Starting an Inflatable Party Rental Business
January 16, 2011
What to Embrace and What to Avoid
Flexibility and a large, varied target market make starting an inflatables rental business a viable option for many would-be operators. “Done right, it definitely works,” said Richard Atchison, owner of 3-year-old Jump N Bounce Fun in Naugatuck, Conn. “The money can be incredible.”
Atchison believes that doing his homework truly helped him to put Jump N Bounce Fun on the path to success. This entailed querying his neighbor, who at the time owned an inflatables business that would not be a competitor because of its location 30 miles away, about the tricks of the trade. Right away, he learned that he should start small—which led him to kick off Jump N Bounce Fun with three units. Atchison also discovered the importance of pricing rentals strategically instead of in a more arbitrary fashion. In the Northeastern United States, the inflatables rental business is seasonal, allowing him to charge more than operations in at least some other parts of the United States.
Home parties currently generate 80 percent of Jump N Bounce Fun’s rental volume; the remaining 20 percent comes from special events, like grand openings. Such volume has, over the past three years, warranted the addition of a full menu of inflatables, including combination bounce-and-slide units, water slides, castles, boxing rings and joust pens. Atchison’s current goal entails building the business by promoting joust, boxing and gauntlet options for older kids and their events, such as high school graduation parties.
Bob Loughman, president of K.E.C. Party Rentals in East Longmeadow, Mass., also believes inflatables rental ventures are best built gradually. In 2000, Loughman, who was then in the petroleum business, saw the “handwriting on the wall” for local, independent gas stations and began investigating other options. Observation and instinct told him that the inflatables rental arena might be worth tapping into, which led him to develop his current company as a sideline. By 2004, the venture had grown enough to enable Loughman to sell his gas station business and devote himself to party rentals on a full-time basis.
Since then, K.E.C. Party Rentals has evolved into a full-service event company that offers more than 80 inflatables, as well as novelty photo booths, customized favors and more. While residential parties remain the bread-and-butter of the operation, generating 50 percent of business, Loughman attributes much of its success to actively targeting other outlets, such as churches and schools, and promoting rentals for larger events like field days, where multiple units are required.
Loughman also did not throw in the towel when the venture did not take off immediately; rather, he exercised patience and continued to tout inflatables for all types of events. “The business grew exponentially,” he noted. “The first year was really scary, the second year, encouraging, especially when I got into the church picnic market and then schools started calling.”
Like both Loughman and Atchison, Zury Mansur, owner of Bouncy-Rentals, LLC, in Baltimore, Md., began with just a small selection of units when he founded his business two years ago. Research, too, was part of his strategy for jumping on the inflatables rental bandwagon.
Mansur first saw inflatables “in action” on a visit to Florida. Intrigued and looking for an income to supplement his regular salary, he returned home to Maryland and took a hard look at his potential market to ensure that competition would not pose too much of a challenge for a fledgling operation.
“I discovered that there wasn’t much competition—and that there wasn’t much capital required to start—so I went ahead. But I wouldn’t let (excitement) prevent me” from due diligence.
Steady growth, derived from serving a cadre of residential party clients as well as doing a smaller volume of church festival and special event business, has enabled Mansur to resign from his job and focus his energies on Bouncy-Rentals. Today, Mansur and his partners continually prime the operation for success by re-investing a substantial portion of profits back into the operation. Such re-investment comes in the form of purchasing new inflatables, advertising in a variety of media and improving the Web site.
“Reinvestment is a must,” Mansur asserted.
Both Curt Moss, owner of Air Adventures LLC in Villa Ridge, Mo., and Chad McLean, owner of Eastern Connecticut Moonwalks in Jewett City, Conn., continue to run their inflatables rental businesses as a sideline as they ramp up, but both operations are already flourishing despite their short tenure to date.
McLean started his business this past July, after hearing about the industry from a friend who already has a successful inflatables venture. Eastern Connecticut Moonwalks still has just four inflatables. However, its reach has already expanded to encompass not just children’s home parties, but schools and corporations interested in bringing in inflatables for special events, such as holiday parties. Its present volume warrants hiring more than one employee, a step McLean would like to take in the very near future.
The operator believes that advertising on Google and using search engine optimization to enhance Eastern Connecticut Moonwalks’ online presence has played a significant role in generating so much momentum in such a short period of time. “I think people use the Internet to find what they need so much more now that it would be silly not to go that route,” he said. The company’s Web site takes things one step farther by informing consumers of certain special benefits to be gleaned from renting inflatables through Eastern Connecticut Moonwalks; these include free delivery in two local counties, the ability to arrange rentals on short notice (with the caveat that some units may not be available), an option to save money on a half-day bounce house rental as opposed to a full-day rental, and the fact that all units are 100 percent lead free.
Moss bought Air Adventures from friends, who no longer had the time to operate it, seven years ago. His original target was the parents of small children, churches, schools and company picnics. “This has worked well,” he said. Nonetheless, what has really set the company apart from its competitors is the personal touch. Moss makes it a point to establish relationships with customers by remembering their preferences for equipment, as well as the parameters of their homes or facilities.
“That—and being on time for every appointment—makes the world of difference,” he said.
Owners of successful inflatables rental operations have also learned from their mistakes and would do certain things differently if offered the opportunity. Case in point: Atchison would start with a different mix of inflatables—for example, combination units and units with a water element, rather than standard 15-foot-by-15-foot bounce houses alone. The latter still garner some attention from customers, but trial and error have taught him that most people prefer the more sophisticated options—which he was unable to afford when Jump N Bounce Fun first opened its doors. “If finances allow, go for the assortment,” he advised.
Meanwhile, Moss’ would promote Air Adventures more actively right out of the starting gate, for example, by handing out fliers at schools and churches rather than simply relying on word of mouth, the Yellow Book, and the Yellow Pages to spread the word about his venture. He currently utilizes all of these promotional tactics, but believes it may have been easier for him to cultivate a clientele in the beginning had he distributed the literature earlier.
In a somewhat different vein, Loughman would look for more safety training before opening the business, rather than garnering knowledge through trial and error as he went along. “In Massachusetts, where we do a lot of business, the state regulates us and each inflatable must be licensed,” he said. “But we also operate in Connecticut, where that isn’t the case, and it can be confusing. Fortunately, there are now a lot of good online resources related to safety training” of which beginners can take advantage.
For his part, McLean would take a different approach to storage, keeping his inflatables in an enclosed trailer when not in use instead of in a garage. The latter, he has discovered, adds a lot of work because it necessitates hauling the units in and out; he expects that hitching up a trailer, which he will investigate purchasing as soon as possible, will bolster the business’ efficiency. –
Little-Known Secrets to Operating an Inflatables Business
1. Leverage the Internet. Bouncy Rentals accepts reservations for its inflatables on its Web site, increasing customer convenience and, in turn, cultivating loyalty. The Web site also has a live chat feature that allows prospective customers to chat live with a knowledgeable company representative if they prefer not to do so by telephone.
2. Think outside the box. One operator purchased his first few inflatables from another company that was going out of business, which reduced his start-up expenditures somewhat.
3. Get properly outfitted. For example, a heavy-duty vacuum cleaner is the best option for removing dirt from inflatables. McLean, of Eastern Connecticut Moonwalks, wishes he had known this before he started his business. He still uses a small, hand-held vacuum cleaner, “which is not the best choice, but you may not think of those things.”