On the Road Again
Lucky Strike’s Jim Bennington on Reopening Locations & More
by Jim Bennington Director of Entertainment for Lucky Strike Entertainment
It’s fair to say that over the last 600 days a majority of the world has experienced a “hard stop” or a “hard start,” personally or professionally. Our team at Lucky Strike Entertainment is no different.
From my perspective, the “hard stop” is a sudden pause to accept a reality in the moment, to reconcile vulnerabilities, focus strengths, organize resources and to be prepared to take intentional steps in a direction that best sets the trajectory for success.
Meanwhile, a “hard start” is the ability to take intentional steps in a direction that best fits the trajectory for success with organized resources, focused strengths and reconciled vulnerabilities after pausing to accept the reality of the moment.
Like many of us in the entertainment business, I stay on the move. In nearly 23 years, I have had the privilege to travel to many cities in a variety of capacities related to facility design and build out, and operate in the food, beverage and mixed-use entertainment category.
Just short of half my life, it’s been thousands of miles wandering around trade shows, going on R&D trips, pre-construction site visits, GM and sales conferences, build outs, demolitions, congratulations and terminations.
It has really been an amazing blessing to see the country while you grow alongside the passion of a brand – whether a road trip, train trip or little planes in stormy weather when Zeus is throwing lightning bolts at you – every Lucky Strike outing is typically an adventure to perpetuate fun!
My favorite reason to travel for work is the unveiling of a venue or concept in a new city. That’s where the magic happens for me. I love the process of developing, building and operating entertainment venues. To bring a new fun something to a new place and let people play with it is exhilarating.
Standing inside the door when the first guest walks in, we get to witness their moment of childlike spontaneous joy as they take in the environment of a Lucky Strike concept for the first time. That reaction is awesome to witness and drives me to want to do it again… and as often as possible.
When we walk away from that opening night party, I know that every single person on our development team has applied every ounce of their experience –– their heart and soul –– into a concept that brings joy to total strangers. It NEVER gets old. “Spontaneous Joy” should be registered as a noble element on the Periodic Table. It is the simplest, yet elusive, element to produce in the universe.
My least favorite reason to travel is laying to rest a venue that has performed its duties, served its communities and is now transiting into a different something for someone else for whatever reason. Across all segments of our industry, we have witnessed the expansion and contraction that comes with the realities of modern business.
I can honestly say I have learned something at every encounter, but two things seem to hold true. The number one lesson is that change is inevitable, but quality endures. The number two lesson is to leave it better than you found it. You never know when you might get it back.
If you have spent any time with me, you know I’m fairly transparent: I like good soup, find it very difficult to sit still and love to think about dreamy “what if” ideas. I often use too many cuss words and am occasionally long-winded while being bluntly direct…and I’m ok with that.
Christmas Eve 2019, just before candlelight service, I got a phone call from my doctor. Some scans and lab results came back that showed I had Stage 2 kidney cancer and that I had less than 90 days to accept the fact that I would be facing a major medical procedure for an ailment I had no clue even existed inside me just days before. I am grateful I had the full support to work at a flexible pace of my choosing in the months leading into my procedures. I knew what was coming and welcomed the distraction our type of creative hard work offers.
January flew by cranking at our typical pace and earning my “Doctorate in Google Searches” related to a constant flow of lab results and driving my wife Amy nuts! Heading into February, we started identifying supply chain missteps from overseas factory shutdowns. These had our full attention as we began reviewing our protocols and products used for cleaning and sanitation in our entertainment concepts to keep up with the CDC reports that were surfacing on the wire.
The whole month was intense and yet a great distraction. I vaguely recall my travel schedule from those days: Boston to Columbus to Chicago, Detroit to Florida (Disney World for a week logging 100,000-plus steps with the family), then back to Detroit. In early March, I went out to New Jersey for a site visit and then I popped down to New Orleans for the 2020 Amusement Expo. (Yes, I did wear the bright orange surgical gloves like I told Reggie Moultrie I would if I attended the show.)
Few people knew I was running intentionally head first into a “hard stop” for surgery on Friday, March 13, 2020, around 4 p.m. In retrospect, it was surreal how fast that time went by yet how slow time passed laying there after I said a prayer and counted down – 100… 99… 98… 97. Waking up hours later in a recovery room, the mass and a chunk of my right kidney had been removed but the overall outcome was positive.
