The Ciniellos have a passion for bowling — and the sport of running a feel-and-touch business in the pandemic.
Entrepreneurs: Pat and Lisa Ciniello
Company: When it comes to bowling, Pat Ciniello is as close to a living legend in an industry as someone can be. That’s not hyperbole. At nearly 50 years in the industry, the International Bowling Hall of Famer remains a pioneer, opening new facilities and constantly looking for ways to get and keep bowlers engaged.
The 76-year-old is currently chairman of QubicaAMF, one of the largest bowling equipment manufacturers the world, having installed equipment in more than 10,000 amusement centers. The president of the Richmond, Virginia-based company before taking on the chairman role, Ciniello got his start in the industry overseeing bowling centers for Brunswick Corp. A U.S. Air Force veteran, after Brunswick and another firm Ciniello opened his first bowling center in 1980, in Naples.
The business he currently oversees with his wife Lisa Ciniello, Fort Myers-based Bowling Management Associates — parent brand over Bowland & HeadPinz Entertainment Centers — isn’t just a capstone to a stellar career. It operates six bowling centers in Southwest Florida, three each in Lee and Collier counties. In June 2020, the couple added to their family entertainment portfolio when they bought Zoomers Amusement Park in Fort Myers.
Revenue from all six bowling centers was flat for the most part in 2018 and 2019, hovering around $19.8 million. That figure hit the gutter in 2020, dropping to $13.11 million — down about -33.8%. But 2021 has seen something of a resurgence, with $6.32 million in revenue in the first quarter, putting the company on pace to best 2019 by about 15%. The company has some 275 employees, down from around 400 pre-pandemic. Like many other business region-wide, it’s hiring.
Ciniello is optimistic about the future of the business — despite reports of bowling no longer being a cool sport and failing to attract a younger crowd. It helps that Southwest Florida is on a five-year population burst. “We are excited about the growth in population and people’s desire to have an entertainment facility,” Ciniello says. “Florida is now the place to be.”
That enthusiasm and excitement explains why the Ciniellos are making a major investment in another entertainment facility in Southwest Florida with Zoomers. Prior to the pandemic, the couple planned to develop an electric go-kart track under the name Fast Trax. That was going to be an $11 million to $12 million project. But when the Zoomers owner, Mike Barnes, put the property up for sale in spring 2020, the Ciniellos did what many other entrepreneurs did in the pandemic: they pivoted. “It was just too darn tempting,” says Lisa Ciniello, 58.
They put the financing on hold for the ground-up go-kart track and turned their attention to Zoomers. The couple intends to replace the gas-powered karts at Zoomers with electric ones. Plans also include upgrading the arcade, kitchen, outdoor bar and party areas in the 18-acre property. The investment, including the purchase price, will be around $6 million. “It’s going to be pretty amazing,” Lisa Ciniello says. “We are anxious to get it open.”
'You have to have the courage to not know what’s on the other side of the dream. That’s the difference between being an entrepreneur and going to work for someone else.' Lisa Ciniello, Bowling Management Associates
In addition hiring 80 to 100 people, the Ciniellos are excited about another aspect of Fast Trax Park: their son, Marc Ciniello, will be the general manager. Marc Ciniello, 30, has worked in the business since he was 14, and has done everything from being a mechanic to working the kitchen to customer service. “He has followed in our footsteps,” Lisa Ciniello says, “and we are very proud of him.”
Best advice: While Lisa Ciniello says she and Pat “have received tons of advice over the years,” one nugget stands out: treat others as you would like to be treated. If you treat people with respect, dignity and honesty, she says, you’ll get the same in return. “This is why we believe we have so many long-term employees and business associates in our industry,” she says.
Best decision: Keeping managers on full payroll during the pandemic shutdowns and slow periods, Lisa Ciniello says, has been integral to keeping the business humming in 2021. That was their best move. “It’s definitely not the Pat and Lisa show,” Lisa Ciniello says. “We have hired some great managers. The most important thing is the people we hire who surround us.”
Bowling Management Associates also took out two PPP loans in 2020, which helped it keep some 40 people on the payroll. With no customers coming in, those employees were offered bonuses to take online training classes, in kitchen safety and other areas. “We wanted to keep people off unemployment,” Lisa Ciniello says, “so when we did open back up we had (some of) our staff.”
Biggest mistake: The couple says they “woefully underestimated” the intricacies of running family entertainment centers — not just bowling centers, but places with laser tag, arcades and much more. That’s the HeadPinz side of the business. They opened their first one in 2013 in Cape Coral, and two more, in Naples and Fort Myers, have followed.
“Running an event facility with all the complexity and drivers is massive,” Pat Ciniello says. “You need a lot more talent and people in leadership positions. The structure of this is very large. It takes a lot of energy to keep it moving.”
A key lesson they learned, in adapting to the challenges, is to remain nimble. One example? They built an escape room in one HeadPinz and shortly thereafter they shuttered it. “It was too labor-intensive,” Pat Ciniello says.
Up-at-night worry: Pat Ciniello says fear of the unknown is his biggest worry. That goes for minimum wage laws to insurance costs. “We don’t have any control over the virus and what it does, and we don’t have any control over what the government does,” he says. “But we have to be able to adapt.”
Lisa Ciniello agrees on the unknown worries, but in some ways that also motivates her to keep going, and look for innovative ways to grow the customer base and family entertainment market share. “You have to have the courage to not know what’s on the other side of the dream,” she says. “That’s the difference between being an entrepreneur and going to work for someone else.”
The topsy-turvy life of an entrepreneur can be maddening — but also rewarding. Nine of the best in the region share their ups and downs in our annual Top Entrepreneurs issue. Click the links below to read more:
- Fun-loving couple looks to grab more family entertainment market share
- Co-founder's quest to build a care-for-others culture pays off
- Keeping customers (and their pets) happy drives dogged entrepreneur
- Brewing company relies on out-of-the-box thinking for success
- Urn artist stays focused on the product at hand
- Pest Control Company finds success through focusing on client retention, not revenue
- Clearwater entrepreneur learned the hard way not to cut marketing budget — ever
- Founder of Tampa private equity firm credits approach to hiring and managing risk for growth
- Tampa restaurant group owner believes personal touch is key to running her eateries