So, I did something this past weekend I haven’t done in 10 years. I went on a guys’ golf trip. Seven of us played 72 holes over three days in North Carolina’s Sandhills. There was beer-drinking. There was joke-telling. There might have been a little gambling. And I might have strung together three rounds in the 70s, something I’ve never done before. But, of course, the “industry guy” in me was making observations and mental notes about the golf operations I was experiencing.
I want to share something I admired about two of the courses I played: Talamore Golf Resort in Southern Pines and West End’s Dormie Club. What struck me about these two very different facilities is how you get a “feel for the place” once you cross the threshold. Each has a unique style and experience it’s trying to project, and each works. Both offer great golf, but the flavors are quite different. For Talamore, it’s about being a little silly and casual. The resort uses a llama as its mascot, and has images of the llama in many of its posters, as well as in the logo and other marketing materials. You get the feeling you can really relax here, and the several groups of guys—all who looked like golf package buyers—hamming it up loudly was evidence of that implied permission to just have fun. And we did.
Talamore lightens things up with their mascot llama.
Dormie Club, which has a stellar reputation as a real “golfer’s golf course,” seemed pretty intentional about being minimalist about the experience. Basically, it’s no frills and all about the golf. The pro shop and F&B shack are tiny. The pin position map only shows two pin positions—front or back. The signage looked like it was cut from picket fence boards. Pine straw was the fanciest adornment to the grounds. The few staff members we saw were incredibly friendly. It was apparent to me that even the stark minimalism was very intentional—the club is attempting to curate a very particular kind of experience.
I think one of the hardest jobs of a golf course owner and operator is to determine how you appeal to the masses—the millennial and the baby boomer, the women and the men, the new golfer and the experienced. That challenge will never go away, but those businesses that seem to stand out among the crowd have committed to something unique about the experience at their business. And committing to something unique is taking a risk, because you fear alienating some portion of the crowd. I admire people who take such risks, because it creates an impression. And that impression may lead to customers talking about you and returning.
How are you intentional about the customer experience? Does someone have a “feel for the place” when they walk onto your property?
Bookstores. Small ones, independently owned and operated. Remember those? You know, the ones you would walk into and feel the weight of history’s greatest authors looking down upon you from the shelves, while you looked around in awe at all you didn’t know. A place where you could browse for hours.
As a kid, it was a special treat to visit Oxford Books on Pharr Road in Atlanta. When I earned my driver’s license in 1990, I would occasionally venture into the metro area from the suburbs and go to the coolest places, including Oxford. When traveling to cities across the country in the subsequent years, I’d be delighted to stumble upon local, indie bookstores. But it seemed over the years that the bookstore landscape became dominated by Barnes & Noble and other big chains. And then came Amazon and the Kindle. Talk about a world being disrupted.
The media has long written about the downfall, demise and death of the corner bookstore (sound familiar?). Local media pounced on the stories of mom-and-pops going out of business, contrasting the meteoric rise of Bezos and Amazon. And yet, upon closer examination, one will see a rebounding and thriving industry. Since the recession, the number of indie booksellers has been on the rise, as well as book sales at these stores, which still pepper the American map.
Not without their perennial challenges and disrupters, independent bookstore owners are evolving. According to my friend Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, bookstore owners are embracing operations and marketing technology, diversifying what they do with child literary camps, travel services, coffee shops and community events. They’re also buoyed by the “Buy Local” movement, which is indeed working. Lastly, the publishers and other vendors to booksellers are recognizing the importance of symbiosis with their client bookstores and offering more favorable terms and programs. They understand the importance and role of the bookstore within the reading universe.
Pivot to golf, and here are the parallels: owners and operators are looking at their facilities in new ways. We all need to get behind any promotions to get Americans outside and moving (our version of “Buy Local”). And our industry vendors need to look at their golf course clients as partners, upon whose success should mean their own success. Let’s change the narrative out there, folks. But in order to do that, we should also change the reality.
What do you see evolving inside or outside of golf that we could learn from?
What do Presidents Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump all have in common?
They’re arguably the full spectrum of conservative to liberal, but they all played golf while in office. Unapologetically, actually. Wilson logged more than a thousand rounds while serving as Commander in Chief! Why on earth do presidents get slammed for doing what we all know is so good?
