Adventure playcentre founders turn to 1970s Angel Delight era for inspiration
Richard Farley was showing a health and safety executive around his huge new children’s adventure playground, Hobbledown, before the gates opened to the public when he spotted something awry. “I noticed a bonfire was slightly out of control and an adjacent hedge had caught fire,” the entrepreneur explains. “So I used the watering can next to the fire to try and douse the hedge.” Unfortunately, though, the watering can was actually full of petrol.
“The HSA officer laughed, at least, and it took about half an hour to get the fire under control - we had to replant the hedge though!”
Luckily for Farley and his co-founder Nick de Candole, the fire-fighting was a one off. Their family entertainment business, The Escapade Group, started with two soft-play style activity centres in Croydon and Romford, and now includes four sites, including a vast 126 acre Hobbledown Heath opening in Hounslow this month. This year Escapade is expected to welcome 1.3 million visitors and hit a £16 million annual turnover.
It started when the duo, who are both now 54 but have been friends since meeting as teenagers, started a property development business together in 2000. Five years on, they enjoyed working together but wanted to do something different and had contrasting ideas. De Candole wanted to create an upmarket children’s playcentre model, Farley had an ambition to launch “a premium gym wear brand - a ‘Sweaty Bob’ for men.” The pair flipped a coin “and here we are,” Farley laughs. He doesn’t seem to mind backing his friend’s idea - “although I do look at Gymshark and think we could have made it a success!”.
Inspiration came from de Candole visiting “a less than salubrious” playcentre with his kids - “an industrial unit, with crappy coffee and not very clean. We saw a potential gap in the market to create a much better environment for both parents and kids.” The pair travelled to the US and Germany, found far better indoor leisure centres for children, then “adapted the offering to suit the UK market.” They had no experience in the sector, but Farley says “it was all down to research. Take food and beverages - we found out who the consultants and suppliers were for the two successful restaurant chains we admired, Pizza Express and Leon, and created a child friendly version of those restaurants.” They did need cash, though, and initially received £2.7 million backing from venture capital and an angel investor. That paid for two indoor play centres, Kidspace, with go karting, climbing walls and softplay. Turnover hovered around £1.5 million for the first few years.
The founders then decided to establish a play centre “that emulated our 1970s upbringing - where parents allowed you to go out and play all day just to return in time for bangers and mash and Butterscotch Angel Delight.. a sense of freedom and adventure.” They found a German wilderness-themed attraction called Kulturinsel, “which was completely revolutionary in providing the most innovative, exploratory and physical play for children. It captured the 70’s perfectly.”
That gave them the inspiration for Hobbledown, a vast adventure playground, with high ropes and a play barn, animals, zorbing and jumping pillows. The duo secured £5.9 million from VCT Downing to open their first branch in Epsom, which 2.7 million people have visited in the ten years it’s been open. Football players are regulars with their families at Hobbledown Epsom, the pair add, whilst other celebrity fans include Tom Hardy and Take That.
The entrepreneurs get fully involved in research before opening new features: “climbing up a 30m pole in Lithuania springs to mind, and testing out a giant swing for Gripped, our adrenalin park. There was a secret trap door that Nick was unaware of so he didn’t have time to prepare his brain for the intrepid fall,” Farley recalls. “Plenty of expletives came out.” Kings Park Capital put in £13 million to open the latest Hobbledown Heath and Gripped - which has slides, high ropes, ziplining, 70 farm and zoo animals, a woodland, 15 metre climbing towers, underground tunnels, aerial walkways, and a splashpark. The duo hope for 500,000 visitors to the site in their first year.
Overall, turnover at Escapade Group is set to hit £16.5 million for the next financial year. Covid “hit us hard: we were the first to shut and last to open, shut for about nine months in total,” Farley says. But the pair are now feeling optimistic. “We spent £1.5 million on revamps whilst we were shut, and are currently looking at additional sites for the South East and intend to expand into Birmingham and Manchester over the next few years. People were desperate to get out and do something, they treated themselves more frequently last year and we’re sure they’ll be returning.”
Turnover: £16.5 million