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May 2014

Innovations From Across the Nation

Innovations From Across the Nation By David Gould

Bright ideas you could (and probably should) steal today

1. Facility: Eagle Glen Golf Club - Corona, California
Idea: Mascot-driven marketing sets a unique tone for branding

The bright idea that separates Eagle Glen Golf Club from its many competitors is disarmingly simple: speaking to its  Southern California audience through the voice of “Glen the Eagle.” This toy stuffed animal appears on-camera to narrate some of the facility’s promotional short videos with persuasive enthusiasm.

“Branding” is frequently used as a loose term for trying to get one’s name, logo or tagline to stand for the entire concept and character of the product or operation. At Eagle Glen, using this non-computer-generated plush toy and naming him “Glen the Eagle” is disarming, clever and unique.

The management of Eagle Glen has priced the golf course aggressively toward the value category, hammering on the phrase “world-class golf in your own backyard for just $49” as a tag for promotional content. For that money (some weekend green fees do float up to $75), customers enjoy a 7,000-yard, mountain-view layout that opened in 1999 and gets good marks for conditioning. Eagle Glen’s ongoing challenge is to win a degree of loyalty from choosy, course-hopping public golfers (some of their Yelp comments can stretch on for a dozen paragraphs) and anxious brides who choose to hold their wedding receptions in the capacious Eagle Glen clubhouse.

To date, Glen the fuzzy eagle has been used selectively. Two videos that deploy the character (they’re found at the website button marked General Info/Newsworthy) take a features-and-benefits approach to showcasing what’s offered. They follow the daylong customer experience of “Paul,” a generic 40-something golfer who represents the target demographic. Many video spots put out by Glen the Eagle emphasize co-ed behavior, either wives and husbands playing together or singles enjoying a highly social grillroom scene.

“We foster a loose, relaxed atmosphere where people will stay for a good while after they’ve played,” says tournament director Scott Flowers. “You can really mingle and meet people here.”

The mascot eagle isn’t yet available as a headcover, but Flowers keeps a replica of it in the golf shop, dressed in football gear if it’s NFL playoff time or posed with a basketball during the Final Four. “Serious golfers play here, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” explains Flowers, pointing toward Glen the Eagle as a symbol of that mindset.

2. Facility: Shanty Creek Resort - Bellaire, Michigan
Idea: New forms of alternative golf, using a dedicated 18 to host it

If player-development efforts at Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire, Michigan, are any indicator, the insider term “Hack Golf” may soon pass into general usage. Bidding to attract “more youth, beginners and families in a fun and non-intimidating golf atmosphere,” Shanty Creek is gearing up for the season with far-forward tees and 15-inch cups on its Summit golf course, one of four 18-hole layouts at the property. Tee-to-green length of the holes will range from 95 to 125 yards. As an option that would accommodate purists, standard 4.25-inch cups will be cut into each hole along with the super-sized targets.

Hack Golf, as described by its founders (who include TaylorMade CEO Mark King), is an “open-innovation initiative aimed at crowdsourcing the future of the game.” A visit to the beta-version website of this much-discussed new initiative reveals nothing set in stone as to strategy and execution, just a trove of ideas and opinions. Shanty Creek, therefore, is way out front with its new Hack Golf execution. Simply to use the term in its consumer marketing at this point—and spending public relations dollars to spread the word—is impressive.

Going more than a step further, the resort is also providing golfers and non-golfers a chance to try the quietly popular new pastime known as FootGolf, which combines the popular sports of soccer and golf, and uses soccer balls on a traditional golf course with 21-inch diameter cups (see “Practical Lessons” pg. 56, March 2014). The rules correspond pretty closely to the Rules of Golf, making it possible for groups to play traditional golf and FootGolf simultaneously. In contrast to Hack Golf, FootGolf has some real momentum in the marketplace.

At Largo Golf Course, outside St. Petersburg, Florida, “the interest in footgolf is incredible,” according to the city’s golf supervisor Jason Wilson, who says FootGolfers who are new to his facility “show up 20 at a time.” In Sacramento, California, at the famed Haggin Oaks Golf Course complex, director of golf Mike Woods says “the planets are lining up for FootGolf.” True, Shanty Creek has multiple courses and a lot of capacity, so this isn’t just a bright idea but a bold one.

