Archive for the ‘Children’s Parties’ Category

Why is the party industry on it’s knees?

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

The children’s party industry had its boom from the early naughties through to the GFC but now as consumer spending continues to drop we need to address the question: “Do we want quality live performance at children’s parties to continue into the future?”

There are two dilemmas facing the industry at present:

a. a huge lack of quality performers willing to do this type of work, especially after a bad experience working with a booking agent where they’ve been thrown in the deep end;

b. a large amount of freelancers and booking agents hugely undercutting on price and providing low quality improvised shows that deter the general public from ever booking anyone ever again.

I started performing in the party industry in 2000. At the time the industry was just finding its feet and as a freelance performer I was given a character name, taught a couple of magic tricks & how to twist a balloon then asked to “wing it” from there. Despite being a qualified teacher I didn’t have children of my own and being in my early twenties my friends were not throwing children’s birthday parties either. What to do? The agency I worked for told me to go and watch one of their other performers do a wizard party. It was a real eye-opener.

The performer arrived in a pretty bland wizard costume to perform what I thought was a very bland show. He’d been told by the agent to buy his own present for the child, confirm with the client & provide all costume & props as he saw fit. I think he forgot the present, his costume showed his inability to sew and the props were limited to a guitar. He was trying his best but he was not a trained performer, he was very lack lustre and he had barely any content!! He performed the two magic tricks I had also been taught then pulled out a guitar (I was unaware that Wizards were big acoustic guitarists, but I stood corrected) and played from memory something that reminded me of Koombayah as the kids were asked to walk in circles around him. By the third soothing folk song the kids had all wandered off wondering what any of this had to do with being a wizard? He then started to play some random games which were a little more successful but again had nothing to do with being a wizard. It was confusing for everyone, the performer included. The second half hour was spent making three designs of balloon animals which were a big hit and saved the show. What amazed me at the end was that the parents seemed genuinely happy that he’d come. Why? The industry was so new that they’d never seen any better and figured that was what you get.

Looking back, my first party as a freelancer was a disaster. The example I’d been given told me to sing songs as kids circle around you so that’s what I did. I did it once. The actor and the teacher in me couldn’t take someone’s money for doing that. As it turned out I remember there was a strong wind and I lost the money as I got back into my car, clearly the universe telling me I had not earned it. I can see why so many performers have tried the industry once then sworn never to return. I was set up to fail. The event was truly terrifying and after my costs made me a grand total of $40. I made more money working the register at my local servo.

Rather than giving up all together I decided to try something different. I sat down and drafted out a rough script for a show that included the two magic tricks I’d been taught. Then I added some games that related to the script and tried to come up with some structure that would keep the kids engaged. Within a couple of months I had three shows that were working a hundred times better than the improvised circle show and within a year I had my booking agent sending all of their performers to my shows to copy it. I was already running Tony Bones Entertainment as a Theatre In Education company and figured adding on a branch for kids parties was the logical next step.

Since then we’ve developed 26 original party shows with Tim Smith & Luke Hunter, the two teachers who are our musical directors and whom I compose the music with. The shows are scripted with original music, integrated games, a birthday present, magic, a main activity that relates to the character, then colouring, balloon sculpting or face painting & lollypops to finish. We provide everything for the performer so that they can just concentrate on the performing side of things. The shows are fully rehearsed and highly structured and the performers are given lots of training to ensure they can succeed and enjoy the work. But 11 years on, what is the rest of the industry doing?

The answer is…. much of the same. Back in 2000 the average price for an unscripted party show was around $150-$175. 11 years later an average Melbourne house costs over $200,000 more than in 2000 but some companies are still charging the same amount for an unscripted party show? Most of the companies performing around Melbourne continue to be run by booking agents or performers who provide no show for their performers. The poor performers are still told to “make it up” and the result is a lot of child minding being packaged up as children’s entertainment. Most serious actors refuse to do it more than once so the standard has dropped to the lowest common denominator of performer. The agents continue to undercut on price, some so low that the entire payment wouldn’t even come close to paying the performer the Federal Award minimum amount, and you can bet the booking agent is still taking a fair whack out of the payment. A year ago one agent asked us to perform Santa for the grand total of $11 an hour!!! Suit included!! you can only imagine what they would have made. Of course as a booking agent it doesn’t cost very much to load up a basic website, put a print advertisement in a children’s newspaper then forward on bookings to performers for them to organise, especially when you’re never developing shows and rehearsing them. But what do you as the customer get for the money that you spend on these booking agents?

