GolfNow came up in Understanding Golf Operations the other day. We were discussing marketing as it relates to golf courses and what courses are doing to fill their extra tee times and generate revenue. PGA Professional Fred Barr told us that while he was still at Superstition Springs Golf Club in Mesa, GolfNow was just getting started and approached the Superstition for tee times for their site.
By now, you’ve probably gone online to GolfNow.com and booked a tee time or two without really stopping to think about how much money those fees and surcharges are racking up. It’s become quite the money-making enterprise, and it’s here to stay. It’s a way for golf courses to market themselves to a variety of customers, including tourists, without really doing much of anything.
I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard how much GolfNow made on tee times in the state of Arizona alone in 2013 – tens of millions of dollars!
That’s when I decided to poke around for an article on GolfNow. The Wall Street Journal’s John Paul Newport is all over it in this report:
The Debate Over Third-Party Tee-Time Services
By John Paul Newport
Nov. 7, 2014 8:00 p.m. ET
If you browse through the tee-time listings at GolfNow.com, in most markets you’ll likely find some sensational bargains. At the Tanglewood Resort north of Dallas you could have booked an 18-hole round for your foursome at 1:28 p.m. Friday for $10 per person. The tee times immediately before and after 1:28 p.m. were offered at $36. At the Silverthorn Country Club north of Tampa, you could have booked an 8 a.m. tee time Friday for $15. The standard rate for that time is $35. Occasional single-digit green fees for 18 holes are not uncommon around the country.
The business model that allows GolfNow to offer such cut-rate golf is freaking out some in the industry. Critics contend that openly offering tee times at a fraction of standard rates damages golf courses’ “price integrity” and commoditizes a product that traditionally sells more on the basis of service, quality, convenience and personal connection.
“GolfNow basically encourages customer disloyalty,” said Stuart Lindsay, a longtime consultant to golf courses through his Edgehill Golf Advisors and an outspoken GolfNow skeptic.
GolfNow isn’t the only third-party tee-time-selling business. Part of the industry’s anxiety has to do with simply adjusting to the market disruptions wrought by online technology. But GolfNow, affiliated with
NBCUniversal’s Golf Channel, has quickly become the big dog. A series of major acquisitions since the summer of 2013 has increased its reach. Lindsay estimates that up to half of all the online tee times available in the U.S. are now available through GolfNow. (The company disputes that percentage but acknowledged that about a third of courses selling tee times online now use GolfNow.) In any industry, growth like that makes people nervous—not just competitors, but also clients and partners.
The aspect of GolfNow’s business that most concerns critics are the so-called bartered tee times. The standard arrangement most golf courses make with GolfNow is to barter one or two tee times a day in exchange for a listing on GolfNow’s website. Golf Channel, through relentless on-air promotion—“Go Play!” urges the charming Old Tom Morris character—drives hundreds of thousands of golfers to GolfNow. There they can shop for golf the way they do for everything else online, comparing offers from a range of courses in a given area and making their decision based on price, location, time of day and reviews by other golfers.
For smaller, stand-alone courses in particular, marketing through a third-party tee time purveyor like GolfNow is a helping hand in the digital world. “The average mom-and-pop operation doesn’t usually understand all the technology,” said Mike Hughes, chief executive at the National Golf Course Owners Association, which represents more than 5,000 courses in the U.S. and abroad. The deals they strike also usually include software from GolfNow that makes running the pro shop simpler. Gone are paper tee sheets: In their place are computer displays that keep tabs of who is scheduled to tee off when, whether they booked online through GolfNow, reserved by phone or walked on.
“The service they provide is certainly worth two tee times a day,” said Margaret Giles, who runs the shop at the River Ridge Golf Club near Tampa, Fla. “We get people in here all the time who booked online and tell us, ‘I’ve lived around here for many years and never knew about this place.’ GolfNow has brought us a lot of extra business.”
That’s the business proposition in a nutshell. The potential downside for courses is more subtle. “GolfNow’s pitch is they have the eyeballs of the golf consumer, but that’s just one dimension,” said Hughes of the NGCOA, which has empaneled a task force, its report expected in February, to study the issues raised by third-party tee-time purveyors. Hughes said golf operators were hotly debating the topic: “Price integrity is part of it. Losing control of their relationship with customers is another.”
