Last month, I made my annual pilgrimage to a member’s property to spend a full day shadowing an owner and witnessing the daily challenges of course operations. My objective is to gain greater understanding and sympathy for our rank-and-file member, and in turn, bring those insights back to the NGCOA office.
Upon my early-morning arrival at Pine Ridge Golf Course in Paris, Texas, I had a seriously scary feeling. I knew Cathy Harbin, owner and operator, had a morning outing scheduled, and the sky was looking ominous. It was a visceral reminder that if it rains, her business makes no money that day. It reminded me of the risks our members take as a weather-dependent business. It also made me think about the importance for courses to build revenue-generating events or programs that are immune to bad weather.
The “old farts” arrived nonetheless (an over-55, nine-hole scramble every Thursday), and it became apparent how much the customers adore and respect Cathy, who bought the course just over a year ago. Pine Ridge is a no-frills, push-up-green facility, and only public course in a 30-mile radius in rural Texas. Cathy remodeled the modest proshop and bar, is upgrading the food and beverage and slowly improving turf conditions. But most importantly, she’s breathing life into the business and creating relationships with the Paris community. I love that she’s created new competitive events, pitting car dealerships against each other, as well as banks and other local businesses.
We spent all afternoon with Cathy’s food rep, reviewing prices and options for breakfast sandwiches. You see, most of Cathy’s regulars swing by a local fast food joint for a biscuit sandwich before arriving at her course in the morning. No surprise, Cathy would rather they come straight to the course and have breakfast at Pine Ridge. The process of ordering new food items brought many questions into play, such as how much storage does Cathy have? How quickly can something be prepared? How will she keep food warm? What is the right amount to order to avoid wasteful spending? How will she know which options are the ones her regulars would enjoy enough to change their morning routine? After we finished, we had to go pick up her beer order from the local package store (the only source she’s allowed to buy from) and get back to the course to see if the afternoon ladies’ group lesson would still be happening, considering the soggy condition of the course.
I’ve known Cathy for many years. She is a PGA and LPGA member, former general manager of the World Golf Village golf operations, program administrator at the World Golf Foundation and executive at ClubCorp. One is compelled to scratch one’s head to wonder why she’d leave behind her position in the leadership circles of golf to be a hands-on owner of such a small operation. But by the end of our visit together, it struck me. After taking a circuitous tour of the full acreage, we stopped and admired the hilly countryside. While Cathy has done great things wherever she’s been, ultimately it was for the benefit of someone else’s business. But this? This is different. This time, it’s hers. The pride felt by thousands of small business owners like Cathy is what partially fuels the good work of our industry. Whatever NGCOA can do to help owners like Cathy – either with ideas on how to bring in revenue or ways to ease the burdens – we want to do.
I’m grateful to Cathy. She’s an exemplary owner, and even better person.
In last month’s column, I opined that one of golf’s “distance problems” is that many golfers are playing from tee boxes that are too difficult for them. Or maybe restated, if they played tees that offered, say, a 6,000-yard experience instead of a 6,600-yard experience, they might find it more enjoyable and the round a little speedier. And golf writer John Gaughan recently penned a wonderful piece about aging and moving up a set of tees, and the joys of discovering the golf course in a new way and the challenges it brings.
Source: Par Aide
I think there are two factors that cause golfers to pause at the idea of (gasp) moving from one set of colored tees to another: One is ego, and the other is having to consider an equalizer in addition to giving or receiving strokes. Let’s unpack this for a moment, and realize that you — the course operator — can help make this work.
Ego. No one likes admitting or realizing they aren’t hitting the ball as far as they used to. But you can help ease the pain and encourage a more appropriate set of tee boxes by embracing the combination-tee movement. What was once a rare anomaly is now a bit more common — looking at the scorecard and seeing something like Blue/White or White/Yellow as one of the rows on the card. Going from Blue to Blue/White is an easier jump than straight to White. Just getting golfers out of their ingrained behaviors of playing the SAME tee box, no matter where they play or the distance of the course, is a great first step. And of course, having more than three or four sets of tees helps the cause even more. But if you don’t think you can afford to build or maintain more tee boxes yet, updating the scorecard is a great first step. Kudos to those who have been doing it!
