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May 2017

Building An Empire

buildinganempire.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

Rod Metzler and Empire Golf are overcoming a saturated marketplace in Northern California by offering an array of initiatives for the entire family at each of their four facilities

What do you do when you manage municipal courses in a market where public golf is oversaturated and operators are in a race to the pricing bottom? A smart businessperson in that situation finds successful clubs in his area and models programs after them.

That’s exactly what Rod Metzler, who owns Empire Golf in Rancho Murieta, California, did when he realized that bottom-fishing for discounters was no way to make a living.

“The clubs seeing growth in this business are the country clubs that have different amenities [other than just golf],” Metzler maintains. “Those clubs with fitness centers and daycare centers and the things that attract different people—those clubs are on the rise. I think that’s what has to happen in the public game if you want to separate yourself, especially in a crowded market like we have in Northern California.”

Metzler put this theory to the test with several initiatives at the four public facilities his company manages. Some of the experiments have failed, but at least one succeeded.

“We’ve tried FootGolf in one location—it didn’t work,” he admits. “We’re trying to upgrade and change what we do in our restaurants. One location didn’t even have a liquor license, so we changed that. We’re trying to attract people from the adjacent municipal parks who are there riding bikes or walking or doing whatever, to come over and use our food operations. We’ve had some success there. Also, the wedding business at one of our locations has been good.

“What worked out surprisingly well, though, is the room we converted,” he adds. “We had a room above the cart barn at the Ancil Hoffman Golf Course (a 52-year-old facility in Carmichael, California). It was less than 2,000 square feet and you could only seat—at most—70 people in there, so it wasn’t big enough for any sort of banquet or event space. For the most part, it had been let go.

“But we have a certified personal trainer who is also a golf instructor, and he asked if he could convert that space into a performance center to combine golf with fitness,” he continues. “We said sure, so we cleaned it up, and started marketing some performance programs. They have been unbelievably successful. I see people plunking down up to $3,000 for sessions with this trainer at a municipal golf course, a place where when you raise the greens fees by $2 people yell and scream. It’s been an incredible dynamic.”

The performance center at Ancil Hoffman has minimal equipment. It’s not intended to be LA Fitness. Most of the sessions are on a one-on-one basis, much like golf lessons. But Metzler sees this model as something that should be explored on a larger scale at other facilities.

“The demographic around the [Ancil Hoffman] course is high-end, so we have a lot of people who wouldn’t necessarily be our regular golf customers who come in and participate in this training,” he says. “It’s shown, too, that clubs going with fitness, public or private, are certainly on the right path. It’s easier to sell the $600-a-month dues line when there’s a fitness center because mom wants to do that and the kids might want to get involved, too.”

Public golf is a different animal, but the needs of the customer, as well as the threshold issues that keep the golfer from playing more, remain the same.

“There’s definitely something there for the daily-fee operator,” Metzler posits. “We’re trying to figure out how to take this to our other locations. You have to have a spot to do it, and a trainer with golf knowledge, so it’s easy. In fact, I don’t know of another municipal operation that has this. But it is one more thing to get people interested. If the one spouse plays golf, the fitness center becomes a spot where the other spouse can come out with kids or friends. You hope to bring the whole community out.

“Even if I played more golf, I’m never going to play five times a week,” he adds. “I might play once a week. Am I going to join a club and pay those kinds of dues to play once a week? Probably not. There are way too many daily-fee options, especially in Northern California, for me to join a club. But if there’s a fitness club and other amenities [at my preferred daily-fee course], suddenly I might join. We’re going to belong to a fitness center anyway. Why not consolidate the two activities and keep my wife and me at the same place?”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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