Once upon a time, in a pub far, far away, was a garden full of mystery and wonder. Pirates, princesses, knights and fairies all gathered for a secret meeting in an invisible submarine, stationed at the lake of an enchanted castle, found in the centre of magical woods. Their mission was to climb the snoozing volcano, swing over the bottomless valley and find the abandoned steam train that is full of precious, thousand-year-old treasure.
The imagination of children when playing can be limitless, so why shouldn’t the vision for pub play areas be the same?
Of course, there is always a time and a place for a good-quality climbing frame, but there is so much more that can be done to help stretch the minds of little ones, while at the same time providing a unique selling point for your pub.
The value of play
A bespoke play area could be all a pub needs to draw families in and get ahead of the local competition.
Russell Bowley, director and designer for custom-made children’s play equipment company Flights of Fantasy, says a unique play area can make or break a family-friendly pub.
“I think a pub garden play area needs a wow factor,” he says.
“It doesn’t need to be big but it certainly needs to be something unique that you can’t find anywhere else, then people will keep coming back and back.
“Plus, it can absolutely sway a family looking for a local pub to go to.”
Jessica Tilston, sales and marketing coordinator at play equipment manufacturer Creative Play, agrees and says a fantastic play area can act as a shop window for families looking to find a pub in which to spend the day.
“If a family sees it, it is more likely to go to that one instead of a pub that doesn’t have a play area,” she says.
“One of the big things our play areas do is help increase a pub’s footfall. We get many publicans coming to us saying they have families visit, but there is no sort of provision for the children. With others asking what we can have that the pub down the road doesn’t have.”
One pub that can testify to this is the Ffolkes, in Hillington, Norfolk, which says its sales have practically doubled since putting in an extensive playground unlike any other. The playground, de-signed by Flights of Fantasy, flows around a tree in the garden. The centrepiece is a large egg-type structure with a lookout tower that can be accessed from inside. The structure includes a climbing wall, nets, a slide and more. All around the play area there is seating, helping make it a family-friendly setting for all.
“The playground is 100% something that, on its own, brings people to the pub,” says Kyle Godfrey, front-of-house manager. “I saw it go through the stages of the refurbishment, which opened last May, and last summer was amazing for sales. One day the pub had a party of 45 turn up, a large family, mainly because of the playground for the children.”
He continues: “I’ve not seen anything like this anywhere else. There is no doubt people are coming to us because it is unique. It is a selling point. People come here because the children are safe, they have somewhere to play.
“If the children are happy, parents will stay and have a couple more drinks or dinner. In fact, we have had lots of tears from children who don’t want to go home because they’ve had such a good time out there.”
Create a point of difference
So where should a pub look for inspiration for its new play area? Moreover, what types of equipment work best to keep the children occupied for a large amount of time?
Tilston suggests focusing on incorporating imaginative play, to keep the children busier for longer. “Parents are looking for something that will keep their children occupied,” she explains.
“They don’t want something where their children will run up, do the one thing, and then run away from it. It needs to have a lot of play value. Not just climbing up a set of steps and sliding down the other side, for example, because there is only so many times you can do that. You need something that will keep children wanting to do something with it.”
When it comes to picking a theme for the play area, Tilston also suggests looking at a pub’s history.
“It’s about thinking outside the box. Playing on words is something we do a lot of with pubs, especially with names, as sometimes they can be quite extravagant. We did one pub in Wales and put an image of the Welsh dragon onto one of our products. We also did a farm shop, which is famous for bison burgers so we incorporated bisons onto a spring rider instead of your typical horse.”
Bowley agrees and has often used the local area as inspiration for his designs.
“We recreated the local church for one pub because you could see it from the garden – it was an exact copy. You can go up into the church tower, where you’ve got a slide coming out of it, as well as a pole and an internal staircase.”
He continues: “It should be relevant to the pub, to the location. If you are a seaside pub, a ship would work, but 90% of pubs ask for ships. One play area we did had a shipwreck on an outcrop of rocks, along with a lighthouse. Then there were rope bridges going from the land to the wreck. It had rope traverses, which children could climb on to rescue themselves, to climb onto the rocks from the sinking ship. The sky is the limit.”
