Start a bowling alley by following these 9 steps:
You have found the perfect business idea, and now you are ready to take the next step. There is more to starting a business than just registering it with the state. We have put together this simple step guide to starting your bowling alley. These steps will ensure that your new business is well planned out, registered properly and legally compliant.
STEP 1: Plan your Business
A clear plan is essential for success as an entrepreneur. It will help you map out the specifics of your business and discover some unknowns. A few important topics to consider are:
- What are the startup and ongoing costs?
- Who is your target market?
- How long it will take you to break even?
- What will you name your business?
Luckily we have done a lot of this research for you.
What are the costs involved in opening a bowling alley?
As is the case with most businesses, location is key to success. For a bowling alley, a large amount of space is needed, just for the lanes and bowling equipment alone. Adding additional services and features will take careful planning and facility management. Building from the ground up will add to overall costs considerably. Finding an existing alley or structure to renovate will save some. Franchising is also a great option, as the planning and building will be a process between you and an experienced team.
Rental on an appropriate space can range from $4,000 to $10,000, depending on the number of lanes and other entertainment options. It’s advised that you consider the population density of your area to determine the number of lanes needed. For example, a population of 10,000 in a five mile radius would need approximately 5 lanes.
Once you have secured a location, the additional costs for equipment can range between $18,000 to $45,000. Some cost variation will occur, depending on if the equipment is used or new. Additional costs may include:
- Re-designing the space, if it was not a bowling alley previously. Much of the space will be taken up by the lanes and equipment. Additional space should be planned for other activities and expansions or remodels, in the future.
- A commercial kitchen and bar set-up, if offering these services. Newer bowling alleys are offering high-end food and drinks, in an attempt to raise the status of the traditional bowling experience.
- Arcade and pinball games, ping pong tables, pool tables, dart boards, or any other additional entertainment. Some newer alleys are even offering batting cages or putt golf, as an all-inclusive entertainment design.
- Rental shoes, balls, lockers, and bowling accessories.
- Music and intercom systems, lighting, and seating
- Marketing plans
- Website or social media presence
What are the ongoing expenses for a bowling alley?
Regular maintenance of the alleys, balls, shoes, and machinery, as well as any other entertainment systems on site, will be your primary expense. Factor in food and beverage costs, if that is part of your operation. These costs will fluctuate, depending on the business size and scope, but $3,500 to $5,000 is a fair estimate for monthly expenses. Payroll costs vary, depending upon the area and how many employees you have on staff.
Who is the target market?
Customers will range in age and experience level. Many will simply want to bowl, whereas some will take advantage of the various other attractions. Currently, bowling alleys are seeing a resurgence in popularity from a white-collar crowd, who want a wide range of amenities made available, including food, drinks, other arcade-style games, and even karaoke.
How does a bowling alley make money?
A bowling alley makes its money from the hourly rental fees on shoes, balls, and lanes. There can also be revenue generated from the use of other entertainment and food services. This will vary, depending on what your alley provides. Many bowling alleys also offer deals for parties or special events. Depending on the scope of your food and beverage department, this area may also generate a sizable amount of revenue.
How much can you charge customers?
The average cost per game in the U.S. is approximately $2.00. Factor in shoe rental and some food or drink sales, and a customer could spend anywhere between $15 and $50 per visit. Including other entertainment options will only increase your earning potential.
How much profit can a bowling alley make?
The profitability of a bowling alley will depend on your demographics and additional services you offer. Once you have covered your start-up expenses, much of the money will be spent on preventative maintenance, supplies, and payroll. Non-league revenue has been on the rise more recently amongst national bowling alleys, with almost one-third of the money coming from non-bowling activities. Annually, a successful bowling alley/entertainment complex can generate upwards of $300,000.
How can you make your business more profitable?
As we have mentioned above, a successful bowling alley business will be wise to offer multiple options for entertainment, other than just bowling.
- Food and drinks can constitute a good percentage of your revenue. Give options which appeal to all ages and tastes.
- Create an environment which attracts more than just bowlers. Many modern bowling alleys are multifaceted in their approach to entertainment, which keeps customers coming back.
- Karaoke nights may be great marketing tools for the other-than-bowling crowd.
- Have special theme nights and offer price specials for the less busy hours of operation. Midnight bowl specials on weekends, for example, have proven very successful.
- Advertise for birthday parties and social or business gatherings.
- Sell balls, shoes, and bags, and offer embroidery services for league shirts and bags. Capture the extra revenue while the customer is at your establishment.
- Offering instructional classes in bowling can also be a great way to grow a business, as well as offering league play nights. This kind of regular crowd will help attract other customers.
- Rent out nights for other than bowling events, if you have the space in your building.
What will you name your business?
Choosing the right name is very important. We recommend checking if the business name you choose is available as a web domain and securing it early so no one else can take it.
