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October 2018

‘I Do’ Means Big Business

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By David Gould

Earlier this year, course operators took a break from fretting over rounds-played stats to focus on troubling data about marriages and weddings. After climbing steadily from 2010 through 2016, the number of weddings in America fell off notably last year. 

Partly it’s those nettlesome Millennials, waiting so long to get hitched. A Pew Research study showed that the median age of an American marrying for the first time had reached its highest point on record — 29.5 years for men and 27.4 years for women.

Managers of public-access golf facilities back in the day didn’t care much about brides and grooms, but golf’s great infrastructure upgrade of this past generation has helped change that. Revenue from wedding receptions has become a big deal for course owners, as spacious new clubhouses have caught the eye of planners and brides-to-be.

That explains the existence of businesses like web-based CountryClubReceptions.com, which matches betrothed couples with golf venues to party in once their vows are exchanged. Brad Porter, general manager of Patriots Point Links in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, runs an operation that sounds like two businesses in one — part golf, part wedding celebrations. Of the two, golf is the one he and his team have more trouble squeezing profits from.

“We work off a very moderate rack rate and build our golf revenue through volume — about 40,000 rounds this year,” says Porter, a PGA professional who came up the golf side to his GM job. “Our indoor food-and-beverage space is tiny — it’s a glorified snack bar — but we’ve got a 10-million-dollar view of Charleston Harbor and a wedding pavilion that rents out for $4,500 a day, with very little overhead. We booked 28 receptions this year, and our wedding P&L supersedes the golf P&L more often than not.”

That point is underscored by a unique staffing quirk at the 1980s-vintage facility, now part of the Mosaic Clubs & Resorts portfolio. Rachel Hall is a Mosaic employee who serves as the Patriots Point sales coordinator for its wedding venue; meanwhile, she also owns and operates her own wedding planning business.

“Rachel sells the venue to clients, and once that’s accomplished she helps them navigate the rest of the process,” says Porter. “It’s a little out of the ordinary, and that’s because our opportunity with this revenue stream is so meaningful. If attracting and building this line of business is best served by having her wear the two hats, that’s what we’re going to do.”

Weddings in the U.S. amount to a $72 billion industry each year, and Patriots Point is just one of many public golf facilities with a business model that taps into that monster dollar figure. Last year on Cape Cod (like Charleston, it’s a top-25 “destination” wedding locale) a tear down of a private club — course and clubhouse both — made way for The Cape Club, which is Troon-managed on the golf side, but has an entire, massive top floor built with marriage in mind, down to an expansive bride’s dressing salon and a hangout room with pool tables for the groom and his mates. Further proof lies in the website of Bartlett Hills Golf Club, with its classic 6,500-yard course serving the avid golf market of suburban Chicago. But if you’re curious what activity pays the bills there, take note that the website’s main photo, its headline text and two navigation-bar buttons are expressly flogging BHGC’s wedding receptions.

If your facility is just getting its act together in this line of business, there are plenty of good ideas out there to borrow. One element to bear in mind is the groomsmen’s golf outing — Porter says at least one in three weddings at Patriots Point has a golf add-on in which the groom (you always comp him,) the best men and the ushers form two or three foursomes. In fact, bachelor-party golf groups are a very big part of the Friday tee sheet at Patriots Point throughout the prime wedding season. “We had six of those groups last Friday,” says Porter. “Even if you don’t get their wedding it’s good business.” And since weddings become contagious within a certain age group, referrals to future brides from these usher outings are a natural.

Looking closely at the relevant macro research on weddings, one spots a nuance likely to reassure the reception-seeking golf venue. What the stats show is a growing reluctance to marry that skews strongly toward lower income levels, which is not the usual audience for fancy weddings with fairway backdrops. In the Pew study, marriage is shown declining for people with high school educations in the years 1990 to 2015 from 63 percent down to 50 percent, while among those with college educations the marriage rate was 65 percent, relatively unchanged from a generation prior. 

So, the brides and their moms — and even a groom or two — will likely be scouting out higher-end venues for years to come, pumping dollars and new energy into every attractive golf facility that works to earn a piece of the business. Even the trend toward delaying marriage shouldn’t be an issue.

“People are definitely waiting longer,” says Hall. “I’ve got many clients right now who are in their late 30s, including some who have been married before.”

She brings up an interesting point — the “lapsed spouse,” like the “lapsed golfer,” can be brought back into the marketplace. We’ll toast to that. 

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

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