(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.