“How did you get into this then?”
Imagine a typically British, miserable, wet weekend.
Inside Riverside Hub it’s buzzing with people – kids everywhere having a great time and the parents are glad that the kids are happy and contented.
It’s noisy and busy, but the atmosphere is positive, it’s an exciting place to be.
On days like this my wife Valentina and I can’t just sit at home and relax. We like to get hands-on and help out wherever it’s needed.
I’m often helping at the café, where sometimes a parent strikes up a conversation with me that goes like this:
Parent: “You’re the owner aren’t you?”
Parent: “You must be making a fortune!”
Me: “You should come back on a sunny day and watch me lose a fortune!”
Parent: “So how did you get into this then?”
Now, there’s a quick answer to that, which is “Well, it was my wife’s idea and we both decided to really go for it. It’s a lot of hard work, and constant re-investment, but it’s great to see it doing well”.
If that answer works for you, then you don’t need to read any more.
But if you’re curious about all things Hub, then let me tell you the full story, warts and all....
The big idea
In 2011 my wife Valentina and I were expecting our second daughter when we bought an old house that needed absolutely everything doing. Valentina and I got to work ripping everything out so that the builders can make it all good.
House renovation wasn’t really Valentina’s passion though and she talked to me about an idea she had.
Having visited indoor play centres’ in the area, Valentina thought they were not good enough and that she could do it better.
The two existing centres’ in Northampton were awful (I can say that now because they’ve both changed hands and had a refurb, but trust me, they were awful – I went to a birthday party at one of them and they were serving instant coffee!), so Valentina thought she could easily compete in that market.
However, I was not convinced.
I said that the outlay to set everything up would be absolutely huge and the money coming back in would be small. £5 here, £10 there, it would take ages to get the money back. It sounded like a messy business with lots of little income streams to get it all to add up to something.
And then there’s the staff and premises. In my family business it was literally just my family, there were no employees, we worked from home and did everything ourselves. This indoor play business sounded like a lot of work and a lot of risk.
As they say on Dragons Den, I was out.
Some months later, as we were getting close to finishing doing up our house, out of the blue, Valentina said to me that she was still thinking about the indoor play centre idea.
She had some ideas that could make it less of a risk and more of a (fairly) certain success. Northampton had a reasonably large population of around 250,000, but the county of Northamptonshire had a population of 600,000, giving us a large catchment area. It’s no good building something wonderful if there’s no-one around to visit it.
Valentina had ideas for lots of ways to get visitors in and get profitable. Profit may seem like a dirty word to some, but without profit any business will be dead-in-the-water pretty quickly, unless the owners have a magic money tree.
The more she persisted (and Valentina can be very persistent, believe me), the more I slowly came around to the idea.
We drove around the country looking at all kinds of children’s play places and discussed what we liked and what we didn’t. Visibility was always a big one for Valentina. If you lose your child somewhere it’s an awful feeling and panic can soon set in, so being able to see your child easily was high on our good list. That and decent coffee.
Top of the bad list was cleanliness. We visited one large play centre, part of an outdoor attraction near Leicester, which must have been about 15 years old at the time and it looked as if it hadn’t been dusted since it opened.
I hate the word Softplay. It has always had a default bad reputation, which the Hub has always had to work hard to push back against. The old cliché that a kid’s just thrown up in the ball pool and everywhere needs a damn good scrubbing is one which the industry is still struggling to shake off. Some yummy mummies tend to look down their noses at 'softplay', as if it’s full of germs.
We spend tens of thousands cleaning our play equipment each year. Ask the council how often they clean the play equipment at your local park. The answer will probably be “the rain washes it clean” (which is a polite way of saying ”we never clean it”).
Thankfully, as there are now so many more decent places to take the kids than there used to be, many of the grubby indoor centres from 20 years ago have long gone and most of the operators still in the game now have decent standards.
Anyway, Valentina and I spent some months coming up with our own big list of likes, dislikes and loads of ideas of our own. Take our climbing tree. Climbing walls are nothing new, but they are just a big ugly grey slab. A climbing tree is a much more exciting way to get kids climbing and it brings a bit of the outdoors indoors, so adds a nice ambience to the place.
