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Creating a Community: How Course Operators Are Connecting Golfers and Driving Business

In the ever‑competitive golf marketplace, with more than 35 companies managing 10 or more public‑access golf facilities, retaining existing customers is as critical as creating new ones. To do so, numerous course management operators are now engaging golfers in ways already popular in other industries, notably frequent flyer programs used by airlines.

For Illinois‑based KemperSports, which manages more than 70 facilities open to public play, golfers had long been linked solely with the course they played regularly.

“We were connected with the courses that we manage, and also the industry,” said Andrew Fleming, senior vice president of Strategy and Business Affairs. “It wasn’t really a focus of ours to have a relationship between the golfer and KemperSports.”

But with a growing portfolio of destination facilities with highly ranked courses – including Bandon Dunes in Oregon, Streamsong in Florida and Sand Valley in Wisconsin – the company recognized an opportunity to develop a community of like-minded golfers interested in great golf experiences. Plus, it could create a vehicle to drive business to the company’s properties.

Launched in 2014, KemperClub now includes almost 200,000 golfers across the country. “Our ultimate goal is to take that community and encourage the behavior of its members,” said Fleming. “We’re using it to promote unique experiences at our flagship destination resorts, and also segmenting the database geographically to roll out more local promotions.”

Those experiences include an annual KemperClub championship, a multi-round event with 40 two‑person teams that has rotated among properties since 2014.

“Everyone has tournaments that they play in, but we really try to have something unique on top of that allows KemperClub members to experience more than just another event,” said Fleming. The inaugural event held at Bandon Dunes offered a behind‑the‑scenes look at the property. This year at Chambers Bay in Washington, it meant using tee and hole locations similar to those used during the final round of the 2015 U.S. Open won by Jordan Spieth at the course near Tacoma.

The ultimate goal is to drive business to KemperSports properties. “The ability to move this tournament around demonstrates to our clients that we just don’t manage operations on a day‑to‑day basis, but we also have a vehicle to encourage and drive incremental business to the host facility,” said Fleming.

Participants at this year’s KemperClub Championship at Chambers Bay in Washington.

Kemper isn’t alone. Troon, which runs more daily-fee facilities in the U.S. than any other course management company, also has a rewards program designed to foster a sense of community and engagement that ultimately leads to more business. Billy Casper Golf, which manages the most U.S. municipal facilities, has reward programs at the course level for its “frequent flyers,” with golfers in the D.C. area getting a free round after five rounds at BCG properties, for example. There’s also a Capital Area Golf Membership that allows for membership at a home course and discounted rates at other Billy Casper Golf-operated courses in the region.

Given these successes, it’s likely that other multi-course operators will follow a similar approach, employing reward programs to increase engagement and utilization across their portfolio of properties, and promote value for their customers. But these programs aren’t exclusive to the biggest management companies. Independently owned courses and smaller course operators can apply similar ideas to create their own programs where golfers are rewarded for loyalty.

With KemperClub, members receive communications with information on special events, sweepstakes and promotions, and get early access to events they have participated in previously. The latter are growing in frequency, according to Fleming. “We’re averaging one a month, which can be on a national level or a segmented part of the database. As we’re proving the value to our clients more and more, they are telling us we have some white space on our tee sheet or in their hotel at certain times of the year, and we should think about putting on a KemperClub promotion to drive business.”

Other promotions include a stay at Kemper’s new resort in Mexico for members who card a hole‑in‑one at a KemperSports‑managed facility – there have been 650 aces since the program’s inception 21 months ago – and the “Morning Meeting,” a crack‑of‑dawn weekday shotgun start for a discounted green fee with a course set‑up that encourages fast play. “We experimented with that idea at one of our Chicago facilities, then rolled it out more broadly because there was an audience for it,” said Fleming. “It wasn’t an event per se; the idea was just to come out early on a Thursday morning and you’re rewarded with a round of golf when you otherwise wouldn’t have had time to play.”

Sand Valley Resort in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, hosted one of the KemperClub experiences earlier in May after receiving approximately 6,000 sweepstakes entries to win a foursome at the grand opening of the Sand Valley course. The winner and his group interacted with course designers Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, as well as with resort owner and developer, Mike Keiser, before playing the course.

A KemperClub Morning Meeting event at Cantigny Golf Club in Illinois.

“When you win something like and have the ability to bring three buddies, there’s a high level of engagement,” said Sand Valley General Manager Glen Murray. “It was cool to watch even before the winner was announced because of the social media campaign organized through KemperClub. It was really more than just a contest – it created a social media conversation about Sand Valley, which then puts people in the mindset of who would they bring here with them if they won. It was very positive all around.”

Sand Valley is currently in talks to host the 2018 KemperClub Championship and Murray notes the loyalty program is a benefit for both the property and the management company, with facilities gaining exposure to an expanded audience. Sand Valley has a dedicated phone number tied to the e-mail blasts distributed by KemperClub to measure how productive they are.

“Databases are all about maintaining engagement while not giving too much or too little information to customers,” Murray adds. “We would rather go out to them less often than more, but always have interesting offers and content to announce. We have our own database, so they are the first to know about things happening here, but then KemperClub is right behind that with our offers.”

Troon Golf, headquartered in Scottsdale, Arizona, has a similar goal with its Troon Rewards program, which began in 2005. “We wanted to create a program that incentivized golfers to play more Troon courses because there are so many choices out there,” said Dolf May, director of sales & marketing.

Members earn one point per dollar spent on green fees, merchandise and instruction at participating Troon courses. Certificates for a free round of golf are earned for every $500 spent, with courses tiered in terms of value: the majority accept one certificate, others accept two, and a few high‑end options (Kapalua in Hawaii, Troon North in Arizona, Tiburon in Florida, for example) require three for a free round during peak season. Status levels for Troon Rewards members are also assigned depending on annual spending, with associated discounts increasing by level.

The Troon-managed Plantation Course at Kapalua on Maui.

The Troon Rewards program, which has 500,000 members, generated $31 million in 2016 spending at participating daily-fee, resort and semi‑private Troon‑affiliated courses.

“Last year the average transaction of an active (more than one transaction in a year) Troon Rewards member was $71,” said May. “If you compare that to the WE ARE GOLF stat, the average green fee in the U.S. is $38, so that’s pretty telling about the level of the golfer playing Troon courses and the revenue that represents through the program. Most importantly, the program rewards loyalty and increases frequency at our clubs.”

The program is international in scope. “A lot of our golfers are traveling around the country and the world, so when you have a global program where rewards can be earned in Abu Dhabi, Australia, Europe or Hawaii, it’s a pretty valuable program,” said May. “To our knowledge it’s the biggest loyalty program in the golf industry. We want to continue to enhance it (changes are likely to be introduced later this year) and continue to make it better for our golfers and show value to our owners. That’s the bottom line.”

May says the company views Troon Rewards as a player development program. “It’s a lot easier to keep a current customer than try to get a new one,” he said. “We utilize this program to make sure our players are getting their points and are aware of the certificates they earn. We want to keep that golfer going for that next level and to play another Troon course, rather than at a competitor.”





Tom Mackin
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