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February 2017

Cutting Through the Clutter

cuttingthroughtheclutter.jpgBy David Gould

Finding the right resources amongst a bevy of best practices

It was the novelist Victor Hugo who declared that “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” If you run a business, you do need workable ideas to come along regularly. Advice on how to make money operating a golf facility is widely available—from books, articles, seminars, business colleagues as well as from non-industry sources. It adds up to a stream of best practices, problem fixes and other B2B inputs that a management team can tap into, even as they discard suggestions that aren’t relevant.

Dealing with this effectively means organizing your thoughts, your staff meetings and your overall work process to capture what’s valuable and avoid wasting time on what isn’t. Can this be done systematically? Seemingly yes, if you’ve got a sound idea-gathering system, a reliable “B.S. meter” and meeting protocols that steer you toward the best advice.

Golf events and programs are fertile ground for idea-sharing among daily-fee and semi-private courses. Lately, many of these ideas have been driven by the trend away from enforcing strict etiquette at all times. At Bay Hills Golf Club in Plattsmouth, Nebraska, a new event went on the calendar last year with good results. The popular “It’s-OK League,” as it’s called, targeted non-golfing wives of the course’s mostly male clientele. On the event’s opening night, it would have been fitting for head professional Seth Ray and his staff to conduct a ceremonial burning of the USGA rulebook, given the untraditional way this weekday-evening league conducts play.

The league’s name is short for “It’s OK to not be good at golf.” The women are told that, no matter how hard they try, it’s impossible for them to cheat. Meaning, no matter what they do to get the ball in the hole—carry it, kick it, throw it—it’s all good. “We got that particular idea from a head-pro friend of mine in Iowa,” explains Ray, who adds that he receives and reads a daily email from the PGA of America designed to curate creative innovations that members have developed and tried.

“The owners here give the staff free rein to try new things that seem reasonable and have a chance to build the business,” he says. Ray’s process with new concepts is to discuss them, put certain ones into use, and evaluate them on the back side. “We don’t come in expecting any idea to be a home run” he says. “We’re looking to hit a single, then we try to turn our singles into doubles and triples by modifying and improving on our first attempt.”

That approach would win approval from the business-development people at fizzle.co, whose Sparkline blog is aimed at helping independent businesses brainstorm new strategies. The Sparkline system for making innovation work goes like this: generate ideas (which includes borrowing them), document those ideas, organize them, cull the list, and then execute.

And don’t expect on-site meetings to be the place where aha moments occur and light bulbs go on over staffers’ heads. Brainstorming in your meeting room for how to execute a new initiative is fine, but Sparkline’s research—backed up by others with similar expertise—shows that idea-generation by business people occurs during activities such as walking, running, traveling, conversing with friends, showering and listening to podcasts and audiobooks. The brief period before you fall asleep and after you wake up is also a great time to be scribbling things down in a notebook. At that point, information in the articles you’ve read and the seminars you’ve attended get a chance to intertwine with the needs and patterns of your operation as they exist in real time.

Along with identifying new opportunities, solving problems is the other activity where advice and smart suggestions are most valued. Brackett’s Crossing Country Club, in Lakeville, Minnesota, has created its own internal source for doing that, through its club advisory board. Owned for 20-plus years by Peggy and Tom Smith, Brackett’s Crossing enjoyed strong business performance in 2016, recording 27,000 rounds, completing various renovation projects and hosting 65 weddings—with that many weddings pre-booked for 2017, as well. General manager Steve Allen credits ownership with providing long-term stability and leadership, and Allen himself makes sure to attend conferences and meetings organized by the Club Managers Association of America and the NGCOA, partly to discover new best practices, but also because the material presented “reinforces what you’re already doing, in a lot of instances,” says Allen.

The presence of an advisory board, consisting of members who rotate through and are not equity owners of the property, is interesting. Allen explains that each iteration of the board represents the array of Brackett’s Crossing membership categories (some of those categories now actually have waiting lists) and that its net effect is to “help the staff understand how to keep everybody happy, which is our mission in the first place.”

This system is a good example of what BusinessInsider.com was getting at in its recent presentation of “Nine Steps to Effective Business Problem-Solving.” Consider three of those nine steps: “Take the time to define the problem clearly,” then “Challenge that definition from all angles” and, finally “Identify multiple possible solutions.” With a panel of advisors who come to the various golf-operations questions from diverse backgrounds, there is an increased chance of being able to fulfill those three ideals. Discussing the last of the three highlighted procedures, Business Insider experts offered this observation: “The quality of the solution seems to be in direct proportion to the quantity of solutions considered in problem-solving.”

