Operator Stories

Destination Golf Pivots Strategies During Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been both good and bad for the golf industry. On the plus side, tee times are booked solid. The down side is reduced food and beverage revenue due to state and local restrictions on dining, as well as limitations on how special occasions, like weddings, can be hosted.

But as the pandemic persists and the seasons shift for golf courses across the country, perhaps one of the more pressing issues on the minds of many operators located in destination markets is the expectation of a drop in seasonal tourist business due to travel restrictions – both real and perceived.

The latest GolfNow Industry Roundtable, moderated by GolfNow’s Vice President of Sales Jerramy Hainline, discussed these issues and more with three experienced industry leaders from around the country – John Bixler, General Manager of Celebration Golf Club outside of Orlando; Steve Leonard, General Manager of the 36-hole Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale; and Chip Smith, owner of Atlantic Golf Management, which manages four courses and a restaurant in and around Myrtle Beach, S.C. Each shared his unique perspectives on the state, and future, of the game during the hour-long discussion. All three facilities are located in warm-weather tourist areas that are popular with golfers, especially during the upcoming winter months. With international borders currently closed, they’re all adjusting their marketing plans and budget expectations.

Bixler said Celebration Golf Club is bracing for the loss of its international clientele from Europe and Brazil who come for Orlando’s theme parks, golf courses and sunny weather. “We are shifting a lot of marketing efforts to drive markets in the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Smith echoed that approach for Myrtle Beach, which relies heavily on Canadian snowbirds. “We are spending a lot more resources going after the Northeast and Midwest, looking at Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago,” he said. “They still can drive in and spend a week or even months in our winter rentals. It is our lowest price time of the year, so we can get very aggressive during that time period.

“We can advertise a $69 per night (package) for golf and room, because it’s an inexpensive time of year. We are ramping up that side of it, getting more aggressive to replace the Canadian market that we’ve enjoyed for so long but don’t have now.”

Leonard said Scottsdale already has experience dealing with the pandemic in high season since the original U.S. wave hit in March during its busiest time of the year, baseball spring training. Not only is Talking Stick still hoping to attract golfers from as far away as Chicago and Seattle, whether they fly or drive, it is also marketing to locals more than ever.

“We are fortunate, too, that we have a large population here in metro Phoenix Arizona and a lot of avid golfers,” Leonard said. “We’ve been focusing really not just on the outreach for the drive-in markets and snowbirds and the leisure traveler, but also ramping up our loyalty programs and attracting the residents here and trying to make sure we are backfilling anything we may be missing from the leisure traveler with our loyalty program, players club and Talking Stick card.”

Unfortunately, charity fundraisers and group outing business have taken a serious blow in 2020. Bixler said it’s been a 50-50 split on whether an event scheduled for this year has been held or postponed. For clients that have hosted events, Celebration figured out how to send out a fleet of carts and serve buffets within COVID-19 protocols to keep people safe. Auctions to raise money have generally been moved online. Fortunately for Bixler, as Florida has eased restrictions, Celebration can host full events again.

“Everyone is thinking outside of the box on how they can still get people here to play golf to participate and to donate money,” Bixler said of group outings. “That’s something every industry is seeing right now. You’ve got to get a little creative. … We are going to continue to evolve as this evolves.”

Leonard emphasized that “THE ISSUE” facing operators heading into the winter season is how to handle single-rider carts. Talking Stick adjusted its pricing strategy this year, so that golfers can choose between a single-cart rate, a shared-cart rate and a walking rate when they book an advanced tee time. It also purchased 24 pushcarts to encourage walking. Leonard said if too many people want single carts, then facilities are going to face inventory issues. “In order to accommodate as many people who want to play golf, operators and golfers are going to have to work together,” he said.

Technology has been a key part of dealing with the pandemic, most notably the rise of pre-paid tee times. Smith said one of his courses will replace the beverage cart with the SmartPlay app through GolfNow’s G1 software that allows golfers to order food and drinks delivered to them on the course. “We are going to experiment with that, and a couple of the communities that have large resident populations in there, if we can perfect it on the golf course, we may even deliver it straight to the homes,” Smith said.

Leonard admits that his 2021 budget forecasts are on the conservative side with the status of spring training up in the air. But positives have emerged. He said area resorts, hotels, courses and attractions are working together now more than ever to market the region collectively. This approach of a ‘rising tide raises all ships’ has been a signature of Myrtle Beach for decades.

“As I like to say it, the consumer, when they come into town, they don’t know who owns what golf courses or who operates the golf,” Smith said of his competitive market. “They just want to have a good time and play the golf courses of their choosing. We have always done a good job of packaging with each other as it benefits everyone involved.”  

Smith shared a heartwarming story of one member who has, when picking up a to-go order, twice left $1,000 tips for the wait staff. Men and women’s golf groups have also taken up collections to be shared among the staff. “That really brought our communities together and made us all feel as one,” Smith said.

Bixler’s most positive takeaway from the pandemic could have the greatest impact on the future of the industry. He said lesson business at Celebration’s golf academy has grown 64 percent and club sales have more than doubled from 2019. “We’ve had an immediate increase in not only lesson package purchases from new players but former players who came back to the game,” he said. “It is just growing immensely.”

Watch the full roundtable discussion