By Joanna Ireland
Today’s bowling centers have learned that leveraging social media to increase their market outreach nets many more strikes than other media, including print and radio ads. While competition for entertainment dollars remains stiff, bowling remains a popular activity for families, and with summer only a few months away, many centers are participating in popular national programs including Kids Bowl Free to grow their customer bases.
Todd Turcotte, owner and manager of Highland Bowl in Cheshire, Conn., said, “We are concentrating our advertising on social media, with nearly 90 percent of those efforts using Facebook. We also use Snapchat a little.” He said, “I don’t know if there’s a best way to reach out to new people who’ve recently moved to the area. Years ago, we could do a mass mailing, but no one really reads junk mail now and newspaper readership is down, so it’s hard to pick a single venue for advertising. I think we’re best served by using social media campaigns, local networking, and lots of word of mouth.”
His center uses a variety of promotions to create repeat customers. “We offer coupons and promotions, and when people are here, we encourage them to like our page on Facebook, and that also makes them eligible for other promotions. We have an email database that we use to send out emails to our customers, too.
“Ultimately,” he said, “it’s important that you do your job and do it well and focus on good customer service. Depending on your marketing budget, you can do an aggressive marketing campaign using social media or other marketing plans. I don’t recommend using Groupon or Living Social, because you really lose money with those programs.”
Turcotte said his center is thriving. “Outside of league customers, we’re averaging around 400 customers a weekend, although it’s tough to quantify exactly. But we have birthday parties each weekend and then other lanes going. Our ‘bowl in the dark’ sells out most Saturday nights and I’d say we’re running at almost full capacity in the busy season.”
Jim Decker, owner of Double Decker Lanes also uses social media to promote his center. “Social media is our main focus to advertise. We want to create top of the line awareness for the public. A lot of times, bowling isn’t their first choice but if we create that awareness among people who are looking for something to do, they’ll choose us. We still also do a lot of radio advertising and we’ve done television commercials, too.”
Decker said he has tried Welcome Wagon in the past but found it less effective for outreach. “We really do depend on word of mouth,” he said. “We’re in a college town, so we offer things like a free bowling night each month for our students. The college pays a small fee to us, and it’s great outreach because each year we have a new wave of 2,500 freshmen students. They’ll come on the free night and then they come back.
“I think the key to creating repeat customers is having a clean, friendly environment,” he said. “We also encourage people to join the leagues; when they join, they get discounts and other bounce-back offers we have. Our website also includes value nights that change regularly, directing people to slower times that we discount. We’re always telling people to visit the website for information and our specials.”
The Rohnert Park, Calif., facility sees about 3,000 visitors each week. “I am down a little bit,” said Decker, “and I attribute that to the wildfires in our area. We were hit hard by the horrific firestorms that came through. We were down at least 30 percent in October, and now, we’re down about 10 percent because of people losing their homes and moving away.”
Vernon James, assistant manager at Thunder Lanes in Pine Bluff, Ariz., said that his center utilizes social media, especially Facebook, to encourage new and repeat customers. “We have a lot of promotional items, too,” he said, “like BYGO passes, but we also reach out to daycare centers and schools, and we participate each summer in Kids Bowl Free.” James agreed that regular advertising helps keep the word circulating. “We’re a member of the local chamber of commerce, which also does outreach and marketing,” he said. “If you want to keep customers coming back,” stressed James, “it’s important to deliver good customer service. You want everyone happy while they’re here.”
His center has seen an uptick in customers over the years. “Our annual numbers vary a lot,” he said, “but the renewed interest in bowling is helping us. It peaked years ago when you saw a lot of bowling on television,” he said, “and now the professionals are on television again which is sparking interest. We have over 100 high schools in the state that offer bowling, and that’s also grown the number of people at bowling centers.”
“Social media is definitely the easiest way to promote the center,” said Bob Thomas, general manager of National Bowling Stadium in Reno, Nev. “We use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to advertise bowling specials and different promotions and just get the word out.” His center also participates in the popular Kids Bowl Free program each summer.
“If you want to reach people who’ve just moved into the area,” said Thomas, “you can purchase names and addresses of new homeowners from a database and then send out cards, not unlike the Welcome Wagon.” Thomas also said that word of mouth is effective at bringing in new customers—and ensuring repeat visits. “Customer service is huge,” he said. “We train our employees on everything, and stress customer service and their interaction with the customers. You have to build good relationships and have good communication. When you create a positive environment, customers feel comfortable, and then they come back.”
His center sees about 750 customers a day, including the league bowlers which, said Thomas, is a bit up from prior years.
Another center, Fountain Bowl, is also heavily invested in social media. Co-owner Gary Forman said, “We have completely stopped our print advertising, and we never used radio or television. We do all our advertising online, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. It’s the way of the world today,” he said. “Papers are declining, and people don’t really read the Yellow Pages. We do maintain a monthly ad in the city magazine, but that’s it.”
Forman said he tried using Welcome Wagon and Valu-Pak but saw little benefit. “We only had a three to four percent return on the Valu-Pak.” The Fountain Valley, Calif., center is heavily involved with the area nonprofits. “I get about 50 to 60 requests each week from nonprofits, schools, and churches, for example, so we give out a lot of free passes. We also have a frequency marketing club that’s geared toward nonprofits. We’ll give them a frequent bowlers card, and if they come in to bowl, their organization earns a percentage back.
“We also have a deal where we’ll offer sports teams, like Little League, packages for end-of-season parties here at the center. We’ve partnered with the local Kiwanis Club and other clubs to do fundraisers that also generate ancillary traffic. Whenever we host a nonprofit fundraiser here,” he said, “we’ll have people coming in to bowl to support the cause and they leave with a thank you from us for supporting the charity—and then they return to bowl on their own. It’s a good way to create repeat traffic.”
The center also offers bounce-back coupons, tournaments, and other events to create repeat customers and generate interest within the community. “I’d say we have between 5,000 and 6,000 customers a week. If visitation isn’t up, it’s at least flat,” said Forman. “It’s definitely not down. Our industry is slightly dependent on the weather here in California. If the weather’s not great, people will look for things to do inside, and we’re a great option.”
The top tip recommended by bowling center managers and owners across the country to entice new customers to visit—and encourage customers to return—is to tap into the powerful force of social media, especially Facebook, to create that outreach.