Expanding Yesterday’s Stand-Alone Entertainment Venues to Appeal to Today’s Fun-Seeking Families

Bowling, Roller Skating, Laser Tag, Arcades. Not that long ago, you would have needed to visit four different venues in order to enjoy these various entertainment attractions. Now, as many entertainment center owners are finding out, in order to stay competitive and, in some cases, stay open, one source of entertainment in no longer enough.
The late 1990s started to see a decline in bowling leagues, which still continues in many parts of the United States. Around the same time, in-line skating encouraged people to skate outdoors, diminishing the number of skaters in the rinks. League bowling required a large commitment of time, usually about 30 weeks. Roller skating takes time to learn and does not provide the instant gratification of video games and other forms of entertainment that most kids of today are conditioned to expect. While attendance and revenues are declining, the cost to operate these large centers continues to increase. In some cases, owners are finding that the land the centers sit on has more value than the business. So, although bowling and roller skating still have a strong following, in order to appeal to today’s families and to keep a facility operating, owners are finding they need to diversify their centers and reinvest in more than one attraction.
Marion Plaza Lanes, located in Marion, Ohio, closed due to fire in the late 1990s. The building stood vacant for almost 10 years when brothers Lee, Jon and Brett Sisler decided they wanted to invest in a family entertainment business. They found this location and leased the space where the former bowling alley was located, as well as two bordering restaurant sites. Construction began in early 2008 and, after opening up the walls between the bowling alley and the restaurants, the Sislers completed renovations on a new 40,000-square-foot bowling and entertainment center.
Blue Fusion Entertainment opened in August 2008 with 22 lanes of bowling, a 10,000-square-foot Game Zone that includes 50 video and redemption games, a redemption prize center, four lanes of Highway 66 mini-bowling and a two-story Prime Play Ballocity, a snack bar, birthday party rooms, a 3,500-square-foot newly renovated event space called The Venue, as well as a full service bar and a separate full service restaurant.
Blue Fusion’s original business plan was intended to appeal to the open bowlers more so than the league bowlers. For the first two years, they did not allow league bowling and felt the center appealed to a different crowd. However, due to location and being in a small town, the public demand eventually dictated they change the business plan and address league bowling. Marion had always been a huge bowling league community.
“It is great to have people in the facility spending money and having an opportunity to upsell them, but we have lost some of our families coming in on Friday nights or when there is too long of a wait for the free lanes,” said Cass Sisler, general manager and son of Co-owner Lee Sisler. “Food, beverage and game sales have declined though the game zone still remains our highest revenue generator. Overall, from a revenue standpoint, it has all evened out.”
Fun Warehouse, a 41,000-square-foot roller skating entertainment center, opened in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on November 19, 2010. The property, originally an RV dealership, was purchased by the Marks family with an initial investment of $2.4 million plus an additional $1.4 million in expansion costs. It was designed as a “hybrid” entertainment center, combining multiple entertainment venues right from the start.
Attractions include roller skating, a two-level, 3,500-square-foot Urban Quest laser tag arena designed by Creative Works, six birthday party rooms, a snack bar, and a 10,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art Game Zone with inflatables and soft play, 40 video and redemption games, a redemption prize center, Rollerball mini-bowling and a Lazer Frenzy laser maze.
Stephen Lancaster, Fun Warehouse’s Marketing and Sales Manager, commented, “I came onboard with the Marks family in 2006 as the Operations Manager of their three miniature golf courses.  Four years later the Marks family expanded further by creating Fun Warehouse. This was a huge undertaking and quite the different machine versus the miniature golf business.  The miniature golf courses are a seasonal business capitalizing on the summer tourism, whereas the family fun center evolves with each season and with that comes a great amount of attention to detail and marketing.”
Fun Warehouse is located in a tourism market so the business needs to adapt according to the seasons. They market skating heavily from September to March then switch gears to marketing laser tag and the arcade during tourist season.  The games earn the highest revenue with skating following up in close second.
Colonial Bowling and Entertainment began in 1949 as a traditional 12-lane bowling alley. Over time, it grew to 64-lanes and took up nearly 64,000 square feet. The center was originally owned by Charlie Hock though his war time friend, Stanley Sheft, took a passive interest through the years. Eventually Sheft became more involved and additional partners, including Bill Staub, were brought in to invest in the growth of the business. The business was flourishing and Sheft’s son Peter came on board after graduating college in the late 1990s, joining Staub’s six kids in running the center.
It was not long after that bowling sales began to decline due mainly to the general lack of interest in league bowling that was being seen throughout the industry. In 1999, Colonial’s core league bowlers were in excess of 2,100. By 2004, that number dwindled to less than 1,000. Each league bowler generates $800 to $1,000 per year, which means a loss in excess of $1 million annually. Overhead expenses remain pretty constant and, in fact, increased over the years while revenue was dropping dramatically.
In 2006, Peter began looking at other opportunities to save the business. He talked with US Bowling representatives and visited a bowling center in New York that had successfully included elements of an entertainment center while still retaining a core league structure. Peter saw this as an opportunity and, in 2010, he and his brothers, Stan and Mike, bought all the interest in Colonial Bowling and began plans for renovations.
“This is my life,” said Peter Sheft. “It was either close up shop for a while and renovate or sell. It was an $8 million total investment including the additional land needed and the remodel. I have four kids so I have to make this work.”
Working with Jerry Merola of Amusement Entertainment Management (AEM) and Doug Wilkerson of Dynamic Design, the family decided it was better to cut the size of the center in half, but offer more attractions. The doors closed on April 30, 2011 and reopened on February 15, 2012 as a 38,000-square-foot bowling entertainment center complete with 24 lanes of bowling, including a four-lane VIP area that can be sectioned off and accommodate 125 guests, a 5,000-square-foot Game Zone with 72 video and redemption games, a redemption prize center, two lanes of Rt. 66 mini-bowling, a 3,000-square-foot, multi-tiered laser tag arena designed by Studio 41B, the Atmosphere Bar and Grille and the Cosmic Café.
Bowling is still their top revenue-earning attraction, which Peter felt may be a carryover from being a bowling center initially.
Blue Fusion, Fun Warehouse and Colonial Bowling have all found that by adapting to the changing needs of their communities, they have been able to increase business and move forward in a challenging economy. Although their demographics vary, there are several similarities that can be noted.
Staffing and electricity seem to top the list for major operating costs while marketing stands out as a top challenge. With multiple attractions that appeal to different demographics and may be favorable during different seasons, it can be difficult to maintain focus and an identity. The message needs to be targeted according to time of year, specific attractions and even age groups. Yet, it is this diversity that makes these venues very popular for birthday parties and family outings since they offer different elements or activities all within one location.
For the locations that are using social media to its full potential, they are finding that they can drive business effectively. Fun Warehouse and Colonial Bowling have found Facebook to be a great tool for interaction with their customers and use this to learn from their target audience. Colonial has taken it a step further and integrated QRC Codes on their print pieces and can see who is scanning the code and from what demographic group. Growing the database has been a primary focus for all three locations as they look for creative ways to increase attendance and the number of birthday parties.
One thing that these three centers definitely agree upon is that stand-alone centers are becoming a thing of the past. They attribute their current success to the fact that they looked at their existing markets, did their due diligence, and continue to evolve as the changes in their communities dictate.
(Frank Seninsky is President and Tracy Sarris is Chief Marketing Officer for Alpha-Omega Amusements & Sales. Reach Sarris at tsarris@alphaomegasales.com. Reach Seninsky at fseninsky@aol.com)

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