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January 2018

Winter Workshop

winterworkshop.jpgBy David Gould

As shoulder season arrives, golf course operators flock to trade shows and conferences for ideas, advice and inspiration

Here’s an unexpected stat for you, from a recent study of business travel and convention-going: Among “entry-level professionals,” all of them children of the Digital Age, 68 percent say they “value face-to-face networking over networking online.”

Let that be a signal to all the course owners and operators who haven’t been “entry-level” for a good long time: Stick to your custom of using these snowy months for conferences, trade shows and other events that get you face-to-face with fellow decision-makers, especially in educational settings that include seminars and presentations.

For Northern-tier people who manage golf facilities, it’s become a slightly harder task—an odd by-product of climate change. One operator who’s noticed this is Mike Roeder, general manager of Ravenwood Golf Club outside Rochester, New York. “We don’t open in the spring much earlier than in years past,” he says, “but we do close later in the fall, simply because the warm weather hangs on. It’s been delaying our offseason period of evaluation and planning.”

By the time Roeder decamps to Orlando for PGA Merchandise Show activities, he and his staff will have honed their strategic questions and decided which aspects of their golf program or back-office functions need upgrades. As a former PGA Merchandiser of the Year in his section, Roeder gets invited to the PGA’s three-day pre-show conference limited strictly to these honorees. “It’s a great networking opportunity,” he says of the “MoY” sessions, “in some ways more valuable than the show itself.” This year, he’ll be listening particularly for what his peers have done to liven up their websites and bolster their social-media presence.

Once the exhibit hall at Orange County Convention Center opens, Roeder spends extra time in the penned-off new-vendor area and in the aisles devoted to technology for golf operations. He also goes to select seminars and gatherings where he’s likely to receive a bit of inspiration. “I value the chance to be with people who are as excited about the game as I am, and share the desire to keep making the golfer’s experience better,” he explains.

This year has brought a fairly deep dive into dynamic pricing of green fees for David Frem, general manager of Cyprian Keyes Golf Club in Boylston, Massachusetts. In his role as president of the New England Golf Course Owners Association, Frem got a double-dose of convention-season expertise on this emerging new tool for profitability. He traveled to Las Vegas in September for the NGCOA’s 2017 Golf Business TechCon, where experts made presentations on price optimization as other industries have developed it and recommendations on adapting it to golf. He then booked one of those speakers to appear at the New England GCOA annual meeting and workshop. In the process, Frem began to see how his upscale daily-fee course could “break off pieces” of this challenging technology and begin implementing them with confidence.

“If you’ve built a solid organization and achieved some success, offseason education and networking activity becomes incremental,” Frem posits. “Earlier in my career, I would come back from the annual conferences probably too psyched up about making major changes and then discover that in the month or two before reopening we couldn’t execute on the scale I was hoping for.”

Indeed, the kid-in-a-candy-store phenomenon at industry events is common among operators of just one or two courses, no matter how competent their staff might be. Frem recalls a feeling of envy toward management groups “who run a dozen courses and can afford to have three guys in a room at headquarters changing prices all day.” Over the past couple of offseasons, he’s shifted goals “from learning something completely new to crystallizing my thoughts and plans about a particular new initiative.”

Your network becomes more valuable over time, according to Duncan Geddes, because you build up trust in the guidance that flows from it. Geddes is director of golf operations at Aldeen Golf Club, an award winning facility within the Rockford, Illinois, Park District. His process of investigating new trends and opportunities has long included the input of trusted peers.

“I’ll go to conferences and seminars at the PGA Show and reconnect with people like my classmates from the Ferris State PGM program, so that I can hear what they’re thinking,” Geddes says. “Some of them have gone to work for Marriott Golf, or Billy Casper, or other big management groups.

“In prior years, I’ve asked their advice on things like clubfitting systems and event-planning software,” he adds. “Those recommendations have been solid, which gives me confidence that my network is a great resource for decision-making.”

Once the golf-boom years gave way to leaner times, shrewd strategizing became all the more necessary, according to Geddes. He remembers when taking the plunge on this or that new gadget was relatively low-pressure, thanks to steadily rising revenues. These days, not so much. “In the first place, anyone running a golf operation is dealing with many different functions—turfgrass, instruction, online marketing, retail merchandising and so forth—that we can’t be experts in,” Geddes says. “On top of that, the business is more competitive, so when something new comes along that looks like it’s worth the investment of time and money, we have to really research it—that means getting in touch with trustworthy people who can offer guidance.”

This offseason, as snow covers the fairways of Bucks Run Golf Club in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, the head of the golf operation, Jon Conklin, will continue his search for “the latest and greatest technology that we can offer.” Conklin and crew have cramped their offseason style by growing the Bucks Run banquet business to the extent that holiday parties generate strong December revenue and require plenty of staff energy. He’ll still be able to devote extra time to NGCOA online forums, which he uses on a regular basis, and among the questions he will pursue is how best to upgrade the course’s golf simulator amenity and monetize that through new programs.

Like Roeder of Ravenwood, Conklin is part of the Merchandiser of the Year fraternity and leverages the gathered talent at the MoY pre-PGA Show conference for picking brains and discussing new trends and concepts. His facility is a bit of an outlier, charging in the $90 to $100 range for 18 holes, even though it’s located in a swath of Michigan without much affluence. “We can’t take many cues from the courses in our geographical area, so that’s all the more reason to get ourselves to where people operating similar facilities are talking shop.” This offseason, Bucks Run will be contracting with a new digital marketing contractor, in an effort to maximize its search-engine presence and draw as much business as possible from web-surfing golfers.

“We’re also just finishing our first season of selling three-hole rounds and six-hole rounds,” notes Conklin, who enjoyed early success with the program, but feels he needs to learn more about shoehorning these short-stay golfers onto the tee sheet and onto the golf course. “We had quite a few twosomes—including a lot of fathers and daughters—expect to just play the minimum, but they were having a lot of fun and wanted to keep going. I’d like to hear how other courses have managed that challenge.”

His investigation into that question is certain to benefit from discussions with peers he can speak to in-person, especially those he has known for some time and built up trust with. It’s a tradition of shared wisdom that wise heads will always value.

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

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