By now I was onboard, and we were totting up our list of costs whilst looking for a potential site for our exciting new venture.
Valentina told me she had identified a potential site. She had literally just poked her head around the door and said to herself “that’ll do”.
This was unit 7 Carousel Way, and it was just a massive empty space. Everything you see at the Hub we had to bring in - at a serious cost. Valentina has a bizarre talent where she just ‘gets’ all aspects of building. She can accurately cost a job and work out how it will be done and how long it will take. The costs kept adding up though and we were looking at upwards of £1 million.
This was back in 2013 and £1million was a hell of a lot of money back then. £1 million still is a ridiculous amount of money of course, but with the Government throwing billions around these days, a million just doesn’t seem the same jaw-dropping, unbelievably huge sum of money it did then. Anyway, we didn’t have £1 million, so we needed to borrow. With re-mortgaging our house and throwing in everything we had we were still a way off that magic million.
Most of the people we discussed ‘the big idea’ with were broadly supportive. Many agreed that it was very bold, but it could work. Whilst Valentina’s family were very supportive (Valentina’s been employing people since she was 13 back in Ukraine on market stalls, but that’s another story), my family though were dead against it.
Me, my parents and my brother had lots of fallings-out over it. As I mentioned earlier, my family had never had a business premises, nor even employed anyone. As any business owner knows, both of those things are a huge commitment and not to be underestimated. My family had never set foot in an indoor play centre before either, so they just did not get the idea at all. We’ve always been a pretty close family, but this was causing a huge rift.
After what felt like months of disagreements, we all just had to agree to disagree. Lloyds bank were going to lend us the extra money we needed and we were going ahead.
Then my parents really surprised us. They offered to lend us the money we needed, instead of us borrowing it from the bank. Looking back now, I see this as a truly remarkable gesture. My Dad in particular was convinced that the business would fail, yet still lent us the money we needed, fully expecting to never get it back. That’s unconditional love right there.
As a funny side note, after the Hub opened, I was repaying the debt to my parents as soon as the bank balance would possibly allow it. I was repaying the money so quickly that my Dad asked me in all seriousness if I was borrowing money from a bank to pay him back. It took him a good couple of years to finally come to terms that the Hub was a success. Nowadays he gets very proud when his friends at the bridge clubs he plays at tell him how they love taking their grandchildren to the Hub.
Digressing for a minute, Valentina and I never had a business plan. It was all in our heads. Sure, we had to cook up some numbers on a spreadsheet to show the bank for a loan, but it’s all nonsense isn’t it? We can all be millionaires on a spreadsheet.
It’s like when you watch Dragons Den and the person pitching to the Dragons says “In year 1 we’ll turn over £100,000, then £300,000 in year 2, £700,000 in year 3” etc.
They are just pulling numbers out of thin air. It’s wishful thinking, and I’m always amazed when the Dragons take them at their word. 95% of start-up businesses do not make it to 10 years. It’s really hard and there are no guarantees.
We have always gone on our gut instinct. If the Hub had failed then we would have lost everything. We knew this, but we also trusted our instincts. We trusted ourselves that we knew parents wants and needs – and that there were enough families in the area to make sense of it all.
It was a gamble for sure, but we felt the dice were slightly loaded in our favour.
What’s in a name?
The big idea was slowly starting to take shape, now we just needed a name for it.
Kiddyhampton. It sounds incredibly naff to me now, but you;'ve go to start somewhere.
We played around with all kinds of Fun Shack, Fun Hub, Fun House combinations, but they all felt a bit like they would conjure up everyone’s worst nightmare of an indoor play centre – really noisy, with kids running riot all over the place. The sort of place you suffered on a rainy day but kept clear of unless there was absolutely nowhere else to go. We were looking to create somewhere where the adults could enjoy themselves too. The kind of place where Mums willingly meet up on a schoolday for a chat in a nice ambience.
Riverside Play. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Riverside Hub. Bingo.
