After seeing her three kids play for hours on moonbounces at outdoor parties, Brenda Dronkers got the idea to bring the fun inside and started Pump It Up in 2000. Gordon Keil, who became its CEO last year, has helped turn Pump It Up into a 168-location chain with 81 more signed franchisees.
So what's an "indoor inflatable party zone"?
A: Our centers typically have two arenas and two party rooms. What separates us from Chuck E. Cheese's is that we are like the best catering hall. People in today's world are looking for one-stop shopping and a stress-free place. We're trained to find the best pizzeria in the area and provide the drinks and even the goodie bags if they want. There may be four parties going on at a time, but if you were in a party, you would think it's the only party going on in the world.
Q: Who's the competition?
A: We're a family entertainment center that is in the private-event business. We compete with bowling alleys, roller-skating rinks, laser-tag facilities and Build-A-Bear. But our No. 1 competition is people who have birthday parties in their homes, which is not stress-free and it's not easy.
Q: You're a Harvard MBA with four grown kids. What makes youakid's party expert?
A: First of all, I'm a retailer. I was COO of Party City from 1996 to 2001. The company had 200 franchisees and five company-owned stores when I got involved. I have a natural way about me in the way I work with people, so dealing with the very talented and sometimes challenging personalities that entrepreneurs have isn't a problem. And I've had four of the best bar and bat mitzvah celebrations you'd ever want to be at.
Q: The concept sounds great for cold-weather days, but what about when the weather is nice?
A: It depends on the part of the country. In Chicago, to keep our volume high during the two months of warmth and sunshine, Pump It Up works with different day camps who want to take their campers to Pump It Up for a fun, active, indoor field trip. On the opposite end of the spectrum are areas such as Houston where the summers are too hot and children and families appreciate Pump It Up's indoor and air-conditioned facility. No matter the market or the climate, franchisees are trained to do B-to-B marketing and to learn the skills to maintain volume despite variables such as weather.
Q: What trends are working in your favor?
A: June Cleaver no longer exists. The common thing is two-income families that are waiting a little bit longer to have their first child. Pump It Up makes it very simple for a mom. Everyone will rave, especially when kids are the first one in a group to have their party here. Then every kid wants to have their party at Pump It Up.
Keil's responses were edited for length and clarity.