Child minding. Child minding is not children’s entertainment, it is babysitting. Playing games. It is regrettable but childcare is one of the lowest paid industries in the country, so it is no wonder that children’s party companies are able to send this work to your home at such a low price. Because it ain’t entertainment, it’s childcare.

So what do we do to improve the future of this industry?

1. Ask for specific details of what you’re going to get at the show. Ask the company to provide it in writing. then check it off at the party. If it doesn’t happen then you should get a big discount. If it is just game playing then it should cost the same as a babysitter. If it is a varied show format then it should be between $250 to $400 plus travel.

2. If your performer exceeds your expectations, then let them know. Performers like a round of applause, that’s how audiences show them that they appreciate what they’ve done. And if you really liked them then tell your friends. Keep the good providers in business, and encourage good performers to keep performing or they’ll be lost forever.

3. Pay a decent amount of money for a decent product. Paying under $250-$300 would not cover the costs of any decent performer who is performing a quality show (advertising, costume development and maintenance, public liability insurance, website development and maintenance, providing phone and email quotes, travel expenses, vehicle, presents, props, music, stereo, balloons, face paint… the list goes on). The companies charging under this will nearly always give you exactly what you pay for – not much.

4. Understand the difference between a freelance performer and a company. A company will cost more because they have safeguards individuals usually don’t. The most common reason for last minute bookings with our company is because a client has had a performer from another company cancel on them, usually a solo freelance performer has pulled out at the last minute due to illness, hangover or an offer for more money elsewhere, though it always seems to be called “illness”. Companies will have other performers who can fill in so clients are not left in the lurch. Companies also pool the ideas of many people to create the shows and run the business. Freelance performers or booking agents leave everyone to their own devices.

Convincing people to spend more money to maintain an industry is a tough sell. You just need to look at all the people that were grounded from Tiger Airlines to see what happens when we look to use the cheapest option every time. At least the airlines have an industry that will ground their aircrafts if they don’t meet the minimum standards. If only the children’s entertainment industry had similar safeguards. Oh well, i guess it’s up to us.

Tony Appleby B.Ed is the director of Tony Bones Entertainment – “Children’s Theatre by Qualified Teachers”

How to run the perfect children’s party at home

Thursday, November 19th, 2009

“How to run the perfect children’s party at home”
By Tony Appleby B.Ed
Tony is the director of Tony Bones Entertainment – “Children’s Theatre by Qualified Teachers”. He has 2 young children, 10 years teaching experience in both primary and secondary schools as well as over 1000 party character performances under his belt.

How does a parent run the perfect party for their child? Three words – Keep it simple.

I know that sounds like it is simplifying the matter, but it really is accurate. And there’s a few good reasons why:

Young children can only focus on one thing at a time. Just look at what their teachers or child care workers do with them in class when they want to run a group activity. It is usually just one thing at a time. “Let’s all come and sit on the mat and read this story” or “let’s all go outside and have some fun on the play equipment”. It is usually a “let’s all” kind of activity so stick to what you already know works for the experts. When you were a child it was more commonly pass the parcel and a footy thrown out on the lawn or “pin the tail on the donkey”. Whilst things have come a long way since then in children’s party entertainment, keeping it simple will still serve you and your child well for your next party.

But how do you do that when there is so much out there to choose from? A performer? A jumping castle? Pony rides? A petting zoo? They all sound good so why not do them all together for the greatest party ever? There’s a few good reasons why keeping it simple will work for you and your kids.

Cost. The price of one good activity is money well spent. The cost of four good activities is a lot of money down the drain. None of the activities will get the attention they deserve if there are too many things happening. This also means that none of them will be good value for money. A party planner may tell you different, but just remember that the more things you book, the more money they make. Choosing a couple of really great activities will get a better result than ten activities, no matter how brilliant they are.

Memories. When too many things are going on simultaneously you will probably find that the kids don’t remember any of the activities with any clarity later on. This is because they’ve been over stimulated with too many things happening in a short time frame. If you want your child to talk about this for months or years to come then keep it simple and you’ll have just one or two great things for them to fondly remember.

