LADIES AND GENTLEMEN
START YOUR ENGINES online booking is now huge business but while it’s good news for golfing nomads willing to scour the market for bargain basement green fees, it’s not all great news for the industry. by brian keogh 86 IRELAND’S BIGGEST-SELLING GOLF MAGAZINE
“growing the game” has become a catchall phrase from everyone in golf from top players to TV channels. But even if it’s not Rory McIlroy’s cup of tea, it’s clearly an industry buzz phrase “We want to grow the game of golf and overall participation,” said GolfNow’s Chris Knipe at a lunch launching GolfNow’s “Win Golf For Life” competition and series of TV ads featuring David Feherty clowning around
inside an inflatable globe costume, checking his phone when it sounds a “deal” alert via GolfNow Feherty even turned up for the Irish launch — it took place in a swish Dublin city centre restaurant the Monday after the Irish Open— and regaled the press with his thoughts on Tiger Woods’ demise and how McIlroy’s swing was so good it was hard to commentate on his countryman “without a massive boner.”
As the product he’s advertising, he had little to say. After all, it’s just part of his contract. “I am delighted to be associated with GolfNow,” Feherty said. “Anything that makes it easier for golfers to play golf — I think one of the big obstacles for people who want to play is trying to get a tee time— so anything that helps people play more golf and grows the game is to the benefit of all of us.” It’s hard to argue with that logic or the benefits of third party tee-time services such as teetimes.ie, golfnow.ie or onlineteetimes.ie, all of whom are promoted on the Discover Ireland website and exist to bridge the gap between golf courses with tee time availability and golfers seeking to play golf. Click on one of those websites, search for a game in your area tomorrow and you will find rounds as cheap as €13.50 for times of day when most are reaching for the snooze button. The booking engines will tell you that are filling the tee-times that the clubs always struggle to fill — early midweek mornings or mid-afternoons. You’re told that this will mean more business for the club professional and the bar but when these tee times are being booked by bargain hunters searching for the cheapest possible game, it’s debatable if they spend anything at all.
It’s been a dream journey for two men who were made redundant and ended up creating what is undeniably a superb tee-time booking engine. Unemployed, Brian was eager to get web development experience so he offered to develop Ardglass Golf Club’s website. “Then we went to Belvoir Golf Club and met the manager and said: ‘The website’s pretty rubbish, can we redesign it?’,” Brian told the Belfast Telegraph in 2013. ”But what she said was that what they really needed was a really good tee-time
brs was founded in 2003 by a pair of brothers and queens university computer science graduates rory (48) and brian smith (45), who now employ more than 70 people in ireland BRS was founded in 2003 by a pair of brothers and Queens University computer science graduates Rory (48) and Brian Smith (45), who now employ more than 70 people in Ireland. In 2013 they sold BRS to GolfNow, a division of Golf Channel, and continue to work for the new enterprise.
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management system to let members and visitors book online. “She said none of their suppliers were offering that at the time. I couldn’t believe it —but me and Rory had been playing since we were nine years old and it was a real pain trying to book tee-time. “You would have to phone a number
which was always engaged and hit redial, redial, redial until eventually you got through.” The brothers rapidly realised all clubs would be in the same boat: “We saw an opportunity, started working on it and have never looked back.” Golf Channel is owned by Comcast, which also owns NBC and with a close link to a broadcasting giant, the GolfNow platform is growing exponentially. The TV ads, which feature an Old Tom Morris style character booking golf at the click of button, are now familiar in every US home. As a result, green fees are being offer at such cheap rates that alarm bells are sounding in the industry with critics pointing out that offering tee times at a fraction of normal prices is damaging price integrity. Jo Maes, president of the President of the European Golf and Travel Media Association (EGTMA) is certainly not a fan and has recently moved back to Ireland to set up an alternative to GolfNow and BRS. “GolfNow has also bought teeoftimes. co.uk, which was part of GolfBreaks making them the only tee time booking engine in town,” Maes says in an email. “GolfNow is part of the GolfChannel, NBC and ultimately Comcast which is a multi-billion dollar listed company. They have the cash to sit things out and eliminate all opposition to then ultimately impose their model on everybody.” Using the BRS system costs money. But they will give it to a club for free if they are prepared to give up two tee-time slots a day. This is what drives GolfNow. “Courses are either forced or are blindingly falling into the ‘we’re good for you’ trap where they give away tee times in exchange, called barter or trade
