Competing for Customers

 As seen in Golf Business March/April 2022 

With restrictions easing in 2022, how will you adjust to maintain your customer base?

By Michael Williams:

The explosion of interest in golf during the pandemic has been well-documented. According to the National Golf Foundation, the industry has seen double-digit growth in number of players and rounds played, a welcome silver lining to a period that has otherwise been a dark cloud of epic proportions.

But the prosperity has also presented its own challenges, with perhaps the greatest of them being the ability for golf facilities to attract and retain staff. It is an issue that virtually every service and retail business is currently facing. Many employees who were furloughed during the height of the pandemic shutdown in 2020 have either not returned to the workplace or have resigned, and have chosen to be extremely picky about what they choose to do with their time.

The term “Great Resignation” was coined by Anthony Klotz, a professor of management in Texas, who in May 2021 said a wave of resignations was coming as people digested the lessons of lockdown and reimagined what normal life should look like. Many people have decided it’s time for a change after working from home with no commute and more time with family. Some people may have made the decision in light of generous government benefits put in place during the pandemic, and others were probably just hunting for a better salary. The other side of the coin is that many people are exhausted and burned out after working too hard for too long during the pandemic. Take junior bankers, for example. Long, grueling hours were always part of the job, but that seemed to intensify over the past year-and-a half as the pace of deal making quickened. Many entry-level bankers decided enough was enough. In response, banks boosted starting salaries past $100,000 in a bid to lure and retain talent. But even that hasn’t always been enough.

More than ever the key to attracting and retaining people comes down to three factors: a reliable pipeline of recruits, an onboarding process that communicates an attractive corporate culture and the possibility for real advancement and long-term success. As many employers will attest, these are easier said than done.

In order to get an understanding of what the hiring process is really like these days, I decided to go undercover and go through the process from initial interview to onboarding to get a feel for what the realities are for both prospective employees and for the prospective employer.

I chose to apply for a sales manager position at Renditions Golf Course, located about 30 minutes from Washington, DC. Renditions is a course composed of replicas of famous holes in championship golf, including Amen Corner at Augusta National. I happened to have been at the opening of Renditions 20 years ago, so there was some symmetry and some nostalgia in applying for the position.

Golf has always been a game that's competed against other activities that take 90 minutes or more. That could be you going to the mall, it could be watching a movie, it could be a video game, or it could be just sitting around and browsing on your smartphone. But people have had options and golf has been one of their least favorite options for years. Going into 2020, rounds and number of players had been stagnant for quite some time, along with a declining inventory of golf courses.

But then: COVID. Golf has seen record growth in the last 18 to 24 months, with some industry experts reporting growth in rounds and players by 30% or more. A lot of it comes from the fact that people were looking for safe outdoor activities and they discovered (or re-discovered) golf. But as a new season begins, the warmer weather and increasing levels of vaccination are leading to safer indoor spaces. Jurisdictions are relaxing their safety protocols. This means that once again, owners and operators are going to be looking for ways to successfully compete for the time and disposable income of the millions of people who so recently discovered the game. The good news is that the benefits of golf that have always been there are still there and they really have never wavered. And some of them are more important to people than ever.

For a population that's increasingly looking for ways to improve the health and wellness movement, golf provides benefits. When we look at being outdoors, being in fresh air, golf definitely has that. When you walk 18, you're walking six miles, maybe more on some golf courses… and even walking nine gives a great deal of benefit from a health and fitness standpoint. And studies show that people who play golf have a better state of mind and live longer than people who don't.

The game is also perfect for groups of people to interact safely. It’s a great place to meet friends outdoors, again, during this period where it's very difficult to go to the usual places to meet in bars, pubs, restaurants. And golf courses are available almost anywhere in the United States.

So how do you keep this group of golfers now that you have indoor facilities opening and all of the old competition coming back? Owners and operators must take a look at what they have on the golf course and make sure that the experience they offer is as attractive as those found outside the golf course.