When GolfNow or other enterprises, such as www.teeoff.com, are paid with bartered tee times, they have every incentive to unload them at any price they can get. Buyers make direct payments to GolfNow, not the course. Most of the biggest bargains one finds on the GolfNow website, often highlighted with banners or other special designations such as “60% off,” are bartered tee times. GolfNow even operates a subsidiary site, www.lastminutegolfer.com, which aggregates many of its unsold tee times for rounds within 48 hours. That site is nothing but bargains.
Viewed one way, bartered tee times are fair recompense for the services and exposure GolfNow provides. Most bartered slots, each for a foursome, are at off-peak times—midmorning instead of early morning, say, or in the early afternoon. Half of a typical U.S. golf course’s tee times go unsold anyway. But the market effect can be disruptive.
A similar dynamic took place in the early days of Expedia and Orbitz, online-booking services that were able to sell hotel rooms at prices so low the hotels cringed. “It destroyed the pricing model for hotels because consumers quickly become trained to expect bargains,” said Peter Hill, chief executive of Billy Casper Golf, which owns or operates more than 150 golf properties in 28 states. Hill said it took the lodging industry seven to 10 years to correct itself. In the end, hotels learned to guarantee consumers the lowest prices on their own websites and to provide only limited inventory to third-party providers. But golf isn’t there yet.
Another risk for courses is the customer data that third-party purveyors collect. “They may promise not to use customer info to sell against a course, but how do courses know for sure?” Lindsay said. In theory, a third-party purveyor could sell golfers their tee time and follow up with special offers for balls and apparel that undercut the pro shop at the course where they are headed.
When asked about such practices, a GolfNow spokesman said: “Never have, never will. That flies in the face of our relationship with courses.”
Much of the controversy in the third-party golf business can be understood as the natural friction of an industry in transition. “Our ambition, simply put, is to get more people to play more golf by using technology to present them with more options,” said Mike McCarley, the president of Golf Channel. “The more people who play golf, the more will watch Golf Channel, and the more people who watch Golf Channel, the more will want to play golf.”
For now, McCarley said, the bartered tee-time model works best for most courses, but he emphasized that the third-party tee-time business is rapidly evolving and that GolfNow’s business models will evolve, too. Even Lindsay, the skeptic, acknowledges that GolfNow’s current model has benefited some of his client courses.
“My feeling is that the industry is moving, very cooperatively, in the right direction,” said Hill of Billy Casper Golf. “The third-party resellers are adjusting to reality. Nobody wants to drive prices so low they are unsustainable. That’s like eating your young.”
Meanwhile, you can still find some mighty fine bargains out there.
You can email John Paul at email@example.com.
NGCOA Position Statement: Third Party Tee-Time Resellers
In response to widespread concerns expressed by golf course operators regarding the role of Third Party Tee-Time Resellers, defined as any entity other than the Golf Course or group of courses that is in the business of providing sales and distribution of tee times, memberships and related services to golfers through intermediary websites or other marketing channels not owned by the Golf Course, the National Golf Course Owners Association has established the following position:
1. The NGCOA’s role with respect to Third Party Tee-Time Resellers is to provide information and education to its members so that they are aware of the key issues and can act in their best interests.
2. Golf Courses should promote both individually and/or in groups, as many sales as possible directly through their own website, pro shops, call centers, or other outlets.
3. If the golf course, using its own independent judgement decides that it is in their business interest to engage the services of a Third Party Reseller as supporting strategies only, intended to drive incremental business and fill in times of soft demand.
4. Golf Courses opting to use Third Party Resellers should protect their business interests by managing those Third Party business relationships by utilizing the Best Practices recommended by the NGCOA. To download the list of Best Practices, click here.
Executive Summary of the AH&LA and STR Special Report Distribution Channel Analysis: A Guide for Hotels by Cindy Estis Green and Mark V. Lomanno – download the summary.
In the March 2012 issue of Golf Business, NGCOA Deputy CEO, Mike Tinkey, explains how golf can learn a thing or two from the lodging industry when it comes to third party resellers. Read Making Smart, Informed Decisions now.
In the April 2012 issue of Golf Business, NGCOA Deputy CEO, Mike Tinkey, advises facilities working with third party resellers to own their data. Read Commentary: It’s a Data-Driven World.
In the July 2012 issue of Golf Business, NGCOA Deputy CEO, Mike Tinkey, offers facilities, that use third party resellers, tips on how to protect their brand. Read Commentary: Protecting Your Brand.