By Michael Williams, Contributor, Golf Business
I always get a little private laugh when I go to buy socks. While shoes come in a wide range of sizes to offer a comfortable fit, socks come in two sizes meant to cover that same range. The socks that I get are labeled “Fits sizes 9-13”, an astonishingly ambitious claim even for a product that is built to expand. Predictably, some perform better than others.
Over the years there have been a number of “one size fits all” golf industry promotions and initiatives designed to entice the non-golfing public to take up the game. And like most socks, the programs wore thin, developed holes and eventually ended up in the litter basket.
Remember Play Golf America, the great invitation to the game that was meant to serve as the umbrella for a group of initiatives that targeted specific groups? In addition to a series of PSAs that largely ran during PGA Tour broadcasts (spoiler alert: people watching professional golf are probably already somewhat connected to the game), the jewel of the effort was a series of Play Golf America Day events that were meant to be a carnival of events and attractions taking place at golf courses, a carnival of fun with something to enjoy for everyone in the family. It was all the rage for a couple of years but eventually it went the way of all things.
The latest iteration is Make Golf Your Thing. It was conceived in an industry committee and launched during one of the most unstable and uncertain times in the nation’s history. The golf industry had benefitted unexpectedly from the Covid 19 pandemic, gaining a wave of players returning to the game or discovering it for the first time as a safe and enjoyable pastime during the pandemic. While it is a more complex undertaking than Play Golf America in that it goes deeper in addressing operational and cultural issues in the industry, the marketing component of Make Golf Your Thing once again primarily consists of PSAs directed at an audience that already plays golf.
A lot of well-intentioned work is being done under the auspices of Make Golf Your Thing, and I give a lot of credit to those in positions of leadership in the industry for launching and supporting the effort. But if we have learned anything in the last 20 years, it’s that no single industry-wide initiative is going to guarantee the success of the game as a whole, and certainly not for the individual owner/operator.
In order to retain and grow the recent gains in players and rounds, smart operators will take the phrase “Make Golf Your Thing” and turn it into a question, “How Can We Make Our Golf Course Your Thing?”
Analysts are predicting that Topgolf and other entertainment-based flavors of golf are positioned to be the most recession proof enterprises with an economic downturn looming that will challenge the progress of virtually every business. Whether that is true or not, perhaps the biggest advantage that Topgolf has is that it knows exactly what it wants to be and is constantly seeking to be the best version of that thing. And the way they inform themselves on how to improve is by listening to what the non-golfing public wants and successfully integrating it into an environment where new and experienced golfers can co-exist.
Obviously not every facility can replicate the experience available at Topgolf, nor should they want to. But it will be essential to define and refine the experience at a facility to attract new audiences while providing comfort and continuity to the existing customer base. Technologies like Toptracer provide the opportunity to implement the gaming aspect, but there are other ways to entice traffic. Food and beverage is an often underutilized attraction in communities that have limited options. If you offer the best burger in town, the patrons that come to pick it up can be cajoled into staying for the other experiences on the property. Parking lots are a large footprint that generate zero revenue; owner/operators could think about hosting flea markets, farmer markets and other events that bring foot traffic of people who can be welcomed to the other available offerings. I’d love to see a service made available to courses that provides consulting on how to assess their current offerings and devise creative alternatives designed to attract new business.
Industry-wide slogans and PR campaigns are nice and can be helpful. But the difference between success and failure will depend on the creativity and determination of the individual owner/operator and their ability to provide a good reason for new patrons to have a look. To quote the Talking Heads, Same as it Ever Was.