The road to expansion for Little Land Play Gym — a chain of entertainment venues packed with ball pits, slides, toys and other things for children — runs through Asia.
The owners of the business, Austinites Ernie Beltz Jr. and Debbie Garcia Beltz, on Dec. 10 signed a franchise agreement with Shanghai Zhitian Education and Technology LLC and Cherry Chai of Beijing to open more than 100 locations in China. The first Beijing location is expected to open by mid-2019.
With a booming middle class, the International Trade Administration has identified “an enormous opportunity for U.S franchise firms” in China. As of 2016, the country had more than 4,500 franchises and chain stores. Entrepreneur magazine pegs the up-front cost of opening a Little Land franchise as $138,400 to $255,500.
Little Land’s owners claim they will be the first to offer their special approach to play and pediatric therapy in China, which has an estimated population of nearly 1.4 billion.
The Beltzes opened the first Little Land in 2015 at 13776 N. Highway 183 in North Austin. They still own that store but have franchised out the rest.
Including all the franchises, Little Land has seven locations and 64 employees. Four more franchise locations are expected to open soon, including in Georgetown, with five more openings slated for this year, which will require hiring 70 to 100 more people in 2019.
Little Land is both a place for parents to bring their children to play as well as for pediatric therapy to ensure the proper development of their little bodies and minds. All of the equipment in the various locations was designed by physical therapists “to enhance physical, sensory, and social development while being a fun activity,” according to an announcement of the new franchise agreement.
“With the use of our specially designed equipment, parents see that play has a specific purpose along with being fun for their children,” Ernie Beltz, who is CEO of the company, said in a statement. “It’s those results that make the Little Land concept a success for children and for the business.”
According to the International Franchise Association, foreign companies must follow certain rules to franchise in China, including a minimum term of three years.