Bowling is as popular as ever, but contemporary patrons want a more multifaceted experience. “We’re constantly doing updates, making our location more modern, more hip looking, to attract the younger people,” explained Mike Lirio, a manager at Bowlero Queens in Woodside, N.Y. “Keeping up to date gives us a big advantage over locations that look the same as they did 20 years ago.”
Bowlero has two New York City locations, including the Woodside facility, and 10 more on nearby Long Island. In Queens, patrons will find 35 lanes of bowling, with black lighting and projectors playing videos and movies. “If you want a special show, we’ve got sports on,” Lirio said. “There are just more opportunities for people to have fun.” There’s also a big arcade, and a full bar and restaurant, where a recent renovation included a new bar and replaced old-fashioned carpeting with more stylish hardwood flooring.
Crowds thin as the weather gets warmer, but most of the year, “there’s not really much to do around here, especially for families,” noted Lirio. “Bowling is getting more and more popular as time goes by.” The facility runs specials throughout the week that bring in customers on slower days, the manager added. Friendly employees keep patrons engaged while they’re waiting to bowl.
Five-course chef dinners with brewery or winery pairings draw patrons who might not even bowl to Spare Time Texas in Pflugerville, said General Manager Stefan Cox. “We’re trying to elevate the experience,” he said. “We have folks who just come in for the meal.”
Cox cited a trend toward more varied experiences at bowling centers, many of which have added full service dining options and multiple attractions to compete with today’s entertainment alternatives. Spare Time Texas, which has another location in nearby Temple, also partners with local schools to cultivate community ties and encourage repeat business.
“There’s no tangible take-away from bowling,” noted Cox. “So what sets us apart are the friendly, smiling people. You’re selling a service, an experience, when people go bowling.”
That experience is increasingly upscale. The Lucky Strike chain features glamorous décor, big screens and adult cocktails, with evenings reserved for the over-21 crowd at Lucky Strike San Francisco, according to Manager Brian Galope. “We saw it first with pool, being more high-end. Now it’s coming to bowling,” he observed. “We serve sushi – how about that?”
To stay relevant, older facilities are re-branding and remodeling. The Big Event in Cherry Hill, N.J., recently reopened after a renovation that took nearly two years and converted the 50-year-old facility from a traditional bowling center to a full-on family entertainment center, according to Experience Director Maggie Parker.
“People today want the full experience,” said Parker, an entertainment industry veteran who is president of the South Jersey Bowling Association. “So we did a complete 180.” The family-owned facility, which opened in the 1960s as Playdrome, went upscale with luxury sofa seating, VIP suites, all-inclusive packages and “a more posh feeling overall,” Parker said. “In the new game room, if an arcade game isn’t performing, we just move it out.”
Bowling remains popular, but the culture around the sport has changed. A quarter-century ago, “it was more league bowling, less casual bowling, less corporate team-building,” she noted. But to be successful, modern bowling facilities have to appeal to broader tastes — everyone from small children to single adults and multi-generational families. Parker noted that a more sophisticated tone scores big with clients of all ages; the fun, disco environment has “that wow factor” for kids, who regard the bowling center as a window into grown-up pleasures.
In Clayton, N.C., modern technology and old-fashioned service strike just the right balance at Rainbow Lanes Family Fun Center, said Manager Melanie Campbell. “We try to make people feel very welcome,” said Campbell, whose parents, Eddie and Pondra Byrd, own the 22-year-old facility. “If you don’t know what you’re doing, our staff will come over and walk you through it.”
Last year, Rainbow Lanes installed tablet screens at each lane, with overhead monitors where players can customize pictures and animations. The new technology allows bowlers to chat between lanes, post selfies on the scoreboards, and play favorite tunes as well. “With our society, everyone wants instant gratification,” noted Campbell. “Staying up-to-date with the technology keeps everybody intrigued and wanting to come back.”
In a price-conscious region, Rainbow Lanes encourages more bowling games with pricing by the hour or by the game — and helps them figure out which deal is best. Often, the better deal “results in them playing longer and spending more overall,” Campbell said.
Repeat customers often come for the promotions, including free kids’ bowling in the summer. For a family of four, “an hour of bowling is a waste of your money,” Campbell said. “So we’re always honest with the customer. We really want them to get the most out of the experience.”