17 October 1998

Profitable playtime

A Norfolk arable and poultry business pinpointed people as the additional diversification they needed. Marie Skinner heard how they farm children.

A PARTIALLY converted barn, access to capital and enthusiasm were all available. The problem for Lynn and Jonathan Kidner was how to put all three ingredients together to create a successful diversification.

The Kidners already had a business producing 17 million hatching eggs a year from 100,000 broiler breeders at West Green Farm, Poringland, Norfolk. The farms arable land is farmed under contract by Jonathans brother so a further source of income was needed.

Lynn considered how to turn the barn into a money-making part of the farm business. "We knew we could hire out the barn on Saturdays for weddings and barn dances, but we needed to generate income on weekdays as well.

"We looked at all sorts of ideas, from craft fairs to farm walks, but none seemed suitable. Then, in 1995 we hired a bouncy castle and held our sons third birthday party in the empty barn. It was a success and the idea of turning the barn into a birthday centre was born," explains Mrs Kidner.

That Easter, the barn was opened for a weeks trial run as a party centre but it failed when only one party was booked, not the hoped-for three or four. After consulting mothers and local playgroups, it was decided that a demand did exist for an indoor play area, not just for parties, but for individuals on a pay-and-play basis.

In July 1995, the Playbarn opened, offering play facilities for children under seven accompanied by an adult. In the first 12 months of opening, over 20,000 children used the facilities. In 1997 35,000 children passed through the Playbarn, with as many as 200 arriving on a busy day. Figures for 1998 are expected to be even higher.

The indoor play area now includes the ever-popular bouncy castle, a soft play area, ride-on tractors, toys, puzzles, books, wooden toys and a large sand pit.

Upstairs has been converted into a separate area for private parties, which now average 12 per week. "One of our specialities is themed parties, such as pony parties and tractor parties. We organise the party, provide the food and the take-home goody bags," says Mrs Kidner.

1998 saw the opening of an outside play area and a childrens farm, with paddocks containing a range of animals from pigs to goats to chickens and horses.

The initial investment required to set-up the Playbarn with equipment was £35,000. "We were fortunate," points out Mrs Kidner. "The barn had already been converted for social events and had toilets and a small kitchen. This meant we did not need to spend money on the initial barn conversion, although numerous improvements were necessary."

Turnover in the first year of trading was £70,000. It doubled in the second year of trading and again in the third year. Trading profit has similarly grown over the three years, and means the initial capital loan will have been repaid by the end of the fourth year.

Currently employing 15 people, including several part-timers and students, Playbarns largest costs are wages. The major source of income comes from the pre-booked parties, although admission charges, at £3 per child, come close behind.

Adults are admitted free of charge if accompanying a child, otherwise they pay £1. Pony rides, tractor tours and farm visits are all additional extras, charged at £1 per child.

There are three basic requirements for a successful play barn, according to Mrs Kidner. First, suitable buildings to convert. Second, a good location, which should be within 10-15min of a major town. "We are close to Norwich with 550 playgroups in the area," she explains. Third, it should be sited on a good road with easy access, not miles down a country lane.

"It also helps having maintenance and support provided by the farm as this helps to keep down costs. For instance, the farm workshop is proficient at servicing and mending toy ride-on tractors and now carries a full range of spares to cope with most problems."

Mrs Kidner is optimistic about the future. The Playbarn won the Best Alternative Land Enterprise Award in 1996 and has recently been shortlisted for a local Best Start-up Business award. When she has finished her expansion plans on their own farm, she intends to look for another barn suitable for conversion in a new area.

Mrs Kinder also hopes to set up a franchising operation for Playbarn. As she points out, its a good business to be in – theres always a continuous supply of new customers.

&#8226 Contact: Lynn Kidner 01508 495526.