A practical exercise would be to take a look at the typical traditional profit centers on a golf course and evaluate as a separate experience. With driving ranges and practice facilities, it makes sense for owner-operators to take a look at ways to make that experience more exciting and engaging. Toptracer, for example, is one of countless companies that are providing enhanced up-to-date, modern experiences that let people have fun while being on the driving range.

We know that people are looking for the health and wellness benefits now of being at the golf course; why not extend that to the offerings at the food and beverage facility? The typical hamburger, hot dog, and french fry offerings don’t have to be eliminated, but this new cohort of golfers could prefer to see other options like a variety of healthy salads and vegetarian or gluten-free options. If they don't have to leave the property to get something to eat, then they can stay at your property longer and that means more potential revenue.

Another item to examine is your adult beverage options.  The microbrewery phenomenon is still going strong and micro distilleries are now emerging everywhere. Having tastings and menu offerings that are centered around microbrews and micro distilleries could bring a new and compelling experience to the facility.

Owner/operators can also consider the concept of doing one food item the best that anybody's ever seen and making that work to your advantage as an experience at the facility. I worked for a golf course in Washington, DC that specialized in burgers. When you came in, you didn’t have a thousand things to order from, but we had award-winning burgers. People came just for the burger, and many of them came back for the golf.

Many people thinking about starting to play golf have the impression that becoming good is difficult. And you know what? They're right, but to become good enough to play is not. That's a fallacy that needs to be broken. PGA professionals and other teaching professionals need to take a look at how they teach the game to beginners, to quickly give them the confidence to come to the facility, get on the golf course, and want to improve. Finding new inventive techniques to get people on the course, hitting the ball better and feeling more comfortable faster will be a key to keeping people in the game and making them love it just a little bit more every time.

Most owner/operators don’t think of the pro shop as an experience, but they ought to since it is the first thing golfers see, and represents a considerable investment in space and inventory. Take a moment to put aside preconceived notions about how that space can be used.  How many sets of clubs do you really need to stock and display, if any?  Do you really need to have 17 different options of logo golf shirts? Are there other things that could be sold in the pro shop? For that matter, why call it a pro shop or clubhouse? I've been talking with some golf course facilities that have replaced virtually all their retail with a quality simulator and are generating three times the revenue in the same footprint. It makes sense to take an honest look at what is supposed to be a revenue-generating space.

And then there's the on-course experience where people are going to spend between two and four hours. With so many new players, it is a challenge ensuring that new players and the experienced player get the experience that they're paying their dollar for. Have lots of tee boxes, lots of options for people, for families, for beginners, all of those things.

Signage that is informative and has a sense of humor is a great tool. It's an effective way to translate information when people can't be there when you have the number of on-course ambassadors and on-course representatives that we used to have.  Provide scorecards for alternative games that don’t necessarily adhere to the strict rules of golf. Let people know that it's okay to retrieve a shot from a bunker and put it in the fairway, especially if you have never practiced a bunker shot! Make playing a hole a binary game: If you got to the green in regulation, you scored a point and you have nine points that are available in a nine-hole round. The key is encouraging people to get around the course in a timely fashion while experiencing some success because that's what brings people back. And as we advance in the game and have our experiences now, we shouldn’t forget what it's like for a beginner. And then you'll probably try to make that experience less painful for that person. If you want to see them coming back again and again. And there is the growing trend of letting people buy alternative portions of golf. If your routing allows for it, why not think about three or six-hole rounds, which is plenty of golf for most people in terms of time and budget.

Coming off of the winter of Omicron, the competition is going to be fierce as people begin to go out again. The game can't rely on a pandemic to keep its numbers up. We need to be creative and responsive. It needs to show appreciation to a golfing public that has just come to the game by giving them a fun experience that's a great value for its money and for its time. This audience has had a taste of golf and they like what they've tasted. Owner/operators that offer quality experiences all across their facility will likely see them savor the flavor of golf for years and years to come.