'You can have a go on the slip 'n' slide while you're waiting if you like?' There can't be too many business operations outside of the more ludicrous Silicon Valley offices where this is a common utterance, but in the product testing area at the Shanghai offices of inflatables producer Bestway, such a proposal doesn't seem especially unusual.
After all, I'm already in my swim-shorts, surrounded by outdoor pools, and the wait is while a couple of workers help to inflate a giant pink plastic flamingo. With Shanghai's hottest summer in 145 years in full effect and dominating conversations across the city, retreating to this corner of Jiading district to splash about a bit in the name of work seems like .
Bestway are one of the largest producers of inflatable goods in the world, exporting everything from giant floating emojis and water-top plastic race cars, to air mattresses and pole-less tents with air-filled supports. They also make stand-up pools and spa tubs of various shapes and sizes, plus ball pools, mini bouncy castles and other inflatable toys for indoor use. Examples of all of these products are on display in the showroom at their Shanghai outpost - opening the doors to which feels a bit like entering a scene from The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour.
The real magic is happening on the factory floor however. Here, rows and rows of workers assemble and meticulously check the various products that Bestway sell, with much of the work done by hand. Downstairs there are giant hydraulic lightboxes that help staff assess whether there are any holes in items such as pool linings, while upstairs every single item is inflated and checked for problems before it's packaged.
I'm tasked with helping inflate and inspect air mattresses, and it's clear this is something of a rite of passage for Bestway employees. 'Everyone at the company knows how to inflate,' says Anna Dalton, senior sales VP and my guide for the day. 'Even the big bosses are sometimes in here before a meeting inflating products in their suits.'
Once I've mastered the automatic air pump, an employee grabs a dud air mattress and inflates it for me, telling me to locate the problem. He claims not to know in advance what's wrong with it, but finds the leak after about two seconds. I carefully run my hands over the entire surface of the mattress, squeezing and prodding in the hope of feeling some air rush out. After a few minutes of this I realise that the reason he discovered the leak so quickly is because the fault is with the valve that he had inflated the product through.
Where Bestway's product checks get really interesting though, at least as far as I'm concerned on a ridiculously hot August day, is outside at the pool testing area. Dozens of swimming pools of various shapes and sizes are set up in this part of the complex, with machines constantly sloshing the water about within to test the strength of the linings. One giant test pool is set aside for frollicking about with inflatable pink flamingoes. Or so it seems, as that's what I'm tasked with doing - all in the name of work, of course.
Before this, I get to see whether a pair of arm-bands is up to scratch or not. Fortunately, not by trying them on - I'm already embarassing myself enough by rolling around on a massive inflatable smiley face - but by attaching them to a child-sized doll that Bestway owns specifically for this task. Having fitted the armbands onto the 25kg mannequin and adjusted his swim-shorts for modesty, I'm then instructed to throw him in the pool. I have an older brother so I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of such treatment, and there's perhaps a little too much relish as I unceremoniously dump the doll into the water. Thankfully, he floats.
And then, after a couple of quick dives down the slip 'n' slide, my majestic ride the pink flamingo is ready. Despite only doing these 'Inside Jobs' for a column, I always take the roles extremely seriously, and it's this conscientiousness that sees me spend a good while in the pool making sure the various inflatables that join me in the water are rigorously tested. And Bestway, if you're reading this, I remain on standby should you need my services in this department again. At least until the end of swimming pool season.