Cost of living crisis: Larne business highlights challenges in current climate

The owners of a ‘meet and play facility’ based in the Bank Road area of Larne have outlined the challenges facing them as the Cost of Living Crisis continues to impact on livelihoods across the province.
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Emily’s Playroom was established by husband and wife team Gary and Fiona Sloan, opening its doors at the Ledcom Industrial Estate in May 2022. The idea for the venture, which can take bookings of up to 12 children per session as well as catering for group bookings and birthday parties, came about during the coronavirus lockdowns in 2021, with the couple noticing a lack of similar facilities locally.

After testing the idea as part of Mid and East Antrim Council’s pop-up shop initiative in January 2022 and completing the Go For It programme, Gary and Fiona, who have two young daughters, decided to set up the business at Ledcom.

Fiona said: “Emily's Playroom was an idea my husband and I had for years, since we’d our first daughter Emily in 2019. Being in the target market, we understand the challenges of parents trying to socialise at cafes/restaurants with young children - alongside the frustration and boredom associated with how the children can feel when confined to a high chair or table for so long during coffee/meal times when out and about.

Gary and Fiona Sloan with their children Emily and Lucy. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).Gary and Fiona Sloan with their children Emily and Lucy. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).
Gary and Fiona Sloan with their children Emily and Lucy. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).

"We longed for somewhere which could combine both comfort and relaxation as a parent, alongside security and fun for the kids. Emily’s Playroom combines a coffee shop area for adults, as well as an imaginative role play area for children. We’re open six days a week, running 90-minute sessions of play, where children can immerse themselves in play in areas like construction site, hospital, dressing room, post office and a cafe.

"We run seasonal-themed play like Halloween, Christmas and Easter, where we change the toys and decor around to keep the playroom engaging for children. We’ve a soft play area which is suitable for non-walking children, very soft furnishings, plush teddies and engaging toys.

"We’ve started running SEN sessions with lower numbers of children, lower lighting and a number of engaging, sensory toys to ensure we’re providing a safe space and are fully-inclusive for those with special needs and not comfortable in normal, busy play facilities like soft play sometimes is.”

Although the facility, which employs three members of staff, received positive feedback from customers, Fiona and Gary have found the current economic climate tough to trade in.

Emily's Playroom can cater for up to 12 children during each play session. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).Emily's Playroom can cater for up to 12 children during each play session. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).
Emily's Playroom can cater for up to 12 children during each play session. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).

Fiona explained: “The biggest challenge we’ve faced since opening is the lack of predictability with bookings. Some days it rains and we’re really busy, then when the sun comes out we’re incredibly quiet - but as parents, we get it.

"As parents of young toddlers ourselves, we understand that periods will be quieter. We know September is a tough month, for back to school expenses and adjusting to new routines, as well as January being just after Christmas and often a long month before another pay day.

"We don't want to increase prices for our customers, and can't keep our costs down anymore than what we’ve done, so without more bookings and custom we simply cannot afford to run the business.

"As a new business, we expect to have a level of investment and have already invested a significant amount into the business in terms of up front costs and setup fees required to make the space exactly how we dreamed and how it needed to be - however, this isn't a long-term sustainable option for us, with no future hope of any return.

Fiona pictured with staff at the LEDCOM-based facility. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).Fiona pictured with staff at the LEDCOM-based facility. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).
Fiona pictured with staff at the LEDCOM-based facility. (Pic: Loreen Katherine Photography).

"We’d love to run the business and keep the jobs going for the sake of our amazing staff and incredibly supportive return customers, however, we also need to be realistic about what we have to gain. We’ve some plans in place to explore new ideas and try to keep our dream alive, however, in terms of 2024, the future is very unknown for us as a business.”

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Fiona, who works for a consulting firm, added: “Ultimately, we’d love more customers through the door - we’ve tried to drive this through additional social media/marketing. We’re exploring additional ideas to help drive some more energy into the business, however, sometimes it's difficult to do this continuously without even half of a return on our investments."

One of the proposals, Fiona revealed, is around collaborating with local small businesses with a similar target market to help create an inclusive shopping experience, where the parents can have a coffee and grab a bargain, while the children are happy playing.

"It's engagement like this and local collaboration which I think should be massively helpful in order to benefit everyone and help promote the talent and possibilities we have within the town. We’d also love to have more engagement with schools/childcare setting groups to help provide a safe space for play therapy/group or parent meet ups.

"If we could find an opportunity to expand our network and use our space in different ways, we may be able to create a more stable and steady, predictable monthly income which could see us through.

"While we know increase in bills are a challenge for many and the route of a lot of problems, the town is also a product of its people and we must do all we can to help support local, no matter how small it may be. Simply liking or sharing social media posts can help to increase our reach and potentially boost more custom.

"We would be heartbroken to have to close our doors in 2024 for our staff as well as the parents and children of Larne and beyond - we are striving to do all we can to avoid that but cannot proceed without more local support."