When Michael Browning started Urban Air, the business was a trampoline park for kids like many others in the industry. But with a background in data science and analytics, Browning was able to see the opportunity to create a more innovative model that was centered around the needs of parents and kids both. I sat down with Browning, the founder and CEO of Urban Air, to learn about the founding story of the business, how data plays such a key role in their decisions, and how the business has evolved over the last year.
Dave Knox: What led you to launch an adventure park in Urban Air?
Michael Browning: It’s a crazy story when you really start to look back and see how my steps have been aligned along the way. When I was in college, I really fell in love with data. I was a political science and business major, but on the political science side, I really love statistical analysis around voting and trends and just fell in love with data. And out of my dorm room, I started a data and analytics company, which I ultimately sold to a family office out of Santa Barbara, California. And that family office did a lot
of different things from publishing books and distributing those across Walmart and Sam’s to real estate in both medical and residential. In my travels with this family office, I saw a trampoline park. And so, I cannot take credit for inventing the trampoline park, but what I do take credit for is the creation of an adventure park. My data platform mind said, “this is innovative, and this can be commercialized” which are two very important keys for me. I always say, “If you have something so innovative yet, you can’t commercialize it, you’re going to have the best kept secret. But, if you have something that can be commercialized, but not innovative, then you’re just going to compete on price and you’re a me-too product.” So I’m always looking to do things that are both innovative and can be commercialized.
Knox: Given that Urban Air is social by nature, how has the brand weathered the pandemic?
Browning: We’ve weathered it well. There are a lot of silver linings coming out of the pandemic. We shut down all of our locations on March 17th of 2020, which was obviously a really scary day. We didn’t know if we’d ever be able to open again. And we also didn’t know if when we did open again, if people would come back. Luckily, I have a lot of great mentors in my life and I reached out to these mentors of mine to ask, “What do we do? I haven’t lived through or led through a crisis of this nature.” And they said to me, “Although, there is no playbook for this particular one, we lived through 9/ 11, we lived through the housing crisis and there are some keys to success.” And so, throughout the storm of the pandemic, our philosophy was we were going to act quickly. I told my staff that, “What I tell you today, I may contradict tomorrow because we’re making the decisions in real time and everything is moving fast and we’re not going to be afraid to be wrong. We’re going to do right by the guests from day one. And then we’re all going to do what we need to do and take a little bit of pain, so that no one franchisee, no one employee, no one company has to bear the burden for everybody.” That laid the foundation for the pandemic and our playbook. We were able to maintain our revenue about 70% of 2019. And we have only lost one location as a result of the pandemic. We actually grew during the pandemic and opened 30 locations of which 23 were opened between March and the end of the year. Now in Q1 2021 our same-store sales are performing better than they were in 2019 and we are back in a big way. It had to do with listening to the consumer, doing right by the guest, and protecting our employees.
Knox: Why do you think consumers so quickly responded to what Urban Air is offering?
Browning: Honestly, it’s human DNA, I think. We were all wired for relationships. And what we have learned over 2020 is that being locked in our homes and accumulating stuff from Amazon and all these online retailers is not fulfilling the same way that being with others is fulfilling. We already knew the millennial population was 78% more likely to want to spend their money on experiences versus things. But now, that’s exemplified because they really understood after the pandemic that doing it all alone is not worth it. And so, there was a tremendous pent-up demand for people to get out of their homes and into Urban Air’s home and have some fun to reconnect. And that makes Urban Air’s purpose even more important than ever. We have always been the safest place, the most fun and affordable place to celebrate, escape and connect. That’s our why, and it always has been. But now more than ever, we are helping friends reconnect after a year of being apart.
Knox: How does Urban Air differentiate itself and stay ahead of the competition?
Browning: We started as a trampoline park. But because of our data that we have, we know customer frequency, wallet share, and dwell time. And as we studied trampoline parks, the data was showing us that being a trampoline park was really a race to the bottom. You were just competing on price. So we started innovating. We started creating our own attractions, getting patents, getting exclusive distribution rights to the best attractions from all around the world. And we took out 80% of our trampoline footprint and brought in non-trampoline-based attractions. There is a big difference between an Urban Air Adventure Park and what a trampoline park has with just one other attraction. That’s not really an adventure park. So Urban Air is the only true attraction diversification adventure park out there. And it makes a huge difference, because the other part of the Urban Air strategy is that mom is our customer, kid is our user. And so, by allowing mom to pay one price at the gate, allow her kids to play on whatever they can for an unlimited amount of time, it has huge value to mom. And where we differentiate is we want mom to be able to show up in a minivan with a kid who’s just started walking to a kid who’s 14, everybody have a fabulous time, everybody gets to eat something great from our cafe and then pass out in the minivan on the way home. That is nirvana. And we are the only ones able to do that.
