Bowling centers have a lot going for them as a party venue. Besides the popularity of the game itself, the odds of booking more parties increases with high-scoring efforts toward building a party-friendly reputation.
Various companies occupy the 24-lane Cordova Lanes in Pensacola, Fla. Marketing and Events Coordinator Tim Shipman expanded that element to include nonprofits. “We have such a wide range of parties and every other week we hold a fundraiser for causes such as breast cancer, fraternities and sororities to Junior Achievement, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy and the Ronald McDonald House. We crossed the half million dollar mark over a six-year period, which is a lot for a bowling center, drawing in people from the Pensacola community to cheerleaders.”
Shipman credits center owner Steve Reynolds with offering the facility as a place to gather, not just for businesses, rather for any and all types of organizations, from civic to government to nonprofit. And in so doing, he increases business all the way around. “Nothing works better than doing the right thing and folks hearing about it, which may be self-serving, but when we do the fundraiser correctly and challenge people to have fun bowling backwards, for example, they’ll come back and bring the family. We don’t care about the money. We do what we’re supposed to do to raise money for charity. When released from making money, the karma comes back and it takes care of itself.”
Shipman is involved in local civic organizations himself and gets the word out about Cordova as an optimal party choice through public speaking engagements at Business Networking International (BNI) and Kiwanis meetings to churches, youth groups and Chamber of Commerce events. Besides fundraisers, he addresses the needs of companies looking to hold events for socializing, interaction and networking. “They get it that taking a big executive golfing is not the way to interact, whereas when bowling you have a captive audience.”
The only traditional advertising Shipman maintains is directed at driving children’s birthday parties. He explained, “We have such tremendous word-of-mouth going that buying ads is not advantageous except for a monthly ad to promote children’s birthday parties in the Golf Coast Parenting magazine.”
Favorable food reviews add a notch to Cardova’s reputation. The most popular item is the hamburger platter, featuring the unique flavor of a hamburger soaked in onion juice. The snack bar offers discounted group rates on the fresh food served hot off the grill, though Shipman advocates taking orders, lane by lane when possible. With the advent of new pizza ovens, he said parents are taking advantage of it as word spreads. “We had the ovens several weeks before selling and held taste tests to get it just right, taking the time to pick unique ingredients, not carbon copy out-of-the-box pizza, and have gotten good reviews on combos.”
Any business will receive some brand of complaint, and Shipman said at Cordova, bowlers are encouraged to speak up about anything they question. “You can’t fix silence. If they tell us, we can fix it. So many things can go wrong, and we deal with each individually, one at a time. Whatever it is, we want to get to it before spoiling it for everyone, for example a lane breakdown. And if you can’t fix it, you don’t belong in the business. It’s easy to offer free games or snack bar food. We compensate how it fits whether food or lane machine, though we’ve never had a major issue.”
The pins stack up on weekends at Bellair Lanes in Daytona Beach, Fla., for birthday parties, said daytime supervisor, Nathan Omland, as well as to accommodate reservations for school-based and company parties. The outreach efforts extend to fundraising organizations and in the summertime, to Boy and Girl Scout summer camps. “Running free bowling programs for children’s groups in the area gets them into the sport of bowling, they become familiar with the game, and it rolls over to group bowling events,” Omland said.
Party bowlers are pleased with the quality of the pizza available at Bellair, and staff is on their toes with the best in customer service. “You never know if the person walking in is a business owner, manager of a company, a perspective parent wanting a party, or a person not looking necessarily for a party but after personal experience, decides that your venue is the one for the next party,” said Omland. He added that the Bellair hospitality night for local restaurant owners and employees is an opportunity for them to receive discount bowling and get a taste for the venue as a party option.
Staff is also always available to handle any complaints that may arise. Said Omland, “We take care of the issue when it happens which might only be some mechanical issue to remedy by simply moving to another machine or offer a discount or free bowling the next time.”
“We’ve never had a party leave unhappy,” said Corrine Ham, general manager, River Lanes Inc. in Titusville, Fla. “It’s all about customer service. If it’s good and you give them a good time, they’ll come back.”
The 32-lane center packs in several parties all through the year, mostly for kids’ birthdays, followed by companies, and adult bowling parties. Ham reported that many of the companies are repeat customers. The marquee on the outside of the building, inclusion in the Brevard County Saving Safari coupon book, and the food options all play a role in increasing party numbers. Ham said, “The favorite party foods are wings and pizzas, all served fresh, per order.”
Adults may do the bookings for parties at Holiday Lanes in Albert Lea, Minn., though it’s the kids that are the ones that enjoy 99 out of the 100-plus parties arranged there, noted Manager Loren Kaiser. “They see the ad on the Holiday Lanes Facebook page and we also do mailings for kids in the school district regarding birthday parties. A 30 cent card goes out one month before the birthday, up to 100 in a week’s time and we get 5 to 10 percent return.” More cards land in the hands of the kids at the Lanes or later at school. “We talk to people already here at parties to increase business. The kids are excited about bowling, we thank them for choosing to come here, ask them if they’d like to hold a party, and when mom and dad pick them up, kids give the card to them and say they want a bowling party.”
Any complaints, which might amount to scheduling issues with only 10 bumpers at 20 lanes, are handled on the spot, said Kaiser. “We make the change, go down and talk directly to them, give free passes or discounts or book another time.”
Usually it’s mom that calls to book children’s birthday parties at All Star Lanes Fort Myers, Fla., said owner, Bill Hanson, though adults also choose the 24-lane center for parties specially geared to them.
Hanson concluded that the most successful marketing campaign is the birthday party itself. “The next one will come from the parents already here, so it’s important to do a good job with the party at hand.”
Even at birthday parties, the wings are on par with pizza in popularity because though the pizza comes with the party, adults tend to order wings on the side and both are prepared fresh on the premises.
Hanson advises staff to evaluate every complaint for legitimacy and not to take it personally, rather to listen and do all that is needed to make it right, including offering a party for free if something went wrong, to make it right. –