Bowling Center Renovations Bring New Amenities and a Modern Vibe

  • A group of college students walks into a bowling center near campus, but rather than leaving after playing a few games as in the past, they kick back in a separate lounge area, eating snacks and watching a baseball game on a flat-screen TV set. At another facility, a group of women enjoy a friend’s baby shower in a spacious, well-appointed lounge while their husbands bowl and watch their scores flash on overhead flat-screen monitors.

Such scenarios are playing out throughout the United States, as bowling centers undergo extensive renovations that bring them, as Matt McLellan, general manager of Pinz Kalamazoo in Kalamazoo, Mich., put it “into the 21st century.” The days of garishness, noted McLellan, who also serves as COO of the investment company that owns the facility, “are gone. It’s not your father’s, or your mother’s, bowling alley.”

Known as AMF’s Harpo’s Lanes until its recent acquisition by the investment group, Pinz Kalamazoo recently underwent a transformation intended to turn it from “an Atari in an X-Box world kind of place” to an upscale entity with an ‘industrial chic’ look and a “sports entertainment center feel,” McLellan explained. The ultimate goal, he stated, was to better appeal to students from nearby Western Michigan University, as well as to the young adult crowd.

Undertaken at a cost of more than $250,000, the renovation began with a complete removal of a dark corridor and several walls that separated the old bar from the lanes. “We wanted to have an entirely unobstructed, 40,000-square-foot space; the openness is a must for ‘industrial chic,’ ” McLellan said. To reinforce the latter, the carpet was removed and replaced with a stained, polished concrete flooring surface in a terra cotta shade, while wood paneling that had covered several brick columns was removed to expose the original brick and ceilings were re-exposed to attain a 26-foot height.

New accoutrements include a 5,000-square-foot sports lounge that features leather couches, billiard tables and $50,000 worth of big-screen TV sets. The sports lounge can also be used for live entertainment and parties and was even the site of a baby shower held at Pinz a few weeks before press time.  New as well are a centralized, 42-foot-by-48-foot bar that serves as a hub for food and drinks and a video arcade. The arcade occupies a prominent spot on the concourse and is delineated by lattice posts, thereby accommodating parents who want to comfortably bowl while keeping an eye on children who prefer to check out the video games instead of the bowling lanes. Half of the latter (18 of 36 lanes) have been fitted with couches and the remainder offer traditional lane seating, “a necessary compromise to keep the league players happy,” McLellan noted.

“Besides appealing to our target market in general, we wanted to offer amenities that would bring people during the slower summer season, even if they aren’t going to bowl,” he observed. “It is definitely working.”

He added that based on experience, it is best to find a contractor who is willing to obtain original and structural drawings of a facility that is about to be remodeled, or to investigate every angle before signing on to a job. “You would be surprised at how many electrical contractors, for example, will say, ‘OK, we are going to run pipe here and pull wires there, without looking at how that might impact the whole job,” he asserted. “That can lead to big headaches.”

Like Pinz, Bartlett Lanes in Memphis, Tenn., caters to a sizeable base of league members, 1,600 at last count, and an “enormous” walk-in business, said Robert Luckett, general manager. This is not expected to change as the facility becomes part of the Andy B’s chain and is re-named Andy B’s Bowling Center.  But the facility’s physical plant will be different, thanks to a $3 million renovation slated for completion in August.

“Andy B’s is known for operating bowling centers with a lounge” vibe and the amenities that go along with it, Luckett observed. Accordingly, the facility is being expanded by a total of 13,000 square feet. The showpiece of the project will be the “VIB (Very Important Bowler”) Lounge, with a nightclub atmosphere, lounge-style seating and 12 newly constructed bowling lanes.

Elsewhere in the facility, guests will have access to a 3,500-square-foot arcade. The foodservice area, which previously spanned a mere 75 square feet, will encompass 600 square feet of space, allowing for complete meal service. New tile and carpeting will be installed throughout the building, and the ceiling above the bowling component will be opened up and raised to foster a more spacious feel.

Luckett said the fact that the contractor selected to handle the project operates locally has been very helpful in keeping the project on target and compensating for unforeseen delays. “We had snow in November and December, which for us is very unusual, and it forced us to postpone the pouring of the concrete for the expansion,” he explained. “But because they were local, and had a reputation to uphold, they bent over backward to compensate for the lost time.”

