At Play: CLE, one of the most important employees is responsible for evaluating the indoor adventure park’s activities and offerings — providing feedback on the ropes course, climbing wall, obstacle course, bouldering and zipline offerings that have made this Avon business an instant hit since its December 2017 launch.
This person is the chief play officer; her name is Bridget Carlin, and she’s the 10-year-old daughter of Play: CLE owner Greg Carlin.
And she’s not the only “employee.” In the first two months of Play: CLE’s existence, Carlin hired 60 employees — more than half of them Lorain County residents — as the concept quickly caught on.
Carlin launched Play: CLE with the input and assistance of the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at Lorain County Community College. Carlin, 40, had been involved with two previous startups, but even with his experience, the SBDC played a vital role in launching and growing Play: CLE.
“It’s multidimensional in terms of where their assistance can be pointed,” Carlin says. “Some people come to an SBDC group with an idea, but they’re not sure how to frame that up or what questions to ask themselves or where to go. Other people have the idea and the plan, but they need help on the resource side. It’s about pointing them in the right direction. I fell into that group.”
Finding the right business coach
Carlin says the SBDC was vital in helping him hone his plan.
“You can’t overstate the importance of knowing who your customer is or who you want your customer to be, and then gut-checking yourself time and time and time again to make sure you’re building a plan, be it a financial plan or marketing plan,” he says. “I made a ton of mistakes; everybody does when they’re in this position.”
He says that’s where Lisa Hutson, director of the SBDC at LCCC, was critical.
“She was a good coach,” Carlin says. “I needed help and she was able to provide it. On the financial side and marketing side, I felt good, but I needed to work out that muscle. LCCC was tremendously helpful in introducing me to the economic development director and bringing in the regional banks. That face-to-face networking has been invaluable to me.”
Carlin says that, both for him and others, LCCC’s input helps entrepreneurs create successful businesses, leading to job development as those companies grow.
Hiring the right people to grow
Carlin acknowledges that for many companies, job development doesn’t come as immediately as it has with Play: CLE, which launched with about 40 employees and, within a few weeks, increased its staff to about 60 to keep up with demand.
Although not typical, Play: CLE is a great example of how a well-formulated business plan can lead to job growth. After coming up with the concept for Play: CLE after visiting an outdoor ropes course at a ski resort and thinking about the value of an indoor play space, Carlin put a great deal of thought and research into what type of customer he wanted to woo. Knowing your customer, he said, is the first step to knowing your personnel and the qualities you are looking for in a job candidate.
Play: CLE is a multidimensional concept in its mix of fun and fitness, including both the challenging physical environment created by its attractions and the casual vibe of its dining and bar offerings. Although Bridget, the CPO, was vital from the beginning of Carlin’s planning as a sounding board for his ideas, Carlin’s most important external hire was a general manager to oversee all elements of the business.
“There was sort of a unicorn of a person that I was interviewing for,” he says. “I was looking for a person who had a great customer service and hospitality background, had an understanding or appreciation for the active lifestyle and type of customer we were going for, and understood the dynamics of having a restaurant and bar in addition to everything else we have. I also wanted someone who understood not just how to scale an operation like this but to plan for the next ones should we expand.”
Carlin found his “unicorn” in Avon resident Bryan Metzger, who had extensive experience as an operations director in the bar and restaurant industry. Having a detailed idea of his ideal hire led Carlin to an employee he is quite happy with.
“We’re so tied to the engagement of our staff with our guests,” Carlin says. “It’s such a critical piece of our business, because our role here is to not only watch out for our guests’ safety but to inspire them and help them if they have fears of heights or other things, to coach them through activities.”
Carlin says being at the forefront of Play: CLE’s launch and early success has been gratifying. And he has big goals for a business that, in many ways, is the first of its kind.
“I think it will grow,” he says. “We’ll always be hiring additional staff members, and we’re a good training ground for people who might be younger and looking for their next thing.”