You can't sit and wait for customers to walk through the door, says John LaSpina, president of Maple Family Bowling Centers, a 52-year-old family business that owns bowling alleys in Coram, Farmingdale, Rockville Centre, Flushing and Brooklyn.
He's faced decades of fierce competition, tenfold insurance rate hikes, anti-smoking laws and video games that lured kids away from bowling.
LaSpina adapted by increasing marketing efforts and transforming the game he loves. He courted parents by building toddler-sized lanes with ramps to push the balls down, and added glow-in-the-dark bowling. He built a portable lane to lure outside fairgoers back to the game.
LaSpina, 63, even hired a fundraising staffer and has hosted events that raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities (including more than $40,000 for the Bowlers to Veterans Link, which helps veterans and active military enjoy morale-lifting recreational and therapeutic programs), and holds annual scholarship championship bowls in his father's memory.
What's an effective way to market bowling?
We do something very grassroots. We'll give a hundred stores within a mile of [each location] their own thousand free game cards. And they'll say "Compliments of Delta Dry Cleaners, have one free game at Rockville Centre Lanes," or Maple Lanes, or wherever. And it's really guerrilla marketing at its best. Every mom will collect those cards, the kids will come to bowl three games with a free one . . . For 40 stores, we'll spend $4,500, and we'll make $20,000.
You've owned 10 bowling alleys. How do you know when to sell?
A bowling center will do 10,000 games a lane bed per year, at $5 average price . . . You have to be able to see a positive future. If there are too many challenges . . . if you know what you're earning on your real estate and then you see what it's worth for an alternate use, if it's way out of balance, it's time to go.
What's the best way to keep your business alive?
Surround myself with young-thinking people . . . and [create] price points that are family-friendly. People like clean places that are friendly, people like to be remembered and recognized, so we spend a lot of time on the customer-service side. I insist that the staff go and interact with those customers . . . If you make that connection with people, they'll always come through for you. I will ask customers what they think of ideas for promotions, and they're like my board of directors -- they'll give me thumbs up or thumbs down.
What are your hobbies?
I'm all about family and friends. . . . I love the beach . . . and I love to bowl. It's kind of crazy. I'm at it all day long . . . but I love to bowl.
Name. John LaSpina, president of Maple Family Bowling Centers.
What it does. Own and operate five bowling centers on Long Island, in Queens and Brooklyn, each with food and beverage operations, pro shops and video games.
Employees. About 100 full time; 150 part time.
Roles they play. Mechanic-maintenance staff, customer-service providers, food and beverage, bookkeepers, sales and marketing and managers.
Estimated revenue. $11.5 million to $12 million.