Written by Emily Ballard | Photos by Anthony Harden (May 2017)
Socked feet, padded floors, and imaginative playrooms make for an interactive wonderland for the young mind. Shaun and Sara Collyer tapped into their own family’s need for a creative and clean environment for their two sons to explore uninhibited playtime when they created Mountain Play Lodge six years ago. With a new city to call home, a house being remodeled, and two young boys in tow, the couple took a leap of faith on a business that was out of their comfort zone, but felt right for their soul.
Shaun grew up in Indiana and started his career as a teacher. When an opportunity to move to Hilton Head Island for an administrative position arose, he and his wife jumped at the chance. He was passionate about teaching and was thrilled at the prospect of really making a difference in teacher development and curriculum improvement. Additionally, as a golf enthusiast, Shaun was delighted to live in a warm location with premier golf courses and beautiful beaches.
Unfortunately, the nature of his position allowed for little free time, and he quickly found himself working up to 70 hours a week. The only time he was off for vacation was during the summer, and the brutal heat deterred the enjoyment of outdoor activities. Shaun admits that he played the least amount of golf in his life and went to the beach maybe five times the entire time he lived there.
Although the position was a good fit, he saw it evolving into more of a political figure as opposed to a school leader. There were times when he also missed being in the classroom as a teacher. “I loved my job in administration because you could have a greater impact on learning as a whole for all students, but I missed the interaction with kids.”
The couple had their first son shortly after moving to Hilton Head, and three years later welcomed their second. Their hectic schedule was consuming their life, and Shaun says that he and his wife went five years without a date night. With no family around to help out and an extremely demanding job, Shaun knew that sustaining this lifestyle was not what he wanted for his family.
“I needed a change,” he remembers. “I needed to spend more time with my kids, so I decided to do something different. We moved to Asheville to find that something different.”
In 2010 the family headed north to Asheville for a fresh start in a location that was closer to Sara’s family. Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Shaun wasn’t sure what direction his career would go, but he knew that he didn’t want to go back to work for someone else. His father has been a barber for 61 years. At the age of 80 he still hasn’t retired. Shaun’s grandfather and great grandfather were barbers as well, and while working in education he felt a disconnect when it came to business advice.
“My family always kind of worked for each other. I couldn’t call home and ask how to handle this person that is above me or these people that are below me,” Shaun recalls. “So, coming here, I felt I needed to get myself into something where I was working for myself.”
Shaun the Builder
During their first summer in Asheville, they were once again struggling with summertime heat. With a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, they began their quest for activities and outlets that the family could enjoy. Although outdoor playgrounds were aplenty, the heat was still a factor.
While living in Hilton Head, the family had gone to mall playgrounds, bounce house venues, and interactive play spaces, all of which were essential for entertaining the kids. Upon their move to South Asheville, they were left with few of those options. Although that has changed in the area over the past few years, with the introduction of indoor trampoline parks and play facilities, at the time, they felt there was a lack in this market.
Shortly after their move, a building came on the market that was close to their house. It was located on Sweeten Creek Road, and was formerly an Ace Hardware. The gears started turning, and Shaun and Sara thought surely there was an opportunity here. “We asked ourselves, what problems do we have right now that we could solve with a possible business?” Shaun recalls. And one of the first things that came to mind was something they could do with their young kids.
Upon inquiring, they were able to get a copy of the building’s floor plan and they started to envision everything they would want for a play facility for their kids. Shaun got out some graph paper and started conceptualizing and drawing out what would become the Play Lodge. “I remember being up all night long just drawing and erasing, and drawing and erasing,” he says.
Initially, Shaun had every intention of seeking employment once they settled, but this opportunity felt right for their family and soon the business planning stage became a full-time job. The couple reflected on their time travelling from Hilton Head to Indiana, and how they searched for ways to entertain the kids at stops, whether it be at restaurants or indoor playgrounds. They noticed that places such as McDonalds and Chick-fil-A had good business models when it came to their play areas, but it wasn’t exactly what they wanted.
They began researching franchise options, looking into bounce house and trampoline park models, but they found that most of the business practices of these facilities focused almost exclusively on revenue and profitability, and they were more interested in creating a customer experience. Their vision was to offer a clean and safe play environment that maximized interactive play, with an emphasis on family values. In their eyes, if they could achieve this, then the other business stuff would come.
“It probably wasn’t a smart move, but instead of going down a kind of beaten path, we went off the path a little bit and focused on what we would want,” Shaun muses as he recollects this initial phase. “And I think for the most part people have appreciated that. We didn’t just stick with the game plan and offer what everyone else was offering, and I think that has served us well.”
