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I just returned from the PGA Show last week, where I met a lot of motivated golf course operators and passionate business owners trying to grow their revenue and the game of golf. I walked the floor and couldn’t help but walk away with observations about the industry. Here’s my take…

Who will be the PXG for Operators?

Parsons Xtreme Golf (PXG) chose not to be at the show at all—no booth, and not even present to see the competition. PXG is the Ferrari of the golf equipment world, and it doesn’t want to be on the floor with a Toyota, or even a Lexus. They think different when it comes to golf, and I love it. In the past year, PXG completely disrupted the way the golf industry approaches player equipment. Not only did Founder and CEO, Bob Parsons, enter the hard goods market—the same market from which the world’s biggest sports brand, Nike, recently withdrew—he stormed it, in the way only a billionaire golf nut like Parsons might.

How? If you believe the hype, and many PGA Tour players do, they did so by creating and selling the best high-performance golf clubs ever made; clubs no one, especially no global brand or corporate behemoth, would ever make—because they were “too expensive.” And yet, where they “failed” to produce a more accessible, millennial-friendly mass market club, Parsons and PXG succeeded in doing the one thing they set out to do better than anyone else: create the golf clubs they wanted.

Like the hard goods market, golf’s digital solutions space is ripe for disruption. Walking the PGA Show floor, you can’t help but see the contrast of antiquated technology on monitors wrapped up and packaged inside expensive booths. The leading providers have been selling outmoded concepts—including the false proposition that course operators can’t succeed without them—for far too long. Tee time distribution companies want you to believe there is only one way to sell tee times. Point-of-sale system providers want you to believe theirs is the only one that meets your needs. Marketers, developers and web designers want you to believe that selling tee times or building and maintaining your online presence is too complex to go it alone.

Take GolfNow, for example. Originally launched to solve one problem, online tee time distribution, GolfNow rose to prominence by successfully motivating course owner/operators to entrust them with their tee time inventory. Then, as the industry’s premier tee time distributor, they cemented their dominance by acquiring the leading reservation and point-of-sale system providers—effectively moving from managing that inventory to owning it. And they’re not the only ones playing this lucrative (for them) game. EZLinks and others have followed suit, each hoping to snag their piece of a distribution pie that prioritizes “selling trade by the boatload over course owners and operators’ interests.

But make no mistake: Bartering tee times is a vicious cycle, one that artificially suppresses real innovation while leaching revenue from courses–losses that hurt operators first (and worst), with a negative ripple effect across the spectrum. In other words: Turning golfers into deal shoppers doesn’t improve the game, it cheapens it. Literally. And yet, despite pervasive discontent and countless articles exposing the “hidden costs” of trading tee times for software and marketing services, few operators have broken free of it.

As a result, most, if not all, continue to be dependent on a small, dominant group of providers whose business models rely more on perpetuating user dependence than solving their problems. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. Some key lessons golf course operators can learn from PXG’s early success:

  1. Never settle. The status quo isn’t necessarily what’s best, it’s just how it is at the moment. Even the 8-track tape was once “state of the art.” Don’t settle for the way things are right now.
  1. You don’t have to be a billionaire to solve billion-dollar problems. Google’s first office was a garage in Menlo Park. Facebook was founded in a college dorm. Throughout history, countless products, companies, and other legendary endeavors have been launched with little more than a great idea and elbow grease.
  1. Passion drives progress. Companies like Apple started small, with a few great minds and a passion to solve a very specific problem—and it not only disrupted the computer industry, but forever turned computer electronics into “personal devices” and revolutionized a few other industries along the way.
  1. Knowledge is power. The better you know your customers, the better able you’ll be to anticipate and meet their ongoing needs. The same goes for operations: The more you know (and do, in-house), the more power you gain over your course, its business, and your own financial destiny. Conversely, the more you outsource, the more dependent on service providers you allow yourself to become—and in turn, the bigger, richer, and more powerful they become.

As the gap between customer and provider interests continues to widen, disruption looms. Operators are hungry for solutions that put them first, and there’s already more than one Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergei Brin or Bill Parsons already maneuvering in the space; quietly exploring, identifying and solving the pressing problems necessary to return tee sheets, marketing, and pricing oversight back where it belongs: in the hands of owner/operators. It’s not a question of “when?” or even “whom?” The question is, “what are you gonna do about it?” Yes, you.

Course management problems aren’t just ours to suffer through, they’re ours to solve. No one knows the ins and outs of running your course like you do–no matter what the latest “experts” tell you. To prove it, let’s break down the most pervasive myths tech providers are invested in perpetuating–for their own benefit, not yours.

Myth: Millennials are the future–and you just don’t understand them.

Truth: Every generation is unique, but at their core, millennials are no harder to understand than Gen X-ers or the Baby Boomers before them. Sure, they do more stuff online/on mobile, but they’re far from inscrutable–and any technology provider who tells you otherwise just wants to obscure the fact that, as the ones who actually interact with millennial golfers on the regular, course operators likely know a lot more about them and their habits than the people who write and maintain their software.

Myth: Mobile technology is the future–and you just don’t understand it.

Truth: Have you ever made a reservation or purchase online? Used GPS to get somewhere? Congratulations, you’re fluent in mobile technology. According to eMarketer, 51.8% of travelers who booked trips digitally did so using a mobile device, up nearly 8% from the prior year (2015). Yet, roughly 10% of all tee time bookings are made online while most industries have over 50% of their conversions online. What’s the barrier? Why is golf so far behind the mobile/digital curve? There’s plenty of blame to go around. For one, there hasn’t been enough competition. Competition drives innovation in all things, especially mobile. Likewise, mobile adoption has historically been supported by special access to offers/discounts/deals–though thanks to the prevalence of tee time bartering, there isn’t any fat left to trim (not from tee time costs anyway).

To truly breakthrough, the right mobile management solution needs to do more than just handle distribution. It needs to tie into existing services (reservations, loyalty programs, F&B, etc.) while providing value-added features like GPS, scoring/leaderboards, special offers and more. And above all else, it needs to be intuitive and responsive; to keep players feeling connected–and loyal–to your course and brand. It may sound daunting, but there are companies making positive waves in this space.

Myth: It’s all about “big data”–and you just don’t understand it.

Truth: “Data” is just a fancy word for actionable information, which can be gleaned from the same info you’ve been collecting all along: member names and addresses, their purchase and play patterns, etc. Every line item a vital insight that, properly applied, can help cut losses/increase revenue and build customer loyalty. Are you charging enough per round? Giving discounts to customers who would have paid full price? Which promotions are most effective and with which customers? Outsourcing key transactions may save you a few pennies on the service side, but at what cost? The answers are in your data. Stop giving it away.

Myth: It’s all about marketing–and you just don’t understand (or have time for) that.

Truth: The key to effective marketing isn’t baffling customers with buzzwords or badgering them with bargains; it’s understanding them and meeting them where they are. You interact with your customers, every day. Why trust someone else to close that loop? The same goes for maintaining your online presence; if you use email or MS Word, you can manage a Facebook page or WordPress website. With the right data and the right tools, building, maintaining, segmenting and communicating with past, current and future clients is easy.

Consider this a wake-up call. The time has come for owners and operators to regain control over their marketing, data and their destinies. There are better partners out there, companies who care about golf–and you–as much as they care about technology. Teesnap is one of them.

Bryan Lord
Founder & CEO, Teesnap