What really appealed to me about the name Riverside Hub, is that people could affectionately shorten it to ‘the Hub’, and feel a warm association with it, like people do with Coke, Micky D’s, Chevy, Fed Ex, Bud.
A diamond in the park
Me and Valentina will be the first to tell you that we don’t really know how to run the business. Sure, we’re great at dreaming up and designing new play equipment and making sure that it’s Safe, Clean and Fun (the essential trinity), but when it comes to payroll, staff rota’s and risk assessments, we’re just not the people for that.
We knew we needed a great manager to dot all the I’s and cross all the t’s. One day Valentina told me she had met the perfect person in the park at our local village. I must admit I thought she was grabbing at the very first person that showed interest and that there would be dozens of people that would be better qualified than someone you’ve just bumped into on the swings.
Lorraine Murphy had everything we were lacking. Coming from lots of very important sounding jobs, she was overqualified if anything and she was just what we needed.
Whenever Valentina and I have a disagreement about the business (which can be often), we always ask Lorraine’s opinion and she casts the deciding vote. The three of us discuss anything and everything all the time, and ten years in, I think Lorraine must be very proud to be at the helm of the good ship Hub.
Marketing on the back of a fag packet
We were so engrossed in the design and fit-out of the place, that we had no time to think of actually promoting it. Our days were full-on. We got the keys to the building in May and aimed for an August opening in time for the school holidays. This was very ambitious.
There were loads of 16 hour days, liaising with teams of installers. Specialist play providers built our play-frame and a posh wendy house company built houses for our ‘toddler village’. We had builders installing walls, kitchens, mezzanines, you name it.
Amazingly we did manage to open in time for the summer holidays.
Our big launch marketing and advertising spend was about fifty quid spent on some leaflets which we gave out locally. In truth there was no advertising or marketing plan at all. We were just too busy building it all to concentrate on selling it.
However, Facebook saved us. In 2013 Facebook was in it’s infancy and desperate to grow, so would promote anything you put on there to seemingly half the country. It’s completely the opposite now, but we just got lucky to be in there early.
We were hoping for a nice, steady launch. If visitor numbers grew slowly over time, then our team could slowy become more able and confident. Training on the job, if you like. However, that’s not what happened at all. From day 1 the place was rammed. Word of mouth had gone around and people were coming in big numbers. Then coming back and bringing their friends with them.
Looking back, the first six months are just a blur. It felt as if I was on a treadmill turned up to 11. Everything was new to us all, so we were all learning as we went along. We’d be doing every job in the place like Mrs. Rabbit from Peppa Pig.
The day before we opened the chef we’d hired said he wasn’t taking the job after all.
Valentina had visions of cutting a red ribbon with a pair of giant scissors on the grand opening day, but actually spent it in a hairnet cooking in the kitchen. We didn’t have enough staff so we’d be literally doing everything. Opening up at 9am, serving visitors, closing up, cleaning toilets at midnight, you name it we did it. As we were a new business, no food supplier would deliver to us until we'd been trading for 6 months, so we had to drive to Booker and Tesco twice daily!
The Critics who can’t break you / Unwillingly they make you
Wise words from Morrissey.
We were so busy with the craziness inside the building that we never gave a thought to what was going on outside it. The local paper ran an article claiming that ‘50 furious drivers had been ticketed on Carousel Way’ (the road the Hub is on). After the lovely Colin from a neighbouring business threatened to park a 7-ton lorry blocking our entrance, we decided to do something about the matter.
From then on when the Hub was busy, me or Valentina would be on the road outside advising visitors where they could and could not park, to ease congestion and prevent anyone from getting a parking ticket.
For a long time whenever you Googled Riverside Hub ’50 furious drivers get parking fines’ was the top search result. In a funny kind of way it helped put us on the map. This place must be good if so many people are beating a path to the door, right?
For a few years Valentina and I were parking attendants on our busiest days. Ridiculous, but true. It was very difficult to find someone to stand outside in the cold and wet (we’re never busy on a sunny day) and competently handle what could be a very stressful situation. We didn’t have a clue how many people were coming to visit on any day. Thankfully, we’ve solved that problem now through online bookings so we no longer get soaked on rainy days.
