An Interview with Fred Kaplowitz

Jim: Today I am speaking with Fred Kaplowitz, president and CEO of The Kaploe Marketing Group. Fred is one of the co-founders of Kids Bowl Free, which has registered more than 17 million kids – usually 14 years old and younger – at more than 1,400 bowling centers in the United States and Canada. Fred, before we discuss some of the specific marketing opportunities for bowling center proprietors, could you share a bit about your background in this industry?

Fred: My career started in the financial and banking industry. After graduate school, I secured a job with a local Baltimore credit card company that was bought by City Bank who owned BankAmericard. After working in the Baltimore area, the company chose to expand to the Washington DC Metro area and I was promoted to the director of marketing and promotions in this new region. It was really the start of the interstate banking revolution and I was on the cusp of it. It was a great learning experience.

That experience was invaluable, and taught me the basics of hiring and training a sales team. It was there that I had my first chance to work with advertising agencies; to develop creative strategies, position platforms, test marketing, focus groups, create copy, buy media, conduct direct mail campaigns (this was the pre-digital media era).

From there, I was offered a position with the National Bowling Council – the professional marketing arm for the industry. I was their first Marketing Vice President. At that time, my job was to create bowling awareness among Fortune 500 companies by getting these major advertisers to use bowling in their commercials as well as to develop a joint tie-in program with bowling proprietors. Another one of my key responsibilities, in addition to conducting market research about bowlers, non-bowlers and dropouts, was to get local bowling proprietor groups to come together and develop a joint marketing program, fund the program and thus help them to get more new customers and retain more customers. It was exciting times.

One of the members of the National Bowling Council, Brunswick Corp, recruited me to become the Marketing and Promotions Director for their equipment division which included a move to Chicago; a great city After a few more moves with the company, Bowling Corporation of America (BCA) came calling and asked me to become their Marketing Vice President of their 43 center chain, which we grew to 63 centers before it was sold to AMF. It was with BCA that I introduced many new marketing processes, strategies, tactics and programs

During my stay at BCA, I launched “The Super Bowling Kids, program” which was all accomplished through highly-targeted direct mail. The program was for kids between the ages of 6 and 12. The results were amazing. Our typical center would floor about 60 to 70 teams The program brought in a 20% increase in revenue over an 18-month period.

Jim: What made you want to get into the consulting side of the business?

Fred: I have a real passion for helping proprietors make their centers more profitable. They work hard, and I know what that means. My Dad owned a retail shoe store and it was six days a week 12-hour days so I had an understanding of retail and thought that I could pass along my experience. I also wanted to show them the importance of marketing in their communities and how to become part of the fabric if the community. After all, we will always do business with people we trust before even thinking about doing business with people who we are ambivalent. My entire consulting business is built on helping people develop programs to match their market to the message and then to the media and to find ways to contribute back to the community.

Jim: What’s the core feature of your consulting?

Fred: The thing we try to bring to our clients is a sense of process and strategy. By having the right strategy and knowing WHY you are in business. (Making money is the result of “Knowing Why”…I could talk on this for hours!), we jointly develop ,with our client, a real-world strategy and tactical plan. We want to be sure that the customized plan is sophisticated enough so it covers all the details, but simple enough that it can be easily executed. Our goals are three fold.

1. Bring in new customers – the right customers;

2. Bring these customers back more often than the current industry average of less than twice a year fro open play bowlers;

And 3. Get these customers to spend more at our center every time they come back.We are always trying to bring in the “right” customers. We want people to come in who will be customers for a long time.

Jim: That’s a good point. Anyone can help fill a center for a night with special offers. But what you and I attempt to do with our offers is fill the center for, dr that night, but with an eye toward the future and long-term. Getting a customer through the door truly is an investment.

Fred: Right you are, Jim. Getting a new client is about ten times more expensive than the cost of retaining a customer, so we want to attract the right customers in the first place, and then devote our attention to that customer and provide him or her with compelling offers that appeal to them to make their visits more frequent

Kids Bowl Free is a good example. We use that program to get the moms in the database and get kids birthdays too. We’ll then provide the proprietor with programs so he/she  can move that family in an adult/child league in the fall, winter, spring and summer. We’ll also show proprietors how to utilize this database to attract fundraisers, corporate parties, Mommy N Me programs, ladies programs, couples programs, birthday parties and even church leagues.

What we always try to do is know what our next program will be. It’s like playing pool. It’s not the shot you take that makes you a success, its what you set up as a next shot that brings marketing consistency and customer satisfaction…always offering something new.

Jim: You mentioned giving back to the community. Do you have a favorite program for that?

