May 17th: How St Albans indoor play centre has adapted to Covid

Helen Whittington, who runs DJ's Play centres in St Albans, Hemel and Berkhamsted.

Helen Whittington, who runs DJ's Play centres in St Albans, Hemel and Berkhamsted. - Credit: Helen Whittington

For parents and children across the district, the enforced closure of local soft play centres over much of the past year has left a gaping hole in their lives, so there is obvious anticipation for when they re-open on May 17.

We spoke to Helen Whittington, who runs DJ's Play centres in St Albans, Hemel and Berkhamsted, to find out how she's coped with the challenges of the pandemic, and what measures they have introduced to become Covid-safe.

"The first lockdown was quite a stressful time for our sector as last summer, the closed period from March was extended until August for indoor play, with great uncertainty over whether we would be able to operate again.

"The general release of lockdown was staggered, and indoor play was left until last to be added to the list of re-opening dates - so we only had 36 hours' notice to open on August 17. This meant it was logistically challenging to react at such short notice, to be staffed up and stocked up to re-launch."

The centres had adapt quickly, introducing online bookings and timed slots so they could close for enhanced cleaning routines between play sessions. Numbers were restricted, tables were spaced out to allow social distancing, with markers and screens in place.

"Fortunately the customers came back and we had many sold out sessions - especially over October half-term - before we had to close again. No gatherings or parties were permitted, so the footfall wasn't what it was, but the customer support and loyalty has been great and we've become cashless, which is a process improvement."

Inside DJ's Play.

Inside DJ's Play. - Credit: Helen Whittington

During the long periods when they were closed they completed a crowdfunder project towards a new under-twos sensory area in Hemel, and extended the lease on their St Albans site, which enabled a full deep clean and re-paint.

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"Personally, I was feeling very frustrated so I applied and joined the NHS to work on the mass vaccination programme, where I utilise my team management and rostering skills to co-ordinate Alban Arena HCT vaccination centre!"

"We've embraced change in the long-run, therefore installed a system that allows online bookings, takes payment, can email customers and keep credits - all suitable for track and trace. That has enabled us to become cashless, contactless and keep to capacity, with closing for cleaning in between.

"Customers have also had to adhere to wearing face coverings inside and sit separately and keep a social distance. We had a good cleanliness reputation and 5 star food hygiene already, so the extra measures were to keep staff and customers safe and to improve the play experience all round.

"Classes and parties have been on hold unfortunately, so we expect there to be pent-up demand for a lot of lockdown birthdays to be celebrated with a trip to indoor play with friends.

"The business is still viable, and we have survived thus far - whereas other local competitors perhaps ceased trading. We can certainly make a success of these changes, we may be less profitable perhaps, but there is still a huge demand for indoor play, with new customers coming through.

"Many babies born in 2020/2021 will be finally meeting up with other babies, and new mums can make connections in a safe child-oriented space.

"We are fully ready to react to the new Covid-safe environment and welcome customers back on Monday 17th May. We believe play dates have been sorely missed and children's exercise and socialising has been on hold for too long.

"We provide a clean safe place for families to meet, grab a coffee and chat - the lockdown has proven that simple pleasures such as these are interactions, we all need and our team our so excited to be back to look forward to seeing customers, regulars and new families!"