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September 2018

Ready, Tech, Go

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In today’s “I want it now” environment, only the tech savvy will survive

By Steve Eubanks

In another time, it would have been a problem. Chase McGowen, the general manager at Twelve Stones Golf Club in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, had just landed at Orlando International Airport when he got a notice on his phone. A shipment of beer had just arrived at Twelve Stones, 700 miles from the baggage claim area where McGowen stood with dozens of excited kids on their way to Disney.

“It wasn’t just any beer,” McGowen said. “It was a very special brand that was very popular and one that we had run out of.” 

With the afternoon rush about to begin at the golf course, McGowen could have done his best to find the least raucous spot in the airport to call his staff and walk them through how to check the beer into inventory, skew it, and get it ready to sell. 

“But because we’re now on a cloud-based operating system, I was able to check it in on my phone,” he said. “Within a couple of minutes, my assistant was able to sell it over the counter. That’s not something we could have done before.” 
McGowen, like a lot of operators, had no idea just what a difference effective technology could make. Not only does his cloud-based operating system (G1), let him check in inventory from a distance, according to McGowen, “I’m able to manage the tee sheet from home. On a busy Saturday or Sunday I’ll check the tee sheet early from home and make sure that my members are lined up to go out first, maybe move some things around so that I have times open to sell later in the day.

“I can now manipulate the tee sheet, the product inventory and the marketing and I can do it in 10 minutes on my cell phone from the 7th tee of a different golf course. The whole system makes everything more efficient.” 
And those efficiencies not only help make the golf course more profitable, they keep the customers happy and coming back.

“There is a lot of backroom stuff that the customers don’t see,” McGowan said. “But they see that their interactions are seamless; that they aren’t standing in line in front of a counter when they’d rather be hitting balls and getting ready to play. They aren’t having to explain to the person at the bar that they’d like six beers and a ham sandwich, which is the same thing they get every time they come in. We already know that and can have that ready for them when they arrive. We don’t have to be asked what kind of beverage they’d like or what kind of golf balls they’re looking for because we already have that information.

“The back end of today’s technology has made (the business) simpler for operators. Now we’re seeing it transfer directly to the customer experience. A golfer can go online, book a tee time, pay for that tee time, show up and check in immediately and be on his way. No waiting. No negativity. Today, we’re able to take two steps out of a five-step process.”

Even traditionalists find they are becoming dependent on the latest applications at the course.
“My starter is in his mid-70s, not exactly the most tech-savvy person in the world,” McGowen said. “But after a day and a half of training with a tablet that’s linked to the system through the cloud, we’re always ahead of time on the tee. So, (the use of technology) is all about our staff being able to get people in and out and playing their rounds without them complaining about time.” 

Operators are finding new ways to improve the golf experience across the boards.

“Technology touches every aspect of our business now,” said Del Ratcliffe, who runs five courses in Charlotte, North Carolina, and has been on the cutting edge of technology in the industry. “From the agronomy department, measuring how much moisture is in your soil, managing your cart fleet, managing your inventories, it’s not just about emailing promotions to your customers anymore. Technology touches everything.” 

Golf consumers have become tech savvy in every aspect of their lives as well.

“Unfortunately, the golf business has typically been a slow adapter when it comes to technology,” Ratcliffe said. “Our competition is no longer the golf course down the street. It’s every other transaction that a customer has in other industries. We’re being compared against the Amazon experience, against the airline check-in experience (where you check in for your flight on your phone), we’re being judged against all of that.

“So, we’re a little behind the curve in that even when we adopt technology in golf, it’s still not up to the experiences customers have in other industries, in other aspects of their lives. We might have a great system at a golf course, up-to-date technology, but it’s still not comparable to what the customer is used to from their airline or their favorite hotel or from Amazon.” 

