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Inflatables can be a fun addition when safety is paramount

By Connie Lannan

January 2, 2024

PartyTime Rentals

Photo courtesy of PartyTime Rentals

Inflatables are a popular item that many rental operators have in their inventory. The rides, which range from the basic models to the more elaborate obstacle courses, can offer a lot of enjoyment for children at birthday parties, festivals and other events. They also can pose significant risks if something goes wrong. To mitigate those risks, safety has to be priority No. 1.

See the key steps that Darren Morizet, owner, PartyTime Rentals and Easy RFID Pro, both in Poughquag, N.Y.; Aurelio Sierra, president, Yennis Party Rentals, Orange, Calif.; Justin Ferraraccio, owner, Just in Case Party Rentals, Buffalo, N.Y.; and John D. Makrias Jr., operations manager, A & R Rental Center, York, Pa. — all American Rental Association (ARA) members who have never had an inflatable incident or claim — are taking to keep safety front and center for all involved.

Follow manufacturer’s specifications. All say the No. 1 rule is to follow the specifications outlined by each manufacturer for a particular inflatable.

“Manufacturers and the amusement ride industry [the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA)] were good with education from the get-go,” says Morizet, who started PartyTime Rentals in 2004, leaving his six-figure job with an office overlooking Times Square in New York City to open the business. “The inflatables come with manuals, which tell you the staking requirements, load requirement, etc. They have been good about posting right on the ride — no more than X number of people, no jewelry worn on the ride, participants must take their shoes off, etc.”

Photo courtesy of Just in Case Party Rentals

Sierra, who has been offering inflatables since his parents opened the business in 2008, reiterates that point. “We have instructions of the do’s and don’ts that are part of our rental contract. We follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, which also are on the front of the inflatable,” he says.

With inflatables, “you have to set them up correctly,” adds Ferraraccio, who opened his business in 2019. “The biggest thing is having the text [instructions] and understanding with the customer that they need to shut them down over X amount of wind rating, usually between 10 to 20 mph. They have to be set up on the parameters they are supposed to be set at.”

In addition to the manufacturer’s guidelines, Makrias, whose family rental operation has been offering inflatables since 2003, adheres to his state’s mandates on inflatables.

“Not all states have regulations. I think Pennsylvania is one of the strictest [when it comes to inflatables]. They fall under the Department of Agriculture, Amusement Rides and Inflatable Committee, on which I serve as the inflatable chairperson. They have special training that we have to go through to even be able to rent bounce houses in the state. Their training has helped alleviate some of that risk. What the state is seeing and recommending, we do and put that into our business practices. We have to go every three years for continuing education on it. It gives us information on what we need to do as far as staking guidelines, information to share as far as safety operational procedures, what we need to tell our customers to do and that type of thing. We get a lot of details from the state through their own research and methods of figuring out what helps make inflatables safe from manufacturers and experts in the field who they have talked with,” he says.

Inspect products before adding them to one’s inventory. Morizet always has been a stickler for safety, checking out the manufacturer of each inflatable before he even allowed it into his inventory.

“While there was an internal policy and criteria for it, a lot was driven by me. I was doing all the buying. For me, we bought on what I perceived as a better design of safety. If you saw a slide angle from a product from overseas and it had no landing space for the kid to ease to a stop, we wouldn’t touch it,” he says, noting that almost all his rides have been American made.

Like Morizet, Sierra is particular about what inflatables he has in his fleet. “All our inflatables are from the U.S.,” he says.

Ferraraccio, like the others interviewed, also is particular about which manufacturers he buys his inflatables from.

“I don’t like to buy bounce houses from everybody. All my combos are the same with the same anchor points. They don’t look the same, but all have the anchor points in the same spots so my guys know where to look. I try to go with the same manufacturer or manufacturers who have the same ratings,” he says, noting that he does not provide waterslides with pools and puts a mat underneath each bounce house he sets up.

Makrias follows Pennsylvania’s rules that cover which inflatables a company may have in its inventory. “Pennsylvania is very strict on what bounce houses are allowed in the state. The board I sit on approves every bounce house and/or amusement ride. If it is not approved, you cannot use it until it is  approved,” he says.

Train employees. All agree that employee training is essential, but Morizet has gone a step further with his employees: He has drilled the fear factor into them.

“This is very true. I always instilled in my staff as part of internal training that they don’t get a second chance at this. I would tell them point-blank that if they were supposed to put a 42-in. stake buried 90 percent in the ground and they were tired and only did it 50 percent and that thing went and a kid died, they would have to live with that on their conscience for the rest of their life. Now think about that. Do you want to go to bed every night guessing whether it was that or something else? We instilled fear as part of the training. You don’t want to live with that on your conscience, so do the job right. We documented our procedures, have manuals that have all the manufacturers’ requirements as well as created our own spec sheets. They were in the truck. Then we went digital so our team could look them up on their phones,” he says, adding that “a lot comes back to education and fear.”

“You had better make sure you are following everything correctly,” Ferraraccio says. “I have my SOPs [standard operating procedures]. [When they are learning as part of the training process] I let my employees set up the bounce house and I show them what they did wrong and have them set it up again. You do that a bunch of times and they will start setting it up in their head before they set up anything on the ground.”

