July 15, 2019

If Bowling Leagues Aren’t Enough

6 Minute Read

This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Bowling Entertainment Center BCM’s Bi-Monthly FEC Supplement

Considering a conversion to a BEC? It begins with a vision and a plan.

If you run a so-called traditional bowling center, you are continually examining your league rolls and counting the number of bowlers that will be returning the following season. This is an annual routine. Year after year, you plan your budgets, summer down-times and income projections based upon the performance of these metrics, and if trends are accurate, most likely you have experienced a decline in league membership year over year.

However, recent figures for upgraded centers across the country show quite the opposite trend. While maintaining a focus on league bowling, these centers are capturing new audiences for open play, attraction-based income and driving additional food-and-beverage revenue. These new revenue streams that upgraded centers are experiencing are making up for losses caused by declines in league bowler counts.


So, what is driving these income opportunities? The answer is new audiences looking to maximize their entertainment experiences. In today’s marketplace, consumers are driven to establishments that entice audiences with multiple offerings and that are experience-based.

There is no doubt that attractions like laser tag, virtual reality, axe throwing and arcades have seen a warm welcome in stagnant markets, and have assisted many centers in attaining new heights and revenue goals. Even the addition of just one of these experience-based attractions can lead to huge upswing potential.


If you’re considering upgrading your center to capitalize on experience-based entertainment, the most common question from bowling proprietors is: “Where do we start?”

Just as an architect approaches the building of a new skyscraper — with a vision and then the creation of a plan from that vision. Creating a vision for your location may be the single most important step in the process. Knowing what you want your establishment to be and then drawing up an official document that conveys this is essential to your success.


To begin any building, you need the foundation. This document is just that — your mission statement and your prerequisite for success. Far too many projects have been started on the fly, and the lack of proper vision can end up costing the business owner a small fortune in the process.

If multiple partners or family members are involved, lock yourselves in a room until you create something you can all sign off on (literally). This step may just save your relationships, partnerships and, most importantly, your bank account balance. It also will come in handy when it’s time to create your “brand.”

Not too long ago, Gary Richards completed a major renovation of his center, Stardust Lanes in Saginaw, MI, and had this to say about the process: “As an existing bowling facility, our mission was pretty clear for the future — change or die. Through research and observation of other existing renovations, the development of a plan for the future was created and then implemented. A written mission statement was later developed just prior to opening the new, renovated facility, and after we could clearly see how we wanted to serve our new guests and treat our team members.”


Once you have made the decision to move forward and have articulated the overall vision for your upgrade, it’s time to home in on the details and begin determining the specifics. Some of the questions you’ll need to address include:

•          What types of attractions should be offered?

•          What resources are available?

•          How much will it cost?

•          What approach is best — all-in or phased approach?


There are many avenues to explore and for gathering intel to assist in making informed decisions for your upgraded center.

For starters, there is a plethora of other proprietors that have already made the transition and are willing to share their successes and “lessons learned.” Don’t hesitate to reach out to them as most are proud of the projects that they’ve built.

There also are many industry trade shows you can attend to learn more about suppliers and resources to help with your upgrade. Consider attending IAAPA or the Amusement Expo, in addition to Bowl Expo, where you can see a variety of dealers and options all in one location.

This can be extremely helpful in your decision-making process and can also provide you with some preliminary figures on what it will cost.

As Richards says, “Determining different attractions is the whole ball game, based on the type of customer you are trying to attract. This is one of the first things that needs to be done as room layouts, bank presentations, loans and design theming all revolve around what attractions are chosen. Budget planning cannot be done without this basic decision being completed first.”

Doing your due diligence in this area can save huge dollars and help you make the most informed decisions about what’s current and available in the marketplace.


Next, it’s time to bring it all together. Whether you choose to make minor upgrades, phase your approach or go all-in and renovate, creating a master site plan is key.

Your master site plan is your blueprint for the project and is another essential building block on which to expand. After your due diligence and decision-making process, this plan will allow you to attack from any level that you and your bank account are comfortable with. It combines the vision and overall strategy into a workable plan that can be molded and shaped to fit your marketplace.

Do your research before choosing a firm to draft your master site plan. The firm you choose could determine either a fantastic upgrade or one with lackluster performance. Here are some tips when selecting a firm:

•          Seek out a company that specializes in the industry.

•          Tour the centers or projects that the firm has created.

•          Talk to the bowling center owners and ask the most important question: “Would you hire them again?” The answer to this question will always be telling and assist in the vetting process.


Keep in mind that the firm and the team of people you’ll be working with on your upgrade will be a part of your life for some time, and they will need to understand your vision but also not let you get in the way of yourself. They also must do this while managing your budget.

They should focus on special features and design elements that appeal to today’s consumer. And, ultimately, they should have a plan to help keep customers in your location longer and increasing per-cap spend. Good lighting, effective traffic patterns, properly placed attractions and an engaging motif are all essentials to a successful plan.

Examine these carefully and don’t be afraid to ask your designers and architects for “value- engineered” products. Some things can really make an impact for little expense (think backlit LED signage for one). Also consider price shopping some of the items they place on your plan. This will help them keep them focused and accountable.


Be diligent in finding ways to save while not compromising the overall look and feel of your project. Too many renovations have let the budget dictate the outcome and have fallen short on revenue projections because of this decision. Be realistic in this area and create something that is unique in your area. Drive the experience.

If the decision to move ahead with change is something you’re contemplating, test the waters and gather the needed data. There are many resources available at your fingertips, as well as center owners who have already made moves in this space.

Striving for success begins with a vision, planning wisely, sticking to your master plan and hiring a trusted firm with experience. When you follow these steps, coupled by an open mind and motivation to attract new audiences, the possibilities are endless.

Brian Conway is Amusement Sales Consultant for Betson Enterprises. He can be reached at [email protected].