Bowling centers add spare attractions

FAIR LANES ROLLS OUT NEW IMAGE

December 13, 1991|By Peter H. Frank

Bowling.

Just saying the word brings a flood of images -- rented shoes, frayed carpets, bad lighting and maybe some others that are not quite so flattering.

But Fair Lanes Inc. is betting millions it can change that.

The Hunt Valley-based company, one of the nation's largest chains of bowling centers, is launching a sweeping overhaul of the look, feel and food for which bowling alleys have become so well known over the past few decades. The company will create, it says, bowling for the '90s.

"The problem is the bowling center that you remember from the 1940s and '50s still looks the same today, but it's 40 years older," said William J. Quigley, vice president of marketing at the privately held company.

Two new versions have just been unveiled, offering "occasionals" -- facilities that could be used for special occasions, such as birthday parties.

Fun Time Pizza -- a combination indoor arcade and food parlor designed for families -- was added as part of a $1.2 million occasional at the Fair Lanes bowling center in Timonium.

Using an analogous idea with billiard tables and a bar to appeal to adults, Baltimore Billiards was attached to the side of the Fair Lanes in Linthicum.

A third center in Woodlawn will soon be serving food from Taco Bell and I Can't Believe It's Yogurt.

And three centers in Atlanta recently added a Bleachers Sports Bar and Billiards.

Before it's done, Fair Lanes said, these or similar changes are expected at the 106 other centers it owns nationwide.

"We think, clearly, that as the industry has matured over the last 50 years, there's a real opportunity to reposition our business," said Stephen E. Carley, president and chief executive, who joined Fair Lanes two years ago after stints at PepsiCo and Taco Bell.

The aim of these upgrades, Mr. Carley said, is to capitalize on the popularity of the sport of bowling while recognizing that, though the game still attracts, the accouterments of the alleys might not.

More than 70 million people bowled last year, according to the American Bowling Congress, a national trade group. But despite the strong showing, the overall number has dwindled in recent years.

According to the association, the number of centers in the

United States also has declined, falling by more than 1,000 over the past decade, to about 7,500.

Fair Lanes decided that the standard combination of 32 lanes, snack counter and video games that played so well to the hard-core bowler needed a change.

The company, which has 4,000 employees, including 800 in the Baltimore area, has enjoyed growth over each of the past 26 years, Mr. Carley said. The company, which was taken private in 1985, should approach $125 million in revenue this year. And, though he declined to disclose the company's earnings or cash flow, Mr. Carley said there was more than enough to pay off the debt taken on in the buyout.

By pouring roughly $100 million into the occasional plan, Fair Lanes is hoping it can stem the sport's decline by turning its bowling centers into broader entertainment complexes, said Mr. Quigley, who joined the company recently after serving as president of Vestron Pictures.

"We think there's a tremendous opportunity for us to reposition what was a bowling alley into a family entertainment center," Mr. Carley said.

Yesterday morning, in a visit to Fun Time Pizza, Joyce Mikina and her 4 1/2 -year-old son, Mark, found just that. "It's colorful, nice and has an exciting sound to it," said Ms. Mikina, who, with a few other mothers, stopped by after Bible class to let their children eat pizza and play some games.

Next door, however, not all the customers were so impressed with the million-dollar occasional.

Playing Lane 2 in the Padonia Park Bowling League, Althea Phillips, a member of the Flyin' Ducks, said about the improvements: "So far, it really hasn't bothered us."

But her teammates didn't agree.

Not only did the new design leave them without shelves, but the birthday parties on Sundays were crowding them out of their lanes. And for some reason, they added, the lanes are now too bright. Asked if they replaced the doors, June Hellmann simply muttered: "I think they just cleaned the windows."

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