At a time when families are taking more domestic holidays and local day trips, bowling has proved to be a successful way for operators to ride the economic storm. Jenni Shuttleworth takes a look at why the bowling sector continues to remain resilient to recession and how bowling alleys could be the location of choice for coin-op machines

Traditionally, bowling has always been a popular form of entertainment. From the early 20th century when bowling as we know it today first began to develop, to the 1950s when competitive bowling began to grow in popularity, to the present day, bowling has always been a global game for both serious and casual players of all ages.

Now however, at a time when most industries are suffering economically, the recession appears to be boding well for the bowling world. It is amid such gloomy financial spells that many people find themselves foregoing high ticket items – white goods, holidays, cars – yet unwilling to give up the small luxuries and leisure fun spends that don’t break the bank.

Shane Wells is operations manager of Bowlplex, a family run business that was established in 1984 and currently has 18 locations across the UK. He believes that bowling and leisure spend has remained more resilient than other industries. “More people are holidaying in the UK and therefore more customers are coming through our doors,” he said.

This attitude is being echoed not just in the UK, but all over the world and a number of manufacturers agreed that they too believe bowling to be faring well under the current economic climate.

QubicaAMF is a global manufacturer of bowling and amusement products, as well as having its own bowling locations, Senior vice president of marketing at QubicaAMF,  Emanuele Govoni, told InterGame: “During recession, disposable incomes are less and people tend to continue to bowl because it is convenient and affordable. They may travel and eat out less, but seem to continue to find enough money to continue to go bowling.”

Operations director for UK-based TenPin Ltd Graham Blackwell told InterGame that although he does not believe bowling to be recession proof, he feels that it still manages to encourage people to part with their money.

“Bowling is a pastime that can be enjoyed by families, couples, groups or individuals, so in effect, everybody. I feel this is why we tend to fare better than most when it comes to spending that leisure pound.”

Bowling is a proven attraction and entertainment option that appeals to all - children, teenagers, adults, families, senior citizens – and can be enjoyed together, with hundreds of millions of people bowling worldwide every year. This strong, global participation and customer base perhaps provides good protection to bowling investments.

Of course, the frequency of visits from customers are far less than that of the weekly visit to the local pub or restaurant as bowling is demed more of an organised visit.

TenPin’s Blackwell commented: “We tend to see our customers on the three or four times a year they visit. I feel the loss, although difficult to measure, is more around the walk-in customer or spur of the moment visit as people are not in so much of a hurry to spend the change they have in their pocket in the current financial climate.”

Repeat business is key

In order to keep attracting customers into bowling centres, encourage them to spend once in the locations and keep them coming back, a location must adhere to customers’ needs and to industry trends. Switch Bowling’s marketing manager Cynthia Winterhalter enforced this importance to InterGame.

“In principle, it is true to say that bowling is resilient to recession, but, there is a but! The bowling centre itself needs to be modern, attractive, offer good service and learn to adapt its price offerings. During a recession, people take care of their money; they may not take a holiday and prefer spending their time locally, so the little money they have for their leisure needs to be spent on quality entertainment.”

Based in Italy, bowling operator Ciccotti has decided to go back in time with the décor of its bowling centres. Standing out from other locations, the group has given its bowling centres a 70s theme with the use of black and white retro photographs, original 70s furniture, optic style motifs and atmospheric lighting effects.

Talking about the reasons behind this approach, a spokesperson from Ciccotti said: “Among our overriding goals was establishing a connection with the facility’s origins. Born as part of a 70s development, we have put part of its original furniture back to use, providing context to what is otherwise designed and intended as a new facility.”

Bowling alleys are reaching out to customers and enticing them by targeting them directly with incentives such as OAP bowling mornings and family play time, or by offering food offers and discounted game rates during usual downtime. All helping to attract more business, especially when money is universally tight.

Bowling operators themselves believe that the position of a bowling centre plays a vital role in the success of the business. Bowlplex’s Wells told InterGame that a good catchment number within 15 minutes, drive time, good access to the site and ample parking are key when it comes to making a bowling location successful.

TenPin’s Blackwell agrees: “Good public transport, parking, surrounding leisure attractions such as a cinema and restaurants, ease of access from all routes within a town or city and appropriate demographics go towards making a location a success.”

Blackwell went on to talk about keeping a customer happy once they are in the door. “A clean and inviting environment, tasteful yet practical décor, modern lighting and sound systems are all conducive to creating the right atmosphere and the longevity of a customer’s stay.”

Brunswick owns and operates bowling and FECs in North America. It’s locations tend to consist of between 24-82 bowling lanes, a small arcade, billiards, a snack bar and lounge.

