This article is scheduled for publication in MWR Today.

Bowling, the Foundation for Expanded MWR Entertainment Offerings

By Randy White

Today, many new forms of location-based entertainment facilities, including family entertainment centers and adult entertainment centers, are completing with bowling centers for customers. Bowling makes an ideal anchor attraction for these new types of entertainment destinations. Today, many bowling centers are remodeling and expanding their facilities to become entertainment centers to stay competitive, broaden their market appeal and grow their business. This article will discuss these new forms of entertainment destinations and considerations for the remodeling and expansion of MWR bowling centers to broaden their entertainment offerings.

In the early 1990's, a new form of location-based entertainment called the family entertainment center (FEC) emerged as a popular form of out-of-home entertainment.

FECs aren't exactly new. Outdoor FECs have been operating in the Southwest since as far back as the mid-1960's. In 1989, with the birth of the Discovery Zone chain of children's pay-for-play centers, entrepreneurs quickly realized that successful FECs could also be developed totally indoors.

In the late 1990's, FECs have mushroomed throughout the USA and internationally. Although there is no official census of FECs, it is estimated there are at least 2,000 alone in the USA. They have evolved both in format and size. Some FECs are still predominately outdoor-oriented and include some combination of miniature golf, go-karts, bumper boats and children's rides, with small indoor areas for food service, games and party rooms. Some FECs are a combination of larger indoor facilities and outdoor attractions, such as the Celebration Station chain with 25,000 square foot buildings and outdoor attractions including miniature golf, go-karts and children's rides.

Other FECs are totally indoors, either freestanding or as part of a retail or cinema complex. Indoor FECs have grown the most in size from the early 10,000 square foot Discovery Zones. Some mega-FECs now exceed 200,000 square feet in size.

FECs also vary in their target markets. Many target only children accompanied by their parents. Children's centers can be totally entertainment oriented with rides, soft modular play equipment and games. Some are now called edutainment centers, as rather than relying on rides and amusements, their emphasis is on education or discovery learning through spontaneous free play Most adults don't fully understand and appreciate the value of spontaneous free play in the social, physical, mental and emotional development of their children, so these new type of children's centers are marketed in the U.S. as children's edutainment ("edu"cation + enter"tainment") centers. This communicates to the parents that their children will learn by visiting them. So the parents show up with their children because it's good for the kids, and the kids show up because it's just plain fun. Edutainment centers often include a naturalized outdoor play area called a children's adventure play garden.

Other FECs target a broader family age group, from children to teens to adults, such as the FunScape FECs by Regal Cinemas or the Sport Plus FECs by Family Golf Centers. And some FECs target just adults. Current examples include Dave & Busters and Malibu SpeedZone. Interestingly, even though they their target market is adults, adult FECs find that up to 20 percent of their business is young parents coming with their children during the day and early evening.

Many of the larger indoor FECs are being developed with bowling as one of their anchor attractions. Bowling makes an ideal anchor attraction, as it has the highest participation rate of any recreational indoor activity, and it appeals to all ages. With bumper bowling, even three year olds can bowl. This makes bowling an ideal family activity. In fact, bowling has the highest participation rate by families with children.

With many FECs now being developed through the USA, as well as internationally, many bowling proprietors are joining the band wagon to stay competitive and expanding their bowling centers to become FECs, and in the process greatly growing their business. The growth not only comes from the added facilities. The synergy of multiple attractions typically increases the bowling component of the business as well.

Our company has had the opportunity to work with a number of bowling proprietors over the last ten years to upgrade and expand their centers, or to build new centers. Our experience is that any successful center must have a focus, but that focus need not be strictly on bowling.

During the feasibility and concept development phase of our work, our approach is, first, to clearly define the focus of who the center is trying to attract, then to select a focused assortment of activities to attract them. For existing centers, this approach includes a thorough analysis of current bowlers: who they are and why they come. Keep in mind, that bowling is not necessarily the motivation for their visit.

