SHOVEL READY: People At Play’s Jason and Alisa Bennett with their excavator, part of their playground equipment.In 2007, just as the recession was starting, Alisa and Jason Bennett, who own Bennett Contracting, Inc., had completed an underground construction project and were celebrating with engineers from other companies at a cookout at their shop in Bradenton. On a lark, the Bennetts rolled out a skid steer (think four wheels with a large shovel in front) and a small excavator and challenged the engineers to use the construction equipment to pick up soccer balls and drop them in a small pool. Everyone had the time of their lives, but the games also gave the Bennetts, who were worried about the possible slowdown in construction, an idea for another business—People at Play, a construction equipment-themed amusement playground. Many people, they reasoned, would thrill to the experience of driving construction equipment for fun. "We outlined the business that night," says Alisa.

For the next two years, Bennett Construction—a full-service site contractor that builds sewers, retention ponds, sidewalks and other types of infrastructure—kept winning contracts, so the Bennetts shelved the idea. "We survived 2008 and 2009," Alisa says, "but then in the second quarter of 2010, I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, we have no work right now. Let’s start thinking about that idea again."’

They leased 21 acres of former cattle and farm land in Bradenton from friends and launched People At Play in December 2010. In just 10 months, their heavy equipment playground has garnered national attention on NBC’s Today Show and ABC’s World News Now and was scheduled for another story on Fox News’ Good Day Tampa Bay in September. What was supposed to be an ancillary business to their construction company—just a way to keep busy and bring in extra dollars—is turning into a substantial enterprise.

DIGGING FOR DOLLARS: Visitors to People At Play get to use the bulldozer on the obstacle course.The Business Plan

With only one competitor in Colorado, the Bennetts were flying in the dark when they drew up the original business plan. Because they run Bennett Contracting during the week, People At Play is their weekend business. They envisioned it as a once-in-a-lifetime experience for people—a bucket-list item, like skydiving. They priced it to be competitive with those experiences and came up with three packages: The $395 entry-level Operator Package allows customers to—among other activities—operate a CAT 315 Steel Track Excavator for two-and-a-half hours through an obstacle course, knocking tennis balls off traffic cones, picking up small soccer balls and fitting them in a pipe, stacking tires on a post and bowling. The more extensive Foreman Package is $625 and the day-long Superintendent Package is $1,575. About 75 percent of their business is coming from people who buy the experience for others for birthdays and anniversaries.

The Bennetts—who are the only employees so far—also designed the experience to be competitive. After customers are trained to operate the equipment and are given safety instructions, they are treated as crew members on a job, clocking into a real time clock and timed as they maneuver through obstacles and try to beat the best course times.

Wall o' fame: People At Play displays the names of high scorers on their obstacle course.Smart Marketing

While a good lease deal and idle construction equipment that could be used on weekends meant that the Bennetts’ start-up costs were manageable, the biggest cost—about 22 percent of their expenses—was insurance.

The Bennetts also had no marketing budget. But as the former director of public relations for the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, Alisa understood how to drive traffic to their website and capture media attention.

"My PR background was also in the hospitality business, and People At Play is really the same type of thing. It’s about giving someone an experience," she says.

To start off, the Bennetts told all their friends and family about their new enterprise. "They very much helped spread the word," says Alisa. They also promoted People At Play in Bennett Contracting’s Diggin’ It newsletter, which goes out quarterly to customers and contacts.

"Facebook also has been a big part of our communications and marketing program," Alisa says. "We’re not, ‘Come book right now.’ We just want people to talk to us even if they never come, but maybe that will spur someone to tell a friend." People At Play also photographs and videotapes every customer and gives them an album that they hope will be shared—on Facebook and elsewhere.

Alisa also attempts to make at least five new media pitches a week to national, regional and local media. Those pitches led to an ABC World News Now story in February and in July, a long feature piece on NBC’s Today Show about Americans’ creative attempts to beat the recession. Alisa pitched the story to the show’s Jenna Wolfe, who features extreme experiences, when she was in New York this year to cheer on Jason as he ran the New York Marathon. She made a sign that said, "Run Jason Run" on one side and on the other said, "Jenna, Come Run An Excavator With Me." The pitch worked, and Wolfe and her crew came last summer to film People At Play. Immediately after the segment ran in front of 5.2 million viewers, the Bennetts received 250 emails, and saw big jumps in web traffic, Facebook likes and phone calls. "The Today Show was our tipping point," says Alisa.

People At Play also sends out a monthly e-newsletter that includes fun items such as Funniest Emails We Received This Month and a list of the top-ranking scorers on the obstacle course.

The Bennetts also participate in community events, offering People At Play packages as a donation item. Another creative idea was to design People At Play floats for parades, such as a dump truck pulling two tricked-out porta potties: the Man Cave, complete with TV, bamboo floors and a commode full of Budweiser; and a pink, mirrored and sequined Diva porta potty with a champagne bucket. Last year their float won Best Commercial Float in the Sarasota Holiday Parade.

Attention, please: The Bennetts’ tricked-out People At Play porta potties won a “best float” award in a local parade.Looking At the Future

Twenty-five people booked reservations right after the NBC piece aired, and the Bennetts are realizing they will have to hire other employees if they want to keep up with the demand. They’re also exploring ways to expand the business to other locations, and they’re looking at Orlando. "About 51 million people a year visit Central Florida," says Alisa, who adds that Orlando may be too big a market to tackle.

"There may be too much noise there," she says. "But this business model has legs, so we’re crunching the numbers to take it to the next level."

 

Alisa Bennett’s tips for entrepreneurs.

Just do it. “I didn’t want to start People at Play for a long time because I wanted everything to be just perfect. Instead we got started with what we had, and it works. That is probably because we are passionate about it and have fun with it.”

Ask for help. “You will be surprised how many people are willing to help when you just ask. We have amazing friends and family who have been sounding boards and resources for us.”

Mistakes happen. “You will screw up. Mistakes will seem like a huge deal at the time, but they aren’t insurmountable. They are the most valuable way to learn.”

Keep moving forward. Arm yourself with as much information as you can get and make the best decisions you can. Things have a way of working themselves out with just a little push in the right direction—or any direction.”

Don’t take yourself too seriously. “I laugh at myself a lot. Jason and I are open to any input, criticism, information, ideas, etc.”

People At Play is open Saturdays and Sundays. Also available for special weekday bookings.Call (941) 756-0886 or pplplay.com.

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