Episode 72


(Justin Apel, Director, Golf Course Builders Assoc. of America)

Charlie: Welcome to Episode 72 of the "Golf Business Podcast." For this episode, we are joined by two fantastic resources. John Brown of Brown Golf Management and creator of GolfBack, you're going to want to listen to that. And Justin Apel of the Golf Course Builders Association of America. Brown Golf Management has, as I said, developed some awesome tools to drive direct booking. He's going to also talk to us about the importance of maintaining a direct relationship to the customers and some new tools and how he's managed to do that. First stop, we have Justin Apel of the Golf Course Builders Association of America to talk about the invaluable resources that their association brings to our industry. If you have not been utilizing the Builders Association, you need to listen. It's pretty invaluable. Okay, here we go.

I'm absolutely delighted to be joined today by Justin Apel, the executive director of the Golf Course Builders Association of America. Justin, we should have had you on before now. I'm very aware of GCBAA from my time as President NGCOA, and I'm absolutely delighted to meet you and make the acquaintance, and have you sort of bring us all up to date with what GCBAA is doing for owners and operators in today's market. So I'm really delighted to welcome you to the "Golf Business Podcast."

Justin: Well, thank you, appreciate the opportunity to join you today. And yeah, we are part of the alphabet soup of golf. Golf Course Builders Association of America. And we're just so much more than that. It's really exciting that this is our 50th year, and, you know, our name does describe us as the builders of golf. But more so, it is also the suppliers and anything and everything that goes into that process of construction. So, everything from sod and seed companies all the way up to the heavy equipment. Yeah, we have a fantastic membership. And it's just great to be a part of this industry and collaborate with superintendents, the owners, architects. It's just absolutely wonderful. So I appreciate the opportunity to join you all today.

Charlie: No, and I appreciate what you say there because you're right. In your name, Golf Course Builders Association of America, it's probably very subconscious that we just key on the builders' part. But the important part of this is the word association, because that means you're connected to everything. And like you said, vendors, sponsors, education, networking. I'm excited because we need to talk to you, and you're really able to talk one on one with the listeners of the "Golf Business Podcast." But, Justin, it's 2021. What has that meant to your association in the last 18 months? And then can we talk a little about what's new and what you see the next the, I guess, 18 months? Because 2022, as I say often on this show, is going to be completely different from 2021. And I'm sure that's the same for you guys.

Justin: Yeah, obviously a good thing.

Charlie: Yeah, yeah.

Justin: I've been trying to get past everything we've been dealing with. You know, it's so interesting, when I'm cornered and asked, you know, "What the Builders Association in golf, you guys can't be doing anything right now." And wow, nothing could be further from the truth. And you look back in the mid-90s, and we were building one plus golf courses a day. Exciting times. But, you know, for me and for many, it's campfire stories. The beautiful thing is we're busier now than ever before, because as your owners would know and the industry knows, that those courses that were built, they kind of wear out and they need updates. And so our group is busier now than ever with renovations and updates. And it's exciting times. We're all part of the challenges of not only the pandemic has given us, but, you know, the economy and everything. But that deferred maintenance is now catching up and so our group has been busy.

Charlie: Well, let me ask you a question on that exactly then, Justin. It occurs to me that as a result of our quarantine and golf being so pandemic-friendly, we all heard the stories, especially on this show, of course. Outings are dead, but daily fee is massive, right? Or at least strongest it's ever been. So, do you get some backwash from your members about courses now as they're renovating, looking at the higher volume of play and how that might change design? We're trying to make sure everybody stays playing golf, that's our job right now. So doesn't that mean we design more for higher rounds?

Justin: That's a great point. Yeah, you want to be able to handle the bandwidth of players, and be able to, you know, that course be able to function, be maintained, not only for the volume of players and tee times but also to be able to handle the staff time out there maintaining those courses, the mowing times and everything else. Whether you have people standing on the tee box waiting to play, or you're just, you know, needing to do your daily maintenance anyway, the design, construction, and maintenance side all have to work hand in glove so that these courses can be as efficient as possible because inputs are not getting any cheaper, cost of labor is not getting any better.

