Written by Cheryl Hall, DMN
Michael Browning Jr. is making a lot of money thinking like a big kid.
In less than eight years, the 34-year-old CEO and co-founder of Urban Air Adventure Parks has turned a single trampoline park in Southlake into the nation’s largest chain of family-oriented indoor theme parks.
“I wanted to create a place that I wish I had when I was a kid,” Browning says in his headquarters office in Bedford. “We want to be the Six Flags of the indoor space.
“We focus on moms with kids from walking [age] to 14. They can come in, and there’s something for everyone — safe, clean, affordable.”
There are 65 Urban Airs, including 12 in D-FW, that feature climbing walls, warrior obstacle courses, tube playgrounds, ropes courses, trapezes, spinning-and-flipping bumper cars (you gotta see these things) and yes, trampolines.
An additional 175 units — stretching from coast to coast — are under construction or are nailing down real estate.
The company, which had systemwide revenue of $166 million in 2018, started in a little industrial garage off Main Street behind the Town Square Gazebo in Grapevine. It’s a family affair.
Browning co-founded the company with his dad, Mike, who was previously a luxury homebuilder in Grapevine, Colleyville and Southlake and still keeps an eye on Urban Air’s construction. Browning’s mother, Sharla, and his wife, Melissa, provide the mom insight, he says.
“I want moms to walk in and have the same feeling as when they sit in a Honda minivan: ‘This thing’s made for me. There’s a place for the wipes. There’s 26 cupholders.’”
In Urban Air’s case, that translates into open lines of sight to every area of play and spotless bathrooms.
“Perception is reality in our business,” Browning says. “You can serve wood-plank salmon on a bed of rice, but if you have dirty bathrooms, people are going to think your food is gross.”
He’s just using gourmet fish as an example. Urban Air’s fare leans toward burgers, chicken sandwiches and pizza.
But there’s also beer, wine, margaritas and daiquiris; high-speed internet; clear-view workstations; and pay massage chairs scattered throughout the play areas.
“As a result, our length of stay has gone from three hours to five hours,” Browning says.
Work as play
It’s also fun and games at Urban Air’s new headquarters on Airport Freeway.
“I’m a big kid at heart,” says Browning, who played semi-pro hockey his freshman year at Texas Christian University. “That spirit of fun and joy keeps us innovative around here.
“When you’re a disruptive company doing new things, you’re always going to take the arrows first and make mistakes. We believe speed and innovation win. We’d rather move quickly — make decisions, make an impact, make a few mistakes that we can fix — than spend the entire next year developing a concept and then roll it out when it’s already outdated.”
Everyone gets an iPhone instead of a desk phone. They can find privacy in phone booths that have banana scratch-and-sniff wallpaper.
“I want to create a culture where people don’t feel chained to their desks,” he says. “Everyone has line of sight to windows, no caves.”
There’s a pingpong table in the cafeteria and mini-golf with synthetic grass, along with cornhole, a ring-toss game and a huge Jenga set in “The Backyard.”
“We can be just as productive playing pingpong and talking about a problem as we can sitting in a staunchy conference room,” Browning says. “We have an Xbox game area. So we’ll sit down and play a game of Madden and talk out what’s going on.”
Midweek, Urbanites stay late for “Wine Down Wednesdays.”
Not his first skydive
When Browning was 7, he went door-to-door selling his handmade beaded bracelets: “My parents love to joke about that.”
In 2005, Browning started a customer analytics company in his dorm room as he was finishing up his sophomore year at TCU.
Two years later, he sold that company for $5 million in cash and stock to Rowland Hanson, a former Microsoft marketing and branding executive who named Windows.
In 2009, Browning launched a privately held health care company that primarily distributed Zerona, a noninvasive body contouring laser.
He was in San Francisco giving a speech at a technology and plastic surgery conference when he ran across a trampoline park being used for X Games training in a converted airplane hangar underneath the Golden Gate Bridge.
“I thought, ‘Man, this is really interesting,’” Browning says. “When I went to my dad with this idea, I asked him, ‘Dad, can you build it? Can you bring it to life?’ He said sure.
“Funny thing is, he hasn’t built a house since. He’s been so busy with Urban Air.”
The first Urban Air opened Oct. 28, 2011, in Southlake, just down the road from where the company-owned unit is located.
A couple of years into it, Browning noticed that customers were coming in less often, and when they came, they were spending less time.
“When you’re in a trampoline park, no matter what you’re doing, you’re bouncing up and down. So the experience is basically the same,” he says. “I wanted something hot. NBC’s American Ninja Warrior had just come out. So I created the first lookalike replica of an American Ninja Warrior course.”
Revenue jumped 30 percent instantly.
Every month, fairly consistently, five more franchise units open and other agreements are signed — 75 percent by existing franchisees.
It cost about $2.5 million to open these expanded units that are typically 40,000 square feet. That includes buildout, attractions, working capital, marketing, insurance and a mortgage down payment or lease deposit. It typically takes a franchisee two years to make back that money, Browning says.