My theory is most Americans—and the media who dishes up the criticism—don’t understand the amazing value of spending four hours on a golf course with your fellow man or woman. People who don’t play golf only see it as recreation, and the common misconception that it’s a wealthy person’s game doesn’t help. It feeds the schadenfreude the mainstream media seems to have about our game and industry.
Andrew Wood of Legendary Marketing says if we change the narrative about golf, we can change the results. I agree, although the experience at the course needs to evolve as well. The NGCOA has been a leader in creating a narrative about the value of playing golf for decades now. We launched a grassroots advertising program called “Get Linked. Play Golf” nearly 20 years ago. It was arguably the first trade association response to the impending supply and demand problems. GLPG eventually morphed into Play Golf America and the other subsequent industry-wide programs.
One of my favorite ads from GLPG was a picture of a senior executive dispensing advice to a younger professional after presumably finishing their putts on a green. The tagline was, “Learned more about the client in four hours than the guys in the office did in four years. Get Linked. Play Golf.” Yes! There’s no question in my mind that relationships are built, things are learned and missions are accomplished by playing golf with others. Rand Paul, previously a severe critic of President Trump, offered a pretty conciliatory tone after recently taking in a round of golf with him. Do you think the two got to know each other a little better on the course? You bet.
Let’s be unapologetic about the value of golf and the fact that presidents like to play it. It’s so much more than merely recreation. Republicans and Democrats on the course. Imagine that! Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan might actually smile down on us. Would love to see a sitting president invite some women into the foursome. That would be an improvement.
It’s up to us, folks. Non-golfers and the media aren’t going to change their tune if we all remain quiet. Let’s be golf evangelists!
One year ago, the The Wall Street Journal printed its piece, “Americans Want to Play Golf—Until They Try It.” The article suggested golf courses are like gas stations: “Come or don’t come. Here’s the price.” Implicit in that statement was that the experience at golf courses might be seen as a nothing-special commodity no better than your typical gas station.
So, one year later, an observation of a gas station development here on Daniel Island has me thinking about golf. I’m part of a 500-member “Daniel Island Dads” Facebook group, where most of the posts are about what HVAC company we use, weight benches for sale or getting angry about bad drivers in the community. But lately, there have been many posts about the Refuel facility that recently opened. In essence, Refuel is a locally owned and operated gas station with five locations around Charleston. But if you look more closely, it’s oh-so-much-more than that, and it has a ton of guys on Daniel Island buzzing.
What are they buzzing about? The amazing cuts of beef the owner sells. The wine and beer tastings. The live music and free steak nights. The beef jerky. The fireplaces, big-screen TVs, and the Green Egg outside for customer enjoyment. The fishing bait they’re going to carry, as a result of a discussion on DI Dads. Talk about being involved in the local community, and being responsive! Yes, the owner is doing some interesting stuff. But don’t underestimate the value of him being active on this Facebook group.
Golf’s comparison to gas stations last year wasn’t a positive thing. But if a course was compared today to what I see happening at the local Refuel, it would be the highest compliment. It’s obvious the owner isn’t looking at his business as a typical gas station. He’s found ways to keep the regular customer happy (give me my gas, my car wash, my beer and sodas), while bringing a real fresh and progressive bent to the business. The bottom line is the local community is buzzing about it, and better yet, they’re frequenting it. I can guarantee you locals are now eschewing the nothing-special gas station we’ve been using for years. I mean, my goodness—my in-laws went to a wine tasting at a gas station! Apparently the Refuel in nearby Mount Pleasant has some of the best fried chicken around.
For a little inspiration inside golf, I encourage you to see what owner Giff Breed is doing at Independence Golf Club in Midlothian, Virginia. I’m not saying every golf course needs to do things radically different. But I think we stand a better chance of growing, rather than retreating, if we get more responsive to what’s happening under our very noses. More family and kids parties. Local craft beer events. Cocktails and golf for local women’s networks. Outdoor yoga in a quiet corner of the property weekday mornings when the traffic is light.
What are you doing to truly connect to your community? How are you responding? How are you thinking like a gas station?
The NGCOA is headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina, where tourism is off the charts. Over the past few years, it’s won about every award imaginable, including top U.S. city to visit by Travel + Leisure. Southern hospitality reigns supreme here. The success of Charleston is due in no small part to the intentionality with which the entire city approaches hospitality and service.