Charlie: And it's hard to find labor, too, I've been hearing that.

Justin: Oh, wow, that is probably the biggest issue in the industry.

Charlie: Especially for the supers, yeah.

Justin: Yeah. Everything from waitstaff all the way out to maintenance crews. And then even our membership, it is a tremendous struggle to find, you know, the labor that it takes for our industry. The major challenges.

Charlie: I think the only thing about that that surprises me, Justin, and I want to get back to what you guys are doing now, but I'd love to talk about this, is that folks who would be taking those jobs two years ago, are forgetting that this is a pandemic-super-friendly activity. I mean, we can absolutely outperform ourselves and still maintain social distance and health standards. I'm a little baffled that people aren't running to golf, actually, right now. But maybe we're behind the curve, perhaps. And maybe that'll come in '22. And we've got a lot of good golf news lately, with some old guys winning tournaments and stuff like that.

Justin: You know, this sport is so amazing, because what a testament to what it is and its purity, that it's one that you can play as a grandson and a grandfather. It is a lifetime game. I think the pandemic was exciting the core golfers. They kept out there playing, kind of a return to golf. You know, people that had experienced the game and knew the game, you know, they rejoined and got engaged, and then they started bringing friends. And it's a tidal wave. And it's important, I think, though, that we don't just sit back and just watch this parade go by.

Charlie: I completely agree. We talk about that on the show and I'll say it again. I think this is the time to be responsible with those new guests, the existing guests, the guests we don't have, and to try and make love to them, make them realize this is a great sport. Even now we can go to concerts again now, I guess, or even though we can sit in a restaurant together again, the beauty of this still is still there. Tell me about events for GCBAA coming out of the quarantine. I see on your website that you actually have actual in-person events.

Justin: Yeah, no, absolutely. It's exciting to be able to be planning again. We completely pivoted as all associations had to when the pandemic hit, when you couldn't travel. So we had to not only support our membership, we had to do it remotely. And so, to get back to planning in-person events, because at the end of the day, what it is we do is provide networking and that opportunity to collaborate with each other. We kind of had to punt last year with our summer meeting, which is our Super Bowl. We were involved in the golf industry show, but our internal intimate event is our summer meeting. We were excited to go to the Biltmore property in Asheville, and kind of have a unique opportunity and ended up rescheduling. And it got exciting about probably six weeks ago, when, like many states, you know, vaccines were being distributed. Everyone kind of knows what all happened to get us where we are at today. But North Carolina opened up. And so we did too, and started planning our 50th anniversary, and it is exciting. It's probably for most the first travel that they've been able to have. And luckily, we're going to a fantastic historic property to host this thing. And, you know, it's important for us, because there's a lot of education, you know, not only how to continue to operate safely, lessons learned, excitement of the industry, some industry initiatives that are happening, hearing from owners, hearing from superintendents and architects, kind of what's the latest. But our members are also heavily involved in sports and recreation. We have a lot of education surrounding that. And those opportunities, they tie directly into golf itself. So we're planning a big event and excited to do it.

Charlie: Will you continue some of the virtual ones for networking? That's something I asked a lot, because I think are we really going back to no virtual? And I think the answer is no, but I'm asking you.

Justin: Yeah, you know, I don't think we should. I think there's a healthy balance between the two. Prior to the pandemic, we saw a need. Not everyone can attend these national events. They can't always go to the golf industry show, or the merchandise show, or even our summer meeting. I mean, various reasons, even before COVID. So we started doing kind of regional meetings, and those were extremely organic. So in the case of a sod and seed shortage and kind of some supply issues in Florida, we planned a short one-day meeting in that area and we're able to bring in the experts, bring in, you know, the interested parties and kind of talk through it and figure out a plan. When there was drought issues in Arizona, did the same thing. So those regional meetings became a great opportunity for us to go and get in people's backyards...

Charlie: And laser down on one.

Justin: Exactly. And so, we will continue to do that. We need to. That is exactly what, you know, an association should be doing, is kind of being the pathfinder. I think that's what our future will be. We'll continue to do, you know the in-person events continue to do the smaller regional kind of events.

