Lunch With D CEO: Charlie Keegan

The president and CEO of Main Event Entertainment talks luxury bowling.

When Charlie Keegan wakes up in the morning, he’s always hoping for bad weather. On days when the sun is shining and the temperatures are nice, families are outside. They’re on hikes or in parks or at stadiums. But when it’s raining, or when it’s too hot or too cold out, parents want to take their kids somewhere indoors. To a movie theater, maybe. Or to a restaurant that caters to children. Or, as Keegan, the president and CEO of Main Event, hopes, to one of his company’s 20 massive establishments where you can pick from the sprawling, glittering, flickering, sometimes-simmering multitudes of entertainment options. There’s food, video games, laser tag, bowling, billiards, and a bar full of adult beverages. Some locations have karaoke. This year, there were bad storms during the week when most North Texas schools had their spring break. “That was the best week in our company’s history,” says Keegan.  

He’s mild-mannered and bespectacled, wearing jeans, a collared shirt, and a vest. He’s sitting on a barstool at the Grapevine location, explaining that he got in late last night from Australia. Main Event is a subsidiary of New South Wales-based Ardent Leisure Group, so Australia is a destination Keegan is familiar with. But the trip always leaves him a bit bleary-eyed. We’re sitting with his personal assistant and a PR woman in front of a bartender who has carefully memorized every part of the extensive test menu in advance of our visit. At the moment, Grapevine is one of two locations in the company using the new menu, and the company is tracking which items sell best.

Keegan decides to try the veggie sandwich with fries and a Red Bull. We also get cheese-covered tots, though the CEO is clearly not a fan of this melted yellow beer cheese. It doesn’t look “upscale” enough for him. “It should be white cheese,” he says. “This looks like it’s from the ’80s”—like the kind of thing an old bowling alley might serve.

This is one of his company’s key dilemmas. Yes, bowling is one of the many things you can do at Main Event, but he doesn’t want people thinking of these places as bowling alleys. “We never use the words ‘bowling alley,’” he tells me. 

Main Event plans to build 20 new locations in the next five years, mostly in Texas, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida.

Bowling alleys are old and smoky, and they stink like shoe disinfectant spray. But Main Events are new, sleek, and full of rich suburbanites. (This Grapevine location, built in the late ’90s—the second Main Event constructed—has been completely overhauled and redesigned.) Developers haven’t built new bowling alleys in years, Keegan explains. But his company plans to build 20 new Main Events in the next five years, mostly in Texas (possibly even in downtown Dallas), Arizona, Georgia, and Florida. Gone are the days of the bolt-down bowling seats; the new places will be full of posh couches and lane technology that gives each player all sorts of interesting metrics and advice. Soon, he explains, you might be able to come into a Main Event and bowl against people all over the world—or against a celebrity.

“Everyone wants an upgrade,” Keegan says. 

His business also offers what he calls “a zero-veto factor.” One person in a group might not want to see a particular movie or go to a certain restaurant. But at Main Event, there’s something for everyone. If one friend doesn’t like drinking or bowling or laser tag, he or she might still like some of the new, full-body-experience video games or the old-timey coupon-redemption games like skee-ball. 

After we eat, we take a walk through the building: the freshly covered pool tables, the space-age bowling lanes, the dark laser tag arena, the massive bay of video games. If a lot of the games—and indeed, a lot of the layout and varied offerings—remind you of a casino, that’s not a coincidence. Keegan says there hasn’t been much research into this type of retail entertainment yet, but casinos have been researching how to best use space, and which kinds of games bring in the most money. A few of the redemption-focused machines are based directly on existing casino games. But instead of coins and dollar bills, they use tokens and coupons that can be exchanged for toys and prizes. 

The newer games, Keegan explains, are based on games like Angry Birds that have already become popular as smartphone apps. There are also gigantic machines that feel like virtual rollercoaster rides, and newfangled air-hockey games that involve players hitting dozens of pucks at a time. At the time, we have no idea that a storm has moved in and the afternoon and evening will be filled with rain—and the parking lot will be packed with cars. But before I go, I ask Keegan what his favorite game is. He looks over the room and smiles. “Whichever one’s the most profitable.”  

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