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November 2021

All The Dashboards, All Wired Together?

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By David Gould

During his time heading up business intelligence at Caesars Entertainment, Harvard-trained Ruben Sigala made a telling comment about emerging data technology. “I hear about individual wins in certain applications,” Sigala lamented, “but having a cohesive ecosystem in which data is fully integrated—we’re struggling with that.”

Similar to gaming and entertainment back then, today’s golf industry has work to do in building a ”cohesive ecosystem” where all the various data dashboards talk to one another. That makes this a period for envisioning what full integration might look like and the benefits it might bring.

For some, there’s value in taking a bottom-up view of the question, in which you start with the individual golfer and the stats that show any involvement on their part with game-improvement activity, including metrics generated by launch monitors and other diagnostic tech.

That’s one dashboard. The one hooked to it shows your player-development program and all its distinct activities, led by the professionals who staff it. These would include skill clinics, on-course strategy coaching with groups, casual play with the customers, emails and phone calls to make invitations or salute a recent accomplishment—even the player-dev pro treating a customer to morning coffee.

The next step would be to pair those numbers with the consumer-behavior metrics of the golfers you’re looking at—data points that translate to spending activity and business success for your facility. As for the stats you’d begin with if you took a top-down approach—RevPAR, inventory utilization, customer acquisition cost, player retention—these become more valuable when a manager can segregate by types of customer to see which groups are doing the most for their business.

Some of this data integration is happening already, part of an emerging new strategy of customer engagement based on interactivity between golfers and professionals. And it’s proving itself to be a money-maker, to the point where the player-development employees are getting major compensation bumps triggered by consumer behavior.

“Golf instruction dove into technology and hard data a decade ago with launch monitors and other tools, number-crunching the player’s swing and what the ball did,” says Lorin Anderson, president of Proponent Group, a business-services provider to instructors. “Now instructors are heading into a second phase of data analytics, all about the financial performance of their businesses. This includes measuring how interaction between themselves and the consumer drives value at golf facilities.” A golfer can enter into a longterm coaching program with a teacher, but that’s not necessarily the style of interaction this player-development model goes by. Brief, frequent touches that let the golf professional “cover” a large group is more the idea currently being worked with.

Anderson’s group is helping build the dashboard that measures this activity, in  partnership with Golf Genius Software, which aims to repeat the success it’s achieved in the tournament software space. Step one for Anderson’s team is to design a business KPI and benchmarking machinery that will serve any type of instructor, at any sort of facility or work environment. The KPIs would range from net instruction revenues to the monthly number of new-client leads generated, to average open rate for marketing emails.

That task accomplished, what’s next is to get that dashboard wired into a course or club’s business-management system. Thanks to what its tournament solution has brought to market, Golf Genius is already a trusted vendor to the PGA golf professional, and thus a natural for this new line of business. Michael Zisman, co-CEO of Golf Genius, thinks the time is right to support golf pros as they evolve from “teachers” to “coaches,” and build a closer relationship with golfers.

“We’re actively developing tools for the club professional and the golf instructor to bring more value to their facilities and to themselves—through the opening up of their role that we see occurring—and in the process make that value measurable,” says Zisman. “ClubCorp and others have proven the value in redeploying professionals so that they are out front, engaged with golfers, and improving the golf experience in myriad ways. The group of golf facilities owned and managed by the Union League of Philadelphia have done the same—it’s customer-centric with a new level of engagement.”

On the semi-private side of the business, Florida-based Advance Golf was perhaps the earliest adaptor of the player-dev role for club pros, targeted at public golfers who are eagerly paying monthly “subscriptions,” rather than memberships.

Zisman has long felt that a business will use software if it improves productivity, plain and simple. “Productivity and freeing up time is the reason golf professionals used our tournament management software to administer 700,000-plus golf events last year,” he says. “It’s also why we see a lot of potential for the new tools we’re working on.”

Awareness among golfers of their individual metrics—clubhead speed, face angle, carry distance with the driver and so forth—is growing steadily. It has the effect of raising their awareness of how skill-improvement happens, and it can be another piece of the player’s connection with a professional who is shepherding them along. Already, individual golf performance metrics seem to be everywhere you turn, from simulator lounges to Toptracer ranges to the iPhone in a player’s pocket—driven in part by companies like Arccos, Blast Motion, TrackMan, FlightScope, Foresight and Boditrak. For golfers with memberships at semi-private or private facilities, volunteering to be tracked shot-by-shot on the golf course or even the practice range could make a lot of sense.

Having a software development powerhouse like Golf Genius in the mix opens the door to new programming and player-dev efforts that can be tested and evaluated with great efficiency.

“Picture a golf professional coming to work after the weekend,” Zisman says, “and clicking a link that says Mr. Smith, who attended the previous week’s putting clinic, had 30 putts in his round on Sunday. The pro sends a quick message of congratulations saying isn’t it great that the putting instruction is making a difference. That’s what the amateur golfer is looking for. To a great number of them, support like that is magic, and it translates to revenue at the facility.”

