Soft play centres in Kent struggling as third lockdown hits

The owner of a popular soft play centre in Kent says his business has been able to open for only six weeks since the start of last year.

Andrew Moody, who has owned Adventure Kidz for 10 years, described the situation as "catastrophic" but he's trying to "hang on" as Kent finds itself in a third lockdown, with no guaranteed end date.

Andrew and Elizabeth Moody
Andrew and Elizabeth Moody

Mr Moody who runs the centre with his wife Elizabeth, said: "My business can't survive on six weeks trading over 12 months. Rishi Sunak says 'we can't save every business' but they are not trying to save ours.

"Unfortunately I am the only one standing in our area because they can't afford to carry on."

He added the business had money to fall back on, "but my money doesn't last forever."

In April, six indoor play areas from west Kent wrote to the government, calling for urgent assistance, predicting many casualties to the industry if extra help was not given.

Now, many months later, only two of those companies, Adventure Kidz and Clip 'n' Climb in Tonbridge, are still welcoming families.

Soft play centres have remained closed for much of the last 10 months
Soft play centres have remained closed for much of the last 10 months

Bosses said it just wasn't financially viable to keep going with the current coronavirus restrictions and the guidelines they were given in order to run safely.

Guy Bignell, manager of Clip 'n' Climb in Morley Road, said the situation was "brutal".

The centre, unlike Adventure Kidz, was allowed to reopen shortly in December because it is in the same category as gyms, but he says it was a "waste of time" as no customers came, perhaps because people didn't realise they were open, or didn't feel ready to return.

"It's extraordinary to think that come March we will have only been open for three-and-a-half months in 12. How can a business survive in that environment? " he said.

He said the fact business were having to pay full rent to landlords was a further strain and once centres like his did reopen, plans for expansion would have to be put on hold as cash had been spent on getting through this period. This would hurt the wider economy, he added.

Across the country, soft-play centres closed in March and were only allowed to reopen August, with a string of social distancing conditions.

In Herne Bay, just six months after Playzone closed plans to turn it into an industrial unit have been revealed.

A former employee told KentOnline: “The owners were just as upset as we were when they told us it was going to shut. It was sad.

“It will leave a massive hole for parents and children.

“The children who came regularly had autism and disabilities, and it just became part of their day-to-day routines.

“It was a place where kids would spend quality time with their parents. It was a day out for them.”

The soft play centre in Herne Bay
The soft play centre in Herne Bay

This leaves just The Hippodrome in King’s Road as the town’s last-remaining children’s centre, and one of the few still operating in east Kent.

Hippodrome owner Fiona Rennie says scores of soft play areas across the country have struggled since the outbreak of coronavirus – and believes they will continue to suffer once the pandemic ends.

“I’m on soft play Facebook groups and up and down the country about half of the centres have gone,” she explained. “The only reason we’re viable is down to our Ofsted registration, which allows us to run a childcare business.

“People’s confidence in soft play is badly damaged by coronavirus and could remain that way for some time, as they don’t always have a great reputation for being clean.

"It's really tough business in the first place - none of us are rich.”

Running as a childcare business has helped Kidz City in Sheerness survive too. The centre has been converted into a nursery.

Speaking last year, business owner Tammy Wright said: "The virus was being spoken about one minute and then it was like, bam, everything was dead. We just had no-one coming in so we made the decision to close – then lockdown happened.

"It was going so good as well. We were constantly busy, we had our regular customers and a good reputation.

"We're having to change our business model to avoid permanent closure. We haven't really got any other option at this time, but we are lucky we can change into something else

Carol Sampson and Tammy Wright in Sheerness
Carol Sampson and Tammy Wright in Sheerness

Other business owners are hopeful about the future, despite a difficult 12 months.

Director of Monkey Bizz in Strood, Pauline Brace, said: "Due to indoor play being one of the last businesses to be allowed to open, and Medway falling in Tier 3 and then Tier 4 we have only been able to trade for for weeks since March 2020. It is looking likely this may be our only trade for 12 months.

"While we believe that our Covid measures enabled us to trade safely,with the latest increase apparently spread through children we do accept that a national lockdown is now the best course of action to finally end continued restrictions."

The company pays £130,000 in rent and did not qualify for initial hospitality and leisure grants. Ms Brace said they will need to borrow a lot to survive but she is hopeful about the future.

She added: "We are confident that Monkey Bizz will remain a viable and valuable facility to the Medway community and that there will be an appetite for families to return once restrictions are lifted.

"Overall, we remain positive about the future of Monkey Bizz once we are able to open again and look forward to seeing all our families return."

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