Jennifer Bates, owner of the Whippersnapper’s Play Gym, was a few weeks away from signing some very important papers.
The business next door had moved, and Bates, “bursting at the seams” with customers, was hoping to expand. The new area would allow Whippersnapper’s to provide even more space and options to families.
One afternoon, a representative from the bank with which Bates had been working arrived to go over the numbers. After the two had finished and the man was about to leave, he turned and asked one final question: “Do you think this coronavirus will impact you?”
“I said, ‘I think we’ll be fine,’” Bates explained. “I thought we might lose some people for open play, but our customers for classes and birthday parties are so loyal, so comfortable here, I didn’t think it would be a problem.”
“Two weeks later, I got a call from Chesprocott (Health District) telling me to close,” she continued, “and that expansion, that’s not something we could even consider right now.”
Whippersnapper’s has been a Cheshire mainstay for approximately 15 years, providing classes for youngsters to help them both learn and play, while also offering a favorite spot for birthday parties and playdates. Bates bought the gym in 2012 and has grown its popularity ever since.
In fact, the winter of 2020 was turning out to be one of the best in the business’s history, with approximately 30 birthday parties planned for March, a full slate scheduled for April, and the beginning of an eight-week class session in the spring.
And then, the pandemic hit.
“My intention back in early March was to stay open for as long as possible,” said Bates. “I was going to stick it out as long as I could. But then, on March 16, Chesprocott called and told us that the Governor’s executive order pertained to us. We had to close.”
Jen Granoth, the manager of Whippersnapper’s who’s been working for the gym since before Bates purchased it back in 2012, remembers the conversations she had with customers when the business first closed its doors. “They were saying, ‘Don’t close, don’t close, it will only be a few weeks,’” recalls Granoth. “I don’t think any of us thought it would be this long.”
Whippersnapper’s immediately found itself in a financial bind. With each executive order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont pushing back the expected date of business reopenings, Bates had to continue canceling her scheduled parties. Some were willing to reschedule for later in the year, but others simply decided to call everything off.
“A lot of people who had birthday parties set for March didn’t want to reschedule to sometime in July,” explained Bates.
As far as classes were concerned, Whippersnapper’s had just begun the first of what was a planned eight-week session when ordered to shut down. Money had already been collected and the business has a no-refund policy for customers, but Bates believed that a compromise had to be reached. She decided to offer everyone who had signed up and paid for spring classes an opportunity to recoup that payout, whether by scheduling a party or signing up for classes at a future date.
It meant that, when Whippersnapper’s finally did reopen to the public in the summer and began holding classes in July, those who attended were customers making good on that arrangement.
“(Federal) loans have really kept me afloat. They came in while we were closed and I had already wiped out everything paying for rent and things like that,” Bates stated. “I have been using the loans to do things like make the space COVID-friendly, buying cleaning supplies, which has killed me. I am relying on those loans and hoping I can make ends meet before they run out.”
One of the biggest blows came when Bates made the determination not to hold summer camps this year — the business’s biggest annual revenue generator. While Whippersnapper’s technically could have scheduled the camps, Bates felt that the experience would not have been what customers have come to expect.
“It was such a difficult decision,” explained Bates. “With the rules the Governor gave us, about only being able to have 10 people in a group, not being able to share space if there were two groups of 10 (children), and everything else, we just didn’t feel comfortable.”
Granoth explained that she and Bates spent countless hours speaking on video chat or over the phone about new ways to hold the camps, “and we had a whole new plan,” she said. Ultimately, the two decided against it.
“We felt like we would have spent the entire summer making sure the kids were separated, not touching each other,” said Bates. “Also, one of the things that really drives people to (the summer camp) is that we are very flexible … whatever schedule people want for the camp, we can provide. But now (with restrictions) that’s not possible. We can’t have people coming (to one session) and not the other.”
Bates also made clear that, while she understands the incredible pressures being applied to local public health officials, including Chesprocott, she did not feel “supported” when trying to make decisions about how to reopen for the summer in a safe manner.
“I am sure they are very busy with much bigger problems (at Chesprocott) and I have no doubt the staff over there is overwhelmed,” acknowledged Bates, “but I have to be honest, I didn’t feel like I was supported enough to open for camps. I needed to be able to ask questions and rely on (expert advice), and the answers I did get were, ‘No, you can’t do that and, no, we don’t have time to come help you figure out how to do it.’”
Bates did credit State Representative Liz Linehan (D-103) for helping connect her with someone from the state, who talked Bates through possible solutions to her problems.
“That was a really big help,” she said.
As of now, Whippersnapper’s is only partially open. Parties are not being held at the moment, but classes are being scheduled for September. Customers can, however, sign up for family play time at the gym, where individual families can utilize the facility for an hour and 15 minutes at a time. After each session is completed, Bates and staff then clean the facility for half an hour, before the next session can begin.
Bates has already received positive feedback. Those who are using the gym are thrilled “to have their children running around somewhere that isn’t the living room,” she said, and the reviews from youngsters have been equally positive.
Recently, a family requested the opportunity to bring their 10- and 12-year-old children to the gym, and afterwards Bates eavesdropped on their reactions.
“The 12-year-old came out and was just saying, ‘This is so awesome,’” Bates recalled, with a laugh.
“Many people have asked me, if you’re not making money, why not stay closed for now?” stated Bates. “I don’t think that’s an option. We want to be here for the community. We want to be a place where families can come and enjoy themselves. I bought this business because I wanted to be a part of the community. I love seeing people walk through the doors and then leave as friends. That’s what I love about this business.”
If you’d like to know more about Whippersnapper’s, register for use of the gym, or sign up for classes, visit http://whippersnappersplaygym.com.