By Genie Davis
Strikes and spares are rolling in at busy bowling centers this post-pandemic summer. For this article, bowling center managers and owners described how their lanes are generally thriving – and what they are doing to assure business continues to be a “perfect game.”
At Skyline Lanes Bowling Center in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Manager Billy Taylor said that “We took over this business April 1 last year in the middle of the pandemic. We were shut down for the first six weeks and didn’t have an established operational routine, but we opened up with incredible amounts of sanitation. Now that things have changed with the pandemic, we’ve developed a balance. We learned how to get started right when it hit and have now reached a good place.” He noted that the center has a large amount of league business. “Again, it’s all about balance. We had nine leagues a week in the fall, and that fills us morning to night throughout the week. When we do open play, we are limited as to the amount of time that’s available with a busy league season. We do fill our lanes up.” The center has 12 lanes, he noted.
Skyline Lanes has reached out to previous customers to welcome them back to the center in a variety of ways. “We’re pretty active on Facebook, and we also have a text message program for customers who have signed up for it. We will send them discounts every month, so we stay in the front of their minds that way,” Taylor explained. “If they sign up to the program, they get two free games, which enrolls them from then on, so they can continue to enjoy the monthly discounts we offer as well.”
When it comes to customer service, Taylor related that “We just try to be friendly with everyone who walks through the door. We want to make them feel like they have a place to come here that’s a lot of fun. We certainly think it is and we want our customers to think that, too.” He added that “offering good promotions is another form of customer service.”
The center’s monthly attendance is dramatically up since the pandemic, but Taylor said “I don’t have a real barometer for how much we are up, since we took over in the middle of the shut-down. But we have been very fortunate to stay busy even through COVID-19, when we had mask mandates and could only open every other lane. Now all our lanes are open, and the mask mandates are lifted, and we are doing well. Having those restrictions lifted is definitely a big plus for us.”
Also located in Idaho, at Meridian Bowling Lanes in Meridian, General Manager Roger Hare agreed that attendance is up. “We are operating at 75% capacity which is great for us. Our fall league season ended and now our summer season is kicking in. Monday through Friday, every morning or evening the leagues are in play. Attendance has been really good, really much better than expected coming out of the COVID-19 period. I think it is because people are ready to get out and really enjoy time with their families.”
To welcome people back, Hare said the center is offering an exciting promotion. “Starting June 2, people who are enrolled in a league will get a bowling ball and bag at the end of the season. And on Saturday evenings, we do a Monte Carlo night, which we call Cash Thunder.” The center adds yellow, blue, and red pins to the standard white pins in each rack. “Depending on where the colored pins show up in the rack, they are worth different monetary value,” he explained. The potential to win results in lots of enthusiasm from guests.
There are also dart leagues in the bar, which has increased its capacity. “We have eight dartboards, and people can come in and play and enjoy an adult beverage.” He explained that each of these fun activities help draw people into the center.
He reaches out to past customers with weekly email and text blasts. “Anyone who has opted in will get either a text or email from us every week,” he said.
When it comes to customer service, convenience is key, he stressed. “We promote that people can book reservations online in real time. They can also make advance reservations, so they know they won’t have to wait and that we have lanes available.” He added, “Our food department has the ability for our guests to order directly from their lanes and receive it at their lanes, too. That appeals to people, as well.”
Elijah Todd, manager of Lava Lanes of Medford, Ore., also focuses on diverse offerings and lively promotions to enhance the center’s operation. “We do many different promotions and offer many activities to keep people interested and engaged,” he said, which he believes is the key to successful bowling center operations. “We have $2 game days on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays; in the bar we have a few promotions as well. We have a ‘Power Hour’ with domestic pints for $1 a piece; every Friday we do $1 street tacos from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.”
He described the center as “very big, with 40 lanes plus an entertainment center with an updated arcade, live horse betting, and a nice pro shop. We also have a large sports bar as well. Having different things keeps guests interested and engaged, so that there is something for everyone, basically.” Added during the pandemic is an outdoor dining area, which he described as “very popular.” It also assists with a smooth operational flow. “It has been extremely helpful in that it helps us retain customers when we hit capacity. We can direct people to our outside area to enjoy some food and wait, which helps a lot with retention.”
Todd said that he isn’t doing much advertising as yet with the pandemic restrictions just starting to lift in the state. “We don’t have an email list, but we do have a large, regular customer base and many leagues, which typically sell out pretty quickly. So, we are not really doing any outreach as yet, we are turning people away because we are still limited as to how many people can come in at once time.”
For Todd, customer service is no one specific thing. “It’s an overall way that we operate. Treating our guests like family, that is our number one rule around here.”
Unfortunately, while demand to attend the bowling center is rising, attendance numbers are not. “Because of the capacity limits in Oregon, we are still turning people away.” When they do lift, it appears that guests are eager to roll.
At Bountiful Bowl in Bountiful, Utah, Owner Ed Barnes said his top operational tip is also his suggestion for the best in customer service. “What makes us a little different from other bowling centers is that while we have 20 lanes, we try to know people. We try to learn their names and talk to our guests about bowling and what is going on, that type of thing.” He noted that “During the craziness of the pandemic we were focused more on cleaning, but with things lightening up a little, it’s that ability to engage with customers that works for us. It’s that personal feeling, that ‘coming home’ feeling.”
The center was closed for six weeks at the beginning of the pandemic, and then experienced slow attendance throughout 2020. One idea to bring people back into the center was the creation of a “skills challenge of random doubles for advanced bowlers. And we are starting our summer league up tomorrow, and that should also draw more customers into our place,” Barnes said.
But the biggest draw will likely be their personalized service, he said. “Being friendly and welcoming is even more important now. I always try to think of the television show Cheers, where everyone knows your name. I am not that good,” he laughed, “but we do try very hard to know our regular guests.”
Barnes must be doing it right. Although attendance was down last year, from the end of December 2020 through this April, he described his guest attendance as “above 100%. Probably 110% of what it really is. It’s great because it was at 40%-to-50% tops during 2020. It’s a real resurgence for us,” he stated. “People are returning to activities and having fun again.”
In short – let the good times, and the bowling balls, roll.