Equalizer. You’ve been there. Standing on the first and everyone figures out who gets how many strokes from whom before play begins. In most cases, everyone is likely playing the same set of tees, so you’re only dealing with one variable – differences in typical score levels. If the group starts splitting up what tee boxes they are all playing, you’re introducing another variable. How does that impact the calculus of determining who gets how many strokes? The short-term head-scratching on that one will be temporary. Eventually, it will “all come out in the wash,” as my mother used to say. If you move up a set of tees and you start scoring better, then eventually the spread of strokes will get smaller naturally, and everyone can carry on as before.
Why is this important? I look no further than my own father. He played golf weekly for decades, and then (for a variety of reasons) nearly stopped playing altogether. Upon returning to the game, he decided to play one set of tee boxes closer than he had all his life. And, man is he happier and back to playing a few times per month.
Happier golfers mean a higher chance of returning to the course. Returning to the course means recurring revenue from a reliable customer base. And what business owner doesn’t love reliable, recurring revenue?
The recently released USGA and R&A report on driving distance sure drew a lot of attention from all corners of the golf universe. The conversation seems to immediately go to the question — should we dial back the ball as a “fix” to hitting the ball too far?
In my opinion, that is the wrong question to be asking when it comes to most of the nation’s golf course operators who open their doors and turn on the lights every morning. For sure, the best golfers in the world hitting the ball incrementally longer as time goes by poses a challenge for the fields of play where hitting a 320-yard drive is an issue. But 99.9 percent of golfers are mere mortals.
I can tell you with certainty that USGA leadership wants to support the success of our game and business. While they are asked about the ball limitations all the time, I see them wanting to ask bigger questions about distance to golf’s stakeholders. The right questions to ask here are — As owners and operators of golf courses, how has distance affected our business operations? How might distance affect us in the future? And then to ask the fundamental question, what problem needs to be solved when it comes to the distance question, if any?
To me, this is a matter of “right sizing” golf, if indeed it’s needed, because it’s not necessarily needed everywhere. At the nation’s golf courses, we have a distance problem for sure. Most golfers are playing tees too far back for their own enjoyment, and for everyone else’s enjoyment (slow play is certainly influenced by people playing tees too challenging for their skill levels).
There has been a growing movement to build more sets of tees, and to implement programs that help golfers identify the best set of tees according to their swing speed or driving distance. Tee boxes should have nothing to do with gender or age, but how far you hit the ball off the tee, and how well you can put the ball in play to give you a shot of getting to the green “in regulation.” Just Google “ASGCA Longleaf” and you’ll find some great work being done by the owners of Longleaf Golf and Family Club in North Carolina and the American Society of Golf Course Architects to encourage better matching of player-to-tee box.
USGA leadership has publicly shared concerns about the expanded footprint of golf courses and its resulting impact on the game’s viability, and rightfully so. We understand that many have been built to accommodate both equipment that allows the ball to fly pretty far and wide, and to satisfy the desires of course architects, builders and owners to have courses with teeth (translation: over 7,200 yards from the tips, bunkers everywhere you look, etc.). We are all concerned with the costs involved in maintaining land and features that may be superfluous to the golfing experience. To that point, the USGA has introduced some interesting technology to help course operators identify the cost of maintaining areas of the course where players may rarely encounter.
I’m glad to share that NGCOA and USGA leadership are in constant communication with each other. Both organizations realize the symbiotic relationship between the game itself and the business of running the playing fields. NGCOA will continue to do our part to ensure the interests and perspectives of course owners and operators are included in any major questions impacting the golf ecosystem.
It’s amazing to me that 227 years after the final ratification of the American Bill of Rights, we still wholly rely upon them as we navigate the trials and tribulations of living together in society. There is something evergreen about the specific rights that James Madison codified as the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which were written in part to address rights that were either overlooked in the Constitution or that needed to be clarified due to the ongoing debate about federal and state authorities.