Charlie: Yeah, I love that.

Justin: And then use the virtual tools that we have today to continue to solve problems and be that network, but do it in a way that lets people sit in their pajamas and login it at midnight, and watch it when they can watch it, or engage in it when they can. So I'm excited for that.

Charlie: I am too. And I think because of this massive thing we've just lived through that we're going to see stuff that makes that a better experience. That we can actually kind of network, kind of even sort of walk around a room virtually. And I feel very strongly that we now have to do sort of both. For our listeners, what you keyed on that local focus group, that is a really tremendous asset that I was not aware of. And if you're listening to this and wondering what might be new and incredibly useful, I would think to become involved in those meetings. One of the most powerful parts of our show, in my opinion, Justin, is the owner-to-owner segment that we run every few weeks where two owners just talk about stuff. And usually, it starts out with the weather, which is pretty important, and then we get into real problems like a seed shortage, or this or that. So I would think that that focus group is really an exciting new thing. And if I was still working at Queenstown, I'd want, you know, to go with John to one of those and just make sure I know the network. And that can be incredibly valuable in times of duress.

Justin: Yeah, and the door is always open, any owner, any parties wanting to be involved. It is important to have that team approach. I've tried to put myself in your members', you know, shoes. And looking across my desk, if I'm an owner, I am getting hit everywhere. You know, whether it's the kitchen, f&b, you know, I'm getting all kinds of needs coming across, employment. You know, the last thing I really can dive into is, you know, the superintendents putting in for inputs and, okay, what's going on with our bunkers? Why are we doing this? Our members need to be a resource to help, you know, make those problems go away, and do it as affordably as possible and not have to kind of worry about the details. And so, I do not dismiss the fact that probably many of your members don't even know that there is an entire organization that is completely, you know, enamored in renovating and building golf courses, and are experts that have built thousands of courses, and even continue today. We tracked over 3000 complete holes of golf renovated last year just by our certified members, and it's all to make them efficient. Yeah.

Charlie: Yeah. You know, dad used to tell a story, Justin, about at a college in the quad, they built a field and they didn't put any pads in. And then they waited for a year when all the college students walked over it and they saw where all the grass had gone out and they built the pads there. I would think some of that 3000 is looking at it after a while, seeing the fray here that where the balls lie, where all the balls come, or where all the traffic goes. And making a tweak, we've done it at Queenstown, oh, my gosh, a hundred times since 1991.

Justin: You know, my landscape architect professor would cringe if he's listening in, but there is a term for that, you know. There is a term to see where traffic goes and then build around that. But I'll tell you what, if you were going to renovate your kitchen, right? Are you gonna just go to Home Depot or a big-box store, just start buying the lumber and the tools? You bring in a builder, and ask them, "Hey, what can I do?" And they'll be able to say, "Look, that's a load-bearing wall, you can't touch that," or, "Hey, if you're gonna beam here, don't move the sink. It'll cost you 10 times as much, but we can tie in at anyway." If you're gonna do anything on your golf course, before you dive in deep, have a builder come out and walk it with you because they can see those things. They can see where you're going to say, they can see where you need to make the changes. And when you walk with that superintendent, owner, architect, and builder around that course, you'll end up with the best product at the end.

Charlie: Yeah. Well, look, I could talk to you all day. I would love to have you back when we can talk about this next year, that I like calling the next normal, because it's not going to be like this year, even a little bit. Let me say it again for our listeners, if you're not really intimately aware of what the Golf Course Builders Association does do, please look them up, gcbaa.org. There's nothing more exciting in golf than the fact that all of the owners and managers seem to be wanting to help with the other properties out. I've noticed that time and time again. And that's why the owner-to-owner works, that's why the conferences, any of the ones I've been to, the networking is the single most important part. Sure, the content is wonderful and sometimes it's really extraordinary. But the after-hours, when we're talking about operations and when we're comparing notes. And that's, in a way, you're offering that on a more executive-level. Come walk the course with me. And there's nothing more fun than collaborating with people in the same industry, so.

Justin: Yeah, we're all in this together. Appreciate it very much. And thank you, guys.

