Our infinite hope for the children’s activity sector

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope” – Martin Luther King Jr

There are many quotes we could have led with, but perhaps with the ongoing uncertainty surrounding us, the above may provide the most resonance.

The festive season probably looked or felt a little different for you in 2020. The ongoing restrictions and challenges of the global pandemic (not to mention media coverage of Brexit) meant there was seemingly less to celebrate and be cheerful this year.

Children’s activity providers have been at times put into the unenviable position of making judgements for themselves over whether to continue operating their business during the pandemic. Exemptions have allowed many to continue operating, but there’s something of a moral dilemma of course when overarching messages of ‘Stay At Home’ appear at odds with what our sector is being instructed.

We write this now, not entirely sure of what 2021 will bring.

However, we are pragmatic optimists at ICAP and strongly believe that the next 12 months may be not only rewarding, but business defining.

In a nod to the Martin Luther King Jr quote we referenced above, these are our hopes for 2021.

1. The vaccine roll out is successful
While there understandably remains some concern over both the short to medium term effectiveness (particularly with new Covid variants) and the unknown long term side effects of any vaccine, the fact we have one now being administered to the most vulnerable with a timescale in place for others down the list to receive one, provides a great boost going into the new year. If all goes to plan in the UK (taking into account it’s unlikely to be completely smooth), it appears plausibly that by the end of summer a significant number of the general population will have received the vaccine and those who haven’t will be the less vulnerable or those opting out.

The impact for children’s activity providers will be even greater demand as people become more confident in paying and attending activity services once again, and with the hope restrictions will be lifted when safe, profitability can return to previous levels.

2. Our sector continues to gain the recognition it deserves
We’ve discussed previously, the relative infancy of the children’s activity sector having been informally established only 20-30 years ago, booming in the last decade. The fact there are now two dedicated membership organisations including ICAP to support this great sector is further proof of its growing influence.

The UK Government have at times, been somewhat confused over both the operational aspects of how we run activity businesses and the importance of our role in communities. That doesn’t appear to be the case any longer – through hard work of parents, providers and suppliers to the industry the Government appears to be listening and understanding more about the key role providers play in educating, entertaining and inspiring children and families.

This alone is cause for celebration.

3. More providers embrace technology
We’ve been a little slower than other sectors to adopt technology in the past. We mainly place that down to a combination of sector immaturity and extreme fragmentation. Simply, many thousands of activity providers have been working alone and without the systems and processes in place that technology has helped streamline for other industries. 

While some providers have been invested heavily in technology already and strengthened their businesses in this area, many more children’s activity providers are now looking at how technology can help them both survive and thrive during and post-pandemic.

We’ve seen digital upskilling, booking system investment and website improvements. These are small but significant improvements to business development going forward for both customers and activity providers alike.

4. The economy rebounds
The economic impact of Covid-19 and Brexit will be felt for years to come, but generally if we average the predictions of all the UK economists, it appears (pending a successful vaccine roll out)many industries will start to rebound by the end of the year (many already are) and while it may be too late for some companies operating in them, it means the glimmer of hope will in time become more than that. 

This in turn, means money flowing more freely again, disposable income will return to previous levels and customers will be spending as they always did on their children’s activities.

The question we must ask ourselves is, not how do we ‘return to normal’, more how do we build a better business ready for 2021 and beyond. 

5. Providers continue building healthier and stronger businesses
If you’ve ever trained for a marathon you’ll know that when you first start running it can be really challenging. You’ll feel drained both mentally and physically at times but the euphoria when you cross the finish line on race day makes all those tough training runs worth it. The training regime has made you fitter, healthier and stronger.

You could argue the same for what children’s activity providers have experienced over the past few months. You’ve likely gone through ups and downs, peaks and troughs, had your faith renewed and dashed in equal measures. However, while you’re doing all of this to simply keep your business alive (as opposed to run a race), understand that when we come out the other side, you should hopefully have a fitter, healthier and stronger business for it. One that has better systems and processes, streamlined admin, bigger online audiences, new online products or services, readiness to scale through franchising, licensing, taking on more staff etc.

The challenge then will be deciding what direction to take your business with its stronger foundations and more skilled owners and staff.

Final thought
While these are our hopes for 2021, like every industry, whenever there are recessions or significant challenges, there will be winners and losers.

How are you preparing your business to be in the winners circle?

By becoming a member of ICAP you’re joining a community of like-minded professionals and business owners in the children’s activity sector working towards excellence