When planning a strategy for remodeling or expansion, it is important to remember that for a location-based business, there are only five ways to increase business. The first on the list are the easiest and the last the most difficult.

  1. Retain existing guests and lower their defection rate.
  2. Get existing guests to spend more time and money on each visit.
  3. Get existing guests to visit the location more frequently.
  4. Obtain new customers from your existing market.
  5. Expand your market.

The first three deal with existing customers, and those ways are the easiest and will generate the highest return on invested energy and money. Obviously, this is the place to start.

No matter how simple and small, or complex and large, your remodeling or expansion, it is important to appeal to your existing bowlers first. They are the easiest to encourage to have more fun, spend more money, come more frequently, and continue to be loyal customers. Adding impulse sales or additional anchor attractions that appeal to these guests is called focused assortment, and it means to broaden the assortment of offerings for a focused group of guests. This approach is the one that will create the greatest guest satisfaction and return for the money.

We repeatedly have seen bowling center operators make the mistake of ignoring existing bowlers by expanding their facilities with new sections that have no synergy with the existing bowling business and that don't capture additional business from bowlers. Its like building two separate businesses across the street from each other that are two separate destinations and have no synergy. To get the best return on investment, and please existing guests the most, bowling should be one of the anchor attractions of the expanded facility. The added attractions should offer existing bowlers additional value, reasons to visit, and opportunities to engage in additional entertainment and leisure activities.

Our research has shown that most bowlers are not serious about pursuing bowling as a sport, but rather are people who come together to socialize with their friends and unwind while bowling. So, if adult bowlers are one of the target markets for your expansion, a grill and lounge might be the best choice. For one bowling center remodel and expansion our company designed, we incorporated a grill, lounge and game room in the expansion. But rather than have games that would appeal to teenagers who where not the focus, the lounge included upscale billiards, electronic darts, shuffle board, and sports oriented games and was designed to convert into a small night club at night. Unlike the typical pool hall, the games area was given an upscale treatment and designed so couples and small groups could sit at bar height tables and chairs and eat, drink and socialize while they played. With a careful selection of design theme and atmosphere, during the day, the grill also appealed to the family market.

When it comes to adding new customers, the easiest to attract to a MWR bowling center are the families of existing bowlers. With expansion, bowling can serve as one of the anchors for a family entertainment center. This means adding attractions that also appeal to children, sometimes as young as two years old, and parents accompanying their children. Additional attractions can include rides such as bumper cars, games with a multi-generational appeal such as skeeball and redemption games, and an area specifically designed for younger children which often includes soft modular play equipment and other developmentally appropriate play that can include edutainment. Outdoor activities can also be added to overcome the slump in bowling during the good weather season.

Attracting families with children also opens the birthday party market. With a dedicated birthday party area, it is not unusual for children's centers to host from 75 to 120 birthday parties per week. The children's area will also attract homemakers (non-working parents) to bring their preschool children during non-peak weekdays. The children's area can also be used to host the preschool children of weekday woman's leagues. With added activities, the bowling center also becomes attractive for teenage oriented rock-and-bowl and overnight sleep-ins.

In the previously mentioned remodel and expansion that our company designed, in addition to the adult oriented grill, lounge and game area, we designed a family entertainment area that included a separate children's edutainment area. That center now not only offers its core adult bowlers more options, but now attracts those bowlers to return with their families. Its a win, win situation for everyone. The original bowlers are happier, as more of their leisure needs are being served, bowlers' families now have new leisure opportunities and the facility has increased business.

There is no generic formula that will work for every bowling center. Every installation's market, every group of customers is different. The mix, size, design, and operations must be targeted to the specific target groups, their needs, and the facility's strategic objectives. Your existing customer base has to be examined and carefully factored in the formula, and all possible competition, not just other bowling centers, has to be examined carefully.

With the right planning and design, your MWR bowling center can be the start of something much bigger that will delight existing bowlers and meet the needs of your installation's population of families as well.