After registering a domain name, consider setting up a professional email account (@yourcompany.com). Google's G Suite offers a business email service that comes with other useful tools, including word processing, spreadsheets, and more. Try it for free
STEP 2: Form a legal entity
Establishing a legal business entity such as an LLC prevents you from being personally liable if your bowling alley is sued. There are many business structures to choose from including: Corporations, LLC's, and DBA's.
You should also consider using a registered agent service to help protect your privacy and stay compliant.
For most small businesses forming an LLC is a great option, but if you still want to weigh all your options check our our article, What Structure Should I Choose for My Business?
STEP 3: Register for taxes
You will need to register for a variety of state and federal taxes before you can open for business.
In order to register for taxes you will need to apply for an EIN. It's really easy and free!
You can acquire your EIN for free through the IRS website, via fax, or by mail. If you would like to learn more about EINs and how they can benefit your LLC, read our article, What is an EIN?.
STEP 4: Open a business bank account & credit card
Using dedicated business banking and credit accounts is essential for personal asset protection.
When your personal and business accounts are mixed, your personal assets (your home, car, and other valuables) are at risk in the event your business is sued. In business law, this is referred to as piercing your corporate veil.
Open a business bank account
- This separates your personal assets from your company's assets, which is necessary for personal asset protection.
- It also makes accounting and tax filing easier.
Get a business credit card
- This helps you separate personal and business expenses by putting your business' expenses all in one place.
- It also builds your company's credit history, which can be useful to raise money and investment later on.
STEP 5: Set up business accounting
Recording your various expenses and sources of income is critical to understanding the financial performance of your business. Keeping accurate and detailed accounts also greatly simplifies your annual tax filing.
STEP 6: Obtain necessary permits and licenses
Failure to acquire necessary permits and licenses can result in hefty fines, or even cause your business to be shut down.
State & Local Business Licensing Requirements
Certain state permits and licenses may be needed to operate a Bowling Alley business. Learn more about licensing requirements in your state by visiting SBA’s reference to state licenses and permits.
In addition, certain local licensing or regulatory requirements may apply. For more information about local licenses and permits:
- Check with your town, city or county clerk’s office.
Get assistance from one of the local associations listed in US Small Business Associations directory of local business resources.
Most businesses are required to collect sales tax on the goods or services they provide. To learn more about how sales tax will affect your business, read our article, Sales Tax for Small Businesses.
Certificate of Occupancy
A bowling business is generally run out of a large building. Businesses operating out of a physical location typically require a Certificate of Occupancy (CO). A CO confirms that all building codes, zoning laws and government regulations have been met.
If you plan to lease a location:
- It is generally the landlord’s responsibility to obtain a CO.
- Before leasing, confirm that your landlord has or can obtain a valid CO that is applicable to a bowling alley business.
- After a major renovation, a new CO often needs to be issued. If your place of business will be renovated before opening, it is recommended to include language in your lease agreement stating that lease payments will not commence until a valid CO is issued.
- If you plan to purchase or build a location:
- You will be responsible for obtaining a valid CO from a local government authority.
- Review all building codes and zoning requirements for your business’ location to ensure your bowling alley business will be in compliance and able to obtain a CO.
In order to play music in a business setting, permission must be acquired from the composer or license holder. Typically, it is possible to obtain a “blanket” license allowing a businesses to play music owned by a large catalog of artists and recording studios. Such licenses can be obtained from Performance Rights Organizations, such as ASCAP or BMI. Learn more about music licensing requirements.
STEP 7: Get Business Insurance
Insurance is highly recommended for all business owners. If you hire employees, workers compensation insurance may be a legal requirement in your state.
STEP 8: Define your brand
Your brand is what your company stands for, as well as how your business is perceived by the public. A strong brand will help your business stand out from competitors.
How to promote & market a bowling alley
Initially, you will want to focus on families and individuals who are looking for multiple entertainment options, with bowling being the main draw. You will be wise to contact any bowling leagues in the area to advertise your business as a new and modern option. Some league teams will be pleased to have other options in the area, as some like to claim local lanes as their “home turf” in matches with other league teams.
As your business’ reputation grows, market to anyone interested in wholesome, family fun. Many league bowlers are now bringing their families to the lanes, as other entertainment options become more readily available. The families will, in turn, start frequenting your establishment for all of your offered amenities. This is also the time to reach out to social, school, or church groups, who are looking for exciting meet up locations. Offer your group specials and become a destination for all kinds of parties and events.
A new and emerging group of casual bowlers is also on the rise. These 30-somethings are looking for food, drinks, and entertainment in a setting which is clean and modern, yet not too upscale to feel uncomfortable or stuffy. These entertainment and efficiency enthusiasts see the bowling alley complex as a way to get all of their evening fun in one tidy package under a single roof.
Finally, network with other alley owners across the country and world. Find out what’s working and what needs adjustments through other entrepreneurs. Visit The National Bowling Association or The Bowling Proprietor’s Association of America for more information about these industry organizations.
Recommended: Get started with local advertising for your business with a $300 credit from Yelp.