Charlie: Thanks so much to Justin. I hope we can bring back a member of Golf Course Builders Association to possibly chat with an owner who has been doing some renovations. I think that would be really fun, sort of a slant on our owner-to-owner. Now, on to John Brown and some tools that I really think you're going to want to hear about.

(John Brown, CEO, Brown Golf & Founder, GolfBack)

Charlie: Well, I'm so delighted to welcome John Brown to the podcast today, of Brown Golf. John, you and I have not met before, but we're both podcasters so I'm very excited to have this opportunity to meet you. I've done a little bit of research into Brown Golf and also GolfBack. And there's a lot of stuff that I would love to ask you about, a lot of things that when we built Queenstown that this would have fit right into. So can you give me a real quick introduction into your background and then get to GolfBack?

John: Sure. I'll try to be as quick as possible. My background, grew up in a PGA golf family. My dad was a Master PGA Professional, my uncle was a Master PGA Professional. My stepmother was a PGA Professional. My cousin is a PGA Professional. So I've been around the business a long time. I was fortunate enough to play golf in college, always enjoyed business, had a finance degree. Graduated from college. Had worked at golf courses since I was 13, so I decided to, you know, stretch my legs and I went into banking for two years. Two years later, kind of got the itch to come back to golf, found a membership director job at a club just outside of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware called the Peninsula Golf and Country Club. It was a community-managed facility. Applied there and, you know, started more of my professional-level commitment to being in the golf management industry at that point. Spent seven years with Troon. We had the opportunity, my father, my brother and I to start Brown Golf Management. We had a business idea. We started the company on January 1, 2011. We had zero clubs at that point. I was in a home office just hoping that was the right decision. But as we sit today, we have 21 locations, 27 golf courses that are up and down the East Coast, and excited about being part of this industry.

Charlie: And when I looked that up and I saw 2011, I was like, wow, you've done that at a really interesting time to be getting this all packaged together and growing when we've been having issues, legal issues, and of course, growth issues in the market. So I'm really fascinated by some of the business things that you brought to the way you manage the courses. Can you sort of tell me what were some of those business things that you brought from Wells Fargo and stuff, and you created some new ways of customer relationships?

John: Absolutely. I've always been, you know, numbers and data-driven, feel my mind works that way. But I started, you know, my professional management career in a membership director role, which transitioned to a sales manager role, which transitioned to a sales director role, and then to a GM. So I got the sales component as well. So it was always, you know, business, finance, numbers, and sales. And that's really how I tack the business today. When we entered the marketplace, you know, we had one venture capital partner. We went out, we looked for, you know, golf course values, we would buy those golf courses. He would actually own the underlying land, and then we would have 40-year leases. So you could tell under that model, you better figure out how to cash flow or you're not going to be around very long. The company is very, you know, rooted in investing and making the right prudent financial decisions. And I think it's because of how we were originated.

Charlie: As I look through the material, I realized, I can see some of what you're talking about in the background, because all of the folks listening to this have dealt with, you know, retaining customers, customer management booking. Something we talk about quite a lot is the third-party stuff. Brown Golf, you've grown tremendously. It's only been in, I guess I can do math, 10 years. How did you go about your management? And then how does that work in that family?

John: Well, my father was a GM for a 81-hole golf facility, St. James Plantation, before we started Brown Golf, and I was involved with Troon. So our background in third-party management sort of led us into conversations about third-party management. I will say, I think we approach the management side of our business identically to how we approach anytime we're looking at an acquisition or a long-term lease. You know, it's the same rooted principles, right, making the right long-term business decision for the owners that hire you. So I think our management approach is a little bit different just because half of our portfolio, you know, we have a vested financial interest in the bottom line. The other half is third-party management, but I would say the approach is identical, whether it's a lease or a third-party management facility.

Charlie: Yeah, that's really important for the folks who want to get to know you a little bit more and how much that matters. Because you do have a different portfolio. None of these things are the same, even the ownership is really different depending on all these solutions. Well, I guess we should just jump into GolfBack. Can you talk a little bit about how you get from Brown Golf to GolfBack?