Beyond working with local entities with a stake in serving their clientele, the general manager advised fellow operators who intend to keep their businesses open as renovations proceed to seek out contractors whose management is sensitive to the need to maintain a sense of order throughout. “You don’t want messy and dusty, you want things to be cleaned up,” he asserted.

Out of the 1990s

Meanwhile, when Steve Cirillo purchased the 32-lane Sandhills Bowling Center in Aberdeen, N.C. in 2010, he decided that as soon as possible, he would transport the facility “out of a terrible 1990s time warp,” reported Chaz Howe, assistant manager. “It looked so bad that even the old-time leaguers were complaining and clamoring for an update. It was truly ugly. We were also planning to enhance league play and upgrade our party packages, but the outdated appearance wouldn’t have supported that.”

A remodeling endeavor, intended to effect what Howe deemed a “360-degree turnaround,” began not long afterward and is still in process. On the cosmetic front, the walls, some of which were white cinderblock and others, sheetrock covered with white, gray and burgundy wallpaper, were re-painted in bold blue with green accents. Unsightly steel frame columns were encased in sheetrock and painted a matching green, while equally unattractive, outdated wood chair rail moldings in the concourse area were removed altogether and the area painted in gray semi-gloss. “We could not, of course, change the cinderblock, but the blue and green de-emphasize it and eliminate that institutional look,” Howe said.

Moreover, the backdrop behind the bowling lanes, a “terrible graphic consisting of pink stick figures,” was ripped out. A “cosmic-looking” depiction of “rockets and bowling pins shooting around” replaced it. The lanes themselves were fitted with new scoring apparatus and flat-screen displays that substitute for “old console-style units sticking out of the ceiling,” and intelligent, computer-controlled robotic lighting fixtures stand in for the old stationary fixtures.

Modernized as well were two key components of the center, the snack bar and the redemption counter. The former, which formerly occupied 12 feet on the concourse, now measures 20 feet by 15 feet and houses a full kitchen; digitized menu boards have replaced traditional signage.  Once no more than a window-enclosed surface near the front desk, the redemption center today occupies 25 feet of space on the concourse. It complements the newly painted arcade, which instead of boring, non-descript monochromatic walls features “cool”  half-green, half-black walls, a black ceiling and black lighting, according to Howe.

Next up is a replacement of the burgundy laminate countertops that connect the concourse to the bowling area with dark black laminate countertops whose surfaces resemble granite. Carpeting in a complementary shade will be installed in place of the current burgundy floor covering on the concourse. The installation of in-lane and freestanding seating that looks like a leather couch, but is more durable, is on the drawing board, too, as is the removal of canopy tops on the windows.

Howe said it is critical for bowling alley operators to engage only contractors that specialize in projects undertaken by leisure entertainment facilities. “Redesigning a bowling centers is different, say, than redesigning another kind of commercial space; there are special concerns and requirements that come up,” he noted. “A generalist may not understand them and may not want to work through the challenges.”

Modernization and, as a result, staying steps ahead of the competition is also the catalyst for a renovation of Legend Lanes in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, stated Lisa Chapman, director of marketing. The facility’s 24 lanes were upgraded from wood to synthetic this past summer, and fresh paint was applied throughout. Lounge seating and hardwood flooring were previously installed.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg; in late April, owner Mike Vay received approval from the city to reconstruct and relocate Legend Lanes’ four antiquated, crumbling volleyball courts from the back of the building to a spot at the front, where passersby will easily notice them. Permission was also granted to expand the entryway and construct an outdoor bar.

“We see 740 league players each week, and our lanes are always occupied for open play on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,” Chapman said. “We are going to keep modernizing, to keep them coming here and keep them out of other centers.”

Chapman agreed with Howe that contractors selected to effect bowling center renovations should specialize in the field. She also suggested that operators look to their own customer base for qualified parties. “We had a lot of luck in that department, because we knew clientele would take care of us right,” she said. “And above all, remember, cost isn’t everything, and what’s most inexpensive isn’t necessarily what’s good.”

Top Tips for Choosing Color for Bowling Centers

Consider the same colors as those on your logo. “It’s like branding.” – Lisa Chapman, Legend Lanes
Consider the mood you want to create. “For us, blue was lively, without being too frenetic.” – Chaz Howe, Sandhills Bowling Center
When in doubt, ask an interior designer. “We wanted to be sure we were on-trend with color, and that what we were selecting was a good match. Color is too important to guess about.” – Robert Luckett, Bartlett Lanes

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