The Story on Current Operations from Four Centers
If the foot traffic at four bowling centers around the country is any indication, people are eager for a change of pace. “We are definitely seeing a lot more open play. People are just dying to get out and be entertained,” said Melanie Campbell, manager of Rainbow Lanes Family Fun Center in Clayton, N.C. League play at the 50,000-square-foot, 32-lane facility is also on the upswing. “We have a very good mixture here in that we have a very large league base and now increasing open play.”
The busy scene at Rainbow Lanes Family Fun Center is remarkable in the sense that in wake of the pandemic, Campbell has been forced to decrease hours of operation due to staff shortages. Whereas once the center opened for morning play Monday, Wednesday and Friday, currently it only opens at 1 p.m. “However, we are seeing that by opening at one, we’re busier right at one o’clock than we would have been from nine to one. We’re seeing more and more foot traffic in the afternoon that we normally would have previously.”
Plans to renovate the snack bar and bar area at Rainbow Lanes took a backseat when COVID struck. “We were literally on our way back from the architect’s office on the day our governor decided to shut us down,” said Campbell. Slowly, the wheels are beginning to turn again. This fall the center has been working on switching its arcade over to the card system and it hopes to resume its snack bar and bar area renovations before the year is out.
Open play is trending at Big Bear Bowling Barn in Big Bear Lake, Calif. “Our business definitely picked up once we re-opened and I think a lot of it is because people have been stuck at home for so long,” said General Manager Dennis Beets. Glow bowling sessions are especially popular. “That’s been building up fast while regular league bowling is going in the other direction….although truthfully league play has been declining for a while.” In response, the 16-lane facility runs glow bowling practically every hour league play is not underway. “We try to do it as often as we can actually, because people seem to like it a lot.”
Big Bear Bowling Barn installed a brand-new computer system this fall. The facility’s bowling lane approaches were also quite worn down so they have recently been replaced and accentuated with glow lights. “During glow bowling, in addition to the approaches, we now have lights that go up and down the gutters, from the foul line all the way to the pins. Seven different colors alternate,” said Beets. It’s a welcome sight at this center which closed for eight months during the height of the pandemic. And the numbers reflect how enthusiastically glow bowling is being received. “Our income is up. In fact, seven of the months since we reopened in November 2020 have been record months.”
Bowling experienced a growth spiral in the 1980s and 1990s at Holiday Lanes in Weirton, W.V., according to present day Owner Charlie Whiteman. He was bowling there as a child and teen during those years. “Then bowling really took a hit in the early 2000s. But since I’ve taken over in the last six years the amount of attention bowling has been getting – well, it’s actually the fastest growing collegiate and high school sport in the country,” he said. His 16-lane center is really leaning into the trend. Recent tryouts for a high school team Whiteman started three years ago occupied 14 lanes because so many kids were eager to try out.
“The average age of our league players was pushing 70 years old but it’s now in the mid-40s,” Whiteman continued. That trend plus the strong interest displayed by community youth has led him to feel optimistic about the future of bowling at his approximately 16,000 square-foot facility. In fact, gross sales figures have quadrupled since 2015. He credits Australian bowler Jason Belmonte and his two-handed style for igniting young people’s interest in the sport. “He’s kind of the Tiger Woods of bowling, He, literally, in my opinion, saved our sport. Kids watch the two-handed style and want to learn how to do that.”
Whiteman recently finished a variety of remodeling and addition projects he launched after acquiring Holiday Lanes. Updates include refreshing the settee areas by the lanes and completely renovating the bar area. It is now its own entity and goes by the name of Strikers Sports Bar. Strikers serves food and its profile has been greatly boosted by an outdoor venue added in 2018. Meanwhile, the kitchen and the pro shop have been renovated plus the basement gained a large walk-in freezer. “We’ve probably put close to $400,000 into the place since 2015. All of the renovations continue to be very profitable,” Whiteman concluded.
At Green Gardens Lanes in Erie, Pa., the number of bowlers coming in for open play is trending close to pre-pandemic levels. “They’ve had enough of COVID. We’re okay in terms of business from them. But many of our league bowlers did not come back,” said Jesse Wattle who co-owns the 24-lane center with his father Mark Wattle. Years in the business have taught them that when a league player stops playing for whatever reason, they typically don’t come back. “At the end of the season, you hope to break even with new people the next year,” Jesse explained. Unfortunately, the pandemic has meddled with that formula. At press time, Green Gardens Lanes estimated it has lost 20 percent of its league bowling business, perhaps never to return.
Not that Green Gardens Lanes isn’t trying its best to attract new league bowlers. The Wattles spent $26,000 on a sign for the front of their building to advertise league bowling opportunities. And the center has always offered special leagues rates. “League bowlers get special price points. Our normal bowling is four dollars a game per person. Our league bowlers only pay $9 for three games instead of $12,” said Jesse. Finally, as much as the Wattles would love to embark on some remodeling projects, plans for those have been shelved with the hope that brighter days lie ahead.