Creating a Village

Over the past several years, we have been asked to consult on a number of projects involving children's entertainment. We are often asked to consult on Children’s Entertainment Centers (think of real estate based franchises like Chuckee Cheese’s or the Discovery Zone). We approach this task from the perspective of “thinking outside of the box.”

For today’s sophisticated families and kids, the Children's Entertainment Center has to be more than a place to have birthday parties. A birthday party-based business is comparable to a rental or lease property business, not an entertainment center business.

Acts of Creation approaches all children’s entertainment from the audience’s point of view. From our 25+ years of experience, the critical goal of audience-driven businesses is the same whether it’s selling Shakespeare, Disneyland or a Children's Entertainment Center: critical mass, repeat audience, and daily attendance figures. In other words, it is all about filling the seats.

Customers represent the bottom line if the business is to succeed. This fundamental concept guides our consulting and serves as the foundation for conceptualizing any successful Children's Entertainment business.

In Search of a Village

Consider for a moment the phenomenon of the Children's Entertainment Center. It is a relatively new business opportunity that has emerged as an exciting franchise industry within the last decade. Why? For hundreds of generations, parents have raised their children and successfully entertained themselves without Entertainment Centers. Yet a trend towards building Children's Entertainment Centers is worldwide, so the question may be asked, “What need is this business filling in today's world?”

One answer is the family’s fragmentation caused by dual wage-earning parents. The 20th century was the first century to experience the luxury of a single family wage earner. Until this century even a family’s children worked full time to ensure each family’s sustenance. In the last century, the United States passed laws to protect children from exploitation in the workplace and to guarantee they received at least sixteen years of schooling. There is no question that divorce rates are are now higher than in previous generations, but history is full of examples of dysfunctional families. Consider: Oliver Twist, Hamlet, Huckleberry Finn, Medea, King Lear or The Scarlet Letter. So what need in society has contributed to the Children's Entertainment Center phenomenon?

Remember the frequently quoted African proverb: "It takes a village to raise a child?" The proverb seems true enough, but, in today’s world, what is this village? A village can be an amorphous demographic to define. Today it means much more than a small hamlet of houses populated by a countable number of families. For example, sitting upon a hillside above the quaint French village of Ramatuelle, this once ancient Roman fortification is now a global resort community. The outdoor markets of Cairo have become tourist destinations and in Osaka, the temple steps have become vendor pads to sell to visitors from far away lands. With the expansion of the global community, the common use of e-mail and the Internet, the concept of an isolated village is harder and harder to find.

In this overly-busy, postindustrial world, a village represents more of an ideal than a social construct. Our company sees the successful business model of a Children's Entertainment Center beginning with the spirit of an interconnected “global village.”

A Sense of Place

Every village is unique, with its own personality and unique ambiance. Even in the world’s major urban areas, cities break down into neighborhoods with their own names and sense of identity. Look at the pride a SoHo resident has for their area of London, or a Kahala resident has for their area on Honolulu, or a Playa del Rey resident has for their area of Los Angeles. A proud resident will be the first to tell you about the unique qualities and environment of their particular neighborhood.

Keeping this in mind, the number one concern for a new entertainment business is the establishment of a unique ambiance or sense of place. What defines this sense of place is the project’s story, and each place tells a story. Similar to an actor being defined by his costume and props, the story is characterized by its theme, logo, design, architecture, characters, costume, music, play systems, retail, food, and programming. To the extent that this unique environment is a complete culture and world unto itself, the business will find it easier to brand in the marketplace.

Everybody Knows Your Name

Everyone knows everyone AND their business in the village. Remember the television series Cheers? For better or for worse, the bar provided a special place where Sam, his friends and the bar flies knew each other and we, the viewing public, knew all of them. Cheers provided a village for its audience and it enjoyed one of the longest runs of any network television series.

How does this quality of familiarity operate within the Children's Entertainment business? Consider these important qualities:

1) The most successful Center will define the age-range of its target audience but not stereotype within that age range;

2) The employees are the ambassadors of good will and governance of the village. They should reflect the diverse population with a variety of ages, experiences and cultural backgrounds. Integrate grandparents and seniors into your programming and into your employee pool. Hire young, experienced and ethnically mixed workers. Integrate a variety of culturally diverse programs into the entertainment with a variety of languages used in the music and possibly (when appropriate) the signage. A fun idea is to develop a code language unique to your Center;

3) Customer service and relations are a primary concern in the village. Build a detailed database that recognizes a guest’s birthday, graduation, anniversary or other special event. Designated places in the Entertainment Center are created for guest recognition and the recording of memories with aides such as growth charts or photo walls;

It is an area designed for customer tracking and created with care - a special area for treating your guests as part of the family.

4) Organize a community supervisory board (made up of area parents) to serve in an advisory position for future programming and for evaluating current programming. Become actively involved with schools and youth programs, elementary school graduations, kindergarten graduations, after-school programs, grand parenting days and family celebrations;

5) Establish a day care program for employees so their children become a part of their work experience;

6) The village’s concept should to be articulated into a Company mission statement. Consider integrating this concept into management training. A company policy that provides for a degree of “management ownership” may fit the company’s mission statement and provide extra incentives for employees to excel at their jobs that in turn strengthens responsible leadership;

7) To help ensure guest loyalty, consider issuing a personal name tag to each visiting guest, providing incentives for repeat visits, mailing congratulatory letters to special guests and sending holiday and special events notices to repeat guests. Newsletters are also an effective way to keep your guests connected to Center updates and its changing programs.