John: There was a vacuum in the marketplace, I would say. You know, we were a typical multi-course operator. We were working through third-party aggregators to try to populate our tee sheet. And just some of the challenges with those relationships led us down a path of asking, is there a better way to do our business, which led us down a path of setting some core principles that we felt were important. And then we went to the marketplace and looked for a company that can meet those core principles, and we couldn't find that company. And so we said, well, the only way to find that company is to develop it. And that's really how GolfBack started. GolfBack started out of the inability to find a technology company that provided the level of marketing and tee sheet management and driving direct tee times. But that was rooted in what we believe our core principles are.

Charlie: Right. You know, this is so true. I'm remembering some things back when I was with Queenstown Harbor and we were developing the marketing plan, we were looking at our first few years of numbers. We literally hired a hotel heads on beds guy who analyzed our numbers, because there was no way of doing only one aspect of what you're talking about, what you're covering here. And also reference, everyone knows I do silly stuff here. There's a Disney movie called "Robots" and Bigweld has a great quote. He says, "See a need, fill a need." And that's what you did. And that's what great business can be. You know, you see something that isn't being done right, and you've created something that, I remember, we needed this product and it literally didn't exist. There was just no way but this horribly complicated spreadsheet. So we used him and contracted with him, and then sent him on his way, and went back to the old way of just dumb luck. But this is really different. This is really critical, I think, for our listeners to be able to look at this and understand. So can you kind of work through the components then of GolfBack? Can you sort of run through it for us?

John: Sure. The overview of how I would explain GolfBack is it's a data and marketing platform that drives direct tee time bookings through the club's most profitable channel. That's kind of the overview of what it is. The components of the tools, how we achieve that. You know, we have a customized booking engine which we've built, which automate and integrates into an advanced automated email marketing platform and golf courses website. Those three tools are really the GolfBack platform. And then we integrate with three different cloud-based points of sale systems at this point. But really, I think the most important element of GolfBack is just our core principles, which, and these were the areas I said, no matter what we build, we can never falter away from these principles. These have to be a stable of what we do moving forward.

Number one, the golf course collects and retains all the customer data, golfer information, booking engine information. You know, we want all that data on our customer and we want to be able to use it effectively. That's number one. Number two, very simple, own the lowest price. Number three, make sure the golf course retains 100% of its green and revenue through their direct channels. And number four, own the direct marketing relationship with your customer. And, you know, I said to myself, if we maintain these principles, I'll be satisfied.

Charlie: Yeah, well, it's really extraordinary because, I don't want to go too deep into this, but some of those other tools out there are not based in really good principles that you just described. And I keyed on that when I looked up GolfBack and how that works. I wish that I was in the business now because I can see how vital this could be for that spreadsheet from 20 years ago, when we couldn't understand the flow of our numbers, and much less, communicate with our customers. Can you talk a little bit more about sort of the customer social relationship?

John: Absolutely. So I think the number one misconception that I hear in the marketplace is that some of these third-party aggregators are good for the customer. And the reality is, well, you can give more value through direct channels, you know. We want the customer to feel that value and that relationship in a direct channel with the golf course. So, you know, from a booking engine standpoint, we have features like daily steals, we give instant rewards in every online tee time book to our customers so they get additional value at the site level, whether it's food and beverage discounts, or range discounts, or some other reward thanking them for booking a tee time direct. You know, we have advanced dynamic pricing tools, which, you know, are there to optimize profitability based on what you see with utilization rates, what you see on whether we have a weather algorithm, we have historical demand. So understanding those premium days that you've had historically. And the booking engine is really the machine, the heartbeat, the hub of the system. But from there, I think the advanced automated email marketing campaigns are really how we communicate and develop that relationship with the customer. You know, we have these advanced customer profiles where we understand, you know, more data about our golfer. And from there, you know, we can effectively communicate whether it's re-engagement or loyalty or profitability campaigns, but we want to give value.