Sue Schory, told InterGame: “A trend with today’s bowling centres is to add new or upgraded venues, including larger arcades or game rooms, sports bars and restaurants, upscale billiards rooms, modern meeting and party rooms and new entertanment options such as laser tag, bumper cars or go karts.”

A happy relationship with coin-op

A long-standing and successful addition to bowling locations is that of amusement machines, which can open up the opportunities available to bowling centres even further. Typically, a bowling location will house cranes, pushers, video games, novelty machines and sports games such as table soccer and air hockey.

Cosmic Video is a distributor of amusement machines. John Farrington from the company told InterGame that bowling alleys and amusement machines complement each other. “One introduces the player to the other,” he said. “Bowling centres are always looking for that added attraction and they can take a larger range of games than a normal arcade.”

Bowlplex owns and operates virtually all of its coin-op equipment including video, redemption, cranes, pusher’s SWPs, vending, pool tables and children’s rides. “Video games account for around for 60 per cent of all our coin-operated spend and continue to offer a good return if you buy wisely,” Bowlplex’s Wells told InterGame.

“Our Category C AWP income has decreased considerably over the past few years, our industry is at a huge disadvantage in comparison with casinos, bookies, bingo, etc,” he said.

The selection of coin-op machines in a bowling centre will determine the range of customers it attracts. Skill games will probably attract more teenagers. Driving and riding will attract teenagers and young male adults, usually in groups. Children’s games will attract families, most likely at the weekend.

Sega’s video games have long been a popular choice of machine in bowling centres, especially with 18-44 year-old males. Sega’s Justin Burke told InterGame: “The main genre of machine we put in a bowling site is video. We do some redemption but a lot of bowling sites don’t do redemption, so by default you’re always going to supply more video into bowling locations. Video and bowls is a good marriage. It just makes sense.”

According to Konami, you would be hard pushed to find a bowling location that didn’t contain at least one of the company’s Dancing Stage machines. The franchise has performed consistently well in bowling locations for over 10 years, attracting younger female players in a predominantly male-dominated area.

Mike Green from the company spoke to InterGame: “I think bowling alleys and amusement machines complement each other beautifully. Both industries have essentially the same target market in children and young adults. The two are not mutually exclusive and I would be surprised if a patron went bowling and didn’t also play any amusement machines.”

However, for Bay Tek Games there are still opportunities for bowling centres to make redemption work and the manufacturer works closely with several bowling publications.

“Many centres can benefit by adding redemption to their centres and that is a win-win for both the bowling centre and the coin-op industry. We need to continue to educate and promote the benefits of what amusement equipment can do for a bowling alley,” said Bay Tek’s Holly Meidl.

“More families are interested in going bowling now because of the large amount of amusement being offered in one place. When there is more to do in a location, you attract a wider audience.

"Corporate parties, banquets, fundraisers, church outings, etc, can all be held at a bowling centre that offers more than just bowling. Food, games and fun are all essential. Bowling is a great market for the coin-op industry,” added Meidl.

A vital location?

It is difficult to say whether or not the coin-op machines themselves attract different demographics to bowling alleys, but bowling centres provide a wider spread of amusement machines, allowing manufacturers and operators to reach potential players that wouldn’t necessarily attend a typical amusement arcade.

VDW’s Laurent Van De Wege told InterGame: “Amusement machines bring distraction and extra amusement to the already popular game of bowling. It’s a question of amusement mix. People are getting used to having everything everywhere. Bowling areas are no exception.”

LAI Games’ chief executive officer Alan Freimuth believes that bowling centres are a vital location base for coin-op machines. “As consumers see their available time for recreation continually eroded, they’re seeking all-in-one destinations that have something for everyone.

"The local bowling centre can provide a great entertainment value for families by increasing the variety of available entertainment categories on site,” he said.

More and more, people are looking for an overall entertainment experience that can’t be duplicated at home. Today’s bowling centres are able to provide that experience by offering games, food, drinks, party rooms and additional enteratinment options, not just bowling.

LAI’s Freimuth talked to InterGame about the future of bowling and coin-op. “The all in one entertainment centre represents a significant place in the future of out of home recreation. Locations that offer local access and appeal to the widest demographic will have the best chance of succeeding during these tough economic times and beyond.

"An increasing number of bowling centres are taking out lanes to incorporate coin-op arcades and fun centres. The marriage of coin-op to bowling is one that will flourish and prosper for years to come.”

Overall, amusement machines enhance the entertainment experience, increase the perceived entertainment value and appeal of the destination to a much wider demographic – well beyond the traditional league bowlers. It seems that bowling’s ability to encompass all – people and products – will continue to attract business throughout tricky times and beyond.