Krissy our Director and Owner shares her insight into how we launched a brand new messy play programme – The Tuff Tray Club during the pandemic.

krissy monaghan mess around director

For 9 years, Mess Around has hosted events for children all across the UK. Catering for between 25 – 80 children, our events have been a huge success peaking with a  whopping 1000 children at the South Bank Centre in London in 2018.

Our business model has also gone from strength to strength. In fact we have been so successful that a number of other messy play providers have attempted to replicate our model, to the extent that one of them had our banner in their promotional advert and another had our name in their terms and conditions; until we gave them both a firm yet polite nudge that is.

Then the virus happened and in March 2020 the government sadly closed our messy doors. At first we couldn’t foresee how we would reopen with social gatherings not being permitted but as the summer months came and the restrictions started to ease, the light at the end of the tunnel was switched back on and we began to see how we could re-open our doors and still adhere to the Government’s new guidelines.

Unfortunately messy play pre-covid can arguably be seen as a high risk activity, with props and materials being shared amongst all of the children. Those children have always been at the heart of our events and so we have always offered them the freedom of choice, to play and interact with whatever and whomever makes them happy.

Covid meant that we could no longer share toys, materials, props or utensils. We needed to social distance parents and children and had to limit our numbers drastically from what we had been used to. It meant that our whole programme of delivery had to fundamentally and radically change.

We knew we had to make a tough decision for the business. With the restricted numbers due to Government guidelines, we turned our event into classes and with it reduced our size to a maximum of 14 children, 14 parents and one leader; as you can imagine we faced a major challenge to maintain the profitability of our team.

In July 2020 we launched our Mess Kit products across the UK. The Mess Kits went down a storm with parents across the UK and we sold thousands. The Mess Kit was priced between £20-£30 and included home delivery. If parents were happy to pay for a home messy play kit, then I felt that they would pay the same price for a face to face experience. This was a high risk strategy, but my gut instinct was telling me that it would work, and it has.

I set about developing a brand new messy play programme. I wanted to ensure that this new programme was a personalised experience for both the children and the parents; it had to be special. It needed to be high quality, value for money and it had to keep within our very highly set Mess Around values.

  • To provide maximum family fun
  • To provide an opportunity to explore inner creativity
  • To provide an opportunity to make fun memories
  • To provide quality parent child bonding time
  • To provide an opportunity to spark the imaginations of both children and their parents
  • To provide the best sensory experiences
  • To provide a safe and friendly place and atmosphere so that all of the above can happen

Here at Mess Around we’ve always been up for a challenge and so we set to work on developing a new programme. Rachelle from Mess Around West Suffolk got out her tarpaulin, in the garden, and measured out our tuff trays to see how many children we could fit on one tarp and still provide the required 2m social distancing. We then removed our signature red and blue mats, which has always been used to identifier us from other providers,  in order to further minimise the risk of spreading the virus.

Our aim was that for each child, parent or family bubble, to have their own dedicated tuff tray. Obviously we had concerns about roaming toddlers, but we decided that having their own tray was the best and safest solution. We felt that children were regrettably getting used to all the new measures that were being put in place across the UK and that they would readily accept the new format. They did.

The next area we looked at, was how to create that personalised experience for each customer. We still wanted the children to be able to choose what they wanted to play with and how they played with it, we just needed a way of providing the toys and utensils that would spark their imaginations.

We decided that as the Mess Kits had been so successful, they were the way to go. We would give each child their own dedicated tuff tray and their own personalised Mess Kit. The Mess Kit would include a choice of dry and wet messy play materials and keeping in line with our making memories value we included our famous Messy Memory Certificate, which meant we could still include painting; our events are known for our famous free style paint wall and it was important to me to keep that element in our new programme.

We also always have playdough at our events as it’s a great for building fine motor skill and was a must for our programme for older children, so our leaders created personalised play dough mats with an activity on the reverse side.

We came up with the idea of using the individual wash stations to include water play for an extra activity, which the children have absolutely loved.

The programme was starting to take shape, we had dry and wet materials, we had painting, play dough and water play! All of this was packaged up in a deluxe gift bag, which at the end, they would be able to take home.  The next elements we wanted to include were the toys, props and utensils. We came up with the solution of providing each tuff tray with a sanitised set that they could have at the classes for their own personal use.

We also wanted to keep our unique event themes like Rumble in the Jungle and Spooktacular. Our customers love our themes and we had all the work already done and ready to go to underpin our new programme.

As we knew we weren’t going to be running our main events for some time, the next part of the process was to look at the format of the new programme, which now had in effect become a class. With restricted numbers we knew we had to provide a more intimate customer experience and if you have ever been to one of our main events you will know that they’re fast paced, organised chaotic fun! Our new programme was going to a completely different experience and our leaders would have to become teachers instead of facilitators.

The first step was developing a memorable welcome experience for our new and existing customers. We found a fantastic welcome song, where we could say hello to all the children individually. Our newly founded teachers would take to the stage to outline what’s included in each Mess Kit, showcasing the materials and activities that the children could do at the class.

Our role at our programme would also change. We would now provide messy play tips and ideas on how to extend play and at the same time continue to provide the Mess Around magic of bubbles! We also introduced extra messy play surprises such as Crazy Soap bowls, shaving foam pies and snacks.

We now involve the children in the tidy up of toys and utensils. At the end of the class when the teacher visits their tuff tray with their trug, the children place everything they have used in the container so we can clean and sanitize them for the next class.

The best part of the experience for many of our children, was that the materials that they hadn’t played with at the class could be taken home, so they could continue their messy play fun at home. From a marketing perspective this was great as we were able to provide messy play ideas that they could try out at home until they came to the next class.

We were delighted with the new format but now we needed a name for the programme. It was vital that our main event is not confused with this new programme when the time comes to relaunch our events.

As I mentioned earlier, we wanted to create a personalised experience for families and due to social distancing measures we had to use one tuff tray per family. I had already been working on a new online concept called the Tuff Tray Club, which would be a subscription based model. However I felt that the “Tuff Tray Club” was a perfect name for our new programme. The word ‘club’ gives an altogether experience and I wanted people to feel part of something new. We have always used Tuff Trays at our events and I felt it was a perfect match. The Tuff Tray Club was born.

We set about our branding and set dates to road test our brand new programme. Rachelle our leader from Mess Around West Suffolk, who is an ex head teacher was raring to go and had venues that were open. On September 23rd we launched Mess Around Tuff Tray Club in Red Lodge. Rachelle hosted an amazing club. Feedback from parents was fantastic, especially from parents who had had their babies during lockdown. We learnt a lot from the trial club including a need to ensure that the materials were age appropriate and tailored to individual children.

We were delighted with the programme and the format and rounded it all off by developing the operations manual, risk assessments, marketing, photography and video training, so that it could be rolled out across the network.

As venues have started to reopen, we now have clubs in South Yorkshire, Oxfordshire and West Suffolk and more clubs will be rolled out in 2021.

Watch this space for all the messy details.

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