Charlie: It's so exciting. And I want to key on one thing that you talked about, but it's so, so important because it's not simple to do if it's just me and a sheet of paper was the dynamic pricing and how valuable that is to us. When it's done correctly, it's a boon to everybody. But when it's sort of splattered out there, it's just a mess. You can't fake that. The only way to do it was with some pretty complex numbers, and you can make everybody a little bit happier. That's a big deal we've talked about at the conference, but here's, you know, a tool right in your hand to do exactly that in a very competitive and efficient way.

John: Charlie, I think you just hit the nail on the head. When it's splattered out there, or you're dipping your toe into it, or you don't really understand, it's ripe for mistakes. But when used appropriately, you know, when you're looking at your utilization rates, you understand historical pinpoints, you look at your weather, you need to optimize your 10% of your premium days, and then, you know, deliver value around that time. Plus, I think we all need to remember, right, there's two customers we're speaking to, right. There's the customer who's booking for convenience and price is not necessarily an issue, and there's a customer who is booking for price and maybe they're more flexible to play at different times on your tee sheet. We need both customers and you need to communicate to both very differently.

Charlie: Absolutely. Something I talk about on the show a lot, John, is that now is the time when the masks are coming off, coming out of our caves, and now we're starting to do things. This is the time that we need to retain the golfers who've been golfing during the quarantine because it's a pandemic-friendly board. How sad that we have to have one of those. But, you know, I talk about it almost every episode, we need to figure out how to really tell the customers how much they mean to us. And I love that you said there's two types of customers and we want them both. People don't always say what you just said, we do want them both. This is a time to make love with the customer, make them remember why they were here, and try to grow the game in a way we haven't been able to. I don't know how you feel about this, but I think we're in a real opportunity moment for golf. But it's only with a tool like you're describing, that's so many pieces of this. I can do a whole hour on it, because I'd love to go down to minute detail but there's so much of this that makes sense that just was lacking 20 years ago. I applaud you for trying to figure this out. I could not have done it but I get what you've built here. It's super exciting, I'd love to be a customer.

John: Yeah, your customers come really in three waves in my mind. There's the person who's standing in front of you in the counter, so how do you know who that person is and speak effectively to them? There's a customer that already knows your brand and your product because they golf in the local market and, you know, they're going to organically go to your club. So how do we continue to give them motivation to come through a direct channel? And then the third one is, maybe there's a customer who's in a new area searching for golf options, how do we take back some real estate online, right, on their phone? And we do that through our websites and search engine optimizations. Listen, this is an opportunity after the pandemic, and online tee time bookings are growing, right? Without a doubt, it's a larger percentage of all of our business.

Charlie: But this is a strategic way to grow that instead of what I call the splatter method. I remember the first third-party 20 years ago, actually, that's longer than that. It was 1991 we opened Queenstown, and we hated it. You know, we just despised it. But all of this has evolved way beyond 1991. And I'm just so excited about what you're saying here, John. I wish we had more time. I would love to have you come back and talk about things as they progress as you grow. And I'll be following you on your podcast. We've got a podcaster here, it's "Golf Exposed," folks. Don't unsubscribe to Golf Business, but you might want to add "Golf Exposed," because I think you'll get a lot from John about what Brown Golf is doing and growing, which is, I think, a kind of a new way, a healthier way than perhaps the way dad and I just built a golf course with very little research. We called the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Authority, John, and asked them how many cars went over the Bay Bridge in a year. This is in 1989. And they said, "15 million," and we said, "We're on 5301." We couldn't possibly do a half of 1% of that business if they stopped. So we went ahead, but I don't want to do business that way anymore.

John: I think it's a great idea to call and ask that question, that's the right question in 1989 and now my bridge is online.

Charlie: That's what we did. A very good point. John Brown, it's so nice to make a new friend in the golf industry, and welcome to golf business. I hope if you're in Washington, D.C., you will look me up. You probably travel a good bit these days.

John: I do, I do. When I'm down there, I have a brother in Alexandria, I'd love to hook up with you. Thank you for having me today.

Charlie: You bet. Thank you. Thanks again to Justin and John. What great interviews. And of course, to Rob here at Podcast Village. Thanks as always to John Deere and Yamaha. And lastly, to our listeners, thank you and continue to send in your golf business stories. See you next time.