By Sara Karnish
Bowling is one of those classic sports that has brought friends and family together for generations. It is currently experiencing a strong resurgence. As bowling center owners look to the future, they are faced with the question of whether to simply focus on their core bowling operation or bring in additional features such as an arcade or other attractions.
Pat Ciniello, president and CEO of Bowland and HeadPinz Entertainment Centers, with six bowling and hybrid FEC locations throughout Florida, said he and his team are “happy with what we’ve been seeing. We’ve seen big growth since the pandemic—people are coming in for bowling, food and games.” He noted attendance is up approximately 15 percent and exceeds 2019 revenue. Ciniello recently attended an industry expo and said center operators noticed a “resurgence of interest” in bowling among the public. “Everyone was very happy with the current environment,” he said. “Everyone seems to be doing well, whether they were a bowling center or FEC. People were cooped up during COVID, and now they want to get back out.” Ciniello pointed out within his centers, there has been a transition from strictly bowling to a full FEC for some time. “League play is still an important part of it [bowling]—especially the older centers with a league base. In general, there is more movement toward an FEC model. Existing bowling centers become ‘hybrids’ and added games, et cetera into the venue. The FEC portion with the games is definitely growing.” He cited the Main Event franchise which was recently purchased by Dave & Buster’s: “People are looking for fun …bowling is the main attraction, but games and food are attractive.”
The success of a bowling center also depends on their location. Centers in rural or smalltown markets are likely one of the only social or recreational options in their immediate area, so owners are still generating revenue with bowling alone. Camelanes Bowling Center in Gillette, Wyo., is one example of a longtime standalone bowling center that is still bringing in players.
Mike Divis, owner of Camelanes, said the bowling industry is in a great place right now. “We lost some centers during the shutdowns, but the ones who stayed open are doing things right. [Bowling] is still the number one participation sport in the country. If we do it right and capture people’s attention, we will keep them as longtime customers.” He added, “I just came back from Bowl Expo, a huge industry get-together. Everybody was raving about how busy they are. So many of these centers were closed …some for three months or more. After they opened, the response from the community has been incredible. [They] have a pretty hard-core crowd for bowling; we’re seeing a lot of new families coming out to play, and also with their friends. …They’ve realized time together with other people is important; it’s really helped give them a place to go.” Divis agreed that the future of the industry is largely driven by where a center is located. “We’re kind of on an island out here in Wyoming. Things didn’t change that much for us after COVID. There’s just not a lot of other things to do. Our conventional leagues are still 30 weeks, but we’re offering shorter seasons than we used to. That’s a push in the bigger markets—people don’t want to sign up for a 30-week season. A lot of proprietors are doing shorter seasons or something else fun. We’re seeing a lot of new ways of marketing the game, and helping the transition from open play to longer seasons.” Best of all, Divis is seeing many younger bowlers in the lanes. “We’re getting a lot more younger kids to come and try out our sport. Where I’m at, the PE classes bring in a lot of kids. I run one of the largest programs for younger bowlers in the state. They’ll even come out and practice in the summers.”
The younger demographic is a key market for bowling centers and FECs. Chelsea Ducat, Finance/Marketing/HR Manager at Cypress Lanes in Winter Haven, Fla., and Strikers in Sunrise, Fla., said their team is following the preferences of this market closely. She also pointed out the trend toward adopting an FEC model: “It’s an attempt to break free of the ‘bowling alley’ stereotype and showcase your ability to evolve and appeal to the younger generations. The large arcades are able to compete in a whole new market and bring in strong revenue that ultimately benefits all aspects of your business. All that said, there are places where traditional league houses will always flourish, and I hold those centers in high regard. They have found their niche and they keep the pure sport and love of bowling alive.” She said another big trend is the move toward automation at many bowling centers. “The pandemic caused all of us to reassess how we do business and how to still operate while mitigating human contact. We barely got back in the full swing of doing business normally when we were hit with a tremendous staffing shortage. Innovators jumped on the opportunity to develop products to alleviate the effects of the staffing shortage. Note, I did not say that it was or is an attempt to replace humans,” she pointed out. “I don’t believe that’s possible, nor would I want it to be. I’d always prefer to have reliable, customer service-oriented humans over robots, but it’s been challenging to find. I think businesses across the board who can benefit from automation are either considering it or have already started implementing it out of necessity.” Despite a bigger shift to automation and cutting-edge technology and games, Ducat said there will always be a place for the standalone bowling center. “ …I really do believe you can be successful in a traditional center which is largely dedicated to league bowling if you’re in the right market. The charm of a center may be its retro ambience and old school methods—the familiarity may be part of what keeps people coming back week after week and changing too much may make them feel like someone just demolished their childhood home and built a high-rise condo to replace it.” Ciniello mentioned he has eight robots in his Fort Myers location that welcome guests, deliver bowling shoes to the lanes, deliver pizzas, deliver food and bus tables. “These robots are showstoppers and a social media hit with our customers but also improve our customer service and loved by our employees as additional team members.” He added, “Having a good website with online reservations is an important part of the process. People are looking for things to do—they can reserve lanes or look for other things to do. It’s an important part of our business model.”
Regardless of whether a center is a standalone bowling center or cutting edge FEC, customer service with genuine human interaction will never go out of style. Divis said it starts with creating a fun, comfortable atmosphere for customers. “Keep it clean and friendly. Have a cheerful staff. Offer things that make it comfortable for people. I think that’s still the number one goal—keep it clean, especially the restrooms. Have products you’re proud to offer. People are looking for quality rather than a price. We’re competing for their time as much as their dollars, and time is more valuable than money.”
Ciniello said to remain competitive in his market and overall industry, he and his team are “constantly looking at new things—we see what other people are doing. It’s not the same old game—there’s more excitement in the products we offer,” he said. He has a few tips for growing a business: “Number one:[You] Have to be part of what the industry is offering, whether it’s following IAAPA, the Bowl Expo, whatever it is—you have to see what’s happening. The industry is constantly changing, and you have to have the latest/greatest of what’s coming. For instance, we’re trying axe throwing at our one location. Another is to stay current with what’s happening in the gaming business.”
Whether bowling is a standalone sport at a center, or an operator adds more games and attractions, the camaraderie and friendly competition the game creates will always make it a beloved pastime. Ducat summed it up: “I’ll add something my father says, which comes from his real-life experience as a second-generation proprietor: Bowling survives recessions because it’s something that everyone in the family can participate in and enjoy. You can all go to the movies, but you aren’t really spending quality time together (and hats off to you if you can get a family of four to agree on the same movie). Going bowling allows families to be together, laugh, talk, and enjoy a fun activity regardless of skill, age, athleticism, or the weather!”