Trampolines, once the whole focus, get much less space in these new Urban Airs being built in bargain-priced vacated stores such as Toys R Us, Sears and Walmart Neighborhood Markets.
“We’re a great second-generation tenant, and landlords love us,” Browning says. “We take these old, dark buildings that are beginning to be vandalized and we revitalize the center. We’re bringing in 266,000 guests a year on average to each store.”
Urban Air likes to be close to Hobby Lobby stores, which are closed on Sundays, so parking isn’t an issue.
Newer units feature an anchor attraction of either a go-kart track or a zipline coaster. Next week, Urban Air will launch its third anchor option at one of its corporate test locations in Fort Worth — indoor wind-tunnel skydiving. Franchisees are already clamoring for one.
“Having a facility built just around one attraction is like having one stock in a stock portfolio. You’re not diversified,” he says. “We don’t want to be Discovery Zone that was here for a while and then gone.”
The corporate Southlake location, which opened Dec. 22, is in a repurposed 60,000-square-foot vacated Walmart Neighborhood store and is the other “innovation store” where Urban Air tests new attractions.
“Then we can say, ‘We think this is a great idea’ or ‘Well, that didn’t work, but we didn’t waste your money trying.’”
At the entry, Urban Air is testing an esports arena. “We have all the major games here: Fortnite, League of Legends,” he says. “We host tournaments. I’m talking with Grapevine-Colleyville ISD having their teams practice here. We can link into worldwide tournaments.”
The company store cost $4.5 million to finish out with all the features. But Browning expects it to generate $5 million in revenue and $2.5 million in profit.
If that proves true, he’ll get the company’s money back in less than two years.
Colleyville homebuilder Tommy Dreiling has seven Urban Air units under development stretching from Southern California to South Carolina.
His first unit in Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb, is set to open next week.
He’s walking the floor in Southlake with his general contractor from Moore for a final look at the concept unit.
“This is a superb finish-out here, and we just want to make sure we dial ours in the way these guys have,” says Dreiling.
His Moore location is in a converted sporting-goods box store bought out of bankruptcy.
“We got a really good deal on that,” says Dreiling, who plans to buy some buildings and lease others. “We’re looking at some of the old Toys R Us and Babies R Us to try to capitalize the Toys and the Babies going into bankruptcy. Those boxes fit perfect.”
Hooking up capital
Entrepreneur Magazine’s just-released “Franchise 500” placed Urban Air at No. 97 based on growth, financial strength and stability out of more than 1,000 entries in this year’s competition.
Last year, 23 million guests visited an Urban Air. The seven company stores had sales of $46 million and the 58 franchise units had $120 million. The average per-unit profit margin was nearly 40 percent, Browning says.
It books 700 to 1,000 birthday parties systemwide every day. Admission varies based by location.
At Southlake, Urban Air charges $35 for individual access to all of its attractions with unlimited playtime. Birthday party packages for 10 kids and two hours of play start at $220.
Numbers like that attracted two prominent Dallas-based private equity firms — including Ross Perot Jr.’s — that are intent on ramping up growth even higher.
Browning wasn’t looking for equity investors when John Bahr of AHR Growth Investors in Dallas called him. “But my dad always taught me to take every meeting and every phone call to see where the rabbit hole goes.”
Browning and Bahr met at Cool River in Las Colinas and hit it off.
Bahr introduced him to Patrick McGee, Perot Jr. and Douglas Kennealey at MPK Equity Partners, and they hit it off.
The deal to buy 51 percent of the company closed April 1. Michael and Mike Browning, the management team and other investors own the remainder.
“They support us but don’t interfere,” says Michael Browning.
The funding did more than make Urban Air cash-rich, Browning says. It gave his company a stamp of approval that has allowed him to attract top talent, including Jay Thomas, a longtime top executive at Six Flags Over Texas.
Thomas, who started as a Roaring Rapids ride operator and a guide at Casa Magnetica in 1988 — he can still recite the welcoming spiel — joined Urban Air in June as chief operating officer.
“We‘re neighbors,” says Thomas, “so we had the opportunity to talk about all the things that were going on, and how he’d evolved from trampoline parks and moved into adventure parks.
“Looking at the overall growth of the company and the potential growth that’s out there was a very exciting proposition for me.”
The funding was also a magnet that attracted high-powered executives to Urban Air’s board of directors, including Ken May, CEO of Top Golf; Chris Tanco, chief operating officer of 7-Eleven; and Doug Rogers, the founder of Cheddars.
Bahr won’t disclose the details of the equity transaction other than to say it was significant.
“Our major investors love the focus on active, family entertainment and on innovation,” he says. “Michael wants to be first with the latest in active attractions. I like his passion, his creativity and his infectious high energy. He goes nonstop.”
Bahr, 41, has a 7-year-old daughter and a son who’s 5.
“That was certainly why I was interested in this concept at the beginning,” he says. “We took our kids there, and they really had a great time. There was no point at which they were bored or ready to go. I had to drag them out of the place.”
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