The professional staff at White Columns Golf Club, a ClubCorp facility in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta, has a yearly tradition of operational review and idea-sifting that echoes what the Sparkline experts say about how and when innovative ideas arise. Golf director Mitch Cook and his three assistants take a day at the end of the season when they lock the shop and—what a concept—head out to play 18 holes together. According to first assistant professional Chris McAlister, that day on the links is designed as an opportunity to “shoot the breeze and have a roundtable discussion about what worked, what didn’t and what we could do better.”

For some reason, the act of actually playing the game produces a sense of calm that breeds good thinking, according to McAlister. “We grew annual revenue by $80,000 in 2016, and we can attribute that at least partly to the way we kick ideas around—and the atmosphere we create for doing that.” The White Columns end-of-year skull session in 2015 produced a new concept about job descriptions and division of responsibilities that made last season a success on many fronts, including the all-important factors of camaraderie and communications.

It started with one of those ever-useful “blank slate” premises—Cook asked his staff, “What do you do when you arrive at work in the morning?” The answers tended to be vague, with staffers saying they basically rolled into the normal flow of opening the shop, checking golfers in and handling whatever problems might arise. From the vagueness came a sense that additional structure, from the get-go each day, might contribute to greater productivity and better business results.

The decision was made to divide the golf operation into several categories, plus sub-categories,  and assign one staff member to be responsible for managing each of them. “It brought in a new level of accountability,” reports Mcallister, “and in a lot of ways it made our jobs more enjoyable because the challenge of doing your job well was more defined and some healthy competition was fostered.” Ironically, the year-end practice of questioning all assumptions (See sidebar for more on assumptions) allowed the team to take a big-picture approach, but the outcome of it was to veer each employee away from big-picture vagueness and toward much more specified and measurable responsibility. The idea to do this was generated internally, but the “go off-site” procedure for reviewing and brainstorming reflects classic management-consulting wisdom.

Email marketing dovetails with advice-giving when “thought leader” media sources like the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review (HBR) find their way into your inbox—every day, if you want it—with news, statistics and how-to commentary. For some executives and managers, it’s like caffeine in text format, waking up the brain and creating a sense that one is getting a jump on the competition.

Thus, if the decision-makers at the Haggin Oaks golf complex in Sacramento, California, had been reading the HBR blog post on “The Logic of Product-Line Extensions,” they might have been guided by it toward their recent successful idea to combine wedge-fitting with coaching and supervised practice. Already a leader in clubfitting and special instruction programs, Haggin Oaks was, in effect, missing an opportunity the same way Doritos was missing out—according to HBR—by not marketing a Cool Ranch extension to the Doritos corn chip selection. Once that new flavor became available to consumers, it gave the brand a jolt that lifted annual sales of Doritos over the $1 billion mark.

For its wedge-fitting-plus-coaching events, which happen on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons, the Haggin Oaks crew will try to bring two or three vendors together who provide an array of wedge lofts, sole designs, shafts and grips for the fittings. A golfer will split his or her time between instruction/practice and the fitting. Haggin Oaks charges participants $150, and for that price customers receive one fitted wedge plus instruction. As many as 40 to 60 people have participated in each event, roughly dividing into 30 percent women, 60 percent men and 10 percent youth. Four to six instructors cover it, sharing $25 from each customer’s fee. On average, anywhere from $6,000 to $9,000 in revenue is brought in during this two-hour event, with nearly 20 percent of participants actually purchasing more than one wedge.

The idea is an extension just as Cool Ranch Doritos was, representing an impressive double-down on scoring shot accuracy by pairing wedge-fitting with coaching sessions. No matter what business you’re in, the idea that is “one idea over” from what’s working already will very often be worth trying, although it may be hidden in plain sight and require the right kind of brainstorming to come to light.

As the Sparkline experts tells us: “Not all ideas are great. Heck, most aren’t even good, so make a habit of going through your lists of ideas and culling out ones you are never going to use.” On that basis, owners may in fact not be heading one step beyond “Wine and Nine,” in states where marijuana is now legal, to the development of programs like “Weed and Wedges” or “Chipping, Pitching and Pot.” Can it be said categorically that no golf facility will ever try such an idea? Conceivably not—and adoption of the idea may depend on who suggests doing it—but you probably don’t want to be the pioneer on this one.

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

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