Dismal revenues, ‘irate’ anti-maskers highlight rough 2020 for Northern Nevada bowling businesses
A year ago, the rumble of bowling balls spinning down wooden lanes and the crack of the heavy spheres crashing into pins were a constant inside the Coconut Bowl at Wild Island in Sparks. Simply put, the 40-lane bowling alley was on a roll.
“Last year was a record year for us,” said Craig Buster, general manager of the Coconut Bowl, which saw its year-over-year revenue jump 32% in 2019. “Every single month was a record. It was great.”
Since the coronavirus pandemic swept in this spring, however, it’s been a much different story for Coconut Bowl, which also houses a go-kart track, laser tag arena and arcade.
Not only is the Sparks-based bowling alley dealing with sales in the gutter, it’s dealing with myriad “irate customers” over COVID-19 restrictions, particularly the center’s mask policy, Buster said.
“I’ve been punched, I’ve been spit on, I’ve been pushed. I got called every name in the book … on a Sunday. I’ve had grandmothers screaming in my face,” Buster told the NNBW this month. “I’ve been doing this for 29 years and this year has been the hardest by far.”
Like many Silver State businesses, Coconut Bowl shut down its lanes on March 17 after Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a stay-at-home order.
On June 1, the alley reopened with some social-distancing restrictions — wearing a mask was not one of them — and it saw a 25% drop in business compared to June 2019, said Buster, adding: “We were OK with that.”
By July, however, Coconut Bowl — in compliance with Gov. Sisolak’s directive — made masks mandatory.
“Then our business went down about 50%,” said Buster, pointing to their mask policy as the primary reason. “We’ve been extremely strict with our mask enforcement, and actually bring in staff to do what we call their ‘MP’ shifts — mask patrol. All they do is walk around and tell people to put their mask on. Or if they’re wearing it as a chin diaper, they tell them to put it on properly.
“We look at our business like we’re a casino, and in the state of Nevada they’ve been very strict with all their protocols, and we’ve done the same.”
DECLINE IN CUSTOMERS
Frontier Fun Center in Fernley, which also has a firm mask policy, is dealing with at least one “issue” a week with a bowler who refuses to wear a mask, owner Dean Johnson told the NNBW.
In the summer and early fall, he said the business was dealing with as many as six incidents per week.
“We just started telling those people that they can’t come in, and they were very upset,” Johnson said. “The hardest part is dealing with the customers who are upset. We just want everybody to be on the same level, and if they don’t want to wear a mask, they can go to another bowling center. It’s going to be easier for me and my staff to just make sure that people are following the rules.”
Between losing customers to mask policies and losing business due to state-mandated capacity restrictions, Frontier Fun Center saw its revenue drop 40% over the summer months and about 30% in the fall, Johnson said. In all, the alley’s year-over-year revenue is down about 20%, he added.
“The reason it’s only down 20% is that our lounge and bar are doing really well,” said Johnson, citing peoples’ desires to get out and socialize fueling demand.
The lack of customers on the lanes, however, continues to concern Johnson. He noted that Frontier Fun Center has also seen a “huge decline” in teenagers, an age group that filled the alley on weekends before COVID.
“We used to have quite a few kids come in on Friday and Saturday nights, and we’re not seeing that anymore, whether that’s because the kids don’t want to wear masks — or they don’t have that discretionary recreational money from their parents,” he said.
‘BUSINESS IS THAT BAD’
In Sparks, as summer turned to fall, Buster said Coconut Bowl began to see more bowlers willing to roll with a mask, a trend that surprised him.
“In October we were up 12% — that was insane — and then November it was up even more than that,” he said. “I think people felt comfortable here. And I think people are just pent up, they want to get out. People want to escape reality. When people come to our facility, they just want to let loose.
“I think people were feeling pretty confident and comfortable with the way we were doing things.”
But that momentum was halted in late November. Amid surging COVID-19 cases, Nevada was put on a three-week statewide pause — which has since been extended through at least Jan. 15 — limiting the capacity at businesses like bowling centers to 25%.
As a result, Coconut Bowl’s business plummeted 50% yet again, Buster said, adding that for the year, the alley’s revenue is down 38% compared to its record-setting 2019.
“We’ve been so dismal this month (of December), we’ve considered closing (temporarily),” he added. “Business is that bad.”
Coconut Bowl and Frontier Fun Center are far from the only bowling centers feeling the weight of the pandemic’s impact.
Overall, the $3 billion bowling center industry, which includes about 3,700 establishments across the U.S., has seen a 14% decline in revenue in 2020, according to IBIS World.
Buster doesn’t expect sales to suddenly spin around in early 2021, but he’s hopeful Coconut Bowl will be back in a groove by this time next year.
“I think next fall and winter, people are going to be ready to get out,” said Buster, noting those seasons are typically their busiest of the year. “I think we’ll be OK, but it’s going to be tough to get there. I feel pretty confident that we’ll bounce back.”
For Johnson, he feels it will take Frontier Fun Center a few years before business return to normal levels.
“I figure, in three years our revenue should be back to where they were pre-COVID,” he said. “I think it’s going to take at least three years.”
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