By Pamela Kleibrink Thompson
The new year might be time for a fresh look at your center and what it means to your community. These center managers and owners share how they are serving their communities and meeting the needs of their customers.
Terry Saracino, general manager of T-Bowl Lanes II in Wayne, N.J., has been in the business for 41 years and notes that business is up at her 26,000-square-foot center. With 34 lanes, 26 employees, and more than 400 birthday party kids a month, Saracino observes an uptick in business. “The economy is improving a little. Things are more back to normal and we are getting more corporate business,” Saracino reported.
Saracino, who works for the Ely family, owners of TBowl II and three other centers, notes several trends in the bowling business. “Bowling is up but leagues are down, though not in my location.” Her center is one of the busiest in the state. She stays competitive with other entertainment options by watching what they are doing but more importantly asking her customers what they want. “You have to make sure they have a good time while they’re here. It’s an experience. I have a lot of repeat customers. You have to stay current. People want instant gratification. My average customer is young, between 25 and 40. They are very last minute and want instant responses to email messages.” Saracino’s center does a lot of corporate events and she hired two people to help with birthday parties and events so that she can spend more time on other things like social media marketing and the website. Leagues are still strong at T-Bowl Lanes thanks to the ongoing efforts of her staff.
Kristy Morse, owner and president of Purple Pin Marketing, Inc. DBA Warrior Lanes in Waukee, Iowa, has owned the 16-lane, 15,600 square foot center with her husband Brad Basart since Thanksgiving Day 2013. The center opened in 2005 and Morse started managing it in September 2012. Her family is involved in the business including sons Zachary Basart-Morse, 12, Jack Basart-Morse, 16, Adam Morse, 21, and husband Brad. Brother David Morse is head mechanic and chief fixer of all things, her mom Linda Morse does data entry and her dad Dave Morse does a variety of projects. Kristy Morse is upbeat about the future, “As our community continues to grow, so does our business! Waukee is the fastest growing community in Iowa; there is a new elementary school built every year and there will be a new high school and sports complex not too far from our center in the next two years. We have seen a steady increase of 10-15 percent per year and expect that to continue.”
Morse shared some tips that keep her center competitive. “Stay involved. Stay relevant. The most frequent statement we hear from guests is about how bright and clean and inviting our center is. We have extremely high standards of cleanliness and maintenance. We put everything back into the center, buying quality equipment and supplies to keep it all up.”
“Our community is small–only 26,000 people and we are the only FEC in the town,” stated Megan Huddle, events coordinator/marketing at Wild Bill’s Wings and Bowl in North Platte, Neb. “Kearney, the nearest town, is 120 miles away.” Even though she has a monopoly, she doesn’t take business for granted at her 22 lane center. The center was remodeled in 2014 when a full arcade and laser tag were added. “Our goal is to expand. We are always trying to update.” Since adding the arcade and laser tag, business party package purchases have grown. “We want to be known as number one in family fun. The weather affects our business quite a bit,” noted Huddle, who says the warm late summer kept people outdoors.
With 45 employees, including those who work in the restaurant, and eight teen employees, including party hosts, Huddle observed, “Our staff really cares and wants to improve the facility and the experience for guests. The one thing that keeps us on the edge is innovative thinking. We need to provide more value to our customers so they come back. The managers didn’t come from bowling. This is the most fun I’ve ever had on a job. Sometimes I get to play laser tag and games and get paid for it.”
Huddle noted that one way she makes sure she has a competitive edge is by working with the school system. She said it’s important to help kids who are less fortunate. “We always do the silent auctions. We want the kids to have fun. You have to have the drive to have change. You have to find out what your customers want.”
Dave Haulenbeck, manager at 24-lane Woodbridge Bowling Center in Woodbridge, N.J., learned how to bowl at a neighboring center that recently remodeled and kicked out all the high schools and their leagues. “The high school leagues had been there for more than 40 years and they had nowhere to go,” related Haulenbeck. He teamed up with a competitor down the road to welcome the high school leagues. His future looks bright as he predicts that his center and staff of 20 will be busy with high school leagues filling his lanes Monday through Friday from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. His top tip is to work with local high schools and build more leagues focused toward them, and develop partnerships if necessary and work together for the benefit of kids in your community. By sharing lanes Haulenbeck and his competitor, which is only a mile away, are able to develop more business with league bowlers who are likely to grow into adult bowlers of the future.
“It’s going to be busy 24/7,” predicted Stacie Parrish, chief operating officer of Pin Center Bowl in Cleburne, Texas. “Being a small center (16 lanes) we know most of our customers-our regulars.” Pin Center Bowl’s 10 employees help 100,000 annual visitors have fun with an attitude of hospitality. “It’s the personal touch that makes the difference,” points out Parrish, who rolls out the red carpet for her guests and makes them feel special. “Business grows every year because I put money into it.” Parrish has remodeled and added an arcade. “You should constantly improve. They see the difference. Cleanliness is the top of the list. Make sure your center is clean and taken care of.”
Parrish shared tips with other operators and owners. “Carry a lot under one roof. We do a variety of entertainment and have activities for all–there’s fun for everyone from a 1-year-old to a 97-year-old.” Parrish’s 97 year old bowler drove herself twice a week to bowl in a league. “Miss Maria bowled three games on Tuesday and Friday, she is amazing. She just moved to Oklahoma. I’m going to miss her.”Stacie’s mother, Sherrie Slaughter, the chief financial officer of Pin Center Bowl, was inducted into the Bowler’s Hall of Fame this year. “Bowling is our life. It’s a good life.”
Brownwood, Texas, has a population of about 20,000 and is home to Academy Lanes owned by Lee Baird, who is also a rancher. Baird took over the 12-lane 12,000-square-foot center built in 1974 from his father in 1979. He noted that as a small center in a small town he does things in a different way. “We work hard to keep people in leagues and we have developed a good youth program. The best way to have leagues is to grow them. We’ve been doing that for a long time. We’re also active in the community and do a lot of work with youth. We are involved with the P.E. program with 6th graders. We teach them how to bowl in six weeks. It’s the perfect age to do it and works real well for us.” Baird predicted that despite the downturn in league play in some centers, leagues will continue to comprise 50 percent of his business.
Baird offers Rock n Bowl, black light bowling, and appeals to his customers with a clean, well-run facility. He employs a friendly staff and notes that the “age of bowling customers tends to be younger and they want to concentrate on doing something for fun, not necessarily for competition. The trend is toward building large FEC facilities with a few lanes for bowling, a large game room and food court.” There is a new FEC with eight cinema screens being built in a nearby town. “In today’s market no traditional centers are being built. The reason the family oriented FECs are successful is because they offer one stop shopping.” Like others interviewed for this article, he spares no efforts in making sure his guests are cared for.
All the bowling center proprietors agree that in 2017, the business of bowling will be keen.
(Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a recruiter, career coach, speaker and writer. Reach her at PamRecruit@Q.com© Copyright 2016 Pamela Kleibrink Thompson.)