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July 2020

The Forces of Innovation and Change

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Will the Industry’s Great Experiment Continue?
By David Gould

Young people working in golf operations who end up having long careers in this industry will never forget the spring and summer of 2020.

It will go down as a period when golf absorbed the stunning disruption of a full-on pandemic—a force that preyed on the existing problems of the business but also revealed a previously unrecognized strength, built-in social distancing. Suddenly wide fairways emerged as a major public-health positive.

Out of that previously hidden virtue came some running room. Golf facilities turned into laboratories for new ways to adjust, adapt and survive. Course operators found themselves game-planning on the fly, concerned about revenues, worker safety, customer relations, golf’s public image and the shifting societal norms that flash a green light here, a stop sign there and an ever-present caution flag.

Amid so much disruption, managers have shown a bright new streak of innovation. One golf operations expert, Damon DeVito of Affinity Management, expresses a hope that the creativity this pandemic has demanded will become a habit within the industry.

“Golf managers have a lot of understandable reasons for keeping new ideas on the shelf rather than risk implementing them,” says DeVito, managing director of the Charlottesville, Virginia.-based Affinity. “All that acreage, all that square footage, all those employees, the influence of the weather—it’s risky enough just staying where you are, which makes any potential experiments pretty daunting.”

And yet he has seen the industry act in nimble, resourceful ways since the coronavirus first arrived. “I’m proud of our industry in this moment,” says DeVito. “We’ve shown unity and creativity—which we’re not historically known for. And our sharing of information has been excellent. The communication channels within the business had been steadily improving. When we’ve needed them the most they’ve been there.”

The sport’s relative safety for participants has pumped up demand in locations throughout the country.

“We’re busier than we’ve ever been, selling tee times,” says Doug Suse, head golf professional at Stone Creek Golf Club in Oregon City, Oregon. His satisfaction with “killing it as far as green fees go” is offset by the shutdown of his food-and-beverage operation, along with lower range revenue and the cancellation of so many group events. Before the contagion struck, Stone Creek was reaching the final stages of a mobile app development project and simultaneously switching its POS system to new software. One early result of that switchover has been cleaner online booking. For example, customized pricing for seniors or juniors now gets triggered properly every time, eliminating the need for post-booking adjustments. Suse’s operation is now set up so that his longtime wish for fully dynamic pricing of the tee sheet could be quite easily executed.

But that’s out on the horizon, as the pandemic continues to prioritize avoidance of viral contagion. “We’ve got our energy focused on all the problem-solving necessary to keep people safe,” says Suse. “If there’s something we could do that’s good for business but compromises safety even a little, we’re not going to do it.”

The 2020 season finds courses across the U.S. in a situation of needing to survive but potentially poised to thrive. The well-known Dallas muni, Keeton Park Golf Course, is shoehorning same-day golfers into the 6 p.m. hour of the tee sheet, if it can find space for them at all. In years past there would be openings this time of year starting at about 3 p.m. Meanwhile the course’s award-winning instruction program is operating near capacity, even as it waits for permission to resume group teaching.

“It’s the same as what’s happening for us on the golf side—people are knocking down our doors for instruction,” says Ty Martinez, a member of the golf staff who handles both teaching and golf-ops duties. His father, director of golf Tony Martinez, is known nationally for his teaching and coaching skills and especially for his pioneering work in player development. The Martinez team at Keeton Park is studying two changes on the societal landscape—virus challenges for other sports and the increasing normalcy of work-from-home employment policies.
“We’re seeing a lot of new golfers coming steadily in,” says Martinez. “It’s the 30-year-old guy who played when he was in high school and since then hasn’t had time for golf. Now his adult soccer league is cancelled, or else he’s working from home so he doesn’t have to commute and he can slip out a little early for golf—either to play nine or 18 or to work on his game. We’re seeing it as the perfect storm for leveraging this new demand so we can grow participation.”

At Cyprian Keyes Golf Club in central Massachusetts, general manager David Frem is analyzing how consistently well he and his team have been conducting their own version of the Covid-19 experiment. He’s also looking ahead with questions about how his basic operating conditions might change, when and if the virus fades away.

“Our regulars and occasional players showed up in big numbers when we opened and they were on board with whatever we had to do to ensure safety,” says Frem. “At the same time, we’ve seen a lot of new faces, which is great. We want to retain them. But they’ve never experienced our normal service culture. We can’t carry their golf bags for them and we have to speak firmly to them about our protocols. So, the newcomers don’t know the human touch and the warmth that we bring to this job every day. They see we’re conscientious and capable, but is that enough?”

Long active in the New England Golf Course Owners Association, Frem has been comparing notes with his peers concerning their newfound pricing power and wondering if it will prove durable. The digital tee sheet at Cyprian Keyes is outdated, so switching to 100 percent online and prepaid green fees hasn’t been possible. But rates have gone up, in part through elimination of early-bird and twilight discounts. Cart fees for a single rider went up $5, and overall there’s been greater green-fee variation over the course of the week—in Frem’s favor. “The fact is we’ve raised our rates, and we don’t plan to drop them,” says Frem. “We’re gathering a lot of price and revenue data that will probably show us we’ve been underpricing our product.”

