By Steve Eubanks, Contributor, Golf Business
Rarely can anything be called a universal hit. That is especially true of something in golf with a six-figure price tag and the potential to close down a revenue source for weeks or months during construction. As dry-mouth moments go, nothing causes more sleepless nights than betting the business on a capital improvement project.
But there is an exception to that rule, one that is bringing smiles and dollars to operators who have made the investment. Since its inception, the one big capital innovation to receive near unanimous praise is Toptracer Range, the TopGolf spinoff that brings that same technology and a similar experience as TopGolf to green-grass range facilities anywhere in the country.
Talk to any operator with a Toptracer Range and you likely will hear songs of joy.
The latest is Jimmy Bilsky, the general manager at Orange Lake Resort, a 54-hole facility in Kissimmee, Florida, operated by GreatLIFE Golf Management. The resort has an Arnold Palmer signature course, another 18-hole facility, a 9-hole executive course and a 9-hole par-3 course with lights. What it didn’t have until recently was a unique range experience to service the more than 2,000 timeshare units on that property.
“Our boss, John Brown, had seen Toptracer Range at Palmetto Dunes on Hilton Head (Island, SC) and loved the idea,” Bilsky said. “About two years ago he said to me, ‘You should check this out. I would really like to do this at Orange Lake. I want to put this as a course in our portfolio, and I think Orange Lake is the best place to do it.’
“He was right. Being that we’re a timeshare resort, there are a ton of people here. If there’s any place to try it, we thought it would be here. Being in the Greater Orlando area, we have a high number of unique customers every week. Also, being a timeshare resort, we have a new crowd every week.”
The project didn’t happen overnight. There were a couple of issues to work out. First, GreatLIFE, which merged with Brown Golf in the fall of 2022 and now has more than 50 clubs under management, didn’t own the dirt at Orange Lake. The company leased the property. Another entity also operated the food and beverage, so capital outlays and revenue sharing had to be negotiated.
“(The other parties) were all on board because the area of the resort where we were going to put it hadn’t had any new amenities in many years,” Bilsky said. “From there, we hit the ground running.”
The second issue was exactly where to install the Toptracer bays.
“We have two driving ranges, and we were initially going to put it at The Reserve (course) where we have a teaching academy and an awning that’s already there,” Bilsky said.
The existing awning would defray some capital investment, as the Toptracer technology would need to be covered.
“When we initially thought about it, we were going with four bays. We came up with a plan to have a small seating area and gazebo where we could have a grill and a mobile bartender service at night,” Bilsky said. “We costed that out and examined what it would look like, and we quickly came to the realization that not only would it be more expensive than we thought, even with the preexisting structure, we also realized that if this took off like we hoped, the four bays were not going to be enough. Then there was the challenge of getting any food and beverage out there. We realized that The Reserve location wasn’t sustainable.
“That’s when we decided to do it at the Legends Golf Course, which is our Arnold Palmer signature course. That range tee is about the same size (as at The Reserve), but there’s a clubhouse right there with a restaurant 20 feet away. The necessary footprint and infrastructure were already in place.”
Like any course grappling with the idea of installing Toptracer Range, the questions were threefold:
How would it impact the existing range business? Would traditionalists have a problem with the Topgolf vibe the technology generated?
How much would the project cost, not just in outlay but in lost revenue during construction?
And most importantly, what was the likelihood of this thing paying for itself?
“We decided we were going to do 12 bays and not just four,” Bilsky said. “Four were not going to be enough. Now, Toptracer Range takes up about half the range. The rest are grass tees for regular usage.”
The initial outlay was $400,000 for everything. That’s substantially more than some but not as much as others. When Cathy Harbin put Toptracer Range into her facility, Pine Ridge in Paris, Texas, the initial outlay was $80,000. Others have spent north of a million. Almost none are dissatisfied.
At Orange Lake the bays have monitors, L-shaped sectional couches, high-top and low-top tables and a sound system.
“Our Toptracer Range bays are open 10 to 10 every day, but you don’t have in-bay (food) service until 5:00 p.m,” Bilsky said. “If you wanted to come out at 11:00 a.m. and use one of the Toptracer Bays and grab a burger, you could do that. You’d just have to walk 20 feet to the restaurant and pick it up there.
“When you think about it, the hours when this will be most popular is nighttime. Right now, summer is our slow time, which is nice because there is a learning curve and some growing pains. This allows us some time to figure out what works and what doesn’t from a staffing and operational standpoint. Then when we are in season, we’ll be ready to create a custom experience.”
Like most operators with TopTracker, Bilsky sells the bays by the hour. “For our model, we purchased ball-feeders that integrate with the software,” he said. “You go inside and pay, and the ball-feeder activates. From 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. it’s a minimum of a 30-minute reservation and from 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. it’s a minimum of an hour reservation. We’re recommending about 90 minutes, especially if you’re coming with four people. An hour can go by really quickly, especially if you’re eating and drinking. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from people who have come out and enjoyed it.
“We’re starting out at $35 an hour during the day and $40 at night. Then on the weekends, it’ll be $40 during the day and $45 at night. We’ll eventually get to a seasonal model like we do for our golf fees.”
Like most operators who install the system, Orange Lake has experienced an uptick in range and food-and-beverage business as people use Toptracer Range as a date or family entertainment experience. What Bilsky didn’t anticipate was the number of golfers who use the technology to practice.
“People are coming out and wanting to see their launch angles and ball speed, how far they’re carrying their driver, that sort of thing,” he said. “We underestimated that business.”
It’s the kind of thing Bilsky wishes he’d had growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. A baseball player, he took up golf in high school and became proficient enough to play mini tours in the Sunshine State.
“I quickly realized that a playing career wasn’t going to pan out, but I still wanted to stay in the golf business,” Bilsky said. “So I got a job at my home club in Jacksonville, starting in the cart barn. Brown Golf purchased that course in 2015. I moved into an assistant pro role where I started teaching lessons. From there I’ve taken every opportunity they’ve given me. From 2017 to 2019, I moved to Ocala and then to Orange Lake.”
In that time, he’s never been as excited about an initiative and what it might do, not just for Orange Lake Resort but for the industry overall.
“It opens the door for people, especially for kids,” Bilsky said. “It’s very interactive and ties into the technology side of things. Meshing tech into the game will get young people back into golf. People who enjoy the Toptracer might say, ‘What else can we do? Maybe we can actually go play golf.’
“As for us, I’m excited to get into our busy season. That’s when we’re really going to see people having the most enjoyment.”
This article was featured in the September/October edition of Golf Business Magazine.