While our issues in golf aren’t as “heavy” as the fundamental rights of man and woman, we are hoping the new “Golf Course Operator’s Bill of Rights for Marketing and Distribution of Tee Times” will offer clarity about how courses should be respected and treated by those we entrust with our customer information and tee time inventory, regardless of the shifting sands or changing winds of technology and marketing. At the most recent Golf USA Tee Time Coalition board meeting, we drafted and passed such a document, the body of which is as follows:
1. Operator shall have total ownership of his or her tee time inventory, including the ability to share access with or restrict access to any tee time agency.
2. Operator shall have full control of all pricing for all tee time inventory across all channels of distribution and online tee time agencies, which includes retaining the right to lowest price guarantee on his/her own website.
3. Operator’s tee time availability and pricing shall be accurately displayed and free from misrepresentation.
4. Operator shall receive comprehensive and transparent data related to all performance and activity with all distribution partners, agencies and affiliates, including but not limited to customer name and email address, tee time reservation data, revenue, price paid for tee times, impressions and clicks.
5. Operator shall have the option to pay cash for all technology and marketing services.
6. Operator shall retain all rights associated with his/her business brand, name and likeness, which shall not be used in marketing by any agent or affiliate without the Operator’s written permission.
7. Operator shall have the right to cancel any agreement with any tee time agency or affiliate without being subject to excessive fees, penalties or evergreen terms.
8. Operator shall have the right to enforce their own policies and procedures, including but not limited to cancellation or no-show policies, when such policies are in conflict with partnered or affiliated tee time agencies.
The NGCOA and the PGA of America founded the Golf USA Tee Time Coalition two years ago to help course operators manage their relationships with online tee time providers, which can be difficult to deconstruct and understand fully. To ensure this ecosystem works in symbiosis for all parties, the coalition shares guidelines and best practices, such as this Bill of Rights to use when partnering with providers (find more resources at teetimecoalition.org).
Just as the American Bill of Rights is regularly compromised or violated in some fashion by citizens and institutions (we are not a perfect society), we don’t expect that creating this document alone will change behavior. These are very complicated relationships. But it gives us a foundation upon which to craft our agendas and build technical standards for software companies and tee time marketers. It makes it pretty clear what and who we are advocating for.
What do you think? Comment below or find me on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/jaykaren and share your thoughts.
One of our members recently sent me a copy of an article written by the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board (“Google-Hotel Travelopoly”) about Google and hotels not playing fairly with online travel agencies (OTAs), such as Expedia, Travelocity, etc. Here is the gist from the WSJ perspective (my comments in parentheses), and please stick with this until the end. There is a message for the golf industry.
Hotels are complaining that OTAs, which make about 20% commission on each room booked, have begun squeezing profits from hotels, due in part to the rise of competition like AirBnB. (Wait…what? Seems the editorial board needs a history lesson. Considering that OTAs get 20% of the revenue of booked rooms and simultaneously facilitate discounting – and the resulting downward pressure on room prices – I’d say profit squeezing has been a permanent fixture in these relationships.)
OTAs place a heavy focus on discounting, even in high-demand situations.
Because of this squeezing, hoteliers are running to Google for assistance, since 60% of travel searches begin with Google, and Google is already a “frenemy” with the OTAs. Apparently now, Google and the hotels (the ones supplying the actual inventory to be sold) are both trying to use each other to benefit each other, possibly at the expense of bookings to the OTAs. The hope is that the hotels will yield more direct bookings from online search. (If you’re the hotelier, it’s hard to blame you for that.) Among other things, hoteliers are asking for Google’s help in preventing OTAs from using their hotel names in branded keyword advertising. (In other words, hypothetically, imagine Enchanted Evening Hotel in Springfield, IL, is trying to limit an OTA from advertising around the search term “Enchanted Evening Hotel in Springfield, IL.” A hotel, which might have to pay 20% to an OTA, doesn’t want the OTA to siphon off bookings from people who already know they want to explore and possibly stay at Enchanted Evening. Seems reasonable, no?)