Knox: What role does technology play in that consumer experience at Urban Air?
Browning: Technology has always been huge at Urban Air, but from the pandemic, it’s taken an even bigger role in the business. We love gamification. We love the mixture of analog and digital. We have the world’s only immersive reality arena where guests can go in the arena and be immersed inside the game. Kids don’t want the arcade anymore. Even virtual reality is limiting in the social aspect of it. But when you walk into our technology, our immersive reality arena, you see your friends. You are all playing the game together. It is amazing.
We were doing some innovative stuff pre COVID, but coming out of COVID, what’s even more important from a technological perspective is the convenience and transparency. Mom wants to reserve her tickets to play in advance and know that we are managing capacity. She wants to be able to buy food and beverage in a touchless manner from her phone. We spent a lot of time and a lot of money listening to our guests over COVID and saying, “What would it take for you to come back?” The result is that we turned every one of their cell phones into a personal register where they can buy tickets, order food and beverage, and check- in. It has changed the game. We are checking in guests faster. We are having a much better customer experience. The customer experience starts online before they ever get to our parks.
Knox: Urban Air really has a great focus on their cafe, which has never exactly been a strong suit of similar venues. Why did you put such a focus on the café part of the business?
Browning: Going back to the point on data, it will tell you that our average dwell time is somewhere around three hours depending upon seasonality. And so, really no matter what time you come into the park, our guests are close to a time in which they would be eating. And so, we saw a need there. We heard moms saying, “Well, let’s leave and let’s go to Chick- fil- A.” And so from a business perspective, we saw that we were leaving money on the table by not offering that experience. We were also offering an inferior guest experience because mom had to make another stop on the way home. Mom really wanted to just knock it all out in one great day and have the kids pass out tired and full on the way home. So it started with listening to our guests.
Second, by changing our business model to where we charge one fee at the gate, the only other way to increase wallet share or per cap spending would be to have something to sell beyond the gate. And when I recruited Jay Thomas as our Chief Operating Officer from Six Flags, he came to me and he said, “Michael, we’ve really got to step up our cafe.” He said, “Six Flags, Disney, and the other big players in the theme park space are really in the food and beverage business. They just give guests something to do between eating and drinking.” That changed the game for me and the way I thought about this. When you acquire a franchise from Urban Air, you are really getting two businesses in one transaction. You are getting the theme park and the gate revenue, but then you are getting a fast casual restaurant concept with a captive audience at your fingertips. Those two things are what led us to create a café that is both affordable and tasty, while offering people the type of food they want in that environment.
Knox: In addition to the café, music and lighting also play a special role in Urban Air. Why is that?
Browning: I am a big believer in activating all the senses. We say that the Urban Air recipe for success is the combination of our attractions, our lighting, our sound and our people. And when they all work synergistically together, that is what creates that wow atmosphere and that amazing environment. The way to really make it a full immersive environment is to use lighting and to use sound. We started using basic nightclub lighting. And then we invented our own lighting now that we use that can be controlled with songs. It can be controlled during various seasons. We will have Christmas lighting or Hanukkah lighting or Halloween lighting. During breast cancer awareness month, we can do breast cancer pink. And so it just really brings the atmosphere to that next level. And we even have a decibel level that we want our music to be run at. We create the playlist at the home office and we send that out to all the parks. You don’t go to a workout class and listen to elevator music. There is just something about a certain beats and certain energy that you get from lighting and sound, and we deploy that environment.
Knox: How has the membership program of Urban Air benefited the business?
Browning: It’s been amazing. It is one of the reasons why we fared so well through the pandemic since it gives us a very stable base of recurring revenue. We paused those memberships when we shut down on March 17th but then we were able to restart them when we opened back up. Our data allows us to create a membership program that is very affordable and provides tremendous value to the consumer but is very profitable for the franchisee. And the membership’s been a game changer. We were first in the industry to do it. We have sold over 385,000 memberships, and they are continuing to grow every week. It really taps into the new consumer psyche of wanting to have curated experiences on a recurring revenue model.
Knox: Where do you see the brand headed over the next five years?
Browning: The beautiful thing about Urban Air is why we get out of bed every day. We get out of bed every day to help families connect, escape, and celebrate. And so, within the four walls of an Urban Air facility, we are going to do that. And we are always going to do that with active attractions. The reason why we love being Urban Air Adventure Park is because the attractions inside the facility can change, so long as they always are safe in nature, they provide an active experience for ages 14 and under, and they’re cutting edge. If they fit that, we will have them in Urban Air. What you see 10 years from now may be very different from an attraction package in Urban Air, but our heart will never change. The why we get out of bed will never change. And so, that is what makes us so excited to go on this journey. We are not going to be the same in 10 years, but we are going to be making the same impact.