Richard Farley’s kids often brag about their dad to their young friends. “They embarrass me sometimes,” laughs the father of two.
It’s easy to understand their excitment. He’s director of Kidspace Adventures Ltd., a two-location family entertainment center (FEC) in the United Kingdom.
Along with Nick de Candole, his “best mate” of more than 25 years, Farley sought to open a facility unlike anything else in the UK—one larger in size and scope than the competition. To achieve this goal, Farley and de Candole traveled across the United States, Germany, Holland, and Belgium on a fact-finding mission.
“We took the best of each element and brought it back here,” says Farley, who dabbled in film post-production and residential real estate before entering the FEC universe.
Their Romford spot opened November 2005, followed by Croydon two years later. Among the facilities’ highlights: a central climbing structure, rock wall, sky trail, electric go-karts, and laser tag, as well as special programs and attractions for preschoolers. Their third location—with a twist—will debut this summer. Funworld recently asked Farley about his extraordinary business venture.
What did you learn on your fact-finding mission?
It was crucial. The major difference between Holland and Germany and here is the sheer scale of their family entertainment centers. Some of them are 80,000 square feet with varied and much better play equipment.
But because property prices are considerably higher here, it’s virtually impossible to build centers of that scale and size and still be viable. We tried to condense what we saw and put as much play value into an affordable space, which for us was 25,000 square feet. The average center in the UK is between 8,000 and 12,000 square feet.
We would just max out all our space. For example, we put the sky trail above the restaurant, doubled up the main play frame of the laser tag zone, and added crawl mazes wherever there was a square bit of space.
How else do your facilities stand out?
We wanted to make the attractions more challenging and more diverse to draw an older age group. For instance, the play equipment in Croydon is made out of wood, which makes the child a little more cautious when running around.
Little things like that make a difference. Our age range stretches to 12 years old; a typical center here loses their audience around age 9.
We also did everything at a much higher spec. We spent £2 million (US$3.1 million) on a site, where most others spend £300,000 (US$460,000).
Were you nervous putting out so much money?
Not nervous—excited. We had a little bit of money, but we had to raise quite a bit of funds. Once you’re past that initial hurdle, then you can relax a lot more.
With dance, drama, music, and art classes, you offer a variety of programs for preschoolers. Why is this important to you?
A play center should be a community hub. By having these preschool classes, it helps us to do that. It doesn’t make much money, but I think it’s essential.
What are your plans for the future?
In July we will be opening a 50-acre site in greater London. The indoor part has the same attractions and play value of our other Kidspaces, but this new one will feature an outdoor experience with zip wires, labyrinths, tunnels, and a working farm so you can see animals in a natural environment. It’s a whole experience.
This attraction also will be based around a fantasy book, which is currently being written. It will be themed up and more American. We’re very excited.
What lessons have you learned from your experiences?
It was inevitable that mistakes would be made. There isn’t any guru you can tap when trying a new concept. Some play equipment was wrong, and we had to replace it. We still don’t have the process of getting people through the door quite right yet. You can’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and make the necessary changes.
What advice do you have for someone new to the industry?
You shouldn’t just go up against local competition and think you can simply emulate what they have created and still be successful. It’s just a mistake. The competitor will have the experience under their belt. They’ll be savvier to the local market. And because they won’t be bogged down by initial gearing, the competitor can reinvest in their site and put a unique offering in to undermine what you’re doing. It’s always better to find an untapped location, which is never easy. If you manage to do that—and that’s half the battle—you should succeed.
What do you love most about your job?
I still feel like I’m at university. It’s just one big learning curve. I love the research, the creative side of it, the day-to-day operations, the fundraising. It’s all new to me, and still quite exciting.
Contact Contributing Editor Mike Bederka at mbederka@IAAPA.org.