3. Facility: Brandermill Country Club - Midlothian, Virginia
Idea: Crowdfunding single-project capital (with member bonding as a bonus)

In order to raise serious capital in one fell swoop, course owners have been known to get creative. There are stories of operators offering limited ownership shares or lifetime memberships to their loyal customers. On the member-owned side of the business, clubs assess themselves for capital improvements more regularly than they would prefer to admit.

At Brandermill Country Club in Midlothian, Virginia, it was a capital funding idea-fest that resulted in club owner Michael Hatch swiftly amassing three-fourths of the $300,000 he sorely needed to completely refurbish the club’s crumbling pool amenity. In preparation for the 2013 operating year, Hatch called an all-member meeting that 120 Brandermillers attended. He brought with him a pledge of $75,000 to cover 25 percent of the cost budget, then deputized a committee of members to help hammer out a plan for the rest of it.

Knowing they had overall buy-in on this dream project of a new pool complex, Hatch and his committee cooked up offer after offer. As a member, you could purchase 10 guest green fees valid anytime for $500 (including cart) and get another 10 free—a $1,000 value that proved to be a hot seller. You could buy a brick with your family, children or company name on it for a $300 fee, or pony up $500 and get three bricks. You could purchase a corporate package that for a mere $1,000 gave you a personalized brick plus a 20-player golf outing. (Note: That’s a revved-up way of bringing in prospective new members, anyway.) Hatch also offered 100 pool-only memberships in advance of its construction for members to peddle to friends and neighbors. These were priced at $995 and included incentives for any member who sold one.

To cap off the campaign, boost the final take and meanwhile bolster the one-for-all spirit, Hatch planned a “Cocktails For a Cause” tournament, with an array of offerings to pique interest. “At our auction, you could bid on a fall lawn cleanup and aeration personally overseen by our course superintendent,” Hatch says. “Or you could bid to have our executive chef come to your house and prepare dinner for you and five of your friends—ingredients and wine supplied by the club.”

From that one festive event, Brandermill’s take was $35,000. By the date originally projected, the entire $225,000 was raised, allowing work on the pool project (which is now complete) to begin right away.

There are plenty of golf facilities with deferred capital-improvement work to be done, and as the Brandermill story shows, there are many money-raising initiatives that a loyal membership, well motivated, can help execute.

4. Facility: Mike Bender Golf Academy at Magnolia Plantation Golf Club - Lake Mary, Florida
Idea: Stone target wedge range for short-game effectiveness and uniqueness

At the back of the practice range at Magnolia Plantation Golf Club, you’ll find an Orlando citadel of game improvement called the Mike Bender Golf Academy—and there you’ll also find a clever and original new range amenity. It’s a hard-target wedge range where golfers can’t resist obsessively lofting striped balls at concrete target slabs and enjoying the thrill of high-bounding success when their on-line, distance-controlled wedge shots hit the hard surface.

Bender, the one-time national PGA Teacher of the Year, moved into a custom-built academy complex at this popular daily-fee in 2011 and worked out a deal to lease land there for his bells-and-whistles complex. The array of wedge targets was an early wrinkle he put in to add definition and measurable success to scoring-game practice. Perhaps having heard of Bender’s innovation through the teaching grapevine, golf professional David Reasoner installed a hard-target wedge range of his own at the prestigious Ridgewood (New Jersey) Country Club. Reasoner and his teaching crew call the targets their “short-game stones.”

At both learning centers, the appeal of these widely dispersed and elusive targets is the same. “Time at the practice range has to be spent developing multiple skills, and that takes lots of repetitions if you want to play up to your potential,” Bender says. “Accurate aim and distance control on pitch shots is one of those skills.”

Reasoner and his Ridgewood crew captured their construction effort on a YouTube video, in which the size and weight of these precast concrete slabs is evident, as they’re laid in place by a large back-hoe with two workers guiding the process. A special 12-foot-by-80-foot concrete hitting station was also installed, padded and then overlaid with new synthetic turf. (Hint: Selecting concrete pieces that are flat on the base but canted back to front on top, like a classic golf green, greatly adds to visibility.)

