Could 71 Million People Be Wrong?

Bowling’s Place in Your Family Entertainment Center

Bowling, 71 million participants strong, continues to be America’s number one participation sport.  Positioned as an activity that has broad appeal across all demographic categories, bowling is in an enviable spot compared to many other recreation options.

According to Simmons Research, over 9,867,000 children ages 6 to 11 bowled at least once in the last 12 months.  Those 9.8 million are broken out as 54 percent male and 46 percent female.  The teen numbers are equally impressive as over 9,870,000 teens between the ages of 12 – 17 bowled at least once in the last 12 months.  This target group breaks out almost equally as 49 percent were male and 51 percent female.

Combined, this user group of bowling youth is almost 20 million strong.  An existing customer base of 20 million youth that appeals equally to both male and females would by itself be enough justification to include bowling in almost any FEC project, but add in the fact that it is one of only a few activities that the entire family can participate in together, and you have a marketer’s “grand slam.”

It is difficult to categorize the over 4,000 bowling facilities in the United States, but the industry supports four generally accepted categories.  They include Traditional, Bowling Entertainment Centers (BECs), Boutique and Hybrid.  The traditional bowling center is the backbone of our industry and makes up the largest percentage of total centers.  With bowling as the single anchor, they often include supporting sources of revenue that include food, lounge and games.  The experience is purely bowling based.

The BECs, which within our industry were often mislabeled FECs, have bowling as a primary feature but also offer additional recreation and entertainment options.  These could include laser tag, redemption game room, sports bar, miniature golf, go-karts and meeting facilities, just to name a few.  Bowling is the driver that brings them in but is only part of the experience.  The total experience is defined by what happens in the other entertainment venues as well.  These brands are typically dominated by current industry companies that have branched out from the traditional model.

Boutique locations have helped raise the awareness of bowling from a media perspective.  There is not a week that does not go by that paparazzi are not reporting on a high profile celebrity spotted bowling.  A boutique location is typically driven by food and beverage sales and bowling secondarily. Often referred to as night clubs with bowling, the menus often resemble what one might see at a fine dining restaurant.  The experience in a boutique is often defined by the food and drink.  The bowling is a differentiator that sets them apart from a night club or restaurant.  This model is dominated by brands that are in the entertainment business and want to leverage the powerful participation numbers of bowling.

The last category is that of the hybrid.  A hybrid location has bowling as its anchor but tries to incorporate the trendiness of the boutique model with the added entertainment options of a BEC.  This is attempted many times with a smaller footprint than a typical BEC.  While there are new hybrid startups, the fastest growing segment, and in the author’s opinion, greatest opportunity, are traditional bowling centers being converted into a hybrid location.  This is usually accomplished by removing lanes to allow for additional entertainment options such as laser tag, expanded game room or converting previously traditional lanes into a small boutique VIP area.  Traditional progressive operators that have been following the trend of new BECs and boutiques see this as an alternative to relocating from their current physical location.  The experience at the hybrid is similar to that of a BEC in that bowling is the driver, but the total experience is defined by more than just bowling.

Today’s traditional locations have an incredible opportunity to redefine their current guest’s experience by converting to a hybrid.  If done properly, incremental revenue can be gained while not alienating their current customer base.  While there are many considerations for an operator to deal with, here are a few major pitfalls you want to avoid:

Hire a professional: This is not a weekend warrior project for you and Home Depot to tackle!  Taking out a wall or remodeling a room in your existing operation is one thing, redefining your guest’s experience with the layout of your facility is yet another.  Understanding the traffic flow and patterns is critical in designing your hybrid.  Putting your new food and beverage in the wrong area can cost you dearly in lost sales and guest service.  A misplaced entrance to your new laser tag can be disastrous.  There are several architectural firms that have industry experience in hybrid conversions.

If you are going to do food and beverage, do food and beverage: This is often an area that current operators of traditional centers fall short. BECs and boutiques have trained food and beverage people that have been brought in to make sure that the quality of the food and beverage served supports the desired experience.  The restaurant business is a tough business that even the well trained fail in.  There is a big difference between a McDonald’s hamburger and a Red Robin Hamburger.  Both can be very good and satisfying to the right customer at the right time.  If you are changing the experience, you have to change the product and the delivery.

Re-image your staff: Re-designing your facility into a hybrid can be an exhilarating experience.  Watching the physical changes before your eyes and seeing the finished product is like Christmas for adults.  However, re-imaging the facility is only half of re-defining the experience.  If you don’t spend the time training your staff to the new service standards you have defined, your facility will never reach its full potential.

It pays to belong: Finally, belong to your industry’s trade association.  For any facility with bowling lanes, belonging to the Bowling Proprietors’ Association of America (BPAA) is a must.  From co-op buying power, purchasing rebates, to providing world-class education and marketing support, over 4,000 member centers have found out why it pays to belong.

Regardless of which model you operate now or in the future, bowling is a great industry to be a part of.  How can 71 million people be wrong?

(Bart Burger is the BPAA’s Vice President of Business Development.  Reach him at or 800.343.1329, Ext. 8405.)

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