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February 2020

Living the Life(Style)

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Pope Golf Finds Game’s Future Outside of Golf

By Steve Eubanks

Keith Pope, founder of Pope Golf and Pope Properties in Sarasota, Florida, is celebrating his 38th year in the golf business by encouraging operators to branch out beyond the game.
 
“The future of the golf business is developing lifestyle management outside of golf,” Pope said.
He should know. The Florida native has seen the business from every side. He started his career as an assistant pro in Jacksonville, Florida, then earned his first head professional job at the municipal course at Fernandina Beach. From there he moved to Arizona to open Troon North.

“I was with Dana Garmany at the beginning of Troon Golf,” he said. “So when you think about it, I was part of the staff that really changed golf. Prior to Troon North, you either played a private golf course, a municipal golf course or a resort. We changed that with the first really upscale public course. We opened the doors charging $100 a round when you could play the best public golf course in Florida for $30. A lot of people wondered who on earth was going to pay $100 for a round of golf. But Troon North was full from day one.” 

That upscale daily model, along with shifting demographics and societal attitudes, continues to transform the game in ways that few in the industry have completely grasped. 

“A lot more people who live in golf communities do not belong to the golf club than those who do belong,” Pope said. “If you think about it today, a golf community that has 300 homes does not have enough residents to support the club. But when those communities were built, people said: Why would anyone live in here if they don’t belong to the club?”

That thinking seems silly today but there are countless older clubs struggling to overcome that original model.

“I do think you’ll see older golf courses with capital needs continue to close,” Pope said. “In places like Florida where thousands of residents are moving in every day, the cost of land is making golf less economical. So I expect more of them to go away. I also don’t think you’ll see too many new golf courses being built unless they include a lot of the lifestyle amenities that people want. You can bundle golf as part of an overall lifestyle package. But expecting golf to drive things, those days are gone.”

Lifestyle bundling, which Pope believes is golf’s only path forward, includes many things that traditional operators never considered.

“Today I have 12 golf courses, two consulting agreements, and one course under construction,” Pope said. “But I have a total of about 60 properties where I manage homeowners’ associations where there is pickleball, pools, heath clubs, restaurants, clubhouses, that sort of thing. We manage all of those. The lifestyle component drives the business. 

“Look at all the different businesses you have (if you’ve managed) golf. You have food service, so you’ve run a restaurant. You have a golf shop so you’ve run a retail outlet. You’ve maintained an outdoor sports area, and we manage a number of sports complexes now as part of our community management. You’ve got five or six different businesses within the golf business that allows you to branch out and do other things. For example, we manage a number of full-service spas. We have a lifestyle department within our company that does nothing but handle the lifestyles within the communities we manage. To have everything under one umbrella where we can manage the community amenities, the community activities, the HOA along with the golf. That’s a great advantage.

“There are other people who manage community golf but they don’t do the other things – the lifestyle management within the community. That separates us. We talked to a group here recently about managing an ice-skating rink, which makes sense because we’re really in the lifestyle and entertainment management business. That fits our model.” 

Pope believes his model is not just the future of golf management, it might be the business’ salvation. 

“Look, I have 25-year-old twin boys,” he said. “They’re not going to be members of a (golf) club. You have to give people reasons beyond golf to belong.

“What clubs need more than anything today is my lifestyle department. You have to give people a reason to be engaged with the club. In our bundled golf communities, we might have as many as 60 or 70 different types of clubs within each community. We host signature events quarterly that are over-the-top parties for the people within our communities. We put on healthy lifestyle events where we bring in a nutritionist and a cardiologist and other folks to talk to people. We will bring in different people every month. Those kinds of clubs fill up.

“If you’re at a club and you don’t have resources to put in a fitness center, you don’t have to do that. The idea is to have fitness activities that may or may not correspond to a fitness center.” 
Pope, who moved from Arizona to Colorado to Florida to Hawaii while with Troon, has no ambitions to expand his operations beyond the southeast. There is plenty of business between Orlando, Tampa and Naples. He has one club he leases in Asheville, North Carolina, but that is as far from home as he ventures.

But his experience had led to a philosophy that transcends geography. Pope knows in is heart that providing services outside of golf is the only way to save the game and many of its cherished courses.

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

 

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