AIP takes up the fight for the industry

Child playing with parent

The indoor-play industry has a new trade association. The Association of Indoor Play (AIP) was established in September 2020 and already, almost 200 centres around the UK have become members. Its chair, Janice Dunphy, fills us in on the details and takes a look at her sector as it battles the ongoing commercial impact of COVID-19.

Janice, as many readers will know, was the chair of the FEC section of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA). The AIP was formed as an independent body after a mutual agreement was reached with BALPPA, but there was surprise that BALPPA then decided to continue with its FEC association. “We felt that we weren’t being represented as a sector because BALPPA is so diverse in its offering. UK Hospitality is its lobbying arm and when COVID-19 hit, their focus was not on soft play. It was only when we started to do our own lobbying that we got any traction”.

The soft-play sector falls under the government’s Department for Digital Media, Culture and Sport (DCMS), which clearly has a wide variety of industries to handle. “We (as an industry) were dealing directly with DCMS until the final decisions were being made and then we were sidelined. That wasn’t in the best interests of our FEC members, so we formed the AIP and the vast majority of the committee and members have joined us in that.

“The more awareness we can build throughout the sector, the more of a voice we will have and the better we can represent our members,” Janice says. “At the moment, we’re working to convince DCMS that as an independent body, we are representative of the industry. We want to be the only association talking on the industry’s behalf.”

All of the AIP committee have a defined role, as follows:

“We are very fortunate to have people on board who are extremely experienced in the areas they are handling for AIP,” Janice says. “We’ve also got Maria Cantarella on board as our paid Administrator ( and she has been instrumental in the numbers increasing as quickly as they have to date.”

The AIP intends to be as inclusive as possible. It has brought role play into the fold and aims to better support the industry in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “We want to offer the opportunity for [each country] to form their own devolved committees, vote for a chair and then that chair would become part of the AIP management committee. They could carry out their own local lobbying, supported by our wider lobbying network.”

Practically though, it has hit the ground running, introducing several initiatives in a short space of time to grow numbers and support the industry.

“We started off with a Facebook forum, which had 660 people joining in the conversation for free. Once we formed a limited company, appointed a board of directors and opened a bank account, we have started with paid membership and it’s grown daily. The members who are paid up will go onto a Members Only forum, receive newsletters and have access to the regular Zoom seminars we are producing. We’ve launched our own Kickstarter package for members, so anyone looking for staff can come through us to manage that. We’ll manage the programme, which includes training for young people coming into the industry.

“Because of the climate at the minute, we’re also offering a free counselling service. Dulcie, who is a trained counsellor is donating some of her time to people who are struggling. We already know there will be massive mental health implications for people who are going through this stressful time and seeing their livelihoods, home and security on the line.” Face to face contact is important too. “As soon as we can, we’ll launch regional events and visit play centres around the country.”

A separate push for ‘trade members’ has seen plenty of interest from suppliers of goods and services into the soft-play industry. “Any trade members who join will be offering a deal of some kind for the operator members, so there will be plenty of mutual benefits there as well.

“The response from the industry has been good. We’ve gone in at a low figure - £150 – and that’s payable at £15 a month by direct debit if people are really struggling. We’re still finding that some people are so unsure whether they will still be here that this still isn’t seen as justifiable. Geographically, we’re well spread, so we can talk about the industry on a national level.” Any business wishing to become a member of any kind should contact

The AIP has also already carried out a State Of The Industry survey – see report elsewhere in this newsletter – and responded to national media interest in the industry by posting spot surveys that give a quantifiable human perspective on the immediate state of the industry during these most uncertain of times. “The media wanted a sample pot of more than 200 responses to make the story worthy of national news and we were able to come up with that in a couple of days.”

Children reading

COVID impact

Talking to Janice in late-October, we asked how the current situation is, from both her individual perspective and in her position as a national spokesperson. “We have sadly seen far too many established centres disappear already,” she says. “Any business that had just been opened before coronavirus hit has not even had the chance of the honeymoon period to pay loans off etc… It is what it is – it’s been a terrible year. But in my humble opinion, I don’t think we’re going to see the full impact until people start having to pay the debts they have accumulated during the last few months. When HMRC starts asking for their money, we’re going to see where we are.

"My business hasn’t had a penny of support apart from furlough. We’re still arguing about business rates. Short circuit lockdowns are obviously not going to help, especially if they fall over half term. With having no parties, these peak periods are more critical than ever. I’ve already told our local councillors that if York falls into Tier 3 and they don’t give us any support, my business won’t survive it. They kept us shut longer than anyone and if they close us down again, we won’t get through it. 

"Certain areas, for instance Bolton and Scotland, have not even had the opportunity to trade while in Northern Ireland, they are open but they can’t sell food or drink. Some of the smaller operators have received some assistance, but not enough, and the larger centres don’t fall into the category that is deemed worthy of support. So you’re starting to see cracks. If we see lockdowns over half term and we don’t get any support from the national and local authorities, it’s not unreasonable to say that the majority of play centres could shut by January.

"Because of the massive benefits we offer, we should be seen as one of the most important sectors for the nation’s children, but we seem to be the unwanted and unloved sector and the authorities don’t seem bothered whether we get the support or survive. It’s certainly not at the heart of their decision making. It should be."

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