A Bold Jump Into Bowling
MICHAEL BROWNING AND URBAN AIR ADVENTURE PARKS CONTINUE TO GROW WITH 10-PIN.
Marketing software developer Michael Browning wasn’t looking for a new business when he first visited a trampoline park; he was just taking a short break from a trade conference. He was also extremely busy with several software and real estate ventures in the medical industry but rather than move on, the self-described “opportunistic entrepreneur” began working on his own idea of a trampoline park.
Seven years and many lessons later, Browning is the CEO of rapidly-growing Urban Air Adventure Parks, a franchised FEC concept with more than 200 locations across the country. That makes Urban Air a major player in a hot attraction category that has grown from just three to well over 1,000 parks since 2009, according to the International Association of Trampoline Parks.
Browning opened the first location in 2011 in his hometown of Southlake, TX, with his wife, mother, and father as partners. None of them had any entertainment or attractions experience, and, by Browning’s own admission, the learning curve was “like drinking from a firehose. There were no systems, no infrastructures, no procedures. There was nobody you could call to say, ‘Okay, how do I do this?’ ”
But the partners were committed to the venture and worked their way through the original challenges. They were very successful in the first location and went on to open an additional family-owned location in Dallas- Fort Worth. Business really took off when Browning found a mentor in Jay Thomas, whom he met at a neighborhood block party. Thomas was vice president of international park development for Six Flags and had worked in that organization for 34 years. “He just took me under his wing,” says Browning. “I was able to ask him questions. He would teach me about operating these big parks, and how food and beverage is a business, your front ticket sales are a business. Really optimizing inside of these [units] to generate the profitability that we’ve been able to generate.”
Browning kept refining his concept. “I always loved Main Event as a kid, Dave & Buster’s, Discovery Zone,” he says. “So I felt like we could bring something to the market that was kind of a mix of those three things, really geared towards the 14-and-under market. Because I’m a big believer that if you try to be everything to everyone, you really become nothing.”
“Our user is 14 and under, [but] we market to Mom,” says Browning. “We design the facilities to be safe, clean, affordable. That it’s of value, that it’s worth her time and worth her money. And our goal is to create experiences and memories for these families.”
Pursuing that niche meant offering lots of choices, so Urban Air Trampoline Park began adding attractions like bowling, ropes courses, climbing walls, indoor coasters, skydiving and go-karting. Along with the diversification came a new name, Urban Air Adventure Park, that stressed the many activities to be enjoyed there. “We started with just trampolines, and now trampolines are only about 20% of our footprint,” says Browning. “We’re really focused on the active entertainment market.”
He decided to offer “100% screenless entertainment,” which means any kind of attraction where his customers actually do something, be it climbing, running, throwing, jumping, moving. Everything at Urban Air is a physical activity that children and their parents can enjoy. Although the earliest Urban Air venues had traditional arcades, Browning is removing them and doesn’t plan to have them in any future locations.
The Jump to Franchising
Initially Browning had no plans to franchise, but visitors who loved the experience began asking for a franchise if he wasn’t planning to open one in their home town. “So we finally just said, ‘Maybe we should look into this thing,’ and we started franchising and haven’t looked back,” recalls Browning.
At that point Browning discovered the added value of the systems and procedures he and his partners had created so they could run more than one location. The manual they wrote became the foundation of the franchise operation. “There’s nothing left for the franchisees to figure out. We’re the experts in this,” says Browning, who keeps a close eye on the business to stay ahead of the game. “I have never missed a grand opening,” he says. “I go to every single one, and I look at how the new tricks and design elements and attractions that we’ve deployed are working. And then we take that back, and we look at it, and we make adjustments each and every time.”
Mixing it Up to Keep it Fresh
When Urban Air Parks substituted the word “adventure” for “trampoline” in its name, it committed to adjusting its mix of attractions to meet the changing tastes of its customers or to keep it competitive in its market. Bowling is an example; there are currently five locations with bowling, with a few more opening soon. “It’s still something that we’re testing, that we haven’t rolled out to every single one of our stores,” says Browning. “We believe there’s a place for it in the right area. If Main Event’s already there with bowling, I’m not going to put in bowling. I’ll let them have the bowling.”
More than anything, Browning promises to keep evolving and innovating, even if it means taking out trampolines. “Someday, we may never have trampolines in our facility,” he says. “We’re going to go where the market goes, always claiming the latest and greatest innovations to the market, within sight of the active entertainment space.” Among the innovations he’s trying is virtual reality, having already tested or rolled out some VR attractions like Hologate that are space-efficient and offer some visual appeal for guests who are waiting in line to play. He is also working on a more varied food and beverage menu, taking a cue from the success of Topgolf. He’s so serious about improving the quality of his food and beverage offering that Browning recently hired Ken May, the former CEO of Topgolf, to be his executive chairman. “There’s no better guy than Ken, who disrupted the golf industry,” says Browning.
Browning doesn’t overlook the more mundane aspects of running an FEC either. He spent several years looking for innovative and energy-efficient lighting for Urban Air; with 30-foot-high ceilings you need a lot of light. Ultimately, he found what he was looking for at the 2016 IAAPA show when he saw the VersaLamp LED fixture at the Colorsplash booth. “He walked by and kept walking by and looking at [it],” recalls PJ Rosendahl, president of Colorsplash. “Next thing you know he called his AV specialist and said, ‘I think I found exactly what we’ve been looking for.’” That fortuitous meeting turned into an exclusive arrangement under which Rosendahl has installed lighting in more than 40 Urban Air locations, with many more in the pipeline.
“Michael’s very loyal to his vendors,” says Rosendahl, “in that if we treat his customers correctly and we do what we say we’re going to do, he doesn’t go anywhere else.” Rosendahl is also impressed by Browning’s hands-on style and dedication to his franchisees, having seen him helping out at store openings. “He’s actually been in the back area making pizzas for a grand opening for one of his franchisees,” says Rosendahl.
Bouncing Into The Future
Browning claims the average cost to open an Urban Air Adventure is $2.1 million and it generates average annual gross revenues of $3.1 million. (That’s a nice cut above the average FEC annual gross revenue of $2.5 million, according to IAAPA’s 2016 FEC Benchmark Report.) With that expected revenue and the benefit of an established brand, it wouldn’t be surprising if Browning meets his projected goal of 70 new franchises per year.
Another strong sign of Urban Air’s potential growth is the all-star board and team that Browning is assembling around him. In addition to Ken May, Browning’s mentor, Jay Thomas, recently signed on as chief commercial officer. Meanwhile, Browning continues to travel the world looking for new ideas and attractions to keep Urban Air Adventure Park fun and exciting. “We always have our eye out for stuff,” says Browning, which may be the best definition of an opportunistic entrepreneur.