This story is the exclusive cover story for Volume two Issue 3 of Retail Insider the magazine.
The Ballroom Bowl is where the good times roll in Toronto in a sprawling entertainment venue that has ambitious plans to roll out the concept to more locations.
Paul Donato, President and CEO of Dundas Valley Advantage Holdings Inc., which operates the unique sports and entertainment venue, says he’s owned the Ballroom Bowl in downtown Toronto for 13 years and the idea has become a popular one in the city.
“Obviously, the foundation of the Ballroom Bowl is bowling,” says Donato. “When I financed the original Ballroom Bowl back in 2010 it was all because of the bowling and the discovery that if I took a flier on this business venture what I had discovered was it would be the only bowling alley in the city of downtown Toronto.
“And we’re still the only game in town . . . The intention has always been to build out the Ballroom Bowl as Canada’s only and first premium casual bowling company . . . It will be all about service, service, service. But bowling is the mainstay. Bringing a different, not just a different concept, but an enduring business and an enduring industry that Canadians kind of forgot about.
“I have big plans for the company.”
Currently, the original location at John and Richmond in the Entertainment District has been operating for the past 13 years.
“We are currently under construction at Yonge and Bloor (in Yorkville) and we have now finished a deal for Dundas Square,” says Donato.
The location in Yorkville is scheduled to open in November with the Dundas Square location set to open late next year.
Mimi Wheeler, Senior Director of Strategy for Defy Them All, said originally Donato had a vision to name each location differently but the company learned there was a lot of equity in the Ballroom Bowl brand.
“People know it. It stands for something. It’s the first premium, casual bowling chain in the whole city of Toronto and Canada in fact. Being a strategist you want to leverage every asset that you can and so our recommendation was that the neighbourhood of Yorkville comes also with a lot of equity and stands for certain things. And it’s very complementary to what the concept for the bowling offering in Yorkville was going to be, which was upscale, premium, beautiful bar, finishes are top of the line. It’s very, very different than the one in the Entertainment District,” says Wheeler.
“So our recommendation was to leverage the equity of Yorkville in naming this and keep the Ballroom Bowl as the master brand. It means less investment quite frankly as you’re expanding because you don’t have to change the name. You don’t have to reinvent the name and you just build on that equity but you establish sort of a sub-brand which is the Yorkville version of the Ballroom Bowl. So each one has a different flavour. And as you know, Dundas being in the centre of everything it’s much more dynamic, a lot of vitality. That one again will have a very different, more urban flavour.”
Alex Edmison, Senior Vice President with CBRE on the urban retail team, is representing the brand in its expansion plans. He says the corner of Yonge and Dundas is one of the busiest intersections in the country, if not the continent.
“We’re introducing something unique in that we’re bringing the social gaming component to that. When you’re going into a tourist area, we’ve got so many things we can pull on,” he said. “We’ve got the tourist element. We’ve got the Toronto Metropolitan element . . . It’s got all the ingredients for success. We’re thrilled.”
“We really took the opportunity over the last I’d say four or five years to try and reposition this centre into a full-on entertainment, F & B (food and beverage) centre. So the use was perfect for us in so far as what it offered for the building, number one, and for the area,” she says.
“It’s right along the lines of exactly what we were looking for. (People) going there, eating, enjoying life, drinking, bowling. So really it’s just the perfect match for our vision of that entire property.”
Edmison says if a company is looking to build a brand, typically they go to very prominent locations.
“We aren’t going to stop at Dundas and 1 Bloor. We’re going to scale this out and build it. So these are the logical places to start with. They’re the best intersections in Canada. That’s going to propel growth,” he adds.
Johnson says the brand’s key message is this is where Toronto comes to play.
“From a creative person’s perspective there’s nothing more engaging than being able to play with the tension of everything we have to do with our daily lives and then what we get to do when we find an escape or respite from that,” he says.
“The Ballroom Bowl in particular presents a really unique, creative opportunity in that we have now all these different flavours of the same concept that we get to bring to life.”
The original location will remain “kind of sports, bowl, rock and roll.” Yonge and Bloor is going to become a really upscale, very sleek, almost “clandestine” destination where people can come and hide out. It will have two separate lanes on the VIP side that are going to be exclusive. Dundas Square is going to be loud – a much more urban, almost industrial feel.
“As a creative partner in this, we get to express all three of those different flavours underneath the Ballroom Bowl brand and beyond that who knows,” says Johnson.
The original location is 23,500 square feet. Yonge and Bloor will be about 20,000 square feet and Dundas will be about 15,000 square feet.
How many of these does Donato see in the future?
“The upside is infinite . . . The reality is I think the biggest thing with regards to our national expansion plan is we already have the executive management team in place. We’ve got a Four Seasons trained beverage director. We’ve got one of the top chefs in Toronto who’s already recruited another chef already on board with us. There’s things going on in the bowling industry in Canada that we’re doing that nobody else is doing,” he says.
Edmison says the brand will be looking for sustainable growth.
“It’s opportunity driven. We’d like to do as many as possible as fast as possible. But we want to grow in a sustainable way. If you look 20 years down the line, we would want to be represented in every major market in Canada – anywhere you would see an Earl’s or a Keg. Those would be logical areas where we could put (a bowling venue).
“We’re probably going to grow it out GTA focused. We’ll consider other markets. It will be a mix of strategically going after areas that we’re interested in and a mix of other opportunities that present themselves.”
The original Ballroom Bowl describes itself as Toronto’s “coolest” interactive entertainment centre with 23,500 square feet including 10-pin bowling, dozens of TVs, a rooftop patio, music and elevated pub fare.
Donato says he’s had a singular focus in his career regarding razor-like service.
“Customer first. The Four Seasons differentiating factor we are bringing that to the bowling industry and that doesn’t exist,” he says.