By Smarty Guest Blogger Ashley Joseph, owner of Club Gymboree Play and Music
Just over 12 years ago, I purchased a “kid business.” After being a customer for several months, I bought the place and became the owner of Gymboree Play & Music, located in Ballantyne. I had had my oldest son several months before and, at the eleventh hour, I had taken a leave of absence from my management consulting job to care for him after my maternity leave ended. It was the best of all worlds: I could make money and keep my business brain working, but I could also be with my son nearly all of the time. Everyone I worked with – my lawyers, my bankers, and certainly my Gymboree staff! – knew that wherever I went, he went too.
I call those early years the Gymboree Field of Dreams. We built it, and they came! Our customers were primarily first-time moms, and they came to Gymboree Play & Music because they were looking for other moms to hang out with, socialization for their little ones, ideas about what to do during long days at home, and honestly, just to get out of the house a little bit. Given that our curriculum at Gymboree was designed by experts in child development, we were also trusted partners in Growing Young Minds (our Gymboree slogan!) for many, many Charlotte families.
Over time, I got lazy with marketing. Parents told other parents about us, so marketing and advertising seemed redundant. We focused our energy (and cash!) on creating an amazing site for families, with big upgrades in our facilities and equipment. But somewhere along the way, the Field of Dreams waned. They weren’t coming as much anymore. Classically trained in business, I decided my inattention to marketing and advertising were ill-advised, and I doubled-down on those.
But they STILL didn’t come. We were doing everything right – great facility, great staff, great equipment, great lesson plans, and we were spotlessly clean. Why weren’t folks coming? We changed a lot of things – moved some classes around, added some classes, removed some classes. Really, we did All Of The Things. But, they still didn’t come.
I talked to my friends about this, and I talked to my customers too. They recommended more tweaks. More online, less print. More social media, less direct mail. Nothing really moved the needle much. We were doing everything right, and it wasn’t working.
But, then I realized that there was something that I wasn’t doing well. In fact, I was doing a really bad job at it. I wasn’t listening…I was talking a lot and asking a lot, but I wasn’t REALLY listening to the answers. So, I started doing that…I listened to moms who weren’t Gymboree customers. I listened to moms who ended their memberships with us and to my own friends who had never taken their kids to a Gymboree class.
And, once I stopped trying to sell what we were offering and started really listening, the light bulb came on, bright and shining. Moms didn’t need us to make friends anymore, because social media, meet-ups, virtual playgroups and other similar things had made that much easier. They didn’t like having to come to class at a specific time, and they didn’t like that their class time and teacher would change when their child “aged up.” They hated it when the first beautiful day in a week was on their class day and they had to be inside again, but, they also hated that they didn’t have a place to go play on days when it was raining, snowing or brutally hot outside. They hated having to keep up with billing policies and make-up policies and start dates and end dates and they hated feeling punished for having more than one child (because what do you do with your older kid when you want to go to class with your younger kid or vice versa?). And, they hated paying $75+ for one 45 minute class per week (with a few hours of “free play” thrown in at generally unpopular times).
Wow. Just wow. Suddenly, I felt really lucky that we had any customers at all! Maybe it was time to move on and find another business to run…
Or, maybe it was time to do what I did in my “old life” and figure out how my business should adapt to changing conditions and customers. And so, my staff and I, with the support of our wonderful franchiser, decided to take the things that families still loved – our awesome staff, our awesome facility and equipment, our deep understanding about what activities are both fun and developmentally-appropriate to various age groups, etc. – and create a Gymboree designed for our customers…meeting them where they are with what they need and want – NO fixed class times, No make-up policies, NO complicated billing policies, better sick kid policies, extreme availability, ability to bring siblings and affordable pricing…it was one of the most fun professional projects I’ve ever taken on, and on January 18, 2016, we launched a brand new concept…it’s called Club Gymboree Play & Music, and it’s the only one of its kind right now!
Club Gymboree Play & Music is a membership-based Club that is mom nirvana. Our amazing playfloor is open EVERY WEEKDAY from 9-6 and EVERY SATURDAY AND SUNDAY from 9-12 for every member to come and enjoy as often as they’d like to (and they can stay as long as they’d like to!). A teacher is on our playfloor at all times, and every 20 minutes, she initiates a teacher-led activity for little ones to enjoy (think parachute time, story time, freeze dance, etc.). She chooses and tailors these activities based on the ages and interests of the kids in attendance at any given time. She can carve off areas of our playfloor for different ages if needed, and she basically helps create, dynamically, the perfect indoor playspace for our members, every hour of the over 50 hours a week that we are open (we still use Saturday and Sunday afternoons for birthday parties)!
Oh, and our art room? It’s part of Club Gymboree Play & Music too! On Tuesday-Thursdays and on Saturdays, from 9 – 12, our art room is open for all members to enjoy tactile experiences, messy things (that we clean up!), planned craft projects and to just freely create. And if kids want to do art AND play? Great! They can just move back and forth. But, our space is small enough that going from play to art is the only real chasing parents have to do! That’s intentional, and also something parents told us that they valued.
What else do we have? We have a strong sick kid policy (and parents less likely to feel the need to bring sick kids, since there are no make-ups or missed classes to worry about)! We have an ultra-clean facility that we sanitize from top to bottom every night (as well as “Yucky Buckets” to immediately take out of circulation items that might make it into little mouths and such!) and a washer and dryer on site to keep soft items clean. We have a private Facebook group for members to meet one another and coordinate coming to the site together (“Anyone else have a 1YO and want to come play at around 3:00 today?”). Oh! And we become “all new” every month – our equipment is completely modular and we tear it down and re-build it with entirely new playscapes and obstacles every single month to keep kids challenged and excited about coming back!
What do we not have? We don’t have complicated policies – we do still work on a membership model, but if you tell us to quit billing you before we actually bill you, then we don’t bill you. Period. No “you need to tell us 15 days in advance and then send two emails and make one phone call on the 7th day prior to bill date” sort of games with billing; monthly billing is supposed to make like easier for parents and for us, not separate parents from money they didn’t want to part with! And, we also don’t have monthly fees that approach a car payment. Members can come to Club Gymboree Play & Music as often as they want (for play AND art) for only $50/month for one kid, $60/month for 2 kids and $65/month for 3 kids. We only charge for kids aged 6mo – 5 years. Families that have never been enrolled with us before pay a one-time $25 membership fee, but that membership actually does something for you, as all Club Gymboree members receive the same benefits that Gymboree Play & Music customers always have, most importantly Gymbucks for the Gymboree clothing store every time they are issued!
So far, families tell us that they LOVE the new model. Instead of figuring out how to get people to enroll, we’re having discussions about when we’ll need to stop allowing new memberships and open a waiting list to make sure that we are never too crowded for our members to enjoy!
I don’t know what moms and dads in other cities are looking for, but I hope that my journey over the last few years has resulted in something that is both wanted and needed by families in Charlotte! I’m thankful to those parents who persisted in telling us what they REALLY wanted…even as we tried to convince them that we knew better than they did what they were looking for! The process has been fun and rewarding for me professionally and personally – but is never more compelling than when I see a kid come zooming into Club Gymboree, unable to get his or her shoes off fast enough to see what new fun awaits behind that half wall!
P.S. Are you one of the families that is looking for exactly what we’ve created at Club Gymboree – Ballantyne? Then call us or come on over and get enrolled today…before we have start that wait list! ☺