you give them the right environment and materials. Play equipment and areas should not be too defined, structured and themed. Except for the youngest of children, the play should be as open-ended and simple as possible so children can use self-initiated discovery and their incredibly active imaginations.

Parental Visibility. Parents need to be able to see their older children without having to interfere with the children's play. Younger children must be able to see and hear their parents during play, and parents feel more secure if they are nearby.

Sense of Place. A holistic and integrated design that is relevant to both children and adults will provide a strong sense of place. This is partially achieved through theming and good space planning.

Way Finding. Children, especially pre-school children, need a way to "read" the environment without reading words. They must be able to easily figure out what the area or event is for, the location of exits and entrances, any rules that apply, and the boundaries of each play event.

Child-centered Design. The design of the environment will have a huge impact on children's behavior, as children read environments completely differently than do adults. Children are dwarfed by adult-sized environments, where they feel intimidated, incompetent, and unable to master the environment. Children prefer child-scaled environments where they feel competent, so play areas should provide some sense of enclosure and intimacy. Children play longer and with greater attention spans in small-scale environments, and they have more fun.

Outdoor Areas. Research clearly shows that people, and especially children, consistently prefer natural landscapes to built environments. Natural outdoor environments reduce stress and are pleasing to adults. Children's play outdoors is higher in quality than indoor play - the sensory experiences are different and different standards of play apply. Children can get away with things that would be frowned on indoors. They can run, shout, be messy, and experience, interact with and manipulate the environment. Naturalized outdoor play areas are the ideal environment for family and children's play. Our company has been designing such areas, which we call children's adventure play gardens for most of our clients' family projects.

Safety. While designing for safe play is essential, there is a difference between the hazards and risks. Safety concerns should not compromise play value. The play environment needs to offer children challenges and safe risks. Play environments that are too safe are not just boring, but children will find ways to take risks and find challenges, often in ways that are hazardous.

The commitment to providing high-quality entertainment for families is a strength of LBEs. That commitment, when connected with a focused definition of what families are and an understanding of how to delight them, can assure a success that is more enduring than that built on the latest technology.