These parents wanted an all-weather playground for their kids, so they opened a business
The air is filled with bustling sounds of exhilarated children, some of them scampering up a rock-climbing structure. Glee-faced toddlers squeal with joy as they roll around in a massive ball-pit.
These are part of the sensory explosion encountered at Whee Indoor Playground, a massive 8,000 square foot space in St. John's that is aimed squarely at parents looking for active play options for their children.
Finding creative ways to keep children under 10 active and stimulated can be challenging, especially if the weather outside doesn't co-operate.
Those issues opened the door of opportunity for Chunyan Zhu and Jing Xu, who based their business plan in part on their own parenting experiences.
"I think the winter here is rather long. We have three kids — we find that they need more places that offered indoor activity," said Xu.
A three-level structure on Pippy Place — complete with a huge ball pool, a ball blaster arena, wave slides, drop slides, mountain slides, tube slides, and rolling slides — this space is pure and simple heaven for a young child.
Opening Whee, alongside their business partner Huixin Wang, was an idea that addressed the lack of active entertainment spaces that Zhu and Xu found in the St. John's area for their own children.
"They love some winter activities, but it is hard to drag them out [in bad weather] to skate or ski. We felt, 'What if there was an indoor playground that the kids could enjoy? That would be nice.'"
"Wherever we travel, we take [the] kids to the indoor playground," said Zhu. "Big cities have this which our kids really enjoy, ao that's where the idea came from. Why not bring this here to benefit all the kids?"
'Happiness and a smiling face'
Business has been steady — the parking lot packed on a recent visit, and the facility has booked for birthdays and school visits from as far as Ferryland.
The couple are aware that children — their prime customers — are the core of their business.
"[We want them to leave] with happiness and a smiling face," said Zhu. Caring about the needs of their customers includes a rigorous sanitization and cleaning process that takes about four to five hours.
High school sweethearts Zhu and Xu emigrated from Shanghai, China to Canada nearly 12 years ago to pursue higher education.
Xu, after briefly living in Ottawa for nine months, relocated to join Zhu in St. John's.
"He came here first [to Canada] and I selected MUN and then he moved here [to St. John's]," said Zhu.
While Xu graduated with a bachelor's degree in engineering, Zhu completed her masters in education, quickly finding employment at Memorial.
"[It is] peaceful here, people here are nice. Everything compared to other places is slowed down. A cashier can talk to you for a couple minutes and the guy behind you won't push you," said Xu.
But, as immigrants, establishing a business comes with its fair share of challenges, and are amplified when setting up shop in a new and foreign culture.
"Financially it was a challenge. You don't have a big relationship network here," said Xu, indicating the loss of a social network. Further explaining, he indicated that discussions with banks around financing can be frustrating.
While they consider themselves lucky as both speak fluent English, they indicated that language may be a huge impediment for other immigrants looking to invest in this economy.
Big cities have this which our kids really enjoy, so that's where the idea came from. Why not bring this here to benefit all the kids?- Jing Xu
"When you try to get a mortgage, you need to write a business proposal [which means] you need to have strong [English] writing skills. And if you don't have such writing skills in place, it is going to be a challenge for you to convince the bank to borrow the money," said Zhu.
More support from the government and community in accessing entrepreneurship training, they believe, would alleviate some concerns helping immigrants — new and old — add to Newfoundland and Labrador's social, economic and cultural prosperity.
Practical and grounded, their advice to new immigrants is simple: know the place well and understand its needs.