Trampoline park franchise Sky Zone has come a long way, growing from a chance experiment in an R&D centre to a global franchise operating in 100 cities around the world
If you’ve got the capital, an entertainment franchise can be a rewarding way to earn a crust. But it’s hard to know what to go for: bowling is boring and laser tag is lame. Fortunately there’s a new international franchise coming to our fair shores that has got kids and adults alike jumping for joy. Its name is Sky Zone.
A lot of great start-ups feature a pivot at some point in their journey but it’s fair to say that Sky Zone took a larger leap than most. “We were going to start a competitive sport that was played on trampolines,” says Jeff Platt, CEO of Sky Zone. However, trying to get a sport off the ground was far more costly than they anticipated and before long the future Sky Zone founders were forced to monetise the only asset at their disposal: an R&D centre filled with trampolines. “We decided to charge people to come in and jump around to see if they would pay for jumping,” he continues.
Fortunately, the Sky Zone team’s gamble paid off: not only did they manage to pack the centre full that day but the customers kept coming back. They realised they’d hit on something that had enormous potential. “We completely shifted the focus from trying to start this sport to having an indoor trampoline park,” Platt says. And thus, in 2004, Sky Zone was born.
But this is not to say that it was all clear skies ahead for the company. As with any venture that’s blazing a trail, there wasn’t a handy roadmap to help it find its way. “There was no expert to call,” Platt says. “We had to figure out everything on our own and truly build it organically.” What followed was a lot of painstaking work hammering out its model, developing its operations and establishing connections with the right vendors, during which time Sky Zone only opened three locations. “It took a lot of time,” Platt explains. “It wasn’t until about 2010 or 2011 that we really started to grow quickly.”
Part of the reason Sky Zone’s expansion began to gather momentum was it recognised that, for such a capital-intensive business, company-owned sites weren’t the best way to expand. “We started franchising and that’s when it really took off,” says Platt. And this is where all the groundwork it had put in really paid off; with help from some outside consultants, it started adapting its model into a comprehensive package, a step Platt feels all too many franchises rush. “Most try to grow as fast as they can without stopping and putting the proper procedures in place,” he says. “And that can be very challenging once they grow.”
Sky Zone’s model certainly seems to be proving a hit with its customers, offering up a wide variety of activities for all ages. “We have what we call a free jumping court, which is where they can jump, flip, bounce off walls and practise tricks,” says Platt. But there’s far more available besides this; it also boasts trampoline dodgeball courts, basketball hoops and a foam pit that customers can jump in, whilst international parks have an additional area for wall running. “We’re also adding a couple of new things in the future; things like a slack line or obstacle courses,” says Platt. “We’re even looking at adding a space for a non-traditional form of rock climbing.”
Embracing these kinds of innovation is a central tenet of Sky Zone’s offering, meaning that it is constantly on the hunt for new ideas. “As a franchisor, we are spending a lot of money in the field of innovation and testing new products, programmes and systems,” Platt says. It finds new ideas in two ways; firstly it looks out at what other types of entertainment parks are doing and explores whether it can improve on them. Secondly it has an internal innovation committee that focuses purely on devising and testing new concepts. “Not all of them work,” he says. “But when they do work, they’ll benefit our franchise network and we roll those innovations out to them.”
And this approach has helped the franchise network expand and bed down in new locations far beyond the United States. “Funnily enough, our international expansion started with a relative of one of our US franchise owners who saw the business in the US and wanted to take it to Canada,” Platt says. Before long, operators from Mexico and Australia had also approached Sky Zone, eager to take on the master franchise rights for the territories. “And as we’ve continued to develop the brand, we’ve started taking a more aggressive approach internationally,” he says. Aggressive certainly covers it: Sky Zone currently has plans to enter the UK, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, New Zealand, Germany, Spain and Dubai in the next 18 months alone.
For many franchises operating across so many territories, localisation can be a significant concern but Platt feels Sky Zone is comparatively universal. “The core brand works really well,” he says. “It’s not like a food brand where you have different palates in different countries.”
However, Platt does acknowledge the importance of being able to localise a franchise’s message and positioning. For example, Australia is far more risk hungry than the US and has more of an appetite for extreme sports, meaning that Sky Zone could amp up its message for the antipodean market. “American franchisors get themselves in trouble when they think that just because it works in the US it will work everywhere,” he says. “That’s an arrogant way to think; you have to be flexible.”
So what about the British market? Although it’s taken it a while to get a handle on how things work over here, Sky Zone has reached an agreement with a master franchisee and is hoping the British public will get its first experience of Sky Zone later this year. If everything goes to plan, Sky Zone expects to open three to six locations in the UK over the next year and 25 over the next five. “Like anything in business, nothing moves for quite some time and then all of a sudden everything falls into place,” says Platt. “You go from securing no locations for seven months to having the opportunity to secure five locations within thirty days.”
Sky Zone’s expansion has definitely begun to pick up some serious speed. Just last month, on July 10, the franchise opened its 100th centre and decided to celebrate in style, giving away prizes to customers in every one of its locations. But it didn’t just hand out prizes: it also donated money to local charities in each location in which it operates. “Each park picked one charity within their own community,” Platt says. “$500 came from the park and $500 came from us as the franchisor.” In total, Sky Zone donated £100,000 to 100 different charities in around 100 cities around the world.
But it’s not past milestones that Sky Zone has its mind on: it’s very much thinking about the future. The franchise believes it will open an additional 150 to 200 sites in the US in the coming years, start adding European locations at a rate of 15 to 20 a year and begin making serious inroads into the Asian market, where it is aiming to add 40 to 50 sites each year. Evidently, Sky Zone isn’t prepared to rest on its laurels. “We’re always striving for more,” says Platt. “It’s always good to celebrate your success, then move on immediately and keep going.”
All in all, it seems the sky’s the limit.