By Marylou Fusco
In our fast-paced, technology-heavy age bowling centers may seem like quaint throwbacks to a less sophisticated time. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s bowling centers are not your parents’ bowling centers with their whitewashed walls and bad lighting. The current crop of bowling centers are still focused on family fun but more and more centers recognize that they have to connect with the adults as well. To do that they need to create a unique and affordable experience that resonates with all age groups.
“You have to create bowling entertainment,” said Craig Buster, general manager of Coconut Bowl at Wild Island in Sparks, Nev. In addition to their bowling lanes the center also offers laser tag, laser entertainment and a three-story play structure. Buster said the annual attendance at their center is roughly 200,000 people. “Our main demographic is families,” he said. In the evening the music is turned up loud and black lights come out making the lanes glow.
Robin Sloan, the general manager of Delta Bowl, a 36-lane bowling center in Antioch, Calif., said they have a heavy league presence with an estimated 1,000 league bowlers coming through their center every week. After 10 p.m., the center transforms from a standard bowling center into cosmic bowling, which Sloan described as a club atmosphere. “We have upbeat club music, something you can dance to.”
Located on an air force base in Bellevue, Neb., Peacekeeper Lanes is not open to the general public but like their more traditional counterparts Peacekeeper caters to their adult population by offering extreme bowling with laser lights. “It’s about good customer service and having a fun atmosphere,” said Scott Clark, the center manager. At Peacekeeper, families are their focus. “We have a number of family specials. We host a lot of children’s birthday parties,” Clark said. His promotion efforts are centered on posters and flyers and offering food and beverage packages.
Finding ways to promote their specials is something that many bowling centers continue to grapple with. Centers are turning more and more to social media in order to gain wider recognition in their communities and to promote their events. Jeff Oswald, the general manager of Coshocton Bowling Center in Coshocton, Ohio, estimated their weekly attendance at 1,500 and utilizes Facebook to offer specials. He said he recently sent out a request asking for 1,000 people to “like” the Coshocton Bowling Center Facebook page by midnight on a Friday evening. Those who liked the page received a discount when they came to the bowling center the next day.
While social media is useful, most owners and managers agree that the best promotion comes from being established and liked within the local community. Dawn Perry, the general manager for Garwood Lanes in Garwood, N.J., said they do promotions locally, such as in church bulletins. “We’re pretty well known within the community,” Perry said.
Hosting fundraisers are one way that bowling centers can establish themselves in the community. Crystal Lanes owner Mickey Sullivan said their Corning, N.Y., bowling center, which has an annual attendance of between 8,000 and10,000 people, hosts a number of successful charity functions. A “Bowl for the Cure” fundraiser, for example, drew nearly 200 participants. “People enjoy getting out for a cause,” he said. Crystal Lanes also offers promotional one-hour lessons for bowling beginners.
“We do a lot of corporate team building,” said Pam DeMarce, owner, Wow! Zone in Mankato, Minn. Wow! Zone has “Couples Night,” which encourages people to get out and be active with their partner. They are also intentional about encouraging participation across age groups. “We have everyone from 1 ½ year olds to 99 year olds bowling,” DeMarce said.
With customers still feeling the pinch of tough economic times, bowling centers know they are competing with other entertainment venues. “People need to have a good reason to come and spend their money,” said Bobby Downing, director of bowling services for Crystal Lanes. One way to attract customers is through special offers. Debbie Anderson, owner of Autumn Lanes in Forest City, N.C., said they offer $1 specials on shoes, games, pizza and beer Monday through Thursday.
“You need to provide a fun experience through food, service and staff. When all three are clicking it makes for a great experience,” DeMarce said.
Downing agreed, and said customer satisfaction is key no matter what the age. “The most important thing is to not treat the customer badly. This isn’t a fast food chain. They’re choosing to come here,” he said. –