OTAs are complaining they can’t use Enchanted Evening’s brand in certain ways in the URLs and ad titles that appear in the search results. (OTAs have a long history of trying to redirect travelers, who think they are going to Enchanted Evening’s website, to the OTA’s own listing of Enchanted Evening to book. Even if Enchanted Evening doesn’t sell rooms on the OTA anymore, they still have used clever bait-and-switch tactics off of Enchanted Evening’s brand. Some might call this fair game, but others don’t like such practices of marketing partners.) The OTAs, and the WSJ, believe this is all stifling competition, because it may be tying the hands of the OTAs.
So, that is what the Wall Street Journal editors think. One thing is for sure. Even though the hotel industry is ten years ahead of the golf industry with regard to online booking, they still haven’t figured out how to play well in the sandbox together. Because, ultimately, the hoteliers are willing to pay 20% for marketing and booking services, but not for the bookings they would reasonably have received without the help of the OTAs. And another thing is for sure. The marketing ground continues to shift under everyone’s feet. Whether it is Google or the OTAs that capture the attention of the consumer – and dollars from the merchant – course operators need to “stay woke” on these matters in our own industry.
There was a day when marketing your business felt 100% in your control. But it seems you can’t even be in business today, unless you’re dancing with the big boys. Small businesses can feel subject to or victim of the march forward of the big boys in the online marketing world. My advice? Play ball only if the terms are advantageous for you…capture data and get OBJECTIVE professional help to determine if it’s a win-win for you…and develop the strongest possible, one-on-one relationship directly with your customers. To carry the analogy one more step, if you’re going to dance with the big boys, be sure you are the one leading.
I shared the WSJ article with a few golf industry opinion leaders and practitioners in the online space, asking them to complete the sentence, “And the moral of the story for golf course operators is…”
Here are are the responses. If you have thoughts on this, feel free to add your comments below.
Bryan Lord, TeeSnap
Only you care most about your business. Any marketing company, OTA or GDS will put themselves ahead of the clients they represent. OTA’s are tools, like anything else. If you solely rely on someone else to run your business for you, the results will rarely be as significant as you taking control of it. The key is to keep limited inventory on OTAs solely for new customer acquisition, then market directly to that consumer subsequently.
Scott Merchant, Golfbook
While online golf (tee times) and online travel (flight, hotel, car) isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, there are good lessons to be learned through what is happening in their space. First, golf courses should spend more time and resources than anticipated on their online marketing strategy. Consumers are naturally migrating online for all of their purchasing decisions, and the golf course should be reacting to this change. Second, be prepared to adjust your strategy. What is true today might not be true tomorrow, as the travel OTAs and hotels are finding out. Third, Google is a powerful force in shaping consumer behavior. Their strategic changes will directly impact your business, so be alert to how their marketing platform works.
Jared Williams, Golf USA Tee Time Coalition
Pay close attention to Google. While all of the attention is on the business practices of online tee time agents, Google is and has already been exploiting its market dominance in the lodging and airline industry– we’ve seen that with Google Flights and Google Hotels. What is going to happen when Google becomes a competitor to the GolfNows and TeeOffs? Google could soon be a problem for both course operators and online tee time agents. If Google starts taking tee time reservations, they become rivals to the tee time distributors. Google already auctions ads to the highest bidder–typically a tee time distributor. The tee time distributors would probably rather not pay Google, but their business requires such. Golf courses don’t want companies bidding on their trademarks (whether they have contractual relationships with those companies or not). Perhaps this is an opportunity for the golf course and online tee time agent to come together and truly act like partners. Google isn’t doing anything to address these issues. Maybe we look to Amazon and eBay as an example– rather than competing against each other for adwords, they simply stopped giving money to Google (as it became more of a rival e-commerce site). Imagine what customer service and course management software would look like if the tee time companies took the money that they spend with Google and used it to make the golf course operation more efficient.
