Golf Facility Operations Field Trip: TopGolf Tour

This is what TopGolf looks like at first light, about an hour before opening.
This is what TopGolf looks like at first light, about an hour before opening.

Friday was one of the most exciting days we’ve had at the Golf Academy since we’ve been there. As part of our Managing Golf Facility Operations and Planning/Organization of Tournament Golf classes, we were invited to take a behind-the-scenes tour of TopGolf in Gilbert. The doors don’t usually open until 9:00a, but we were there bright and early for a sneak peek at 7:45a.

The Golf Academy is having a special event at TopGolf in early December, and our Tournament Golf class is responsible for planning/organizing the games we’re going to be playing for the two hours while we’re there.

The event is optional, but the golf, the drinks, and the snacks are all being paid for by the Academy. Right now, we’re leaning toward 80-90 minutes of open play (any one of TopGolf’s nine games) followed by a 30-40 minute scramble.

If you don’t know the TopGolf story by now, you will before too long. It’s part golf, part sports, and all entertainment. In the next five years, I predict there will be a TopGolf in every major North American city. The concept for TopGolf came about in 1997 when brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe were hitting balls at a driving range in North London.

Director of Ops Justin Norvell told us he expects 450,000 people to come through the Gilbert location in its first year.
Director of Ops Justin Norvell told us he expects 450,000 people to come through the Gilbert location in its first year.

They wanted to know how far the ball was going and how close to the hole it was landing, so they went to work developing a points-based target game using microchip technology inside golf balls. Points are scored based on which targets the balls are hit into and how far away those targets are. In 2000, the Jolliffe’s opened their first TopGolf in Watford, just outside London, and it was such a success that TopGolf made its international debut in 2005 by opening a facility in Alexandria, Virginia.

Over the next several years, TopGolf opened more facilities in the United States, usually by retro-fitting existing driving ranges, and in early 2011, the Jolliffe brothers sold their idea to a small group of private investors based in Dallas for $28 million. Since then, TopGolf has exploded, and annual revenue reports as late as 2013 were in the $95 million range.

In December of 2014, TopGolf opened facility No. 14 in Gilbert, it’s second such operation in the state of Arizona (Scottsdale being the first). It’s what’s called a Generation II facility: 65,000 square-feet spread across three levels with 102 climate-controlled hitting bays and 250 flat screen TVs throughout.

There's a lot to do at TopGolf even if golf isn't your thing.
There’s a lot to do at TopGolf even if golf isn’t your thing.

Director of Operations Justin Norvell told us that in just their first year of operation, the Gilbert location expects to have 450,000 people come through its doors and for more than ten million golf balls to be struck. Each of the bays has a large capacity hopper that holds 1,800 balls, and it’s not uncommon for them to completely empty on a Friday or a Saturday. TopGolf is so popular that 400 parking spots typically aren’t enough between 5:00-9:00p on a weekend night.

Gilbert is the more family-friendly of the two Arizona locations while Scottsdale offers a more upscale, party-like atmosphere. Of all of TopGolf’s facilities, only the two Arizona sites are “irons only.” While you can still hit the driver, 3-wood, or hybrid provided at each hitting bay, you can’t hit your own fairway woods because of the Red Mountain (202) Freeway running along the north side of the Gilbert location and because of the Talking Stick Resort employee parking just beyond the back fence at the Scottsdale site.

Only the TopGolf sites in Arizona are "irons only."
Only the Arizona sites are “irons only.”

Our tour was great, and it was much appreciated. However, the big thing I came away with is that even though it has the word “golf” in its name, TopGolf is more about providing a first-class social experience than it is about golf improvement. A majority of Gilbert’s 450 associates have backgrounds in hospitality or food and beverage, not necessarily golf. And apparently, that’s what the people want.

There are no signs that TopGolf is slowing production anytime soon. It will have 24 locations worldwide by year’s end and another ten next year, including a four-story super complex at the MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel.

Portions of this post courtesy of Wikipedia.

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