Improvement that’s less numerical naturally blends into the dialogue between a golfer and their player-dev sherpa. The golfer’s first birdie, par or eagle (depending on skill level) gets celebrated. Same with tournament wins or high finishes, their progress up the Operation 36 distance-from-hole system, their first golf trip to a bucket-list course, or any golf-career milestone. Praise for little breakthroughs like these are part of the “magic” Zisman cites, especially in an increasingly work-from-home society, where there’s more time for golf and a greater hunger for satisfaction through non-work activity.

    *        *        *        *        *        *

Some of the analytics generated by 59Club USA could very well be woven into a “big matrix for the industry,” according to Mike Kelly, who is managing partner of the Atlanta-based firm. Kelly has the U.S. operating rights to 59Club, a global enterprise with British roots, and serves a mixed market of private and public golf facilities domestically. 59Club’s customer surveys and mystery shopping products, among other performance management tools, involve 2,000-plus “testers” nationwide and generate fairly massive intel about the golf experience. Similar to the ClubCorp approach, 59Club lives at the intersection where a very human touch with the customer meets reporting and benchmarking that’s driven by hard data. Kelly will hold his proprietary management dashboard up against any in the industry, for its comprehensiveness and ease of use.

A 30-year golf industry veteran, he’s been thinking a lot about engagement between new golf customers—or newly energized ones—and the golf professional staff at higher-end facilities. Listen to his perspective and you start to realize that, someday not long from now, everyone who comes to a greengrass facility for the first time will have already seen their digital performance stats up on a screen—making their relationship with game-improvement experts an already-paved road.

“Some golf professionals are in a leadership position on the connection between expert guidance and golfer spend and golfer retention,” Kelly says. “One of my client clubs is building golf membership by having the assistant professionals take social members at the club over to Topgolf. I’d estimate they’ve got 25 to 35 people who were part of the club, had never picked up a club, then were hosted by a professional at Topgolf—which got them hitting a ball, asking what the numbers mean and thoroughly enjoying the experience.”

His surveys tell Kelly that, regardless of a newly arrived golfer’s skill level, “seeing the golf course initially through a golf professional’s eyes, on an accompanied round, has a major value that’s very lasting.” It’s a serious mistake, in his view, to underestimate the long-term benefits of that one player-dev tactic.

ClubCorp VP Matt Anzalone is past the proof-of-concept stage on job descriptions and compensation plans for personnel who can play the game, teach it and shower attention on dues-payers. “With the new operating model we’ve implemented, and the array of positive results we’ve seen it generate, we’re in expansion mode on this,” says Anzalone, who will oversee the company’s extension of the concept from 30 clubs currently into another 36 clubs, in the relatively near term.

In this model, the golf professional is assigned one of several “pods” of golfers at a facility. That professional is compensated, in some cases handsomely, according to various behaviors the golfers in the pod exhibit. We’re talking about frequency of visits, participation in events, spend-per-visit, moving up in member class, re-upping each year, providing new-member referrals and the like.

It’s actually a retro form of behavior that Anzalone is encouraging, mimicking what the best PGA head pros of the mid-20th century did on their own. “You won’t find it on my business card,” Charley Epps famously said, “but my job title at Houston Country Club is Vice-President in Charge of Fun.” Epps ran the club’s golf activities a couple of generations ago, treating his members like kids at a summer camp and leading them Pied Piper-style through one high-energy season after another.

In that era, compensation for head pros included the shop merchandise concession, range ball rentals and in some cases the golf cart concession. The more they encouraged participation in everyday golf and tournament play, the more income they made. In New York’s golf-rich Westchester County, award-winning professional Bob Watson had a recipe for how to excite club members about a golf program: “Promotion,” he would say, “is the pro, in motion.”

When the money head pros earned from merchandise and motorized carts got too rich, club management took away those concessions and compensated with straight salary. The path to career success for Class A PGA people became the club-manager route. Computers arrived as this all happened, and the pro was no longer in motion—he was parked behind a computer screen, running reports and checking his open-to-buy calculations for the retail business.
 
Because you don’t need playing ability or teaching ability or interpersonal skills to do that work, there came to be an underutilized personnel asset on just about any golf property. Ian James spotted this and got to thinking. A South Africa native who built a business as a consultant to large retailers, he gradually added golf clients and learned the industry. Over the past decade, no one has been as adamant as James about how poorly golf professionals have been deployed and how much the amateur golfer basks in the attention of a skilled pro... and what that all could mean to a facility’s income statement. 

James entered into a contract with ClubCorp to research the company’s vast club network with innovation in mind, testing some new operational strategies as he went. At the conclusion of that long project, he and Anzalone knew there was no turning back.

What Anzalone calls “a significant lack of alignment between the facility, the golf professionals and the customers” was hidden in plain sight for a long time. But business innovation seems to have a leg up in this era of hard data and benchmarking, because any idea can be tested, tracked and declared a hit or a miss in a timely manner. “The success of our new player-development pros has been spectacular,” Anzalone says. “The business results are even greater than what we had hoped for."

It’s an interesting crossroads he describes, where warm, personal attention to the golfer’s game and cold, hard data to analyze the business results of that effort intersect.

Very likely there is more innovation of this kind still to come, and a vast, integrated data matrix out there in the distance, waiting to measure things we don’t yet know need measuring.

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