Private, public, standalone facilities follow different paths to profitability, but managing fundamentals leads to bottom-line success
By: Roger Graves
Managing day-to-day operations is one of the most important and challenging aspects of owning and operating a golf facility: Whether it’s private, public or standalone ranges or practice facilities and learning centers. Proper oversight and strategies regarding labor and hiring practices, turf maintenance, managing major expenditures such as water resources, maintenance equipment and infrastructure, and properly managing the balance sheet is often the difference between financial success and failure.
“Efficiency in managing all aspects of a facility is always a key ingredient to success,” observes Jonathan Ireland, general manager of Kinloch Golf Club, a private facility in Manakin-Sabot, Virginia, that features a lighted practice area and learning center. “In our industry, each season is different and brings new opportunities and challenges, so you must react. The mission statement for every facility is different, but in every case, the patrons want the best value and product possible. Continuing to seek out inefficiencies in your operation remains a crucial factor of a successful operation.”
Ireland’s observation is spot on. While public, private and standalone facilities may take a slightly different approach to managing day-to-day operations, the objective is the same – provide an attractive, comfortable practice and learning experience for customers, clients and members that will generate repeat customers while producing a profitable bottom line. For all types of ranges and learning centers, success begins with hiring a qualified staff dedicated to customer service, maintaining groomed hitting areas and tees, supplying good range balls and closes the deal by delivering a pleasant experience.
Emphasis on Service and Community
“We are in the service business, and our people are one of the most important components of operating a successful club,” says Ireland. “I was taught early on by my mentor and one of the greats in the business, Phil Owenby, that hiring the attitude is key. If you hire someone who is motivated, with a positive, upbeat, ‘can-do’ attitude, and help them hone their skill sets, that individual will be an exceptional service provider and tremendous ambassador for your facility. A team member with this positive attitude will find ways to take the extra step and go out of their way to provide your members and guests with a special experience.”
Rich Smolen, manager of the John Prince Learning Center in Lake Worth, Florida, which dispenses more than four million range balls annually, sees value in hiring a mix of volunteers and full-time employees. But all workers must have a penchant for customer service.
“Customer service must be their number one priority when a candidate seeks employment at our facility,” says Smolen. “I can train and teach golf-related practices, but customer service and customer relations must be ingrained.
“At JPLC, we recruit volunteers to assist in day-to-day operations. They are not paid, but they do receive practice and playing privileges. Today, we have the largest number of volunteers in our 10- year history,” Smolen adds. “It helps keep our payroll at a controllable level and the volunteers help promote the positive aspects of our facility in the community.”
“Customer service is the most important thing when operating a range facility as busy as ours and it is the number one thing we look for in a qualified employee,” assures Paul Grillo, Executive Director of the public Sterling Farms Golf Course and Driving Range in Stamford, Connecticut. “We try to make our customers feel like they belong to a private club at public golf prices. They are here to practice, but most of them are just there to have fun. If they are treated poorly, they will not be back.”
Maintaining Good Conditions
What consistently brings back customers to a range, practice facility or learning center? Good tee and turf conditions, high-quality golf balls, well-manicured bunkers, reliable yardage signs, and plenty of targets and greens that simulate golf-course conditions. Practice conditions at TPC Tampa Bay in Lutz, Florida, are particularly important, since its clientele includes a leaderboard of top amateurs as well as touring professionals from Florida and around the world.
“Our practice areas are a very important part of our facility,” says Justin Wink, PGA Head Professional at TPC Tampa Bay. “We are fortunate to have three relatively large teeing areas that we constantly rotate through to keep a fresh and well-kept hitting area at all times. We also have a back practice facility area that is restricted to only PGA, Champions, Web.com, PGA Tour Canada, PGA Tour Latinoamérica and PGA Tour China cardholders. This area has a putting/chipping green, bunker and full-size teeing area for their ‘office,’ as they are the only ones allowed back there. The three larger Tour cardholders get Pro V1s to hit at their convenience when on property.”
“While dispensing over 4 million range balls a year, I try to keep a more durable and new range ball in our machine to satisfy customer demand,” says Smolen back at John Prince Learning Center. “There is nothing more frustrating than practicing with an inferior, beat-up or cut golf ball. When people find something comparable to what they play with normally, they will come back to that place. Also, we try to have as many targets to hit to as possible. We have accurate yardages as well as 12 barber poles on elevated greens while handing out a ‘pin sheet’ for the day for additional yardage accuracy.”
