Is There a Best Practice?
The goal of every golf course should be to increase revenue and decrease labor expenses. With the evolution of mobile apps, does the booking of tee times provide an opportunity for golf course owners to achieve both goals?
One of the most labor-intensive tasks at a golf course is manually booking tee times. Is there anything more tedious than taking a call from a golfer, informing them of the available tee times, having them select one, whether it be for himself or a group of up to four golfers, then entering their name, credit card, and email address? Considering that cancellations and modifications of reservations represent up to 30% of all bookings, it is a drag on the profitable operation of a golf course. To this point, Hertz is now charging a 5% premium if you use the call center to book a reservation.
The process of booking a tee time at nearly all golf courses has a barrier – advanced reservations are typically accepted only 7 days in advance. Golf may be the only entertainment activity in which reservations are accepted with such a narrow booking window. Football, baseball, basketball, hockey, theatre, movies, and concerts allow you to purchase on non-refundable basis access to that event. Even airlines allow you to book 335 days in advance. Why not golf?
Booking a tee time historically resulted in an individual within the Pro Shop, accepting a call and writing on a piece of paper, i.e., the tee sheet, the name of the golfers. The administrative challenge of trying to book on paper tee time reservations weeks or months in advance would be a logistical nightmare.
Though electronic tee sheets have been available for over 30 years, the golf course industry has retained the anachronistic procedure of limiting advanced reservations to seven days.
In the perfect world, 100% of the tee times would be booked via an online reservation system. The industry has a long way to go to reach that threshold. Tom Robshaw, President of Club Prophet, reports that surprisingly only “80% of their 1,500 daily fee and municipal course clients provide online reservations.”
Jason Pearsall, President of Club Caddie, reported that “across our multi-course operator (MCO) clients when you exclude pass holder, outing, and member rounds, we are seeing 49% online bookings. The lowest online percentage is 25%, with the highest at 65%. MCO’s do a better job of promoting their capabilities and remarketing. For single-operator facilities, the national average is 25%.”
The sophistication of MCO’s in moving reservations online is demonstrated by the adroit General Manager at The Ridge at Castle Pines, Daniel Kane. Since his arrival at that course in 2013, online bookings have increased from 17% to just under 80% in 2021.
What makes booking online tee times confusing is the permutation of policies adopted by golf courses.
Some courses, when a tee time is booked online, offer a lower price, allow for booking more than seven days in advance, and require a credit card. Other golf courses charge more for the advanced booking privilege either by selling an advanced reservation card like the City and County of Denver does or by charging a $10 prepaid booking fee.
A daily fee golf course, Green Valley Ranch, managed by Matt Bryant, PGA, generated over $20,000 via their “FirstPlay” advanced booking program implemented in 2021 that provided their guests the opportunity to book the day and time they wanted up to 60 days in advance at a nominal ($10 per player) fee.
Another Colorado golf course, a municipal facility – Fossil Trace generated over $520,000 in advanced booking fees as golfers were able to book tee times 8-60 days in advance. Yes. The $520,000 is the accurate number in supplemental revenue earned on the delightful Jim Engh-designed Fossil Trace Golf Course. JIm Hajek, PGA, Director of Golf dynamically priced the tee times at an 18% to 51% premium for the privilege of booking a tee time outside the seven-day window.
Encouraging golfers to book online is beneficial for the golf course and convenient for the golfers. It provides 24/7 access, is mobile-friendly, and provides visibility to the tee times that are available. The labor required to book tee times manually is an unnecessary expense.
One option would be to adopt the airline industry model. Airlines charge a premium when a customer books a ticket by using the services of a reservation agent. Click here Airlines have historically also assessed cancellation and change fees before the Pandemic. Could the golf industry adopt such policies?
Unlikely. Changing the behavior of customers with such a broad, diverse group of golf owners would be a huge hurdle.
Perhaps there is a better option. Would the following be viable?
- All reservations are secured by credit card.
- The window for when advance tee times can be made varies. A non-refundable fee, i.e., $10, the fee would be charged for online reservations booked more than seven up to 90 days in advance for groups from 2 to 24. This flexibility allows the guest to book exactly what they want, when they want, and all without the need for phone calls, emails, paperwork, contracts, credit cards (PCI issue), etc. as it would be done online. Note that tournaments, outings, and leagues are usually reserved outside the 90-day window.
- Online reservations for those not wanting to pay a booking fee would be accepted one to seven days in advance.
- Phone-in reservations would only be accepted for same-day tee times or any cancellation.
- The course phone system would have a specific option to select, i.e., press 4 for today’s tee times. When selected by the golfer, they would first hear if the course was sold out, as is often the case in Colorado. If times were available, they would then be forwarded to the Pro Shop attendant.
- Golfers that no-showed or short-showed would be charged a penalty, i.e., $25 per player.
Is this practical? One of the most progressive golf courses professionals, Jim Hajek, PGA at Fossil Trace, believes it is.
Since April 2020, all tee times at Fossil Trace must be booked online, with ONLY tee times for that day taken over the phone. They charge full rate for no-shows and/or short shows.
Do they have problems with credit card chargebacks? Nope. Their credit card company rarely awards the chargeback to the guest as their guests agree to the terms and conditions that clearly state they will be charged full rates (email confirmation upon booking with a text sent 24 hours in advance). The course retains all documentation to provide the credit card company for any dispute.
The good news is that disputes are rare. The goal at Fossil Trace is not to make money but just encourage the golfer to do the right thing – cancel or adjust the size of their reservation. If they can fill the spot, no worries, and all is forgiven. Jim stated, “They just want to offer the greatest access and availability for their guests to enjoy the golf experience at Fossil Trace.”
What could you expect if you implemented the suggested tee time policies as a golf manager?
Any change will be met with grief, despair, and a segment of the population who wants it how “it was 20 years ago,” which is no longer feasible. Life is way too short and providing excellent In-person service is becoming more challenging to acquire and retain staff.
While dynamic and capacity pricing options need to be considered, the opportunities presented above may provide the golf course flexibility in determining the best tee time policy and pricing model that balances the desires of their customers with the facility’s financial benchmarks.
That is what I think. What suggestions do you have to increase online booking at golf courses?