Fred: Yes I do! BVL is definitely on that list. The program was established during World War II, and it has evolved into an organization that helps disabled veterans by providing recreational and occupational equipment therapy as a way to help these brave soldiers break through the hard times by giving them something to do to break up their long stays and be able to socialize with their fellow vets. I’ve had the opportunity  and privilege to work with BVL as its marketing consultant and assist them to raise the needed dollars to help the program sustain itself . Since The program has raised more than $50 million since its inception.

It’s a really great feeling to help veterans as they are transitioning back after a combat experience. It’s been a really rewarding way to give back. I feel very blessed to do this.

Jim: A lot has changed in our industry, and customers are really busy these days. How do your programs meet the needs of today’s customers?

Fred: One of the main ways I try to help proprietors meet the needs of their customers is by creating packages that enable the customer to enjoy the experience more because they know they are getting what I call “an added value experience”. One of the things customers have come to dislike is the feeling that going to a bowling center means constantly paying for different things. The customer could, in some scenarios, have to reach for her wallet multiple times. We create packages so the customer does not feel like he is constantly paying for every single thing and in fact is saving money!

One small thing that has really made a difference is the way we sell our food and beverage packages. No longer is it just a snack bar. Today’s customers want good quality food, presented well and priced fairly. They really don’t want a $2.50 cheeseburger that is frozen and served on a paper plates. Our food and beverage offerings must provide the customer with good value and provide the proprietor with a healthy margin.

We have applied this same concept to corporate parties. We’ve even designed customized appetizer packages for the corporate clients. Then there are additional features they can choose, including a face painter, or a limousine service, and so forth.

This is the kind of thought we have to put into the pricing of our program packages. We have also developed creative programs designed around hourly pricing that can be used for fundraisers, teen parties, kids and adult parties as well as many other types of open play programs

Jim: For bowling center proprietors, what’s the key takeaway about your consulting?

Fred: In the world of business, everyone needs a mentor. Bowling proprietors are no different. That mentor relationship is so important; to have someone who has been in the trenches, who has owned multiple centers, has been in bowling centers in every state and around the world to offer their experience and knowledge as well as helping to keep them on plan; help train their team and offer constructive operational ways to create more net operating income.

Some proprietors are hesitant to do any kind of consultation because they are afraid it will be too great of a commitment. But we are also available for project-by-project consulting. And we are also available for a Skype session or a Google Hangout discussion with staff, if that’s what works better for a certain center. We will make the entire process easy. 

Jim: When you go in as a consultant, what kind of resistance do you get from staff at bowling centers?

Fred: Well, as you might imagine, the staff are usually a bit skeptical at first. There’s often the perception that I am going to create more work, or, worse, tell their boss that they aren’t doing their job. But that’s not at all my intention

The reality is that my consulting is based on the premise that I want to make the center more profitable and at the same time make the staffs jobs more clearly defined, simpler, more productive and certainly more satisfying. I make a point of talking to everyone on staff because every position is so integral to the functioning of the center.

Jim: Because if those employees are not on board, our plans won’t work, right?

Fred:  Right. This is very much a consultative process. I’ve been able to get the work done by showing that I am not a threat or a disruption to the center. I’m trying to get the job done expeditiously, and, at the end of the day, everyone who works at the center benefits when things improve.

Jim: We’ve talked a bit about BVL. What else are you most proud of in your career?

Fred: When I was young, I had a terrible stuttering problem. But once I started my career, I had to give presentations, and it was at that point that I found my voice. I have gotten involved with the S.A.Y. the  Stuttering Association for the Young, and even sat on the board for several years. Now I’m on the benefit committee. Our organization that provides a safe place where every child can take as long as they want to speak, knowing that they won’t be bullied or made fun of.  We use various techniques from singing to performing to writing, reading out loud and knowing that they are not alone. Over 16 million people stutter. Our job is to help them feel confident because very voice matters

I used to think stuttering was my curse, but now I see it as my blessing. Having that as part of my past, I believe, has helped me become a more compassionate and understanding person…and a good consultant and coach.

Jim: When you look at what’s on the horizon in our industry, what gets you the most excited?

Fred: I am really excited about the opportunity to market to the younger generation. We are not ignoring young people now in our industry as we did with the baby boomers. I’m also excited about marketing the newest FEC’s and BEC’s. These newer iterations of the traditional bowling center are more challenging and more of an opportunity for the industry to grow and prosper. On a personal side, I’m excited about pushing my creativity further, and developing new processes to reach additional markets. I think I’ll always be excited about creating new products and programs for our industry.

Jim: Thanks so much for speaking with me today and for sharing your insights for the bowling industry!  

Fred: My pleasure, my friend.

Yours for better bowling,