Demand does funny things to people, including opening their wallets. Southwest Airlines figured this out and introduced EarlyBird check-in in 2009. What does this mean for golf? Please read on...
Southwest Airlines has never had assigned seating, unlike nearly every other airline. It’s a cost factor because, theoretically, assigned seating takes longer to board a full flight and slows down Southwest’s quick turnaround operational model that helps them keep fares low (although that can be argued now). So instead, Southwest enabled online check-in 24 hours in advance of the flight time, and when you checked in, it determined your place in the A, B, or dreaded C group. Not hitting that button precisely 24 hours before flight time might garner a middle seat in the back by the restrooms, sitting between people whose carry-on is a hefty garbage bag or whose chosen wardrobe is yesterday’s Fruit-of-the-Loom tidy whitey tee shirt.
The prolific use of the online check-in process gave Southwest a brilliant idea to make more money. So it introduced EarlyBird check-in in September 2009, giving customers the convenience of checking in early – for a fee. For a nominal fee of $7.50 each way, you were almost guaranteed a spot in the A 1-60 group. It wasn’t just the favorite seat; it was also room in the overhead for your carry-on luggage. It was convenience, peace of mind, and the epitome of no worries. And since 2009, the EarlyBird fee has risen to as much as $25 per person, one way. Southwest took in $358 million in EarlyBird fees in 2017 – when the rate was a flat $15. Marrying demand and convenience can be a wonderful thing.
Golf’s COVID-fueled demand gives course operators a similar reason to borrow from Southwest and make additional money at absolutely no cost. I first saw this several years ago at a local destination facility, Half Moon Bay Golf Links. They charged $25 to reserve tee times up to 120 days in advance rather than the standard 30-day booking window. That sounds like a lot, but at the time, greens fees were well north of $100. Now, greens fees are $200 and up, and the advance fee is $40. Of course, it helps to have a Ritz Carlton across the street. The service was labeled “FirstPlay,” a term I like and have used with a couple of my clients.
Whether Half Moon Bay was the first doesn’t matter. Other golf facilities have and are doing the same thing – allowing golfers to secure tee times on the days and times they want further in advance if they are willing to pay a convenience fee. And if you think your customers won’t, you are wrong. Dead wrong.
One of my clients introduced FirstPlay last year at $10 per person. We thought conservatively that maybe 500 people would use the service. We were off by about 1,500, and the course enjoyed a $20,000 revenue bump at absolutely no cost to them. Another client, after much urging, launched FirstPlay this year with an initial email on May 5 – and saw 197 advanced reservations in the first eight days. Yes, it’s easy money – free money, if you will – and you likely have numerous customers willing to part with theirs for the convenience of reserving a future tee time.
But suppose an advanced reservation function is something you want to add alongside your regular tee time booking window. In that case, you need first to see if your current technology can accommodate multiple booking engines. Not all can, unfortunately. Of the major providers, those that can include Club Prophet Systems, Club Caddie, Sagacity, and ForeUP. Those that cannot include Teesnap and Lightspeed. I have not queried GolfNow about its G1 or EZLinks systems because, to quote a phrase, “I don’t give a damn.” I’m sure if they did, it would cost courses another tee time a day.
However, I’ve seen variations that are not always customer friendly.
I think transparency is a crucial element of a customer-friendly reservation function. The one below provides a clear distinction between the booking windows, giving customers a choice. Clicking on the FirstPlay button opens a page describing the fee for the service provided. At that point, the customer can choose to proceed or not.
The course I mentioned earlier displays a full 120-day calendar of open dates. But not until you click on one past the 30-day window, pick a date, and continue with the reservation process are you made aware of the $40 fee – and it doesn’t indicate “per person.”
I found two other courses offering advanced reservations for a fee. One shows a choice to click on standard 0-10 days or advanced reservations 11-60 days out for a non-refundable $10 fee (similar to the image above). But, customers have to pay that with the entire greens fee when booking. Prepaying the total greens plus the advanced reservation fee can be a deterrent some consumers don’t like. This course’s standard online booking window is 10 days. Calling the shop lets one book only seven days out. I applaud that.
The other Colorado course has a single booking engine but opens the calendar past the standard seven days out to 30. However, customers have to do the math to learn the advance fee is $8 included in the greens fee for the day reserved. So no prepayment, but no transparency, either.
Yes, there is a caveat to accepting reservations further out than the typical 7-14 days (isn’t there always?). You may have difficulty accommodating a new group booking if tee times already light up your tee sheet a couple of months out. It takes management. Some are capable, some not.
Check around your local market – you might find competitors offering advanced bookings for a fee. You’re missing out if you are not. We know money doesn’t grow on trees (other than for the USGA and PGA Tour), but it can grow in your online reservation policies with the suitable format and the right PoS system.