10 Years and Counting from Bowling Entertainment Center Quarterly

10 Years and Counting from Bowling Entertainment Center Quarterly

The following article was originally published in the Fall 2018 issue of Bowling Entertainment Center Quarterly.

 

“What the heck were you thinking?”

 

That’s a legitimate question one might ask regarding the founding of Entertainment Center News—the  forerunner of today’s Bowling Entertainment Center Quarterly—considering ECN made its debut right smack  dab in the middle of The Great Recession.

 

For so many industries in the United States, the severe economic downturn that lasted from December 2007 through June 2009 resulted in countless homes being repossessed, jobs lost and entire companies going out of business. Neither the bowling industry nor the amusement industry was immune to the impact of the recession, as discretionary income was squeezed and millions of Americans got their only entertainment from television and other at-home activities.

 

Ultimately, however, the recession also represented an opportunity for owners of traditional bowling centers, family entertainment centers and arcades to think outside their boxes and develop new business concepts.

 

As the economy began to come back, growing numbers of bowling center operators began adding new attractions, while operators of FECs, movie theaters and other entertainment venues began adding bowling. At the same time, newcomers to both the bowling and amusement industries introduced their own concepts, typically with higher-end food-and-beverage services than either industry has previously embraced.

 

Ultimately, however, the recession also represented an opportunity for owners of traditional bowling centers, family entertainment centers and arcades to think outside their boxes and develop new business concepts.

 

There were magazines devoted exclusively to the bowling business and others specifically for the amusements industry, but as Bill Merrick, then Amusement Division Sales Manager for QubicaAMF, pointed out on countless occasions, there was no publication for operators of bowling entertainment centers.

 

It was largely through the urging of Merrick, who passed away in 2011, that ECN was founded.

 

It didn’t take long for Merrick’s hunch to be verified, as BEC operators and those interested in the BEC business model were thirsting for useful information they could utilize to make important planning, buying and management decisions.

 

Ben Jones, Mike Cairns and Marien Stark of Live Oak Bank, a company that services the BEC industry, noted that the pairing of bowling with other revenue generators “makes sense when bowling is viewed as one more attraction—and as such, is simply one more revenue spoke in the hub.”

 

They pointed to the concept of synergy and the cooperative nature of multiple attractions embraced by Michael Eisner, the former CEO of Disney, who liked to say that “one plus one equals three, and sometimes four.” Pete Gustafson, Executive Vice President of the American Amusement Machine Association, described bowling as “a legacy attraction that’s intuitive, physical and kinetic. One doesn’t even have to know how to keep score in order to have fun playing.” That said, developing a formula that provides enough lane capacity to minimize long wait times during peak periods while not having too many dark lanes at off-peak times can be a challenge. Enter the marriage of bowling and amusements, which Gustafson says is ideal for appealing to a new generation of consumers.

 

“Led by millennials, today’s consumers want to do things,” he says. “’Stuff’ is external and tangible; it’s a tool that will eventually stop delivering on its original promise. Experiences are visceral and personal; they touch people emotionally, physically, intellectually and even spiritually. Experiences are memorable and unique. You and I might both go zip-lining, but the experience we have is exclusive to the individual. We’re not going to see the same things, feel the same things or prioritize as memories the same things.

 

“The convergence of experience-seeking consumers with our maturation into multi-attraction FECs is producing record profits for a large swath of our industry. We’re providing exactly what consumers are seeking and are the fortunate ones benefiting from this remarkably good timing.”

 

Leslie Hutcheson, Senior Manager of Constituency Programs and Services for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, echoed Gustafson’s perception of the tenpin sport. “Bowling has been a favorite form of entertainment for many, many years,” she said. “It is an activity that can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age or skill. Bowling has great appeal to so many demographics as well — families who love to spend time being active together, friends who enjoy competition, and even companies looking at it as a team-building activity.”

 

But when other attractions are added, the entire economic model changes.

 

“Having a variety of entertainment options all under one roof is a great way to not only extend the amount of time a guest spends at a facility, but also offers greater value,” Hutcheson said. “Bowling as an anchor attraction is a great way to bring people to a facility. Once there, when they see everything else—from laser tag to modern arcade games, to ropes courses, mini-golf or go-karts—everything comes together for a fully memorable experience. [The BEC] is the natural and perfect next step for bowling operators.”

 

Sammy Harris, Marketing Manager of Bay-Tek Games, said today’s BECs are proving to be a great way to get people out of their houses for a few hours of human interaction and fun.

 

“As we all know, over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a huge digital boom,” Harris said. “We’re so digitally connected as consumers. While that consumes lots of our time, we’re still human and we still crave human connection and interaction. We’re looking for something that’s not digital. Bowling delivers that. It’s entertainment that’s socially interactive, competitive—in a friendly nature—and just fun.”