Keep on running
We had started a business. It was great. Successful from day one.
But that’s not good enough. Any chancer with a million and a big building could take us on and try to take a piece of our pie. In the early years we would often have people ask us questions about how they could set up a place like this. That’s a red flag right there. If there’s copycat Hub’s all over the place then we’ll be just one of many – and that’s really bad for business.
We deliberately re-invested all our profits into more and more play equipment. When we got wind of another play centre opening down the road we went into overdrive and spent £450,000 on a new mezzanine to host laser tag, we spent £150,000 on a new carousel and tens of thousands upgrading and improving our play equipment.
But that’s not enough. We want to be unique, not just full of off the shelf items that anyone could buy. We now employ a small team of tech boffins who build all our complex sensory areas (once Valentina has come up with the vision). Now we are packed with unique items that are far more interesting and exciting than you can buy.
Most people’s idea of a sensory room is some soft mats with a bubble tube and a twinkly projector. We’re now light years ahead of that and are still improving, improving, improving.
Two years to forget
Covid knocked us sideways. Being closed for 10 months on and off is no fun. No fun at all.
We were in a bad place business-wise, with thousands of pounds going out the bank each week and next to nothing coming in.
I'm not going to go into the politics of it all. Everyone has their own opinions. As the football manager Sam Allardyce once said "I don't comment on referees and I'm not about to start now, with that clown".
It was mentally tough for both Valentina and I. Even though we knew that the closure would only be temporary, the lockdowns were very frustrating. We filled our time by building ‘Hub Towers’ as we called it, a new two-storey role-play building with a very snazzy interior.
There was a silver lining to all the covid craziness though. It forced us to go with an online booking system for visits which works well for everyone involved.
Before covid, on a rainy weekend we would not have a clue how many people were coming to visit. Hundreds of people would all arrive at 10am (everyone always wants to visit at 10am) – far more people than we could comfortably handle sometimes.
There would be huge queues of cars down the road, chaos at reception, big queues at the café and on the rides. But then at 2pm everyone would start to leave and the place would be half deserted for last few hours.
Now, with online bookings we’re able to spread our visitors throughout the day. 10am fully booked, how about 2.30pm? There is very little queueing for our visitors, who have a far better experience than they ever had before (and our team don’t get stressed out either).
We’ve finally cracked our car parking problems too. By booking a space for their car, visitors now know they have a space reserved for them. Before covid, people would never know if they could park here or not until they arrived, which is stress and hassle that no-one needs.
Back on track
It takes a small army of over 100 people to run the Hub. At night we have a whole new team come in. Cleaners, a car mechanic who looks after our go-karts, our development experts and our general maintenance men who are constantly fixing things that have been broken during the day. Items get worn out or broken all the time. That might sound like a business owners’ nightmare, but if you’ve had no wear and tear then you’ve had no visitors in – now that’s a nightmare.
This year (2023) we’re going for it again and are spending a quite ridiculous seven figure sum on a huge new play area which Valentina has been planning for 2 years now. We’re effectively building a play centre within a play centre.
What’s remarkable is that when I look at the huge sums of money going out of the door in wages, improvements, rent, rates, taxes and just the day-to-day stuff (we spend £500 a month just on toilet rolls for example), I’m amazed that there is anything left to re-invest, but thankfully there is and I am very grateful for that.
These days I don’t get many people ask me how they can set up a place like this, as the Hub has developed so much and the money spent is all there to see (Probably £4 million so far on play and sensory equipment I’d guess). I don’t want you to think that I’m showing off with these massive numbers. We could spend less, but we re-invest so much money back into the Hub from fear of someone else catching us up. The competition is always snapping at our heels, so we need to constantly invest. Of course, the big winners in all of this are you, our visitors.
But what is it?
We’re now a one-off. A unique place that is hard to pin down.
If you were to describe the Hub to a friend in just a few words, what would you call it?
As I said before, I hate the term ‘softplay’ with a passion.
