This content was originally published in RePlay Magazine.

Bowl Expo a Showcase and an Opportunity

It’s a special time of year for those of us in the arcade and FEC world who are heavily involved in bowling. Bowl Expo is a big deal and the 2023 show runs June 25-29 in Orlando, Florida, at the convention center.

Back in 1994, I remember seeing my friend Bill Reitzig’s Sports Plus facility in Lake Grove, N.Y., which combined 50,000 sq. ft. of FEC with 48 lanes of bowling. I had the privilege of working with the ownership there from 1998-2001 and got to see the bowling/FEC dynamic up close.

Others in both the bowling and in the arcade/FEC worlds also saw the promise and the evolution began, albeit slowly at first. My first Bowl Expo was in 2005 or so. Back then, there was only one vendor from our world (though I did see a few familiar faces doing recon). Fast forward to today and I count 57 amusement-related exhibitors out of the 200+ total companies taking booth space at the show.

In addition to the tradeshow, amusements will also be prominent in the education programming at Bowl Expo. My partner and son, Howard, and I are privileged to present an arcade/FEC seminar at the show, called “Game On! Opportunities to Grow Arcade Revenue.” Our session will be held on Tuesday, June 27, from 9 to 10:15 a.m.

The Bowling/FEC Marriage Endures

So, just why is this marriage so strong? Several factors have converged to make the Bowling Entertainment Center (BEC) an entertainment centerpiece for so many communities in the U.S. and throughout the world.

• Attraction Power, Bowling: Bowling has two main audience segments. There are the serious, competitive bowlers who play in leagues and there are casual bowlers who do it because it’s such a fun, social activity. For many years, the competitive bowler dominated but by the 1990s, that had shifted and we saw a decline in leagues. Bowling proprietors had all that lane capacity and started to focus more on the casual bowler. As more lanes were available for that audience, word spread and more people discovered how much fun it is to bowl with family and friends.

• Attraction Power, Arcade and FEC: Many bowling centers had arcade games ranging from a few on the concourse to actual arcades. In general, they were considered a sideline, an adjunct to the main business. As the shift from league to casual proceeded, proprietors began to look at amusements with fresh eyes. The arcade world woke up to the bowling world’s venue potential and it snowballed from there.

• Food and Beverage: As this evolution matured, one other thing became clear: there was great potential for an improved bar and restaurant in the bowling center. One early bowling client described their food and beverage operation to me as “cardboard pizza and wrinkled hot dogs!” Bowl­ing’s appeal to the casual bowler was growing, but those new bowlers tended to stop at Applebee’s before or after bowling. The industry evolved and enhanced F&B has become a major contributor.

• Demographics: I call the present time the “Golden Age of the FEC” because of a perfect storm in audience attraction. We now entertain three generations. Check it out – there are a lot of white-haired folks playing our games alongside 50-year-olds who grew up playing, Millennials with young families and younger kids finding bowling entertainment centers as mainstream entertainment.

• Wait Times/Dayparts: BECs appeal to families as a group but also to the individual members of the family. That allows them to trade in multiple day parts, a real key to the success of the business model. Big-box FECs always struggled to pay seven-day rent on a weekend business. BECs can appeal to senior leagues on winter weekdays, competitive bowling leagues (yes, they’re still a factor!) weekdays in season, corporate business on other weekday evenings, Mom’s wine and bowling leagues weekday evenings, Millennial and Gen Z couples’ late-night weekends and, oh yes, families together on weekends.

• Attraction Power, Group and Corporate: The best BEC operators know the power of corporate and other group business. The Millennial and Gen Z guest is the office manager and worker in today’s economy. Companies are looking for fun ways to appeal to those employees and they have a budget to do that in BECs. The smart operators invest in reaching that audience and dazzling them when they show up.

• New Formats: In recent years, there have been two developments in bowling that portend well for the future of the marriage with FEC: string machines and duckpin social. String machines are those where the pins are on strings, which operate at a lower cost compared to automated pin setters, and they are also much easier and cheaper to maintain. They aren’t suitable (at least on their own) for facilities where leagues are significant but for others, they are fabulous. In addition to maintenance efficiency, they take up much less space. Duckpin is an even smaller-footprint string machine that plays with smaller balls, appealing to another section of the audience. Don’t confuse duckpin with mini-bowling, which I call “glorified Skee-Ball.” Duckpin is a much more sophisticated experience with its own high level of attraction power.

We certainly look forward to seeing our bowling entertainment clients at Bowl Expo. Pinnacle will be exhibiting in Booth 561. Stop by and say hello!

George McAuliffe has helped hundreds of businesses large and small develop and execute arcades and FECs. He has personally operated family entertainment centers from 2,000 to 150,000 square feet as a corporate executive, entrepreneur and consultant. He is the owner, with his partner and son Howard, of Pinnacle Entertainment Group.

George lives on the Jersey Shore with his wife, Julie. They have three sons, two daughters-in-law and a grandson.

Learn more about Pinnacle or contact George at [email protected]; 314-422-7197.