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All work and no play? Certainly not at Total Rebound -- fun is their business

August, 1999


The world headquarters of Total Rebound, the hotshot service company, is in an ordinary looking office park in Benicia. Everywhere else in the complex, business is business. But at Total Rebound, business is fun -- and the company takes it very seriously indeed.

Total Rebound's job is to help business build teamwork and morale. The firm does it the old-fashioned way -- by having fun. "A happy workplace," said Total Rebound president and founds John Wilkinson," is a productive workplace."

That's the corporate vision at Total Rebound Interactive Games, where they make fun work, and work fun. The company's list of clients reads like a who's who in business, including Fortune 500 companies, Silicon Valley 100 companies, top universities (including Berkeley and Stanford) and even sports teams like the 49ers and the San Jose Sharks.

Last year the company grossed $3 million. It has 100 employees in the peak summer season, and affiliates in Honolulu and London. Wilkinson, 42, found a need in corporate life and filled it. In his travels, he discovered social interaction in the work place -- hanging around the water cooler and shooting the breeze, playing softball at the old-time company picnic -- had nearly vanished. Instead, Wilkinson said, workers e-mail each other and confer by phone.
Even the old business social events have withered away. "The days of white wine and canapes at a company event have been gone for years," Wilkinson said. "Now, (the staff) want to be part of the entertainment. Silicon Valley loves to be different," he said.
So companies hire Total Rebound to put on company entertainment with a difference. And Wilkinson believes some of the party games contain important lessons. Some of the games, it turns out, involve team problem solving. "A technique," Wilkinson said "to get people to work together, when they demonstrate the whole is greater than the sum of its parts."
There is a gospel of games. According to Total Rebound's brochure, "getting people active, mobilized, and viscerally involved with each other overcomes stereotypes and breaks down barriers. We provide a relaxed environment where training, teamwork and fun happen in sync. Our programs motivate, inspire, build trust, improve communication and create an atmosphere designed to reward employees for a job well done."

It helps companies attract and keep good employees, and increases morale and sales. "People work and help those they know and like," said Wilkinson, as hey played at this desk with a silver-lavender Slinky

"We all need to play more," he said. "It's good for us personally and in business. It breaks down barriers."

It may seem like a waste of good money to the outsider, but companies say team building and wild and wacky parties are important in today's business culture. Firms pay good money for it. Last week Cadence Design Systems, a high-tech firm in San Jose, had 1,500 employees spend Friday afternoon with Total Rebound toys and staff, some in team-building exercises, some just enjoying play on a summer day. Cadence paid an estimated $30,000 for the afternoon, not including the cost of food and tents at its corporate campus.

" That's not an unusual price for companies to reward their people," said Wilkinson. Wilkinson charges based on the number of people participating, with rates as low as $5 per person for a very large group to play with the interactive games. Average price is about $30 per person. When it comes to team-building, rates rise to an average $75 per head and includes post-game discussions about lessons learned.

Wilkinson got started in the corporate real estate and hotel development business. But that was too tame. In 1990, he started Total Rebound by organizing bungee jumps and charging for them. Bungee jumping was at first a huge hit -- people lined up to jump. Wilkinson, even then an innovator, bought inflatable games for clients to play while they waited in line.

But bungee jumping, it turned out, was only a fad. The real money was in the games. Wilkinson kept the old name -- Total Rebound is the heart of bungee success -- and moved on. "When people did not want to bungee jump anymore, we could walk away from it," he said.

At first, Wilkinson used the inflatable games leftover from his bungee days. But he realized he needed to inventtoy his own games. He is the Abner Doubleday of human shuffleboard, the James Naismith of Velcro Drag Racing. He also has cooked up dozens more, like human bowling, "Mission Impossible" style scavenger hunts, and missile launching aboard the retired aircraft carrier USS Hornet in Alameda.

One of his best games is called "Rescue at Sea." In this game, four copilots standing around a pool of water must work together to operate a toy helicopter using cranks, pulleys and ropes to rescue bikini-clad Barbie dolls jet-skiing in shark-infested waters. The operators must work quickly -- most games don't last longer than 20 minutes -- and cooperate to pluck the damsels in distress from the dangerous waters to safety on a tropical isle. Waiting for the Barbies are G.I. Joe and Ken.

Many companies are pleased with the results. "The games were both visually exciting for onlookers and incredibly fun for everyone who tried them," said Lorie Hannigan of the San Francisco 49ers." "We have a 98 percent satisfaction rate from customers," said Wilkinson.

" After experiencing your imaginative, creative and outstanding games, Hewlett-Packard will never again settle for less," wrote event planner Beth Huth. "Who would of thought that 2,000 corporate executives would love riding a bungee bull and bounding into the air on a hydraulic trampoline? Well, they and all of the other games were the talk of the town! All of the business units have expressed interest in using you again."

Wilkinson says he is perfect for the fun and games business. "I am very competitive, I don't like to lose and I love games." He gets new ideas for games by going to Toys R Us and playing with the most appealing games on the floor. He waits to see which ones create the most interest among other shoppers, then combines ideas of several games to create his own giant version. He creates about two or three new games a year.

Wilkinson and his family live on a ranch in Napa. He chose Benicia for his world headquarters because he didn't want to commute more than 30 minutes....His favorite game is Risk, he said. "that's the one where you take over the world."


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