By Linda M. Barba
Could John Scurlock, the mechanical engineer whose serendipitous creation of the first inflatable structure in 1959, have imagined the many innovative varieties of bouncers that would one day be available? It’s very likely even the inventor would be surprised his first “space walk” – born from an inflatable tennis court cover experiment – would eventually give birth to a rapidly growing inflatables industry that includes bouncers, slides, obstacle courses and interactive games.
Today, purchasing just the right new inflatable for an amusement rental lineup is no small task, given the state of the economy, prices competitiveness and today’s fickle consumer with an ever-growing number of choices a phone call or key stroke away.
By Popular Demand
Reasons for the purchase of a new inflatable range from the practical (replacing something that’s worn out) to fulfilling a popular request. For Sandra Shea, owner of A-1 Promotions, LLC, a family owned business based in Independence, Mo., popularity often drives a new inflatable purchase decision.
“We often go by requests in choosing a new inflatable,” she said. But while popularity is a key consideration, so are quality of construction and long-term usability. “When we look at an inflatable, we think about how it might fit into a variety of venues,” Shea said. “Will the design and size be applicable for a wide range of places and types of events? These are important, too.”
Amy Stansberry, owner of Chandler, Ariz.-based Arizona Inflatable Events, agreed with being on the cutting edge and giving customers what they want. “We always want to have the newest, greatest theme that’s out there,” she explained. “The theme must be cool!” Stansberry does her homework to find an inflatable that relates to the newest trend, show or movie.
For 1,2,3 It’s Party Time in Escondido, Calif., determining popularity is a scientific endeavor. Owner J.R. Hernandez consults with the inflatable’s ultimate experts: kids. “We test things out on our children and other kids that we know to see what they like,” he said. This focus-group approach helps Hernandez make an informed decision.
More Bounce to the Ounce
So you’ve decided on the latest, greatest, most wildly popular bouncer for your business. How do you ensure you get the best deal? Cassandra Renfro, park manager for Grand Junction, Colo.-based Banana’s Fun Park, reported that “establishing and nurturing strong relationships with dealers is the key to getting the best buy.”
Knowing exactly what you’re buying is also critical. Randy Cook, manager of the 13-year-old Adventure Climbing in Waterville, Maine, is a strong proponent of training. “Our guys go for training every year,” he said. “Not only do we look to industry resources for knowledge, but we shop at industry tradeshows as well.”
Cook favors the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) for its expertise in inflatables. He kicks the proverbial tires at trade shows to examine key aspects such as safety, construction and materials durability. Renfro also shops trade shows to see the goods in person, try them out, and ask important questions.
For 1,2,3 It’s Party Time’s customers, Hernandez seeks out safety, quality and a good price. When he’s in the market, he combs through catalogs and reviews emails he’s received from manufacturers. “Customer service is also very important,” he said. “It is important to partner with companies that are reliable, knowledgeable and accessible to us.”
Profit potential is another aspect to consider when purchasing a new inflatable. Looking at what the competition charges is one way to set a fair price. Cook also factors in the length of time a user will be involved with the inflatable in addition to accessories that might be needed (suits, vests, etc.) as well as amount of time and number of staff needed to set up and/or supervise use. “The more complicated the experience, the higher the rental charge will be,” he said.
While repeat business drives profits, having an online presence proves to be a big help. Not only does having a website provide a starting point for rental companies that want to stay in line with its competitors, but it helps consumers more quickly and easily find a place to get the perfect bounce house.
Banana’s Fun Park posts newer inflatables on its website as soon as it gets them on board. “People see them on the website and around town,” said Renfro. “After some time they become our most popular attractions.”
Sometimes purchasing an inflatable is a matter of trial and error. Arizona Inflatable Events recently discovered that a Sponge Bob 5-in-1 combo was not as popular as initially hoped. Stansberry needed to change up her approach. “In this case, we lowered the price to make the bounce house more appealing,” she revealed. Thinking outside the box is another tactic. “If targeting to a certain demographic doesn’t work, you will need to be creative and try promoting to an entirely different group.”
“Don’t assume anything,” is sound advice given by Sandra Shea. She once purchased what she thought was a duplicate of an inflatable her company had been successfully renting out for years. “We believed we were buying the same item, but the manufacturer changed the design from the original and we weren’t as happy with what we got the second time around,” she explained. A-1 Promotions kept the new bouncer but chalked up the experience to a valuable lesson learned. “Today we ask more questions about the design, safety and materials before we buy,” she said. “If there is a change, we ask ‘why’ in advance so we know exactly what we’re getting.”
Although the economy has been slow to recover, one thing remains true. People of all ages still want to have fun. In fact, entertainment is more important than ever. John Scurlock would be pleased to know there’s likely a renter out there for every type of inflatable under the sun. The key to success in creating fun for the customer and profits for your business can be found in the fundamentals. Do your homework, train your staff and test marketing tactics to stay a bounce ahead. –