It was a six-month process that led up to opening day on April 15th, 2011—Shaun describes it as “foreign territory.” During that time, he dedicated himself to research, planning, phone calls, purchasing, and contractors. Luckily, the space required little outfitting other than building a couple of walls. The bulk of the work was electrical and completing mural paintings on the walls. Shaun notes that the family felt blessed to find efficient and thorough contractors, adding that the permitting process was surprisingly smooth as well.
And he loved every minute of it. As he describes the build-up to opening, his eyes light up with excitement. “Getting everything up to the point of a grand opening was stressful, but it’s a good energy. I was shocked by how much I actually enjoyed that process. Looking back on it, I crave it again.”
“We want kids to growl like a monster, make siren noises when putting out a fire, or sing like a princess in her castle. We want them to make noise because we feel it’s an important part of engaging their imagination and communicating through storytelling and acting,” Shaun says.
Keeping the Doors Open
As Shaun reflects back on the past six years of running this business, he clearly prides himself on succeeding in staying afloat. When they embarked on this family endeavor, they had no idea how expensive it would be. When you walk through Mountain Play Lodge doors, you are met with a 17,000-sq.-ft. space. There is a latched (childproof) entry gate leading to the open carpeted main play area. All shoes are left outside the gate, with no exceptions. Shaun explains that their busiest days are when it rains, so this rule is essential to cut down on dirt and grime being tracked in. (Unsurprisingly, beautiful, sunny days when kids can play outdoors have proven to be the biggest competitor for the business.)
Tables and chairs are dispersed throughout, a perfect respite for parents to keep a watchful eye and for kids to take a break, snack, and refuel for the next round. On any given day, kids are climbing on the elaborate jungle gym that resembles adventurous treehouses and taking turns sliding down the various colorful slides. Circling around to the left, little ones are buzzing about the train station as it lights up, exploring the “mansion,” and entering the row of shops, complete with a police station and a firehouse. A separate area hosts a cottage for babies and toddlers. The entire design is a nod to the Biltmore Estate and surrounding Biltmore Village. The energy is palpable.
“We designed it for our little boys. When we started, this is what they were into, this is what they loved,” Shaun says. “We didn’t really do the arcade stuff or coin drops; we were always very much interested in having them do imagination play and active play.”
Scattered throughout the play area is an array of soft sculptures. An oversized dog, a car, a bridge, and an intricate tree big enough to crawl through and under are all resting on two inches of heavy-duty memory foam to protect the kids from falls. When Shaun and Sara designed the space, they knew that safety, comfort, and cleanliness were of the utmost importance.
When it came to equipment, they did not cut corners or costs. They ordered the sculptures from a company in Colorado that specialized in these products. Shaun did his research and found that while they were more expensive than some, the quality was far superior and worth the price. The surfaces are easy to clean, and the staff continuously wipes them down throughout the day, as well as every night after closing. “Our family is actually the first privately-owned business to buy this equipment,” he explains. “Everyone else before us was airports, malls, that type of business.”
Finding the perfect set-up for the space involved a bit of trial and error. In fact, when Mountain Play Lodge originally opened in 2010, the primary play area consisted of inflatable bounce houses. Shaun and Sara quickly realized this was not an efficient use of the space. Only five kids could fit in a bounce house at one time, and each bounce house took up 2,000-sq.-ft. of space. “There were days when it was standing room only in here, and for as big of a building as it is, we shouldn’t have that issue,” Shaun says.
They decided to scrap the bounce houses and install the jungle gyms instead. Although it was an expensive upgrade, Shaun considered it a significant investment into the business. “The jungle gyms were the best thing we could have done because we reduced staff and reduced cost.” For a family that was new to business—and certainly new to this industry—they were navigating to find financial success while holding true to their vision of creating an experience with real value.
The Play Experience
At the Mountain Play Lodge, parents are required to supervise the children and are always encouraged to participate in play time. The staff keeps a watchful eye at all times to ensure safety and to mitigate any issues or concerns.
“On occasion, we do have visitors that struggle to adapt to the play environment. We give children the opportunity to learn from their behavior and make sure that they, and their parents, understand the rules of play. Sometimes this can be a struggle for kids, but we look at it as a learning opportunity,” Shaun says.
He explains that many times this play experience is a child’s first interaction with other children, and this can incite many feelings and emotions. Sometimes they have to ask children to take a break, but they never ban them from the Play Lodge. Instead, they see this as an encounter that will help them grow.
As with any business, they receive occasional complaints such as the facility being too noisy or having too many rules. Shaun and Sara encourage feedback and always try to address any reviews or complaints, but they are not willing to sacrifice their vision.
“We want kids to growl like a monster, make siren noises when putting out a fire, or sing like a princess in her castle. We want them to make noise because we feel it’s an important part of engaging their imagination and communicating through storytelling and acting,” Shaun says. “We may make tweaks to our floor plan or services, but we will never stray from our core values. The core values are why we are still in business.”