Pennsylvania mandates state training, Makrias says. “The people who go through the state program are required to go through their process, pay a fee, pass a test and are counted as an inspector. I have gone through the training as have members of my team. I now have four certified trainers on staff. The Pennsylvania training puts the fear of God in their training. They spend a couple of hours going over all the horrific accidents that have happened.”

Those on his team who have gone through the state training and are now certified, in turn, train his other employees on the proper guidelines to operate the inflatables safely. “The ones who install have someone with them who has gone through the state training,” Makrias adds.

Instruct customers. Customer training has been just as important as staff training, according to Morizet. His staff goes over the instructions at the time of rental, including information about the blower. All customers have to read and initial the instructions to verify they have been trained, and then his team goes through it again upon delivery of the inflatable.

“It consists of three components: Kids should take their shoes off. We tell them to be conscious if there are any people with hoop earrings or anything dangling. They need to take it off or tuck it inside their shirt because we are concerned about snagging or getting caught on mesh. As part of that we show the sign of the manufacturer’s specific requirements. Then we show them where the egress and exit points of the inflatable ride are, so we show them this unit has one exit here but if it inflates, there are two exits in the roof or an exit out the side. It is like a flight attendant in the plane showing that in case of an emergency, here is the way you get out,” Morizet says, adding that his contract is online as well as his company’s wind and rain policies, which his team goes over in detail with the customer.

When Morizet started, his team delivered everything and staffed anything over a certain ride height. “If we had a slide over 18-ft. tall, you had to have a member of our staff that was there. In all cases they would deliver, set it up, break it down and bring it back. If it was a slide or obstacle course, they would stay and attend vs. a bounce house where an attendant wasn’t required,” he says, adding that he now allows smaller products to be picked up by the customer.

Photo courtesy of PartyTime Rentals

Sierra follows a similar format. “We have instructions of the do’s and don’ts that are part of our rental contract. We follow the manufacturer’s guidelines, which are on the inflatable. We go over the instructions with our customer, which include everything from requiring adult supervision when the jumper is being used to if the power goes out to evacuate the jumper quickly. We go over these verbally and in writing with our customers. They have to sign off on it,” Sierra says, noting that his staff reviews these instructions at the time of rental and then again when they deliver and set up the inflatable.

Ferraraccio, like the other rental operators, offers full sheets of instructions, including do’s and don’ts, to his customers as part of his rental contract. “The customer has to sign off on everything. We do that at booking and delivery. As far as signage, we have extra signage on all the bounce houses,” he says.

His goal is to have everything on video so he can offer both written and video instructions to his customers.

At Makrias’ operation, “customers have to sign the instructions and initial each line, date it and then we sign at the bottom. If we do the installation on site at a customer’s house, we go over the same information with our customer — all the details, including no adults with younger kids, the ride has to be supervised if inflated, and, if they need an extension cord it has to be a 12-gauge and no longer than 50 ft. We also tell them how to watch for wind, etc. If a customer is picking it up from us, we have an actual sheet that we go through at the time of rental. We have to check everything off on it that they understand and comprehend it. Then they sign that they have been trained in the proper operation of the bounce house,” he says.

Go the extra mile. All say they spend the extra time to check out and invest in quality inflatables, properly train their team members, make sure their customers know the rules when using an inflatable, are instructed on how to inflate and deflate it, how to exit it safely, what to watch for and do, particularly when it comes to wind, etc. They also tell their customers to call them, if one of their team members is not on site, with any questions or concerns.

Taking those steps has resulted in repeat customers, enhanced brand recognition and, most importantly, safe customers.

Advice for other rental operators. “Inflatables can be a profitable segment. They historically have done better than tents and other things in down markets. You will still have your kid’s birthday party even though the stock market is bad. You will still celebrate a first birthday or a high school graduation even if you are low on funds, but you have to have a process to do it, research your vendors well and make your own gut decisions about safety beyond what they [vendors] are trying to portray,” Morizet says.

“The inflatable industry is a great one to be part of. You just have to be more aware of the things that are out there and think about safety when they are selling the product to you,” Makrias says.

That begins by “doing your research. Each state’s regulations and controls are very different. If you are looking to learn and have regulations that will help you, look and see what Pennsylvania is doing as far as what bounce houses are approved here. They are very safety conscious and have a higher quality of material delivered to those states because of the rigorous inspection process,” he adds.

Makrias appreciates his state’s strict mandates. “They help regulate the price. You can’t have someone operating out of their garage for $50, not carrying insurance or not caring about what happens. The more accidents happen, the more insurance will go up for everyone across the nation. By having the regulations in Pennsylvania, our hope is that it will reduce the number of incidences occurring and therefore insurance won’t be through the roof to own a bounce house,” he says.

Makrias would like to see these taken to a national level. “It wouldn’t have to be Pennsylvania’s, but I think it would be helpful to have some sort of national control as far as regulations go. Look to Pennsylvania as an example. That would help nationwide — be beneficial to everyone,” he adds.

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