Red Mist Leisure’s pub, the Duke of Cambridge in Tilford, Surrey, has a playground that is another good example of a pub thinking locally. It is inspired by the village’s two bridges and river.
Red Mist managing director Mark Robson says: “We wanted to upgrade the children’s play area and we didn’t want the usual garish stuff you see in your local park. The Duke of Cambridge is a rural pub, it has lovely gardens, and is a very tranquil and pretty setting, so we wanted something that was going to complement the surroundings and fit in with the environment.”
The playground features climbing towers, step logs, raised boardwalks, rope vee-nets, balance beams, a ladder, a slide, a climb wall, and a rowboat. It also used wet-pour rubber chip to provide a safe and durable fall surface for the children around the play area.
“It’s brought people into the pub without a shadow of a doubt,” continues Robson. “It’s widely known as the pub with the best play area in our region, and that does pull parents and children in. I have two young children myself, and my son always wants to go to that pub rather than any of the other seven we have.
“While the kids are having fun, parents particularly love it in the spring and summer when they can sit back, have a bottle of wine and relax, knowing that their kids are safe and they are busy playing away and don’t need entertaining.”
Time to invest?
Bespoke playgrounds, however, do not come cheap, with Robson describing them as a “big investment, with a lot to consider”. “We certainly spent up to £50,000 putting the play area in to the Duke of Cambridge,” he continues.
“You can’t just chuck a slide up there with some chip bark in your garden anymore. You have got to do things properly and your insurance will dictate that as well. You can really be strung up if you don’t follow the rules on it.”
Robson also says that while a playground will not necessarily work for all, it can help provide that extra special experience for the right audience.
“You have to look at what draws customers to your pub, whatever kind of pub it is. You have to invest correctly to draw people in because, these days, we all know the pressure the industry is under – just serving people a great pint of beer, a nice sandwich or plate of food just doesn’t cut it,” he says. “You need to give people a memorable experience, and so you have to invest in things that provide that. For us, in that pub, the play area is one of the key features.”
Bowley estimates a unique playground can come with a hefty price tag, costing anywhere from £30,000 to £150,000. And, although expensive, he says it is worth the investment, just like any other part of a pub deserves.
“I’ve got lots of clients who say ‘I can’t afford the play area’,” he explains. “But it is crucial. If you have got the space and you’re aiming at the family market, a unique play area is a massive asset.
“You could do it cheaper, and I see a lot of pubs that have very tired looking playgrounds, and their budget is only £5,000, even though they’ll spend about £150,000 on a kitchen, but they’re damned if they’re going to spend £25,000 on the play area.
“If all else is right with the pub then the play area will pay for itself very quickly. I’ve had play areas that have literally paid for themselves within a year.”
Back to basics
Of course, there are options for play equipment, which is tried and tested, that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
John Slater, director of play equipment manufacturer Home Front, says a playground with more traditional and recognisable equipment costs around the £2,000 mark.
“The most common play equipment in a pub is the tower, with attached slide and some sort of climbing apparatus with it, because that means children can play together, and it doesn’t take up too much space,” he explains.
“These are what we call ‘clubhouses’, they come in different heights, and they are the centre point, on to which you attach the various other climbing things you want to do – depending on your space and budget.
Slater admits that one of the difficulties with pubs, is the need to cater for a wide range of kids, which means picking something as usable as possible.
“If you start with a budget of a couple of thousand pounds, that would probably buy you some decent equipment,” he says. “Of course, it depends on surfacing. You really need to think about putting safer surfacing down under the equipment to minimise the risk of injuries, so that would also add to your costs.”
A pub’s playground, if done properly, can be just as important as its food or bar area for a family-friendly pub. And, in the current climate, where people are looking for great all-round experiences, thinking outside the box with play equipment could prove a beneficial investment.
Of course, getting it right and coming up with a unique concept isn’t exactly child’s play. But, as we’ve seen, a little imagination can go a long way.