Maintaining turf and rotating in new range balls, mats, lights, heated hitting bays and other necessities is a major expense at most practice facilities. Grillo keeps the basic maintenance to a minimum at Sterling Farms with an all-synthetic turf and mats practice area.
“Unfortunately, doing over 80,000 buckets (of balls) a year, grass is not an option for us,” says Grillo. “Our biggest challenge is trying to keep the facility looking good, including balls, mats, pickers etc. We are a profitable range, so we have a large budget, but finding time to repair and replace mats and other things on the range is our biggest obstacle. We have an 18-hole golf course attached to the property where water restrictions and usage is a big concern, but we have minimized that concern by going with synthetic turf and mats on the entire practice area.”
Controlling Water Expenses
With water such a precious (and expensive) entity in some regions of the country, managing the cost of water and implementing water-conservation plans are a must during fickle flooding and drought cycles.
“Being in South Florida, we do have challenges in our dry season, but hope to make up for use in our rainy season,” says Smolen. “We have weather stations monitoring intake to address irrigation needs nightly. We also try to take our Bermuda (grass) to certain stress levels at times knowing we can bring it back and not lose it. We work closely with the South Florida Water Management District to maintain a monthly and yearly water budget, and we monitor it closely. We try to reduce water use by 10 percent compared to the previous year every year. We pride ourselves on being recognized by Audubon International for environmental excellence in protecting and sustaining land, wildlife, natural resources and water use.”
Many facilities have their own water source, whether it’s a well, a lake or holding pond, which allows the facility to regulate their water use and, in turn, control their expenditures on turf maintenance. At Kinloch Golf Club in Virginia, a 73-acre lake is the irrigation source for the entire facility. So managing the lake level is key to managing the bottom line for the golf course and large practice facility.
“The club’s costs are primarily associated with maintaining that 73-acre lake structure as opposed to purchasing water from our municipality and, of course, the cost of maintaining the irrigation system itself,” reveals Ireland, the facility’s general manager. “Water is a very important topic for our club and throughout our industry. Our Superintendent, Trevor Hedgepeth, does a tremendous job balancing the requirements of maintaining a cool-season golf course in Richmond, Virginia, and doing so with firm, fast playing conditions to the greatest extent possible. To help accomplish this, Trevor and his team allocate a sizable percentage of their resources to watering by hand. This best practice allows trained team members to identify areas on the course that need water and to apply appropriate amounts to those specific areas. This prevents overwatering in areas that are not dry, which in turn reduces disease pressure and assists in maintaining the golf course in a firm, playable condition. We conserve water every chance we get.”
Managing Maintenance Costs
At John Prince Learning Center in Florida, the cost of facility maintenance is a significant budget item. Every five years, the maintenance contract goes up for bid through the Palm Beach County Board of Commissioners. Currently, Brightview Golf Maintenance has the contract, with Smolen and his staff providing oversight while running other facility operations.
“I personally work hand in hand with Brightview and the superintendent on the property to let him know my expectations and let him know what a wonderful job they do,” notes Smolen. “A Master Production Calendar is generated to ensure everyone is following a plan to grow and maintain turf through a fertilizer program as well as control products and diagnostics.
“We have four grass days a week (ThursdaySunday) and three mat-hitting days (MondayWednesday) to give our turf adequate healing time,” continues Smolen. “We educate our golfers after hitting on grass days, the importance of sanding their divots for faster recovery as well as ‘divot lines’ versus large patches or sporadic divots.
About 35 percent of our budget goes toward our maintenance contract, so it’s an important part of our overall operation.” The path to profitability at public, private and standalone practice and learning centers is paved with proper management of the balance sheet. Keeping accurate records of income and expenditures are key to preparing annual budgets and business plans that provide a blueprint toward profitability.
“Our annual budgets are largely based off the prior year actuals in expenses and revenues,” analyzes Wink, of TPC Tampa Bay. “Those budgets are put together in November and December each year, and usually factor in a 3 percent increase in revenues over prior year and expenses modified to reflect upcoming initiatives or improvements planned. The budgeting process is extremely important in managing the overall success of the facility.”
Indeed, the bottom line to profitability lies in fundamental proven business practices in managing the day-to-day operations of facilities of all genres.