Golf operators see this every day. They see it from the guy looking up the drivers in his pro shop’s demo bag on Ebay or TGW. They see it on the range from players in desperate need of instruction who tweet videos to far-flung instructors with a tour client or two instead of getting a lesson from the pro standing 20 feet away from them. They see it at places like GolfTec, where data-driven instruction has taken the place of ball-flight and feel. And most of all, they see it in the expectations of their regular customers who know what the 10:22 tee time along with a hamburger and beer costs at every facility in town. 

“The adoption, or lack thereof, of technology in the golf space is just going to speed up the current supply and demand problem,” said Bryan Lord, the CEO of Teesnap, one of the leading technology providers in the golf industry. “The strong will survive and the weak will not. Technology will likely be the difference.”
 
In any oversaturated market, efficiencies are like life rafts. The most advanced are able to withstand the heaviest storms. 

“A third of the golf industry is still operating on pen and paper,” Lord said to emphasize his point. “As we continue to build better tools, as consumers become more accustomed to those tools, it will speed up that supply and demand problem.” 

The problem with technology is always the speed with which consumers adapt. Two decades ago, no one could imagine buying books, coffee, dog food or music from a device the size of a coaster in your pocket. Now, there is a generation of high school kids who never set foot in a Borders bookstore or Tower Records.

Five years ago, no one could imagine checking in for a flight on your phone. Now, the idea of a paper boarding pass seems like it came out of the Stone Age.       

“Our industry has to be able to customize and tailor our outreach,” said Joe Livingood, senior vice president of operations for Billy Casper Management. “When I get an email from United Airlines promoting discounted flights to Eugene, Oregon, and I have never been to Eugene, Oregon, that’s not effective marketing. But I travel to Cincinnati, Ohio, all the time so that flight information would be relevant.

“Amazon does this better than anyone. Whatever you’ve searched on Amazon or whatever your buying history is with Amazon, ads for those items start showing up on the right rail when you’re on social media or when you’re reading the news or looking at the Weather Channel site.

“Being able to find information that you’re interested in and making it actionable is just a huge customer service. Too often, for example, people send out e-blasts and think they’ve used technology effectively. But if I get an email for a special being run on Tuesday morning, I want to say, ‘Guys, I play golf on Saturday and Sunday. Why are you sending me something for Tuesday? I am not that golfer.’ That communication has no value to me. After a couple of times, I’m going to place that same label on the facility because their communications aren’t relevant to me. But if it’s targeted to my preferences, then I’m going to be engaged and pay attention.” 

Ratcliffe got this early. “I developed the in-house systems we use today to bring some of what Amazon does to the golf business,” he said. “We have a team that is amazingly good at analyzing transactional data to say, ‘if you like this thing, you might like these other things.’ We developed an automated marketing platform that is an algorithm based on transactional data.” 

Ratcliffe also developed a loyalty program based on his own experiences, good and bad, with hotels, airlines and rental cars. “Just for joining the loyalty program you get a preferred rate every time you play,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything. Once you’re in the program, the rate is automatic. It also treats all your purchases like the airline industry where you accumulate points. But at various levels within the points system, you get certain perks. We call it Perks Plus. The first level of perks is free range balls every time you play. The next level is a free hotdog and soft drink every time you play 18 holes. And the final perk level of a free golf cart. So you qualify based on your activity level, something we would never be able to do without technology. And there were very few technology providers who could do what we wanted to do with our loyalty program when we put it into place.” 

Now there are a half dozen providers who could integrate a loyalty program into a club’s system. That’s the great thing about technology. Whether it’s cell phones (the first models were well over $1,000 and the size of a thermos bottle), computers or operating systems, competition brings efficiencies up and prices down. A one-off golf course can, indeed, install a turnkey transactional-based management system at a reasonable cost.

“That’s out business,” Lord said. “We are keeping the mom-and-pop operations viable and profitable through technology.”
It’s also a must. 

“Some people in golf are simply going to be left behind,” Livingood said. “Those who are in the dark ages, cash register, point-of-sale, at-the-counter type of operations have to upgrade to customer-relationship-management platforms. Not for convenience. For survival.”   

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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