SINGAPORE: A day after it was announced that the limit on social gatherings will be cut from eight people to five, indoor playground operator Kiztopia began receiving enquiries from customers who needed to make alternative plans for their children’s birthday celebrations.
Around 40 bookings were affected by the stricter COVID-19 rules that will be in place until May 30 to curb the recent rise in community infections.
So far, 10 reservations will proceed with a reduced party size. Others are considering shifting their bookings to next month or cancelling altogether, said founder and chief executive officer Heidi Tian.
READ: Cap of 5 people for social gatherings, household visits to return as Singapore tightens COVID-19 measures
The tightened safety measures come as Kiztopia is gearing up for an expansion.
The indoor attraction, which targets young children from two to 12 years old with themed play zones, its own edutainment content and mascot characters, is opening two new playgrounds at Jurong and Punggol.
Also set to kick off this month are activities to mark its second anniversary, including a special ticketed indoor playground at Downtown East and a nightly light show at its Marina Square outlet that will last for about six weeks.
It declined to reveal how much it has invested into these new plans, and would only say that the 6,000 goodie bags it prepared for the light show already cost more than S$100,000.
“To be very honest, it's a little setback because we have been working hard to get everything ready … and maybe at this juncture, the market will not react,” said Ms Tian, although she stressed that she understands and is supportive of the stricter restrictions.
“From the experience last year, such scenarios need to be tackled quickly and efficiently so it is a good thing that the Government is (taking) action right when the cases are increasing … and I think for better reasons like controlling the situation before the June holidays,” she added.
“I think it is quite timely to have stricter rules for now … We are still observing the situation but overall, I am keeping positive.”
Having a glass-half-full mentality is one of the things that Ms Tian, 45, has learned after more than a year of running a business under uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The former banker with two children founded Kiztopia in June 2019 after noticing a gap in the market here, as indoor playgrounds tend to be small set-ups in malls meant as pit-stops during shopping.
Spanning 18,000 sq ft at Marina Square, Kiztopia was the biggest playground located inside a shopping mall when it opened in June 2019. Apart from different play zones, party rooms and a stage area for performances, it also has a cafe for parents to relax while their children play.
The business did “really well” soon after it opened, recalled Ms Tian, so much so that the team was scouting for locations to expand by the end of the year.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit at the start of 2020.
By February, visitorship was down by two-thirds as parents kept their children away from crowded public places. Caution largely persisted in March before all indoor playgrounds were ordered to be shut towards the end of the month as part of COVID-19 control measures.
“The big environment was really against us and every day went further south,” said Ms Tian.
The closure, which lasted until mid-July, was a difficult period for the first-time entrepreneur.
“I was previously working in a bank where the job environment is quite safe but after becoming an entrepreneur, you start thinking a lot more,” she told CNA in an interview
“Will your customers forget about you? What about staff morale? Are we going to survive at all? What am I going to do if this shuts down? A lot of things to think about but I try to keep positive.”
So the business went online.
It set up shop on e-commerce platforms like Lazada and Qoo10 for customers to purchase entry tickets and merchandise.
It also started producing videos featuring its 11 original mascot characters. Uploaded on its own YouTube channel, these range from art and craft ideas, song and dance, to its own animation series.
“During the months where we (were closed), we were not relaxed at all. The team created online content, and came up with a solid workflow and SOPs (standard operating procedures),” said Ms Tian.
“We used that four months to strengthen many of our foundations so that’s why once we open, we can hit the ground running.”
Ms Tian also described the Jobs Support Scheme, a wage subsidy scheme launched by the Government at the start of the pandemic, as a “big help”. “Without that, we probably would have failed,” she said.
The sprawling indoor playground at Marina Square now operates with a capacity limit capped at 40 per cent, admitting visitors at three-hour intervals. In between these sessions, which visitors have to book online in advance, the entire site is cleaned and disinfected.
Employees are also stationed at each zone to manage the crowd and ensure safe distancing.
These efforts helped to build up confidence and business has slowly returned with parents keen to bring their children out to play and celebrate special occasions, said Ms Tian.
Moving forward, Kiztopia is set to open a 4,500 sq ft playground in Jurong Point on May 28, followed by another 5,500 sq ft space in Punggol in July.
The aim is to venture into the heartlands where its customers are but given that these are much smaller spaces, they will be launched under a sub-brand called Kiztopia Club.
“Because people are used to us being a big space so if we branched into the neighbourhood with the same name, people might get confused or even have negative feelings,” explained Ms Tian.
“We are not sacrificing the quality but with a smaller space, we will have to be a compact version of our usual offerings,” she added, noting that the new locations will still feature multiple play zones, function rooms, cafes and gift shops.
While the turn in the COVID-19 situation of late has been “a little” unexpected, Kiztopia said it has no plans to rejig its expansion plans. It has since hired about 10 more full-timers for the new playgrounds.
Asked where she sees opportunities, Ms Tian said: “Some players have closed down so that creates a better opportunity for us ... especially to launch in the neighbourhoods and be closer to our customers. I think Singapore still has room for us to grow a few more outlets.”
There are also opportunities with its original characters, which can “be embedded into many different products and services”, she added.
These can be in the form of merchandise and even online educational content. The company has also been approached by other businesses on collaborations, although it declined to reveal the specifics.
The Kiztopia founder likened her journey as an entrepreneur thus far to her time in the banking industry during the global financial crisis.
“That was like a once in a lifetime experience,” she said. “Looking back, this has also been quite an exciting journey.”
Despite the stress, many other opportunities have emerged.
“It has been a bumpy (ride) but there have been opportunities that in the past may never come to us. Now, either because someone has left the market or we have demonstrated that we are very resilient, the door has opened up to us,” said Ms Tian.
“So I really try to keep positive.”