A Sense of Security: A Place to Call Home

A village provides its residents more than an identity and a sense of place; it also provides a sense of security and predictability.

Safety must be a paramount consideration for a Children's Entertainment Center because of customer comfort as well as liability.

Safety assumes predictability. The Center should have an appropriate level of programming predictability that can be identified and anticipated by customers. Fundamentally, a sense of safety allows children to play more freely and parents to relax more deeply. Maya Angelou states this phenomenon best in the title to her collected works, "Only The Caged Bird Sings.” In terms of providing a sense of safety and security for a Center, guests need to understand clear rules, sense the presence of authority to enforce the rules, depend on a predictable pattern of quality programming and service, and sense common expectations shared with management.

There should be a concern for the guests’ health and welfare that is illustrated through the quality of the programming, the center’s food & beverage, the Center’s overall cleanliness and its safety regulations.

Every village has a unique ritual or habit of behavior. In planning the overall Children's Entertainment Center environment, ritual should be a prime concern because this predictability of behavior contributes to the sense of security for the customer.

New customers need a well-orchestrated, positive orientation to the rituals of the Center so that they have a common set of expectations. The Center might identify a Customer Service employee who consistently orients the new guests.

It is wise to compile a Customer Training Manuel that carefully details safety procedures and orientations so that you can guarantee a predictable set of guest expectations regardless of employee change over.

Materials used in theming and building (such as flooring and wall coverings) should be nontoxic, recyclable, easy to clean and bright. Consider integrating video surveillance systems, front door security and proper emergency exits into the interior design. For the ages 1-3 group (toddlers), consider padding all walls and floors with a material that can be easily sanitized. Try to avoid vinyl (non-sealed) surfaces that wipe easily but are hard to sanitize. Remember that children’s faces are knee-high to most adults.

Give careful consideration to the audio, cooling/heating and lighting systems in the Center. Study the effects of light fluorescence, the decibel level of sound, the quality of speakers, and the positions of vents for intake and outflow of air. Try to integrate as much natural lighting as possible with skylights and large windows.

Regarding entertainment and educational programming, have these programs evaluated by educators for their soundness and be careful of the values communicated through the programming. Remember...a child's mind has an immature filtration system, so programming must be carefully scrutinized for values, content and message.

To complete the development of a safe environment for your guests, a system for identifying a child and his or her parents should be established as standard procedure and no child should be able to leave the Center without proper identification with the correct adult.

The staff should be well trained in dispute resolution and arbitration.

Finally, the money management systems should be clear and consistent with a management office in full view of the front entrance and all exits.

Always remember the golden rule of entertainment: a sense of safety provides the comfort level needed by the audience to play, to enjoy, and to be spontaneous. This will lead to the great rewards of repeat business.

The Magic

Along with predictability, a village has an element of surprise or it will not maintain the interest of its young people. History bears out this reality. For example, look at the small towns in the Midwest of the United States or mainland China that are trying to revitalize their small cities through adding festivals and special events in an effort to hold the attention of their young populations. This same concept should be integrated into the programming of a Children’s Entertainment Center.

The predictability of each year’s routine might be spiced with some of the following special events: guest appearances, speakers, celebrity appearances, special events, festivals, contests, raffles, special animal appearances (where possible), water balloon days, film festivals, nature hikes, farmer's markets, scarecrow alley, craft shows, lemonade competitions, bake off competitions, athletic competitions, scavenger hunts, archeological digs, and any number of surprise elements added to the weekly programming routine.

Consider special days or Holidays to celebrate such as Passover, St. Juliana Feast, Summer Solstice, May Day, Girl's Day, Boy's Day, Chinese Moon Festival and The Night of a Thousand Stars. These added touches will keep the Center vital and evolving and keep the guests surprised and curious to return to the Center - to discover what is new. Ultimately, the quality of a Center’s programming will determine its long-term success.

Old Fashioned Family Values

A village helps to create healthy individuals. A Children's Entertainment Center can become a focal point in a community for parents, grandparents and children. It can complement the schools and the community recreation programs to provide a necessary element to every community: a secondary sense of a village.

In recent years, school budgets have suffered massive cuts across the nation in sports programming, arts programming, and such classes as shop and home economics. A Children's Entertainment Center can embrace the basic concepts of Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, intramural sports, arts' classes and youth clubs. It can offer tutorial classes, dance classes, deportment and modeling classes, makeup and hygiene classes as well as spaces for forums and groups meeting on youth and community issues. A strong and successful Center provides a source of empowerment to its guests.

It Takes A Village

Recently, we stood in a group of people watching the new Electrical Light Parade at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. We overheard a woman in front of us singing the familiar Disney songs in English as the floats passed by. When we looked for the source of the music, the woman was Pakistani. We tried to speak with her, but unfortunately she did not speak English. What we could share of the experience was the music, the sights and pageantry of the moment. For a time, we were part of the same village.

In planning a Children's Entertainment Center, we suggest that you “build a village” with the mission of helping to raise the children of your community. That’s a goal worthy of any business. It is not an easily obtainable goal, but it adds almost nothing to the project costs and the strong efforts will eventually increase your company’s bottom line.