By ED TRAVIS
A couple of days ago I called a local course for a tee time. After getting a recording telling me all about their fabulous restaurant–“press 1”, followed by to chat with the group sales department–“press 2”, etc., etc., etc. FINALLY I heard, “To connect with the golf shop professional staff please hold the line and we will answer shortly.”
Well, it wasn’t exactly “shortly,” but eventually a voice came on the phone with, “Golf shop. Billy. What can I do for you?”
Needless to say, I didn’t get into the tribulations of trying to speak with a human so all I said was I wanted to make a tee time for Monday, five days away. The response was, “Oh…well you can do that online.”
Patiently pointing out that I was sure he was correct but since I was already talking to him couldn’t he please give me a tee time? (I really did say please even though several other words were passing through my mind.)
The date was made and I sent it on via email to my friends with the injunction everyone had to show up since I couldn’t contemplate going through all that again should a change be needed.
The point of this story is I didn’t have to go through all that in the first place since it seems like the entire world makes tee times over the Internet and so should I.
A significant portion of tee times are booked through online tee time services, so-called third-party vendors, with another large percentage on individual course websites. Both those numbers will continue grow according to industry observers. The two largest third-party vendors, GolfNow and TeeOff.com, have the technical muscle to handle most any number if tee time transactions. Plus their marketing savvy can be focused on those courses with which they have agreements.
TeeOff.com the official tee time site of the PGA Tour was formed when the Tour made an investment in EZLinks Golf. According to Gary Cohen, EZLinks Golf CEO, “TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR represents more than 3,000 courses in the US and sells more than a million rounds annually.”
GolfNow is a division of the Golf Channel, part of the NBC Sports Group, and NBC is owned by media giant Comcast. Dan Higgins, a spokesman for GolfNow, responded to the same inquiry with, “More than 9,000 golf courses partner with GolfNow to use some combination of its proprietary tee-sheet and point-of-sale technology, as well as the largest tee-time distribution marketplace in the world. GolfNow facilitated the booking of nearly 16 million rounds in 2016 and its marketing activities were responsible for generating over $400 million in revenue for its course partners.”
So GolfNow is much larger than TeeOff.com and recently both have made their services even more attractive with the reduction or elimination of add-ons called booking fees which increased the cost of a round. EzLinks/TeeOff.com does not charge any booking fee and GolfNow does not charge members of their $99 VIP program and they say the cost is quickly recouped from the saving of roughly $10 per booking plus increased rewards points for VIP members.
The cost of a round is a primary consideration factor for most golfers so we asked about who sets the greens fee when booking is made through both services. Higgins: “Pricing rounds always has been at the discretion of the golf course operator. We encourage the use of GolfNow’s proprietary technologies that can help them maximize yield and better manage their revenue, but that is up to the operators if they choose to do so. If a course compensates GolfNow via barter, pricing for any barter rounds are determined by GolfNow, subject to any terms agreed to with the golf course.”
Cohen responded, “TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR is a vibrant marketplace where courses can set prices. Many courses fluctuate pricing daily, offering specials or incentives based on demand. Other courses price tee times at parity across the marketplace. Golf course owners are fully in control of their tee time pricing so they can offer whatever price they would like to the millions of golfers visiting TeeOff.com each month.”
He continued, “TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR also offers DEAL Times, specially marked inventory golfers won’t find anywhere else. These hand selected times are pre-paid, priced by TeeOff.com and provide golfers with a unique opportunity to try new courses at an incredible price.”
Seems straightforward enough but from the golf course operator’s standpoint working with an outside company may not be all that simple. Bartered rounds are especially a hot topic with hardly a week going by without another article in the trade press describing problems from overbooking to software glitches or pricing errors. To be fair though, many of the article authors are golf management consultants and promote the idea course operators don’t need a third-party vendor if they have a good marketing plan built around an email list having several thousand addresses.
Answering the question of how course operators pay for TeeOff.com’s services Cohen said, “TeeOff.com’s model is different than others in the industry as most courses participate on a pay-for-performance basis. The cost for a course to join TeeOff.com and market inventory is free. TeeOff.com only gets paid if we sell a tee time, a similar model to the hospitality (hotel / airline) industries. Commission on TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR is 15%. Teeoff.com only gets paid if we successfully move rounds for our course clients. Our interests are fully aligned with the golf course clients.”
Higgins said about GolfNow’s fee structure, “GolfNow offers multiple options from which a golf course partner can choose as the one that fits their business the best. These include, but are not limited to, commission, cash, barter, etc.”
Finally we asked what the future holds for the third part tee time business and Higgins answered, “GolfNow will continue to deliver technology solutions that help golfers easily find the right tee time at the right course and enjoy their rounds. For our course partners, GolfNow will continue to add value to their businesses by providing enhanced marketing, technology and consultative services so they can focus on providing superior customer service to existing and new golfers. Our primary goal is to reduce the burden of technology and operations, so that together we can grow participation in the game of golf and help them operate profitable businesses.”
An interesting technology-centered approach and TeeOff.com’s Cohen stressed the business integration of his service. “Online booking has simplified the process of finding your next tee time. Consumers look to technology to help them make purchases. For tee times, sites like TeeOff.com by PGA TOUR simplifies the task of booking a tee time. We’ll let you know what times are available near you, how many players, when and we will even help you find a great deal. Our entire focus is to feed golfers passion for the game and to help connect golfers with their next round of golf. Because we provide this incredible service, a service consumers expect from other industries, we anticipate that we’ll continue to grow. We also believe that now that we’ve removed booking fees, a barrier to booking online, that we will accelerate this growth and consumers’ preference for researching and booking their next round online.”
Adding some perspective, there are roughly 24 million U.S. golfers playing some 465 million rounds annually at the approximately 15,200 golf facilities with something like 80% of those rounds at public access facilities. According to GolfNow’s website they have 6,000 courses in 16 countries signed up for their booking service and Higgins told me that breaks down with 7,581 in the U.S. using either their tee time service or course management technology service or both.
TeeOff.com’s Cohen said they have 3,000 U.S. course clients meaning the total of these two largest third-party vendors is still much less than the total number of courses. This leaves a large number of courses to be serviced by smaller tee time vendors (there are several regionals) or to go it alone.
It also shows plenty of room for growth by GolfNow and TeeOff.com.
So the bottom line is, if you aren’t using a third-party vendor to book your tee times you will be, probably in the near future. It also clear successful local golf course operators will have to learn how to make use of the technical and marketing power offered by GolfNow and TeeOff.com by PGA Tour to gain advantage over their competition.