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March 2019

Living on Tourney Time

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Being Selective Can Grow the Right Partnerships

By David Gould

The budget forecast at Waterchase Golf Club in Fort Worth, Texas, pegs annual green-fee revenue from outside tournaments at approximately $325,000 — about a quarter of total income from golf play. A profitable year thus calls upon General Manager Jason Heitschmidt and his team to do great work servicing this category. But that doesn’t mean every outside group is a proper fit for Waterchase.

Outings place a heavy demand on staff, given the various perks and extras most contracts include, and the tendency for all the players to arrive all at once.

“I’ve been around long enough to remember when we priced the golf for outside groups at $5 or $10 over rack rate, to account for the special treatment they got,” says Heitschmidt. “We’re actually back to doing that, at least for groups that take over a prime section of our tee sheet.”

Once his peak season ends, Heitschmidt convenes a meeting in which staffers look back on the year’s outing activity. One goal is to sift out particularly high-maintenance groups that end up as a net negative for the golf program.

“Basically we’re looking for a partnership, with good value on both sides,” explains Heitschmidt. “We look at ancillary revenue as well as the contracted fees. How much merchandise they bought and what they spent in the bar is all part of it.”

Thus, you can bring a group to this facility one year and not receive a proposal to come back the next, based on whether or not that criterion is met.

Award-winning PGA professional Aaron Palen employs a similar strategic mindset for outing work. Honored last year as his section’s public-course Merchandiser of the Year, Palen oversaw tournament-group activity at Colonial Heritage Golf Club in Williamsburg, Virginia, before his recent move to a private-club job in North Carolina. He decided early on that quality would outweigh quantity as a success indicator.

“In the time I was there,” he says, “the number of outing rounds at Colonial Heritage went down, but our outing revenue went up.”

For managers like Palen, all the new technology and know-how around tee sheet management has affected decision-making on outside tournaments.

“I’m all about price integrity of the green fee,” Palen says, “and you can hurt your average-price-per-round with the wrong approach to tournament groups.”

Outside groups book well in advance, providing a bird-in-hand factor, and poor weather generally won’t make them cancel. Still, for Palen there is a hazard in leaning too hard toward outings.

“You never want to book one just to book one,” he says. “You could end up with a group that drives $3,000 in revenue on a day when your open play has a chance to drive $6,000.”

Success in this category is driven by repeat bookings, year after year, but fixating on a sky-high repeat rate can cause a course to negotiate from weakness. In 2018, a returning outing group asked Palen for a Saturday in May — prime time to say the least.

“The year before, playing on a Friday, they had paid $35 per player for golf and about $17 for lunch,” says Palen. “I sent them an offer at $65 for golf — our rack rate is $70 — plus $18 for lunch. There was a $5 shop credit and no-charge on range balls to sweeten it, and they came back with a quick yes.”

He is also insistent on giving away rounds of golf as charity raffle prizes only to tournament groups that will guarantee him a chance to bid on their next year’s tourney.

Heitschmidt considers it advantageous to be selling group golf in an area that’s home to lots of associations and golf societies made up of serious, low-handicap, high-income players.

“Our facility is right in the wheelhouse of groups like the North Texas Seniors,” he says. “The factors that matter to them — a challenging course and great service — are strengths for us. For groups that prioritize a big fancy clubhouse, we’re not going to be first choice.”

Including some of these competitive, score-conscious groups into your schedule can set you up for bonus revenue that spills over from the official round. The nationwide Golf Channel Am Tour is always looking for host sites for their dense schedule of tournaments, offering courses a chance to make money that day and on either side of it, as well.

“Golf Channel Am Tour members very often pay the rack rate for an extra crack at your layout, either as a practice round beforehand or a relaxing 18 after the competition,” says Mike Rich of the Golf Channel Events Division.

One new idea in the outside-tournament market isn’t exactly a tournament. Jenn Harris, founder of the tournament services company High Heel Golfer, has done well of late with her self-styled Clinics for a Cause. Billed as an easier, less time-consuming way to mount a charity golf event, they take place at the range and practice center, not out on your golf course. Harris, as the name of her California-based company suggests, targets inexperienced women golfers who are drawn to the golf environment because they enjoy networking and rely on it as a cornerstone of professional success. Courses that host a Clinic for a Cause charge something for range space, bill out their teaching professionals at $150 an hour and generally do very well on food and beverage at the post-clinic receptions.

“I’ve had groups that first hired me for a clinic move up to a full-scale tournament,” says Harris, “so the clinic can be a course’s way to start a relationship with a new group, make some revenue and not have to tie up their tee sheet.”

Outside tournaments remain a business-builder for many if not most public courses, even as trends in corporate hospitality and charitable fundraising come and go. Creativity in scheduling and executing group outings will always win you friends, but there’s also some discipline involved in what you promise and how you price it. Best path for success in this arena is to mix those two factors in a way that fits the product you offer to the market.

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

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