Central Iowa Golf Is Hurting: Here’s Why & What To Do

Background
There was a sports front page article in the Des Moines Register yesterday highlighting the current tenuous state of Central Iowa golf courses.  Courses are experiencing flat or declining revenues, declining attendance, and price pressure. The piece provides a few reasons for the tough times.

  1. Fixed costs have increased including wages and petroleum based fertilizers, etc.
  2. High property taxes hurt courses because they’re taxed as commercial property vs. recreational.
  3. Municipal courses (owned by cities, i.e. subsidized by having less tax burden) green fees are low and getting lower to keep the crowds coming.  Private courses don’t have the luxury of operating this way.  Sound familiar?
  4. The high cost of gas to get to the course in the first place.
  5. The war in Iraq.
  6. More parents are "Dedicating themselves to their kids," by spending a day at the soccer or softball field.
  7. Legalized gambling.
  8. Too much supply.  Too many courses.  Aggressive overbuilding of "hole inventory".  Courses and developers have been using the 1990’s website rule for business decision making, "Build it and they will come". 

Analysis
I believe that numbers 1-7 are somewhat true but not enough to make the measurable impact the industry is feeling. 

Number 8 is a BIG factor. The bottom line is that there are virtually limitless choices for golfers at all typical golf price points within typical driving distance around the metro.  In fact, the number of available holes for golfers within a 20-mile radius of Des Moines grew by 30% in the last decade.

The factor that is not mentioned, discussed, nor implied is the purple elephant in the room.  It’s the largest single factor that impedes growth and repeat business. 

Golf courses make almost no effort whatsoever to market themselves, create brand identity, or create an experience for golfers that is ANY different than other courses in their competitive landscape.  Golf courses leave the entire branding function to the courses beauty and layout itself.

I have only golfed at about 10 courses since I’ve moved to Iowa.   One has asked for my email address.  None have created any experience or purveyed a brand.  If I asked you to name a brand of coffee that has created an experience
and maintained a premium price for something that costs almost nothing
to make…you could name at least one immediately. I should be able to
do the same for Iowa golf courses…without having to resort to the $300+
per round facilities.

Recommendations
Golf courses need to get past the helpless, brand-less, malaise they’re in now.  They need an injection of creative marketing (beyond the logo golf ball) and branding so their courses are synonymous with the kind of experience that creates raving evangelists that want to grow your business for you.  This is especially true when there is NO stand out, no leader, and a "that’s just the way it is" attitude out there.   

  1. Engage in meaningful email marketing.  Segment your audience and target them with offers that make sense.
  2. Host customer appreciation days at the club house.
  3. Leverage "course greeter liaisons" a la Walmart to welcome players and build the experience. 
  4. Invite families to play together and space tee times to allow for slower play. Think Disney.
  5. Blog.  I would absolutely subscribe to a blog written by a golf course that gave me offers, course condition updates, and opinions.  Extend the conversation beyond the 19th hole. 
  6. Leverage SMS marketing (text message).  Would I choose a course that used my exact marketing preferences and sent me offers at key times just for me?  Yes.  I know many others that agree with me.
  7. Develop unique factors that separate you from the competition.  I’m still looking for "self serve honor system for non-alcoholic beverages" at key points around the course.  I’m also looking for the "buy drinks from the cart on a tab that I can settle after the round".  This speeds up play and frees people up to spend more.  I promise it works.  Just about every course out there believes that price is the key in the buying decision.  Honestly, I’ve never asked once how much the round would cost in advance of stepping up to pay in Iowa.  Generally, we know that it’s going to be between $30-$50 to ride for 18 during prime time.  A few bucks does not the decision make.

There are plenty more options for courses to engage in that would separate themselves from the crowd. But like many businesses, golf courses don’t hire marketing/branding employees or leverage agencies or consultancies…rather they put these responsibilities on the course manager or owner.  While this man or woman may be excellent at running a golf course, they probably don’t have the time or inclination to move beyond "coupons in the paper".

Courses must shift their mindsets and become competitive and agile.  They must develop a road map to uniquely separate themselves from the over supply in the market.  Remember, there are plenty of places to get coffee…but only a few that create an experience.  It’s up to you.

Are you ready for help golf course owner/manager?

   

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