Some 17 hours later, my wife Amy gently drove me home to recover in isolation. In that short time, the hospital was at capacity and needed every bed for the surge of incoming Covid patients. The first wave swept thru our area hard. If I couldn’t go home, I would have had to stay in hospital quarantined for an undetermined time.
As painful and shocking to my system as it was, that 20-minute car ride was the best thing that could have happened to me. Thank the Lord, I was home alive, my family safe and WTF was unfolding all around the world?!? I swear I saw this movie – the guy woke up in a hospital, the world had gone to hell, everyone was a zombie and the dude wandered around half dressed yelling “Hello, Hello!” Yep… that was “medicated me” for the first few days of the shutdown.
The executive leadership of Lucky Strike Entertainment also made the call for a “hard stop” sometime that same weekend. For the first time as a working adult, I was completely sidelined, unplugged from work, grounded to focus on my recovery. I do recall getting a text on March 16 with a picture of a sign that read “TEMPORARLLY CLOSED” on one of our venues and I think that is how I first found out we had actually shut down. Days were all a blur until about mid-May 2020.
My “hard start” began as I came off medical leave at the end of spring. My first day back, I was tasked to permanently close a legacy property that I helped design and operate going back to 2004. It was brutal but necessary. We had dropped from more than 2,300 employees to what felt like a baker’s dozen. The entirety of our organization fit on my laptop screen as I joined my first Brady Bunch-style Teams call.
I am proud to be part of the team that pushed through to the other side. We took our hits – furloughed, flattened, reorganized and restructured. Today, the Lucky Strike brand is standing stronger than ever. Having locations sitting idle was also exhausting, even aside from the things we were doing to reopen.
We also had to manage the boarding up windows to protect glass and assets from civil unrest, a porta-potty fire that could have been devastating to a new property, every type of flood imaginable, a property break in (there really was criminal wearing a pink bunny mask on TMZ when he got arrested), frozen pipes, dozens of lost packages, hundreds of dead batteries and leaking sprinkler heads. Oh, and yes, there was that family of mongoose that made our social media pages right after the tropical storm hit our venue in Hawaii. It was that kind of year.
Surrounded by a community of what I think of as strategic partners (our dedicated workforce, gracious financial lenders, manufacturing/distribution partners, property managers, trade associations, etc.), collectively we were able to find a “hard start” balance that allowed us to focus energies on reopening the venues as the Covid environment became manageable.
I believe that the efforts to reopen Lucky Strike could have been fruitless if not for the support from that community of strategic partners and the unwavering commitment to reopen from our core team. The strength, fortitude and momentum in that type of combined effort is not fabricated or contrived but the organic result of good business practices. Thank you for your support. You know who you are and what you did.
When it came time to set a reopening calendar for our first venue coming out of the shutdown, we were ready. Once we started our plan in motion, we didn’t stop. We set a benchmark that mandated what we had to achieve to open, developed an adaptive playbook that worked and within any given 45-day window we could to go live activating venues in a manner that met or exceeded each set of local mandates.
Staffing was a struggle, but perseverance brought us quality candidates that adapted quickly to our streamlined operations. The quality of our guest visits has also prevailed, and they are recognizing us for our efforts to provide a complete Lucky Strike experience while following the recommended CDC guidelines.
Since October 2020, we have reopened 13 locations and sit at around 1,000 strong in our ranks as we continue to learn to navigate the new waves of our industry.
We are all excited for the future of Lucky Strike Entertainment and proud of our accomplishments. Our brand is innovative, adaptable and scalable. We celebrate deep roots in creating diverse and engaging entertainment facilities that are adopted by the communities we serve. We know who we are and have a clear understanding of our operational capabilities. Our future has no limit.
I am traveling again – always on the move and just past the halfway mark in my 3-year recovery plan. The outlook for my health is excellent. At Lucky Strike, we are still working to produce the elusive element of “Spontaneous Joy” and bringing our concepts to as many people as possible. We appreciate our co-workers, returning guests and strategic partnerships that allow us to continue to grow. Stop in and play a game with us. Let us know how we are doing. Then talk to your doctor about your kidney health. You might learn something by accident that could save your life. Learn more from my friends: @kidneycancerassociation.