Feedback-based, score-measured installations at practice ranges make a great amount of sense, both for skill development and range ball sales. As society in general tilts heavily toward digital “gamification” of activities and tasks, golf practice is strangely behind, given that golf is a game in the first place. According to the encyclopedia definition, gamification techniques “strive to leverage people’s natural desires for competition, achievement, status, self-expression and closure.” Sound like they’re talking about golfers?

Speaking of closure, some of that was nearly attained by Lee Janzen on a recent tune-up visit to Bender’s academy.  A renowned wedge player, Janzen hit all but one stone target in fairly short order, and then emptied baskets of balls trying unsuccessfully and with obvious frustration to hit the last one. The two-time U.S. Open champ didn’t have to pay for all those striped balls he kept going back for, but fee-paying practice range customers will.

5. Company: Will Robins Golf at Empire Ranch Golf Club - Folsom, California
Idea: Golf coaching with a guaranteed 10-stroke improvement

Instruction can do a lot more than it has in the past to drive golf course revenue and build golfer loyalty, according to Will Robins, a California-based golf professional and programming consultant. Reduced to a single concept, Robins’ idea for building a golf instruction business is to “give golfers what they need, not what they want.”

Robins is part of the fever of change coursing through golf instruction, calling for banishment of the “teaching” concept and a switch to “coach” as the operative term. True, a teacher will continue demonstrating sound technique from set-up through finish, but that part of the experience is accomplished quickly.

“Dramatic improvement and lasting change comes when a player fully understands and accepts the concept that he [or she] is learning,” Robins says. “It becomes an internal experience. It’s self-learning.”

This concept isn’t to be confused with self-diagnostics—students actually aren’t so good at that. “Golfers show up and ask you to fix their slice,” Robins says. “They expect you’ll give them a few swing tips and wish them luck. They don’t actually understand what’s wrong, so they don’t know what to ask for.”

In the Robins approach, all first lessons are playing lessons, involving a “stroke harvest” analysis. The student is shown the shortest route from a score of, say, 96, down to 86. “You’re teaching them how to be coached toward a result,” Robins notes. “You’re charging them for results, not for your time. They have lots of repeated contact with you, and you’ll find that they want to play well for their coach.”

The mechanics and the arithmetic go like this: Golfers form into “teams” (they provide important support to each other) of six, participating in 10 sessions over 12 weeks. Five of those sessions take place on the course, and the other five happen on the short-game practice area or the driving range. The cost is $695 per person, broken into $470 for the “tuition” (at $23.50 per hour) plus $145 in green fees and $80 in range ball value. The program guarantees 10 strokes of improvement over the player’s baseline average. “We guarantee we’ll get them to their goal or we’ll teach them for free,” Robins says.

Robins gives off a vibe that’s best described as a mix of pragmatism and a “why-not” form of passion. In the Robins Golf structure, golf instructors aren’t gurus or stars—they’re coaches who continually push the power and responsibility onto the student. The entire process begins with conversations, identification of improvement areas, selection of some goals, the signing of an agreement that contains those goals and the repetition of that one requirement: The student has to show up.

Part of the business strategy behind Will Robins and his coaching program is the use of playing lessons as tee sheet feeders. The on-course playing lesson is a standalone menu item that can be added on a unit basis into any student’s regimen at any time.

“We price them at $15 per adult and $5 per junior,” Robins says. “This activity is booked into empty tee sheet time, using the back and front nines. We price our junior program with food at a $19 rate, and in 2012 at one facility we generated $13,585 on this line item alone.”

The sales deck Robins uses for his presentations is loaded with dollar figures and percentages showing small- to medium-sized bursts of revenue throughout the golf facility’s income statement, all from the group coaching and guaranteed-results marketing premise. In 2007, Will Robins Golf (at his host facility, Empire Ranch) grossed just $20,000 from a start-up version of the coaching program. From 2008 through 2010, those totals jumped to $75,000, $151,000 then $232,000. Anyone who ever thought that golf instruction was hobbled by old-school thinking would do well to consider this approach and the hard evidence Robins eagerly exhibits in his road-show presentations.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.

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