Ipswich: Holiday nightmare inspires the Playaway Case business idea

Business woman Jo Kerley with children Ben and Jessica and the Playaway cases for children she has i

Business woman Jo Kerley with children Ben and Jessica and the Playaway cases for children she has invented - Credit: Contributed

Ipswich mother-of-two Jo Kerley is aiming to make air travel less of a nightmare for parents with young children, as DAVID VINCENT reports.

A simple idea can lead to a successful business – given a large commitment to hard work, of course.

For Ipswich mother-of-two Jo Kerley, who had taken a break from her career to have children, trying to launch a new product has proved a steep learning curve.

She has had to learn about international patents, design approvals and organising factory production for her innovative product, the Playaway Case, designed with family holidays in mind to help keep young chidren happy on their journeys.

We’ve all been in airports in those long waits for checking in and seen bored young children behaving badly and making their parents’ lives difficult. It is quite easy to understand and sympathise with their problem.


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These cases, for each child, are designed to keep them and their parents happy on holiday. The cases are now in production, and being sold online and through independent traders.

“There are about 20 to 30 of them in the UK, so far,” Jo said. “This will be our first summer. We have just received an order from Selfridges too, which is exciting. We have sold about 800 of 1,400. We want to be practical for parents, and fun for children.”

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Jo came up with the idea for the Playaway Case through experiencing difficulties with children’s luggage, and also keeping them amused while on holiday with her family.

The product, a children’s suitcase which comes with a detachable “activity pod”, has recently received international acclaim – being awarded the Buzz prize for ‘the most talked about product’ at the Las Vegas Travel Show 2013. It was also named “Best new collection” at the Autumn Fair International 2012.

Jo said: “In 2010 my husband and I took our children, both of whom were under the age of six, on a family holiday to Venezuela; and that’s when we first realised that travelling with children was a nightmare.

“It became very clear to me that a product was needed that was both practical for the parents but fun for the children.

“On our return I mocked up the idea in my head using a cardboard box and took it to an intellectual property lawyer where I was told to quickly secure all patents and IP as it was a completely new concept.

“As treasurer of the PTA at our local primary school I tested my ideas out on 300 willing children and over 60 families, who took to it straight away. I knew then that if I didn’t act on the idea right now, that I’d miss a great opportunity.”

Jo spent the next two years undertaking painstaking hours of research and development, finding a factory and ensuring her product was exactly right to launch into the marketplace.

Her plan to launch the new business has been a real family affair although husband Tony has been busy launching his own business, Lighthouse Training and Development.

“We jumped off the cliff at the same time,” she laughed.

She has an assistant, Sarah Moore, who deals with orders and deliveries and has also written 30,000 multiple choice questions to be used for a variety of different Playaway activities.

Jo’s mother-in-law also has had a key role, researching these pioneering characters which feature on each case, she said, and her own mother, Joan Marsden, was acting as PA and is also an investor.

The family had also helped when she had to travel on business trips, to China, the USA and Holland to push the project forward, she added.

Outside of the family she has also had the help of mentor Steve Flory, who she met through the Eastern Enterprise Hub.

There are four case designs, each with a Playaway Pioneer, a series of animal characters based on explorers such as Edmund Hillary and Amy Johnson.

In late 2012, the first customer order for Playaway Cases came in from Australia, and it was at that point that Jo felt the need to take on advice and guidance from UK Trade and Investment.

“I knew at this stage that I needed assistance from the experts, so I called in UKTI. My trade advisors Ashley, who is UK based, and Erick, who is based in New York, have been hugely valuable to me,” she said.

“They have made me consider the different marketplaces and put together a strategy of how to deal with each individually. They took me through my business plan but from a different angle, making me realise the huge opportunities that are out there, but answering the hundreds of questions I had to ask.

“Erick even came with me to meet potential partners and distributors in the US. Having their backing and experience behind me has given me the confidence to really push my business in the directions I want it to go.”

Jo started on the Passport to Export scheme.

Ashley Almond, from UKTI, who is acting as trade advisor, added: “Jo is very specific about where her product fits in the marketplace, and so she knew the types of outlets and distributors she wanted to target.

“We have helped her work closely with potential overseas partners and those locally to her to ensure she has systems in place to filter any interest she is getting.

“She’s gone from initial concept to first shipment in just three years.

“She is a very focused businesswoman who knows how she wants to operate and what her brand represents and I’m sure she’ll be a huge success.”

Development of the Playaway Case brand continues. Each one includes an activity pack, 12 plastic crayons, a hidden board game, dice and counters, a 30-card game and rule sheets.

Already work has started on soft toys for each character (with a passport, of course), and story books. There will also be a range of lunch boxes and back packs as the brand develops.

Many more activities are available for children via their website, Jo said.

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