How to keep customers coming back
Since bowling is a well-known and popular sport, much of your marketing and retention efforts will be directed towards creating an enjoyable experience for more than just bowling fans. Offer specials for bowlers and a variety of other entertainment for the more casual bowling crowd. If you’re offering food, consider what regional eats are most popular. Finally, make sure the customer knows you care. Ask your customers what they like or would like to see change. Involving the customer is a great way for the public to become invested in their pastimes and your business.
STEP 9: Establish your Web Presence
A business website allows customers to learn more about your company and the products or services you offer. You can also use social media to attract new clients or customers.
Start A Bowling Alley In Your State
Select your state below for an in-depth guide on completing each of these steps in your home state.
Is this Business Right For You?
If you enjoy bowling, interacting with customers, and are well-versed in the business of entertainment, a bowling alley can be a great opportunity. Customers are looking for a clean, family-friendly environment, where they can find lots of entertainment options. This is just what a bowling alley can provide. Your professionalism, attention to detail, and positive personality will be a driving force in the success of the business.
What happens during a typical day at a bowling alley?
Bowling alleys are not just for bowling anymore. Most successful lanes offer expanding varieties of entertainment and food services. Therefore, day-to-day activities can include a number of tasks not entirely related to the sport of bowling, depending on the specifics of the location.
Tasks or duties can include, but are not limited to:
- Answering and returning calls for lane rentals and party space rentals.
- Cleaning and maintenance of rental shoes, balls, and lanes.
- Maintaining pinsetter systems and ball return tracks.
- Regularly contacting equipment vendors for both bowling and any other entertainment equipment, such as arcade games, pinball machines, food service, pool tables, or karaoke machines.
- Meeting and building relations with bowling league organizers.
- Marketing for the business and planning promotions or related business strategies
- Organizing and inventorying bar and food supplies
- Hiring, training, and communicating with employees to ensure great customer service and experience.
Administrative or management duties, such as paying bills, performing safety checks, ordering supplies, and calling in maintenance will also fill your days. It is advisable, once the business is up and running successfully, to hire a person specifically for managing these aspects of the business.
What are some skills and experiences that will help you build a successful bowling alley?
In today’s competitive entertainment market, you will be wise to offer a niche service that is missing for your particular area. The bowling alley business is different than it has been in the past, yet is still highly profitable. Get to know your potential clientele and what they are looking for in family and personal entertainment. For your dedicated bowlers, you will want to offer services, such as shoe repair, custom ball orders, and bowling related equipment. Make sure your bowling customers know they are top priority. Then, offer other services which draw crossover customers. These customers may come for bowling initially, but return for other attractions. Conduct research to see what other entertainment and services will draw additional customers
What is the growth potential for a bowling alley?
Bowling alleys have held their popularity for decades and are still regular destinations for fun seekers. Although league bowling is not as popular as it once was, many working professionals are choosing to frequent alleys, which have numerous options for entertainment. If your alley can provide options for food and drinks as well, you will find a greater market share passing through your doors. There are also numerous franchising opportunities for bowling alley/indoor entertainment multiplexes. When a customer feels they have an all in one package for their entertainment, they will often return and pass the good word amongst their friends and colleagues. Make sure you research the levels of competition currently in play in your area.
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Take the Next Step
Find a business mentor
One of the greatest resources an entrepreneur can have is quality mentorship. As you start planning your business, connect with a free business resource near you to get the help you need.
Having a support network in place to turn to during tough times is a major factor of success for new business owners.
Resources to Help Women in Business
There are many resources out there specifically for women entrepreneurs. We’ve gathered necessary and useful information to help you succeed both professionally and personally:
If you’re a woman looking for some guidance in entrepreneurship, check out this great new series Women in Business created by the women of our partner Startup Savant.
What are some insider tips for jump starting a bowling alley?
Here are some tips from successful bowling alley entrepreneurs:
- Strive to keep your establishment clean and welcoming. You’re looking to attract all types of customers and appearance goes a long way.
- A well-lit parking lot and strictly enforced rules are also important.
- Make your inside environment family-friendly. The music should be appropriate and patrons should be given helpful customer service at all times.
- Preventative maintenance is critical to make sure your alley is up and running smoothly. You will save money this way in the long run.
- Keep aware of industry trends and changes in the needs and wants of your customers. Small, affordable changes, which represent current societal trends can make a big difference in the public perception of your business.
- Make the rules of your establishment clear and easy to follow. Enforce the rules and you’ll maintain the reputation of your establishment
How and when to build a team
You will need an initial start-up team for the business to get going. Consider hiring those who have customer service experience and are mechanically capable, as they may be called on to do minor repairs or maintenance, in addition to talking to the public. If you are buying into a franchise, there may be a team in place to help with the setup and opening. If you are starting independently, choose employees who demonstrate the ability to manage and work with others. Your team won’t be very large to begin with, so hiring competent and responsible employees is critical.