Valentina always says that if she were to start again she would have no softplay at all, because of the naff connotations. But we’ve built a huge 4-storey monster, and kids do love it, so I suppose it’s here to stay.
Family Entertainment Centre is a term that explains what we are, but it hardly rolls of the tongue does it? “Bye darling, I’m off to the Family Entertainment Centre”. No.
We’re a bit of an indoor theme park, but we don’t have a rollercoaster and besides, I always hate overselling something, so that visitors are disappointed when they turn up. Our website is deliberately a bit crap for this reason. I’d rather people are WOWed than have their expectations raised, only to then be underwhelmed. It’s like seeing a funny trailer for a comedy film and then after watching the film you realise all the best jokes were in the trailer.
So we call it an indoor play centre, for want of a better term.
My gaff, my rules
The beauty of running your own business is that you can do whatever the hell you want with it, as long as it’s legal.
Take my idea of the I Love Hub slap-band promotion (we give kids a slap-band, then each time they visit they simply show it to us and can choose a free gift).
Parents are bored with all the loyalty schemes from Costa or the dry cleaners ‘clean 8 shirts and get the 9th for free. No big deal.
But I don’t know of any loyalty scheme for kids. The fact that you can choose a free gift right there and then just for remembering to bring a slapband with you is awesome, if I do say so myself.
However, if we had some board of directors of shareholders to answer to, they would have poo-pooed the slap-band idea from the off. They would argue that it’s difficult to track how effective it is etc. etc.
Truth is, I haven’t a clue how much we spend on the toys that we give away each year, I really don’t want to check to be honest, but I know it’s many thousands of pounds. It puts smiles on the kids faces and that’ll do for me.
Another question often asked of us (usually by people who have travelled a really long way to visit) is “why don’t you build another one of these in [the town where they live]”.
Firstly, there’s only 24 hours in a day and we’re all flat out trying to keep the place looking tickety-boo, with everything working, safe and clean. It takes a huge effort from the whole team to keep the standards high. We’ve a great reputation for being clean and that is not achieved easily.
We’re basically getting the place slowly trashed day after day, which takes it’s toll on everything. We’re constantly repairing and replacing things after thousands of kids and adults have worn them out. That’s the deal though and we accept that. Some kids play nicely, some not so nicely and we have to make sure that the whole place is safe to allow visitors in each day, no matter what state it was in by the end of the day before.
For what from the outside looks like a pretty straightforward business, it’s actually quite complex and there are lots of plates spinning all the time.
By re-investing, re-investing, re-investing, instead of opening another half a dozen sites, we’ve created something very special and certainly unique.
Our visitors benefit from the constant re-investment and ever-changing range of play and sensory stuff.
I’ll blow my trumpet a little here and state with confidence that no other indoor play venue in the country spends anything like the amount of money that we do on new equipment. Absolutely nothing like it. We’re a bit crazy and perhaps guilty of a massive overspend, but that’s how Valentina and I are - we want the Hub to be spectacular, not just pretty good.
We still don’t advertise and rely on word-of-mouth. I’ve wasted countless thousands of pounds on advertising over the years with my other business and am not about to make the same mistake twice. A clever man once wrote that the secret for any business is just to be amazing. Everything will fall into place if you strive to amaze people.
Remarkable venues that inspire us are the Disney parks (obviously, as they are the ultimate standard for family leisure), Meow Wolf art installations in the USA and in this country Wake the Tiger (an exciting new adult-oriented ‘amazement park’) and Lapland UK, which is the ultimate Christmas experience.
The truth is we don’t really want to be an indoor play centre. We want to be something unique, somewhere that is unlike anywhere else. Somewhere that the whole family can visit and be blown away by with the sheer number of exciting things to see and do. With the new play additions that we’re building now, I hope you’ll find that we’re getting there.
But we’re never ever finished. If you stand still in leisure, then you’re going backwards.
So we’ll keep on improving, improving, improving.
I hope your family enjoys the journey.
Author of ridiculously long web pages
"That's way too long, who the hell's going to read all that?"
Valentina Potter. 21st August 2023