Behaviour. When young children are over stimulated they tend to behave erratically. Often the birthday child will cry for no reason because it is all just too much for them. Running away and hiding is another common reaction to over stimulation for kids. This is where the birthday child hides in their room refusing to come out, desperately clinging to their favourite toy in a vain attempt for everything to return to normal. Usually passive children can also become quite violent if they feel that the bright lights and claustrophobic balloons are closing in on them. A simpler approach can help avoid all of these problems.

The future. Leave yourself somewhere to go next year. They only turn 4 once, but they turn 5 next year. Giving kids too many things at a party leaves them disinterested in what you offer next time. I once observed a party where every child was provided with an individual piñata to smash, each with its own half kilo of lollies inside. By the time the third piñata was burst open the 40 strong crowd had lost interest and wandered off. They loved the first, were bored by the third. One piñata would have done just fine. I’ve also had many requests for High School Musical parties for children as young as three years old. Despite the fact that the movies are pitched at an older age group, that type of party can still be offered when the kids are much older. A fairy, on the other hand, has a shelf life of just a few years. My advice is to always book the youngest activity possible while you can so you still have something up your sleeve for next year, and the next.

All right, so you’re ready to keep it simple. But which option do you chose?

Keeping it simple doesn’t necessarily mean you only do one thing but it does mean that you only do one thing at a time. It also means that all of the activities have to vary from one another. What those things are can be entirely up to you but try not to go overboard on anything.

Some helium balloons are great, at least enough for each child to take one home. Hundreds filling a room can just stress kids out, not to mention some claustrophobic parents who may not like to feel like they are trapped in a world of balloons. The rest of the decorations are optional but just remember that the kids probably won’t notice if there are $2000 of decorations or 2 streamers tied to the front door, as long as there’s cake!!!

One performance is great. More than one is over kill. The kids will just get bored. Stick to one performance per party.

Try to do something that is a bit different to what they are used to. It is a party after all. Create some lasting memories by organizing more than just some party games that they’ve all played a hundred times before. Run a simple craft activity where they all get to make their own pirate hats or fairy wands, then incorporate those things in to the next activity, be that a performance or casting fairy spells on the animals in the petting zoo.

Jumping castles are great if the weather is fine but they can sometimes only hold the attention of kids for a short time frame. Having something else to go with the castle is usually preferred.

Here are some big no-no’s:

Don’t run games or story-telling yourself before your party performer arrives. If you have spent money on a performer then the best thing you can do is ensure that you don’t wear out the attention span of the kids before they get there. If you’d like to run games then run them after your performer or presenter has finished their show. That way if the kids show signs of getting bored or tired then you can cut them short and do something else. Your performer doesn’t always have the freedom of being able to say “let’s ditch what I planned and all just go and eat some cake”. You have that freedom. Support your performer by not stealing their thunder before they get there.

Don’t serve food at the same time as an activity is running. Set aside a time before or after an activity when food will be served, not during. It comes back to that idea of kids not being able to really focus on more that one thing at a time. Give your chosen activity every chance of succeeding by ensuring that it has everyone’s attention for it’s full duration.

Here are some must do’s:

Do organise the kids to arrive at least fifteen minutes before your main activity. This gives the kids enough time to settle in, feel comfortable and appreciate what occurs, as well as giving extra time for late comers to arrive and not miss out on the party.

Do organise a separate area for the parents. This can be very difficult if you don’t have a big house or are having the party at a restaurant but it really can be the key to a good party, especially if you have booked a performance or presentation of some kind. It can be as simple as kids outside and parents inside, or parents in the kitchen, kids in the lounge. At a restaurant it can be parents down one end, kids down the other. When a performer is trying to do a show for young children there is nothing worse than parents talking over the top of them or distracting their audience with mid-show offers of sausage rolls. When the kids are left to focus on the show then the performer or presenter has a far better chance at really getting the best out of the audience not least of all because the audience can actually hear what they are saying. If parents want to watch quietly then they can come to that room or area to watch from the back but giving them another area to go to if they want to talk is very important if you want to get value from your entertainment. Make it clear to the parents when they arrive that if they’d like to stay then all of the kids will be doing this over here and all the parents can either watch quietly or come out to the other room for a cuppa and a chat with the other parents. Of course, always ensure that at least one parent is with the kids at all times and that they are never left unsupervised with or without a performer present. Performers want the parents to support them by keeping their noise down but they don’t want the awkward situation of being left alone with kids they don’t know.