Going to prepaid-only via online booking is a move that Beekman Golf Course in Poughkeepsie, New York, has been able to pull off. General Manager Jon Phillips, who’s also a co-owner of the 27-hole facility, felt compelled to enact this policy and now dearly hopes he can keep it in force.

“Warm weather got here early and just about every activity besides golf was banned,” says Phillips. “We held a meeting to figure out how we could handle the rush while keeping ourselves and the golfers safe. We decided that having every staff member picking up the same phone and having golfers come into the shop for check-in were unsafe practices. We found a way to avoid both.”

For Phillips and his staff, the telephone’s silence was golden—keeping it that way has emerged as a new priority.  “I keep thinking about the 1,500 calls we get every week in the summertime,” says Phillips. “If we can stick with our payment policy, now that customers are getting in the habit, we can get down to maybe 500 calls a week, or fewer, which would make running our business 100 times simpler.”

A few innovations, whether devised by course management or mandated by government, have proven to be counter-productive. The most obvious is tee interval extension—required splits of 15, 20 or even 30 minutes. Courses that have been able to discontinue that practice, such as the clubs and daily-fees under DeVito’s Affinity brand, quickly proved the logic of doing so. “We were much better off moving people onto the open spaces of the golf course rather than keeping them in parking lots or any other staging area,” says DeVito. “Super-long tee-time intervals were causing problems, not solving them.”

Another practice widely observed is the elimination of shotgun starts—indeed it’s one of the primary reasons that group outings and tournaments have gone on the shelf. Affinity’s veteran managers got together and brainstormed for a way to get shotguns back in the playbook. “We worked on the problem for quite a while but in the end our solution was pretty simple and easy to execute,” says DeVito.
It starts with a message to all participants that they should check in online via GolfGenius or some other software platform. Upon arrival they will see golf carts spread out across the parking lot, each with an empty space adjoining. The golfer backs into one of those spaces and straps his or her clubs onto their selected cart, then exits the parking lot through one of several designated “gates,” according to whichever hole that particular cart is assigned to.

“There is no registration table,” says DeVito, “and all the items or information players normally receive at registration are loaded on their cart already. As they pass through the gate, a staff member affixes a placard with their name onto the cart and gives them directions out to their starting hole. The sponsor presence we’re used to at registration can’t happen, so all that gets done through stations and contests out on the course. When it’s over the process reverses itself, and the player drives his vehicle out of the lot.”

It goes without saying that there is no awards dinner on this shotgun tournament’s pandemic-truncated agenda, but “the dinner after a tournament is pretty unpopular with the players, anyway,” DeVito says, giving voice to what is apparently a known but unremarked-upon truth of the outing business.

As May gave way to June, forced closures of big-box retailers and on-course golf shops were lifted in most locations. Be that as it may, many courses whose greengrass shops have been operating e-commerce online extensions were thankful for the sales volume they did during the early months of the pandemic and more committed than ever to marketing this feature.

Chris Jester, the director of golf at Mossy Oak Golf Club in West Point, Mississippi, says his online shop is “more popular than ever” and increasingly easy to manage, as Shopify and other retail technology keeps improving. “Whether your physical shop is open or closed, you can still pick up significant added sales” through the e-commerce channel, he has found. One tip Jester would put forth: Don’t create a digital-only line of goods, separate from what the shop itself stocks. “We did that at first, then switched to matching the two product lines,” says Jester. “The result was a 700 percent increase in merchandise sales online.”

One of this industry’s most longstanding challenges, pace of play, has been tricky to generalize about in the age of Covid-19. At Keeton Park in Dallas—a shorter course that regulars can navigate in four hours—newer golfers have caused some bottlenecks, according to Ty Martinez.  Many other daily fee operators have cited single riding, no bunker raking and no flagstick pulling as contributors to an average round some 15 or 20 minutes shorter in duration. Some see an opportunity to use this strange period of time to confront slow play in the future—one idea being mentioned is the option to designate certain days as  “no-raking, no-pin-pulling,” just the way you might put up a sign for winter rules or leaf rules.

Not long after Affinity Management solved its shotgun-start problem, Damon DeVito was thinking about the dining space at one of his private clubs. “I pictured a fast food-style drive-up window that would be open all the time,” he recalls. Right away he nixed the idea as too far-out. “Then I caught myself and went back to asking why not. How do I know the members wouldn’t absolutely love it?”

DeVito vowed in that moment to catch himself whenever a creative idea came to mind and got dismissed for no reason other than golf’s habitual risk-averse approach. Those young managers cutting their teeth during the strange days of 2020 might naturally be making the same kind of vow. Decades from now they may look back and notice that they never quit experimenting with new ways of doing things.

 

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