Date: August 22, 2016
Author: Paul Vardy

What we learnt in the Golf Business Forum

The Golf Business Forum held in Melbourne in late July brought together a fascinating mix of over 200 course owners and operators, council reps, private club managers, social golf club organisers, PGA members, AGCSA reps, course architects, plus a vast array of suppliers providing services and innovation to the industry.

Arriving at these events, you don’t know what gold nuggets you’ll get from the speakers, who you’ll bump into and what information you’ll receive and exchange.  

Golf people came to hear things, some of which may not seem immediately relevant to their facilities today but which are trends that may already be influencing their business without them even knowing.

Jay Karen from US National Golf Course Owners Association and Lodewijk Klootwijk from European Golf Course Owners Association gave an international perspective on golf. 

Not lost on the audience was Lodewijk’s call that facilities must be responsible for creating their own futures and do less finger pointing.  

Local speakers included Paul Fairweather from the Australian Sports Commission, Mark Band from Parks and Leisure Australia, Stephen Pitt from Golf Australia and Brian Thorburn from the PGA of Australia.  So what were some of the themes?

1.     Rise in customisation

Technology is enabling golf operators to offer all kinds of options for consumers so personalisation is very much here to stay.

We’re social creatures who desire to form small tribes. In fact, detailed Harvard research puts the key to a happy life down to relationships.

Golf facilities are hospitality businesses and should be run by staff who are great at being hospitable.  Golf has an important role to play in allowing relationships to flourish and tribes to form.

Jay suggested it’s far easier to train a great hospitality person to be a course ranger than it is to train a gruff ranger to be a great hospitality person.

When keeping the pace of play up to speed, why not go the extra mile in service and provide a food and drinks service?

Golf facilities, though regarded as friendly places for those that use them, have an ability to cause scars with unsuspecting visitors.  Everyone seems to know of a story of someone being made to feel humiliated by a golf club.  Most commonly it’s over the application of a joining policy or a dress policy.  In many cases the policy simply should be changed.  But regardless of whether the policy should stay or not, staff should be specially trained so as to not unsettle an unsuspecting visitor.

The European Golf Course Owners Association’s Vision 2020 spells out the four key pillars of fun, flexibility, friendship and family.

2.     National decline in sport being so competitive

Australia plays an incredible amount of competition golf compared with most golfing countries in the world. Despite 0.5% fewer members in 2015, there’s been a rise in the annual GolfLink  rounds by 1.9% to a record 14.54 million rounds.  

This suggests a continued trend of members, as individuals are getting more value for their money and playing more golf on average.

But according to research from the Australian Sports Commission, within overall sport participation, and no doubt on the fringes of golf, the concept of winning is changing. 

More people are looking for fun and enjoyment rather than winning and more people are fitting sport into limited time.   

This is reflected in the AGIC Report on meeting the modern golf industry consumer which highlights, in addition to less expensive options, the modern golfer wants more fun and social golf with shorter formats.

3.     Facilities diversifying and building new revenue streams

As Lodewijk rightly said, retention is the single most important thing for growth. 

Adam Posner from Directivity gave a 9 step process into making your golf loyalty program a success and yes, birthday programs do actually work.  Facilities should track or survey their own members and customer’s facility usage and segment results into a pie chart to help identify strategies for growth such as; 1) acquire and grow, 2) retain, 3) retain and grow and 4) grow.

Declining revenue from members in traditional club categories may be difficult to avert. This makes it vital to develop new revenue streams such as new flexible membership options and innovations such as short form golf, FootGolf etc.  

The interesting point about innovation that came through here is that, investing time and money into innovation is the work that has to be done. 

Not all innovations will lead to revenue streams and those that do can’t be expected to grow overnight but with the march of time and tweaks along the way, many will. 

The freedom to try and fail is now a necessary entrepreneurial mindset for golf.

Why are big public courses investing in mini-golf like it’s never been built before and why is Foot Golf growing rapidly around the world?  Facilities are signing up Swing Fit and MyGolf in record numbers to bring in more women and children.

As cities grow, most people will be a distance from golf facilities.  Gamers become golfers and so the rise of social gaming venues will likely continue. 

But rather than detracting from the traditional game, they are keeping it alive in the time starved population that can’t yet see a value proposition in a membership.

There’s also investments in high quality mini-golf and driving range facilities that are filling a customer need for convenience.

4.     Manage the tension

One of the great themes is manage the tension. Jo Ann Foo and Danny Bowerin in their AGIC report suggest that venues can’t shirk their responsibilities to change because it may upset some. 

By adapting to meet new customers at their levels, the skill is in remaining stakeholder engagement and managing the tensions.

5.     An attractive and interconnected sport

The conference reaffirms that golf in its many forms has great appeal. 

The innovation at various levels brings new people into the game and this in turn strengthens the industry.  Facilities owners and operators have never had more support in the form of innovative people offering products and services. 

Give them a go and see where it takes you.

Golf Australia was proud to be a foundation partner of the Golf Business Forum. Congratulations go to Guy Chapple and Andrew Davies for bringing this new concept in Australia to light.


Paul Vardy
Club Support Manager