Do organise someone to help with food, photos & video for the event. This could be a professional but certainly does not have to be. Just someone who can help get the food out of the oven or take a few in focus happy snaps at the party. As the parent of the birthday child you will be busy ensuring everyone is being looked after but it is a big ask for you to do everything else as well. Ask a friend or helpful family member before the day if they’d be happy to help out and you’ll get a chance to enjoy the day too.

Do confirm any entertainers have “Working With Children’s Check” numbers. If you hire an entertainer then ensure they have a “Working With Children’s Check” number that you can check on the government website before the day. This system has replaced the old “police checks” that were very difficult to confirm or keep up to date. The new system is a live database that anyone can access online as well providing the applicant with an official photo id. Stipulate that you will require the performer to show their card before they enter your house. Make this a pre-requisite of you hiring the performer to ensure you get an appropriate person working with your kids.

Do ensure any entertainers have public liability insurance providing at least $10 million cover. Insist that anyone working in your house provides evidence before the day of their public liability insurance. This insurance covers them in the event of them accidentally injuring a guest or damaging your property. Most party performers are relatively young and often couldn’t afford to pay for any damage or hospital bills they may be responsible for in the unfortunate event that something goes wrong. For this reason ensuring they are covered by insurance is a must. Ask to view their certificate before the day, not on the day when it is too late to book someone else who is covered.

Do make dressing up optional. Some parents love playing dress ups with their kids, but some won’t bring their kids at all if they feel they can’t match the costumes of other children. Giving an optional dress up theme is a great way of alleviating the pressure on parents and kids. This is particularly the case for families who perhaps can not afford a present for your child and a new costume for their child to wear. You never really know what’s going on with the other parents’ finances so optional spending is a great idea. Keep the pressure off by saying, “It is a Cowboy party. Dress up or just come along in your favourite clothes for the fun”.

Do look at the website of anyone you’re looking at hiring. Ensure the company’s website has some testimonials that sound good to you and that it spells out exactly what they will be doing at your party. General statements like “the kids will have lots of fun” without any more details is generally code for “I have no idea what will happen on the day but I hope the performer makes up something good”. Look for specifics that sound good to you and will suit your child’s tastes. A varied program that has lots of short activities is generally a better approach than too much of the one thing. Magic tricks are great for a short time but kids often get bored after a while, especially young kids. Games are great but yet again they can get boring after a little while, especially when little kids don’t understand the rules or older kids find the game too easy. Spread your risk by ensuring your presenter or performer has a few different activities up their sleeve, not just game playing or face painting.

Do have some games to play if you need them. Have a couple of games up your sleeve that are a no brainer to run in case you need a filler. Setting up pass the parcel or learning the rules of “Duck, duck, goose” will really save you if something goes wrong and suddenly you have 20 kids looking at you asking, “What do we do now?” I saw one party where the oven had gone out and none of the party food was ready until 15 minutes after it was due. A couple of quick filler games can really do the trick in these unforeseen situations. If you don’t end up needing them then just put them to the side.

Do try to help the people who are trying to help you. Whether you have a performer, a petting zoo or a jumping castle try to help the people who are there working for your event. They want your event to succeed so asking what they need to make it happen and providing a supportive atmosphere will go a long way to ensuring they do a good job. If you notice a child is proving particularly tricky for the person to control then ask that child’s parent to lend a hand. Controlling a large group of kids you’ve never met is a tough job for any performer, especially if they are relatively new to the industry. No performer is perfect but they do usually try their best so support them where you can.

So do a few balloons, a clown and a cake work as well as 40 parents and twenty three options for the kids? More often than not, the answer is yes. Keep it simple and reap the rewards. You’ll be saving more than just your money. You might just save your sanity as well.

Tony Appleby B.Ed – Director
Tony Bones Entertainment “Children’s Theatre & Children’s Parties by Qualified Teachers”
We come to you – All suburbs
Ph: 1300 308 311 Fax: (03) 9568 6233