Running a Family Business
By now, Shaun and Sara have mastered the process of efficiently running the business, but as most new business owners know, the beginning can be an arduous undertaking. When Mountain Play Lodge first opened they were closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so that the couple could clean the space from top to bottom. “We just couldn’t keep up with that after a couple of years,” Shaun remembers. “It was just too much trying to keep up with our house and our kids at the same time.”
Now they have moved onto more of a management side of the business, which has a different set of challenges and successes. “The building always produces new challenges and problems to solve,” Shaun notes. “When you work with kids, you can’t simply drive a nail or patch a wall. You must think about the aesthetics and the possibility of a child being injured by your repair. There are no easy fixes at the Play Lodge!”
Shaun and Sara also recognize that their success lies in the power of a good staff. With systems in place and reliable support, they are now able to be open seven days a week. Building this team has taken time and diligence. While many similar facilities hire teenagers that don’t necessarily have experience working with kids, Shaun is willing to invest in the right employees. This involves a detailed screening and interview process and a mandatory background check and drug screen. Perhaps most importantly, they must demonstrate a high regard for customer service and a love for children.
“We have adults running the facility. We won’t just let anyone come through the door and work here,” Shaun says. Even if it takes three months to fill a position, he considers it worth the wait.
Over the years, they have developed a plan of action for every day. The list of tasks is broken down by days and by the hour. In addition to the daily management of the play area, a large part of the business is in children’s parties.
Two dedicated areas host these events, one decorated as a pirate ship and one a castle. The Mountain Play Lodge hosts the parties and the staff is responsible for party attending—decorating, serving, and clean-up. “We do all the things we can do to help the parent have the least stressful birthday party. We try to let them enjoy the party as much as the kids do,” Shaun says.
Having a good staff is critical when it comes to the fast pace of busy seasons. On any given day it is not uncommon to have multiple parties, visiting school trips, and a full playroom. Shaun credits their success to staff members who believe in what they do. “We just have great people that have bought into our business and why we do it. They get the ‘why’ we are here, and I think they respect that and want to see that vision come to fruition.”
“Play Lodge is definitely our baby, and when you care about something that much and put that much work into it like my wife and I have, it’s hard to just hand the keys over, and it will be tough.”
The customers are the most important aspect of the business for Shaun and Sara. Although they have avoided venturing into the food and beverage industry, they have seen an increasing demand for these services in their space. To meet this need, they are adding a café to the facility, at presstime scheduled to open late April or early May. This will change the layout slightly to better accommodate not just the kids, but the adults that accompany them.
Even though this addition makes Shaun nervous, as he has witnessed the unpredictable nature of the restaurant business, it is a risk that he is willing to take. In his eyes, the community has spoken, and he wants to do his best to answer.
“The support that we have received from local businesses, from our customers, is just phenomenal. The word-of-mouth here is so strong [that] we have not done a lot of advertising. All you have to do is be good to your customers and word will spread really quickly. You care about them and they care about you. It has been a really good partnership with the community,” Shaun says.
This sentiment is what drives Shaun and Sara to give back to this community that has supported them over the years. They make it a point to help charities and nonprofit organizations. This involves funding programs and initiatives at local schools and sponsoring events. They have sponsored computer labs and bullying programs, as well as the Mission Hospital Radiothon. As a donor for Mission Children’s Hospital, they have given around $50,000. They are always looking toward other programs that they can lend their services to.
Families lead busy lives. In addition to work, school events, sports, and other activities, it is not always easy for parents to find stimulating and creative things for them to do at the drop of a hat. In that regard, Mountain Play Lodge appears to have filled that niche with an opportunity to provide interactive and easy playtime.
Shaun left behind a job that infringed on quality time with his family to pursue a dream of working for himself. It was a chance he feels he couldn’t afford to let pass him by. As he looks toward the future, he sees the possibility of opening locations in other cities, and maybe even his children taking on this endeavor one day. They are actively reviewing opportunities in multiple cities throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia.
Most successful businesses set their sights on expansion, but with growth always comes challenges. “Play Lodge is definitely our baby, and when you care about something that much and put that much work into it like my wife and I have, it’s hard to just hand the keys over, and it will be tough,” Shaun explains, as he contemplates the future and the idea of franchise options in other locations.
For now, Shaun still revels in the joy that his business brings to the kids and to the community. “Just seeing their faces light up when they come through the door, it makes you feel really good that they enjoy it.”
He designed the space as an ultimate playroom for his children. Even though they are getting older, he gets to relive that experience every day. Now, as he sits in his office, in what was once an outdoor lumber yard, he can hear the shrieks as his tiny customers barrel through the front doors. An imaginative playground awaits them, full of friends, climbing, sliding, and fun.
That is, as soon as they take off their shoes.
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