times, to their software provider (in this case BRS) who then sell it on the market at highly reduced prices to an audience of golfers always looking for a bargain and a ‘one over’ on the golf club charging (in their opinion) exorbitant prices,” Maes explains. “It effectively means that the golf club starts competing against their own tee times trying to remain directly in touch with their golfers but it creates a contingent of golfers who don’t really care about which courses they play, as long as it’s cheap, conditioning them to always look at GolfNow first to find a tee time. “This leads to price erosion and ultimately will see standards drop when courses are not getting the revenue they need.” Though some regions are beginning to see adverse effects and clubs that are members of groups such as North and West Coast Links are not using the free option, Tourism Ireland is effectively supporting GolfNow by pouring its advertising budget into the GolfChannel’s promotion of Ireland as a golf destination. GolfNow owns over 700,000 rounds of golf in Ireland, some of which are at our trophy links courses. “Obviously, as an individual course and on a micro economic level, getting a golf management system for ‘free’ in return for, just a couple of tee times per day, seems to make a lot of sense,” Maes explains. “Golf courses tell themselves, ‘Sure, they are not getting the best tee times … the season does not run for 365 days so they won’t sell all of them and we are not full anyway. What harm can it do?’ “Just to put things onto a macroeconomic level and perspective, in Ireland for example, there are for argument’s sake about 250 courses running on this software. All these courses, from January onwards, will have to give up two teetimes per day. “Do the maths — two tee times per day times 365 days x 4 players, effectively means that 730,000 rounds of golf have just slipped from beyond the golf industry’s grasp. “The courses have lost control over these tee times. They’ve just given away a big chunk of their domestic green fee income because rest assured, the tee time marketing partner will sell these tee times at any price and will drive golfers to these available tee times and only to these tee times. “They will obviously dazzle the course with marketing speak for they are a marketing ‘machine’. Sure, we will push course rounds as well because not everybody will want to book these particular rounds oh, and sure, consider all the auxiliary spend of these 730,000 golf-
ers on your golf course. “Then we will give you extra promotion and marketing and every golfer will know about your course and only your course.
integration via Golfnet. Of course, golf clubs have enjoyed total power for years and that power is now in the hands
golfnow owns over 700,000 rounds of golf in ireland, some of which are at our trophy links courses “Let’s put that into perspective as well. OK, a golfer has bought a €5/£5 tee time. Is he really going to spend €65/£65 on a logoed sweater and another €20/£20 on a steak dinner? “I’m sure there will be exceptions but my money is on him not bothering. He’s sniggering as he’s got one over on the course and come the 19th, he drives away into the sunset.” Some Irish golfers heading to the US on holiday now buy the cheapest round of golf they can via GolfNow or their subsidiary site, www.lastminutegolfer.com. which aggregates many of its unsold tee times for rounds within 48 hours. What effect a new generation of teetime scavengers will have on the Irish golf industry is anyone’s guess but as club membership as we know it is already changing radically, it’s likely to have a major effect. As the Wall Street Journal’s John Paul Newport reported in 2014, “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.” The WSJ quoted Peter Hill, chief executive of Billy Casper Golf, which owns or operates more than 150 golf properties in 28 states as saying that it “destroyed the pricing model for hotels because consumers quickly become trained to expect bargains and 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,” Hill said. “But golf isn’t there yet.” The GUI is certainly aware of the threat, I understand, and listening to third parties who’d like to offer tee time booking
of the consumer. “Give us a better deal or all 25 of us are taking our business down the road,” is becoming a familiar refrain at clubs where retaining members is a battle. When it comes to tee-times, giving away time slots to booking engines has set a dangerous precedent. “Giving away your tee times to somebody else without you having any control over them is not the way forward,” Maes says. “Your price integrity is shot to pieces and you’d be better off pushing golfers into different slots yourself by using your own yield management. “Golf has become more popular but instead of branching out horizontally into the same ‘income bracket’ it has gone vertical and reached people with less disposable income who also might have different time opportunities. “As an industry, that is a worry as it puts downward pressure on pricing and green fee income and ultimately that will have a negative effect on membership. “Look at GolfNow for a particular date and the ‘hot deals’ which are the trade times and then compare them to what’s going on the websites of the clubs …” A quick check shows a fourball at a trophy links club €150 per person from 8.40 to 9.10am but while the 9.20 and 9.40 tee times are unavailable via the club website, they are for sale on GolfNow for €78 and labelled a “hot deal.” No wonder booking engines are flourishing. The concept of golf club membership itself has changed with more nomads using the ‘pay as you play’ method to get their golfing fix. Like air travel, hotel booking and many other aspects of 21st century life, electronic booking is here to stay. Golf’s challenge is to do it right.
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