 

“Games are a perfect complement to that,” Harris added. “Games add to the experience by providing the similar feeling through a different outlet. It gives people even more motivation to get out of the house, unplug and spend time with one another in real time. Bowling and arcade games offer an experience that you can’t get at home. You can’t get it on your phone.”

 

“We’re so digitally connected as consumers. While that consumes lots of our time, we’re still human and we still crave human connection and interaction. We’re looking for something that’s not digital. Bowling delivers that. It’s entertainment that’s socially interactive, competitive—in a friendly nature—and just fun.”

 

Today’s BEC is about as far from a traditional bowling center of the mid-20th century as one can imagine. Traditional centers of that era typically included a billiards table, a pinball machine or two, a lounge and a snack bar. The food service often was limited, and draft beer comprised a high percentage of the bar sales. All of those features were geared toward servicing the weekly league bowler.

 

With the league bowler count continuing to decline each year, a new type of customer was needed—one who may visit less frequently, but will spend more if the attractions and menu offerings warrant.

 

So, in addition to featuring an array of attractions, most BECs also offer an enhanced food-and-beverage program. Local ingredient sourcing is embraced by many, and the “old, reliable” beer selections have been joined by craft brews and signature cocktails.

 

As the Live Oak Bank team pointed out, food and beverage as a consumer spend has increased nearly twice as fast as other retail and discretionary spending in the past dozen years. “Food-and-beverage destinations of all types have been evolving for decades, with eating out morphing into dining out and becoming more experiential and attraction-like in authenticity and delivery. F&B quality is rising at bowling centers, entertainment centers and other venues because F&B is now viewed as a revenue-driving competency as opposed to its former status as a necessary offering.”

 

Today’s BEC is about as far from a traditional bowling center of the mid-20th century as one can imagine. Traditional centers of that era typically included a billiards table, a pinball machine or two, a lounge and a snack bar. The food service often was limited, and draft beer comprised a high percentage of the bar sales.

 

Harrison noted that the spending power of Generation X and the millennial generation is fueling the change in focus on F&B offerings at BECs. It’s all about their preference for experiences over stuff.

 

“BECs don’t need an extensive menu to wow people, but they should have a few special items on the menu—something that’s different, local, unique to them,” Harrison said. “Maybe it’s having craft beers on tap, or local distillery spirits, or a cool twist on fried cheese curds. These powerful generations are willing to pay premium prices for a good, memorable experience that’s share-worthy on social media.

 

“Food is a common language across all generations and cultures,” Harrison added. “We all need it and it brings us together. Breaking bread is something enjoyed most when it’s done together. We crave human connection, and food is another vehicle to share and connect with one another.”

 

Bowling. An array of amusement games and attractions. Quality food and beverages. We know what basically defines today’s BEC, but what’s on the horizon?

 

“Technology continues to have an impact on all aspects of the attractions industry, and that includes bowling entertainment centers,” said Hutcheson. “From enhanced scoring systems and interactive games to the addition of lasers and light shows on the lanes, to even using mobile applications, operators can use technology in new ways that don’t always require huge capital investment. And the manufacturers and suppliers in the attractions industry are constantly developing new experiences and forms of entertainment for facility operators.”

 

Gustafson said he thinks operators will become more focused on what BECs actually are selling: fun. “I’d like to see us embrace who we really are and what we really do,” he said. “We don’t manufacture, distribute or operate games and attractions; we create experiences. Taking that on as a possibility will shift the way we all look at the fundamental nature of our businesses.”

 

Holly Hampton, Director of Innovation for Bay-Tek Games, said she thinks boutique bowling—private rooms with dedicated lanes and bars in an upscale atmosphere—will continue to proliferate within BECs.

 

“This trend isn’t going away,” Hampton said. “Boutiques are perfect for the after-work crowd, corporate gatherings or any non-family parties. This upscale trend is hitting a need for the type of high-end experience craved by adults.”

 

Today, BECs can be found across the country, including a number of multi-unit operations. While traditional centers still have a place, especially in areas where league bowling remains strong, there are virtually no such centers being built today. Virtually all new bowling-based businesses are BECs.

 

“I’d like to see us embrace who we really are and what we really do,” he said. “We don’t manufacture, distribute or operate games and attractions; we create experiences. Taking that on as a possibility will shift the way we all look at the fundamental nature of our businesses.”

 

A dozen years ago, the bowling entertainment center was still largely an experiment. Within just two years, it had become a trend. The era of the BEC had begun, and with it, the need for a publication devoted exclusively to the burgeoning BEC industry.

 

As it turns out, the middle of The Great Recession was the perfect time to introduce a magazine today known as BEC Quarterly.

 

To view the original article in Bowling Entertainment Center Quarterly, download it here. To learn more about Live Oak Bank’s lending solutions for the entertainment center industry, visit our website or view additional resources.