Mobile farm is a hit

Sixteen years ago, Rachael Woodham's mum paid about "1000 bucks" for "an old horse float" and the right to use the business name Animals on the Move.

What began as two jobs a month loading the horse float with baby animals and carting them to children's parties has blossomed into a franchise, with seven outlets in Victoria and NSW and 2000 bookings a year.

Requests arrive for every day of the week. On Monday to Friday, childcare centres, preschools and - in a crossover to a different age segment - retirement homes request the services. At the weekends, it's mostly children's parties, fetes and corporate events.

When Debby Avis isn't working as an IT specialist at a law firm, the franchisee is on the road carrying animals to entertain children.

Since buying into the franchise last year, Avis is working everywhere from northern Sydney to Canberra and is busy enough that she has cut back her time at the law firm from fulltime to three days a week.

She estimates that within six months the business will keep her busy five days a week. "It's a matter of building the business up," she says, adding that the outfit is a mix of entertainment and education.

Based in Melbourne, Animals on the Move is part of what appears to be a growing market segment, as parents seek ways to entertain their children and children become consumers in their own right from about the age of six.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle expects demand for children's entertainment and activities to continue growing in the coming years thanks to the increasing numbers of babies born in Australia since 2001.

"Our birth numbers are setting new records, exceeding 300,000 per year," McCrindle says.

Despite a recent downturn in consumer spending, he says parents still have more money to spend on their offspring than their own parents did a generation ago.

"The trend has been to have children a little bit later and so the median age of parents is rising," McCrindle says. "The parents are a little bit older they've accumulated a little bit more wealth from a life-stage perspective."

The executive director of the Franchise Council of Australia, Steve Wright, says some children's entertainment businesses have been successfully franchised, highlighting the toddler exercise program Gymbaroo as an example of a concept "we may see more of".

However, the Franchise Council has not witnessed a noticeable expansion in franchised businesses aimed at children and families.

"This is not an area that has been growing as rapidly as, say, aged-care services," Wright says. "That is actually where we see far more growth at the moment."

The size of the children's entertainment industry is difficult to quantify. The Australian Bureau of Statistics does not collect data on businesses that provide entertainment for children and data gathering is hampered by the fact many businesses have just a few staff, or operate as one- or two-people bands on weekends only.

Two years ago, Live Performance Australia commissioned Ernst & Young to research the size of the live-performance industry. Its 2010 report estimated live performances for children and families generated ticket sales of $56.3 million in Australia, about 3 per cent of the total industry's revenues of $1.88 billion. This was up from revenues of $45.6 million estimated by Live Performance Australia in 2008, when 1.46 million tickets were sold.

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