Bowling Center operators are living in a time of rapid marketplace evolution. Bowling remains one of the most popular active entertainment options, with over 70 million Americans playing at least once during the last year. The competition for active entertainment consumers has increased in most major markets over the last decade, as the Pizza Buffet genre (among others) has expanded, and the movie business has expanded HD and 3D theaters.
These marketplace changes represent both challenge and opportunity for today’s bowling center operators. We want to grow and retain this growing segment of casual consumers, and we’d like to do it without alienating our current high-frequency clientele, the league bowler. Over the last decade, progressive operators have renewed the energy of their respective businesses by adding entertainment elements to their centers. They have experienced the benefits of expanding their center’s appeal to a broader demographic. They have learned that they can increase consumer trial, frequency and average length of stay by adding entertainment elements to their center(s), and they have reaped the resulting sales and margin benefits.
Entertainment elements that bowling center operators may consider can be grouped into three categories: Attractions; Sensory improvements; and Experience-enhancing. Let’s take a look first at what most of us think of first – “attractions.” Adding attractions require space of course – indoor or outdoor. The first step to take in analyzing your ability to add attraction(s) is to conduct a critical study of your current space. Look especially at how your space utilization has changed over time. You may find one or more of the following situations as you examine your space utilization:
Parking needs have decreased, allowing for building expansion or the addition of outdoor attractions.
Meeting or playroom space has become obsolete.
Lineage per lane has decreased to the point where the removal of lanes may make economic sense.
With space discovered through your analysis, you can begin to think about what attraction(s) to add. Now is the time to study the market to determine what entertainment needs are under-served or not being met. If you are not confident in your ability to analyze the market, it’s wise to consider contracting with proven professional consultants at this stage of your project. The factors you will want to consider when choosing attractions to add to your center are:
- Space requirements (including height if indoors).
- Required building modifications.
- Local codes and ordinances (including sound and light if outdoors).
- Market demand and competition.
- Staying power of the attraction.
- The new attraction’s effect on current center activity.
- Expected return on investment.
Don Labrecque, owner of Airway Fun Center in Portage, Mich., has systematically added both indoor and outdoor attractions to his center over the last decade. He suggests thoroughly researching attraction options by attending IAAPA or Amusement Expo in advance of making your purchase decision. “I like to look for the attractions that are generating positive comments from attendees. I also look for which attractions have lines formed around them consistently,” said Labrecque. The indoor attractions operators have successfully integrated into their centers include the following:
- Arcades and redemption centers.
- Laser tag.
- Bumper cars.
- Balladium or Ballocity.
- Laser Maze or Lazer Frenzy.
- Ropes courses.
- Rock climbing walls.
- Integrated outdoor attractions with high success rates include the following:
- Batting cages.
- Bumper boats.
- Rock climbing walls.
- Ropes courses.
The second category or grouping of entertainment elements that operators can add to their bowling centers are “sensory improvements.” The most common sensory improvements are linked to sound and lighting options. The very best BEC designs draw guests into multiple areas of their spaces by stimulating the senses directionally—most commonly appealing to hearing, sight or smell. Think signage, attraction sounds and portable food carts—all of which direct the guest to a unique or new area of the center. The sensory experience invite the guest to try a new activity or menu item, which serves to both extend their stay and increase their per-visit spend. Sensory improvements that operators have successfully added to their centers include the following:
- Installation of HD televisions and projectors over the lanes and throughout the center.
- Adding active LED lighting to sidewalls, bowling areas, gaming areas and the building exterior.
- Menu additions that focus on smell and plate appearance.
- Replacement of static menu boards with HD flat screens that display food and beverage graphics.
- The addition of speaker systems to the exterior of the building to allow for the playing of upbeat music.
- The development of private bowling areas, which allow for customizable sound and lighting options.
- “Experience enhancers” is the third category of entertainment elements that can be added to bowling center operations. These elements are especially important today, as all active-entertainment operators face strong competition from sophisticated in-home theater and gaming systems. Bowling centers can learn from FEC operators, as they have always had to focus on the experience factor, as they have never had a product that was promotable as sport. Experience enhancers can either add to the positive, or reduce the negative aspects of a visit. Tally the most common complaints of your guests when considering which “experience enhancers” to implement. If you are like most centers, the most common complaints will include: waiting time for lanes; inaccurate estimation of wait times and waiting in line at service counters. Experience enhancers that address these common complaints are:
- Utilizing online reservation systems for casual play, birthday parties and group events.
- Selling bowling by time only during peak demand times.
- Employing hosts to eliminate lines at the bowling counter.
- Adding more servers to reduce waiting time for food and beverage delivery.
Elements that add to the positive aspects of the experience are unique to the market segment or the individual guest. Great thought should be given to each individual daypart, and the typical guest segment that visits during that daypart. Frame your experience enhancers around the desires of the unique guest segment you’ll be serving during that daypart. Here are some of the experience enhancers you might consider for implementation:
- Develop and utilize a center mascot during birthday parties, daycare and elementary school groups.
- Develop your own, or hire, entertaining MCs and DJs to add energy to glow-bowling and colored pin events.
- Develop staff training programs that focus especially on providing personalized service.
- Give spontaneous added-value to mobile, electronic and social-media platform members.
- Implement xbowling.
- Employ greeters or hosts during peak demand times.
- Train the entire staff to execute the “Coach it Up” casual guest instruction program.
Mike Logan purchased a traditional bowling center in College Station, Texas, in mid-2006. He re-branded it and converted it to a BEC over the next nine months. His highly successful Grand Station Entertainment Center continues its evolution even today. His advice to owners: “Don’t think about the conversion only in physical terms. You have to address the people and service side of the model. I learned that I needed to hire hospitality-oriented staff members and teach them the technical skills necessary to serve guests effectively.” Logan also recommends finding and participating in industry groups that share their experiences with attractions they have added to their bowling centers, concluding, “Why not learn from the successes and failures others have experienced?”
Logan, Labrecque and many other owner/operators have come to know that the bowling industry’s evolution is ongoing. They have also learned that incorporating all three categories of entertainment elements into their respective businesses have kept them relevant, while enhancing their sales and margins in the rapidly changing landscape that is the bowling business today. –
(Rick Heim is a regular presenter at Bowl Expo and the BPAA Bowling University Management Schools. His Cornerstone Consulting Company provides owner/operators advice and guidance on developing and managing Bowling Entertainment Centers. Reach Heim at CornerStoneCS@aol.com.)