Rick Robshaw and Tom Robshaw, Club Prophet Systems
As an owner/operator, you simply can’t do it all. Whether you outsource the entire thing to a management company or you outsource given tasks to service providers — you will always have 3rd party vendors (in addition to employees) to help you get the job done. You need to do a cost/benefit analysis for that service and don’t forget to factor in opportunity costs and if that service is helping or hurting your business. Sure, you may be at the top of the Google search page, but is it returning enough profit to exceed what you pay for the listing? Are your customers now being targeted with sidebar and pop-up ads for one or more of your competitors? It can be as obfuscated as the barter argument. Sure, it costs nothing to give up those two hard‑to‑fill tee times. Then you turn around a year later and find your $65 golf course is now a $35 golf course. You have given away hundreds or even thousands of rounds. You are twice as busy as you were before but you are making half the money. You look back at what appeared to be a great idea while you are forced to dig in further just to pay the bills and you still have another year under contract with no way out. Don’t get trapped in long‑term contracts that can put you in a death spiral. Do your research with others who have gone down this path. Make service providers accountable for providing a return on the investment you make with them. Do not sign term agreements if possible. If you have to, at least insist on a fair way out of any and every service contract if the deal goes upside down.
JJ Kegan, JJKeegan+
While I understand the relationship to the golf industry’s bandits, I pondered the degree to which there would be a direct statistical correlation to the individual golf course owner. At a macro level, there is a correlation but I think at a micro level it breaks down. National brand recognition, historical capital invested, availability of debt & equity sources, sophistication of technology utilized and the loyalty programs established are differentiators to the individual golf course operators. Meta searches and auction ads are far beyond the intellectual grasp of the individual golf course owner and most management companies (sorry).
Andrew Wood, Legendary Marketing
The moral of the story for golf course operators is and always has been that the most important thing other than your ability to grow grass, is building a large proprietary email database. Third party vendors who provide websites do a shockingly poor job of helping clubs build their databases because its NOT in their best interest. Owners who fail to realize this are dumber than a rock! Clubs that spend the vast majority of their marketing on building a large email list and to a lesser extent a Facebook following are in a far better position to drive revenue than those that spend their money trying to drive revenue in other ways. This of course assumes that the content they send via email is not just mindless discount offer after discount offer and includes some real value to the reader whether or not he wants to take advantage of the offer that day.
Laura Dihel, EZLinks:
Choose good partners. Do the math. Though parallels are often drawn, the golf and hotel industries are remarkably distinct. While we share challenges such as variable pricing and expiring inventory; our consumer behavior patterns, the variance in the number of global brands and our third-party relationships are fundamentally different. It is important that golf course operators do the math when evaluating marketing partners rather than assuming symmetry between industries. The Google meta-search program provides a great example of why doing the math is important. Commission rates in the hotel industry for online travel agents range between 20 – 35%. These rates make the 10% Google meta-search commission an appealing alternative despite the fact that hotel operators have to provide Google with their best website rates and that commission is charged on cancelled reservations. Golf’s leading pay-for-performance travel agent, TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR, features a commission rate of only 15% for rounds booked and played (no charge for canceled rounds). With online tee time cancellation rates hitting double digits for many courses, the fact that commission is only due for rounds played is an important variable. TeeOff.com’s business model ensures it functions as a partner to golf course operators. With each reservation made, TeeOff.com provides consumer data to the course, including golfer email addresses, and ensures course partners stay in 100% control of their pricing. Partners should drive value. Choose good partners and do the math are foundational truths to building a great business.
Harvey Silverman, Silverback Golf Marketing:
Google as the dominant search gorilla in the room makes golf’s dominant search entities – GolfNow, TeeOff, and Golfbook– look like embryonic chimps. However, both GolfNow and TeeOff take advantage of what Google offers by purchasing ad words and course names to elevate their own URLs in golf search functions. Just like the major hotel players, they have the capital to do so and most golf courses…don’t. A general rule of thumb is that golf courses should budget 5% of annual revenue to marketing. I’ll bet about that same percentage – 5% – or less actually do. The moral of the story is first – protect your brand by trademarking it. And second, find a way to budget 5% of revenue to marketing and find the right marketing partners to stretch those precious dollars for maximum return. To not do either is to succumb to an ugly fate.