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Interview: KemperSports CEO Steve Skinner

Steve Skinner has been the Chief Executive Officer for KemperSports since 2008, helping oversee a portfolio of approximately 80 U.S. golf facilities.

The KemperSports lineup ranges from municipal courses, private clubs and upscale daily fee properties to destination resorts such as Bandon Dunes (Oregon), Sand Valley (Wisconsin) and Streamsong (Florida). The company’s golf facilities saw a 16% year-over-year rounds increase in 2020, just above the national average (+13.9%)

Here, Skinner offers his unique insights on the golf industry overall:

Can you put the unprecedented year that was 2020 in perspective from an operator perspective?

“2020 was a fascinating year. We went from about 85% of our golf courses closed in late March, early April to a period of time, from June to the end of the year, where play was up more than 30% across the portfolio. It was amazing. It was a confluence of events and golf being the one safe, outdoor recreational activity with everything else canceled brought a lot of people out to the golf course, as well as work-from-home, that brought a lot of people out late in the afternoon. Throughout the portfolio, at all levels, we saw a lot of new players to the game, a lot of families coming out to play, and a lot of people who had played in the past and given it up came back. The fourth piece is that we saw the core and avid golfers play more than ever. It was good to see, especially given that a lot of the outings, banquets, and food & beverage was down.”

Obviously play was up overall, but when it comes to charity events, corporate tournaments and all those other elements that are a vital part of the golf business, is there any sense how much that was down?

“It was a big number, but it depended on the facility. If a facility was a daily fee golf course with a small snack bar, I would say it probably did better financially throughout the year than past years. If it was a bigger facility that relies on banquets, big outings and weddings, that took a big hit, obviously.  And it continues on in many places. For the game of golf overall, though, the pandemic was a silver lining in that it introduced or reintroduced a lot of people to the game. We’re hopeful. We saw a lot of millennials. The other interesting trend is we saw a lot of people join private clubs and they skewed younger age-wise. There’s always been that gap, as the data has shown that the millennials weren’t playing golf at the same rate as their fathers were. Hopefully we’ve made a lot of new lifelong golfers in that group who will stick with us.”   

With family vacations and trips being limited or non-existent for many in 2020, we saw the local golf club almost become a replacement for those getaways, didn’t we?

“It really did. We saw, a lot of golf club referrals from friends. From the private country club environment, people viewed it as a safe place to dine where you knew all the people, or most people. The other thing we saw was that we saw a lot of our golf destinations did very well with regional play. We saw places where groups may not have taken their trips to Scotland or Ireland in 2020 and stayed local. We’ve definitely been seeing that at Streamsong. It’s a lot more drive-in regional play, so people still want to get away and do something safe. Out of all the activities, golf is probably the safest.”

When it comes to the destination side of golf, does that give you further optimism in building that appetite among golfers who do want to get away, do want to travel and are itching to get to some of these special places?

“We’ve seen the pace reports for the rest of this year and the demand is really off the charts at our destinations, which is exciting. I think people have that pent-up demand to get away and hopefully it should be a good year for golf. The challenge for the industry now is to take all these new golfers, re-found golfers and make them lifelong players and make them avid players.”

Skinner (right) at the 2020 U.S. Amateur Championship held at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort in Bandon, Oregon

When Kemper facilities follow-up with customers, how important was that this past year in terms of wrapping your hands around who’s coming back? Who’s new? Who are the beginners and how can we use that going forward to continue engaging?

“It’s critically important. It also comes down to the local level in each club,  and knowing the customer, knowing who’s coming and then we think one of the keys to keep them playing is the instruction part of it. Golf is a hard game and a hard game to learn. It’s about beginner lessons, selling beginner equipment, clinics… Our junior clinic participation was off the charts. For us it’s all about relationships. It’s about creating those relationships with those golfers, making it a great experience and making them feel comfortable so they’ll come out again and again.

“One of the struggles in golf up until this past year has been there are so many activities. People get busy. You’re going to kids’ soccer games or baseball games. There are so many demands for leisure time. People have hopefully re-found the game and re-found it in a family sense. One of the most encouraging for the future was the number of families we saw come out. A lot of times it was 9-hole rounds, 6-hole rounds or late in the afternoon, but it was families spending time together. That really has been a core part of the game – spending time with friends and family in a beautiful environment. It reinforced that message this past year.”

How was your play in 2020? Were you able to get out for that mental and physical escape every now and then?

“It was good. My game is lousy, but it’s a great example. I have two kids and a wife, none of whom really play. My kids are 21 and 23 now. Everyone was home this past summer and both of the kids picked up the game, so we probably played as a family foursome … we did it maybe twice in first 23 years of their lives, but we probably did it a dozen times this summer, just playing nine holes as a family and getting out there. It was fantastic. That’s what you dream about, getting your kids involved. There was a lot of that.”

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