For many years, the local CVB has conducted city-wide customer service training for all the frontline employees at hotels, restaurants, tour companies and attractions. Most hotel chains and independent businesses with healthy budgets likely have their own customer service training programs, but I’m convinced this sharp, city-wide focus to be the absolute best at taking care of visitors has caused Charleston to leapfrog so many other destinations around the country.
How does this apply to golf? We in the industry need to focus more time and attention on customer retention strategies and tactics—doing what we can to close the back door. I’m convinced that if the industry became intentional about upping its hospitality and service game, we’d stand a good chance at staving off the attrition we’ve been experiencing. Having previously overseen a portfolio of some of the nation’s best boutique lodging properties, where we had a 250-point inspection of each property and the guest experience, I became intimately familiar with hospitality from the booking experience all the way through check-out and follow up.
One disadvantage of being a small, independent property—not associated with a chain or conglomerate—is the lack of formal service training available to frontline employees. In golf, the management companies, as well as resorts and clubs with big budgets, likely have their own training programs. But most of golf is played, and subsequently lost, at businesses that aren’t tapped into a customer service training system. Through research and anecdote, we know the relatively unwelcoming culture in golf (real or perceived) is what keeps people away. And that’s something I want to examine closely for remedy.
We know the key to future success and profitability won’t be in finding ways to cut more costs. It’ll be about stimulating more rounds and revenue out of the players coming through our front doors. Getting patrons coming back more frequently than they are today. Doing this will require changes in behavior at the front-line, customer level. We have customers on property for one to five hours, or more, which tells me there are ample opportunities to give good service. We need to get intentional about exploiting this captive time with our customers to deliver amazing service. But I’m not sure most course operators think they need ongoing customer service training, and that’s what I’m worried about.
What do you think? Will getting intentional about better hospitality and customer service be the key to long-term success? After all, for many people, it’s not just about getting the little white ball in the hole. But how? How do we deliver training to the frontline people at independent facilities around the nation?
I welcome your thoughts.
I do my best to pay attention to trends in pop culture. Not because I’m a trendy guy—I wear the same jeans and sweatshirt just about every weekend—but to see if anything looks promising that could be applied to the golf industry.
Ironically, one of the “trends” for the past several years has been to be retro; to bring back those elements of style and culture that were once mainstream, but now seem to be hip, cool and above the mainstream. Some call it being “hipster” or “old school.” One example might be the games from our childhood being sold in Target as retro versions (i.e. Monopoly, Sorry! or Battleship). Another example, which takes retro too far in my opinion, is to see men with long, curated beards and curly moustaches, as though they’re living in the 19th century. Hey, to each his own, but it just looks like an anachronism. Sorry, I digress.
One example of “what’s old is new again” in the travel industry is camping or RVing. Family camping trips and Winnebago campers were all the rage decades ago, but then there seemed to be a time period when all of that went out of style. Timeshares, cruises, airplanes and resorts filled the travel space. But camping and RVing have come back into pop culture. Campgrounds, Airstreams and RV parks are all the rage again, but now with some updated amenities. There’s even a word for upscale, glamorous camping: glamping! People are even rediscovering train travel, as another throwback experience.
I have a friend who always seems to be one step ahead of the trends. He bought and sold web domain names 20 years ago and made a killing. He bought and ran a New England B&B and made a killing. A longtime craft beer enthusiast, he also started a Vermont restaurant and brewery and made a killing. And last year, he bought a small campground and RV park. You know what I’m expecting next, right? By the way, the guy only just turned 40.
I encounter a lot of people in golf who pine for the old days. The good ol’ days, when guys were in the parking lot before the sun on a Saturday morning. When golf pros could go out and play with the customers, rather than sit behind a desk crafting the next email campaign. When hitting 40,000 rounds was no big deal. Some may believe if we just do things like we used to, then we’ll get the results we used to. That maybe golf will make a comeback, like all of those other industries.
But here’s the secret: Those things never went away. Even when it didn’t appear popular, people still traveled by train, went to campgrounds, played Monopoly, stayed at B&Bs, grew strange styles of facial hair and drank beer. Some people today may think golf looks retro, and some may think we even look like an anachronism. No, the numbers aren’t what they were 20 years ago. But we’re not going anywhere. Regardless, let’s not be complacent in 2017. Look at yourself in the mirror, and look at your business. Then ask, “What am I doing differently this year?” Seriously. What are you going to do?