Golf course operators discuss impact of Covid-19 pandemic

The magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic is taking firm hold throughout America, but in several pockets of the the country not touched by broad stay-at-home orders, some golf courses have been able to stay open, though with clear operational guidelines for the safety of both players and staff.

With golf participation rates already under significant pressure in the US and many facilities in the Northeast and Midwest previously preparing to open for the 2020 season, the public health crisis hits at a particularly inopportune time.

But even with the ability to remain open in certain areas, how are golf facilities managing the business impact of the pandemic? Five facility operators, covering a spectrum of resort-level, daily fee, and private facilities, spoke with SportBusiness about how they are dealing with the ever-evolving situation.

The participants:

Dave Christenson, PGA director of golf at Circling Raven Golf Club, part of Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort, Worley, Idaho

Brady Wilson, general manager of Ak-Chin Southern Dunes Golf Club, Maricopa, Arizona

Cody Law, chief executive of Citywide Golf Solutions, representing 22 courses in Nevada and Utah

John Spiess, general manager of the Country Club of Roswell, Roswell, Georgia

Cary Corbitt, vice-president, sports & operations, The Sea Pine Resort, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina

Given the realities many are facing – and will face – is it appropriate for golf to be played at this moment in time?

Corbitt: Yes. Golf is a welcome escape for some during these uncertain times, providing an outlet where participants can get exercise outdoors while being able to avoid close interaction with others. Golf courses offer valuable physical and mental release.

Christenson: Yes – there is a lot of demand to get outside and into the fresh air, particularly with all that is happening globally.

Spiess: Golf offers a respite and opportunity to “clear the head” in an outdoor setting. We consider the club to be a “safe haven”.

Wilson: I believe in my heart yes – for those in Arizona or desert climates. There are very few activities that allow for people to be outside right now that have social distancing built in like golf does. I do think each state or even region has to make that decision for that local market or area…I don’t think it applies everywhere, but I do feel good about it here in Arizona.

Law: At first, all incoming phone calls were people calling to cancel their golf outings out of fear. However, since playing golf has been approved as a great way to practice social distancing while getting outdoors, all our phones have been ringing for people to come play.

What are the main precautions being taken regarding social distancing?

Spiess: We are practicing social distancing, wearing gloves, cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces many times per day. Our restaurants are closed at this time, but we are offering to-go [orders] and take out is available to our members.

Corbitt: The recommended Covid-19 sanitation practices are in effect. At our resort courses the flagsticks and bunker rakes are in regular positions. The 10-person rule applies in the golf shops and only one person from each foursome is allowed to enter and sign the group in. No cash is being accepted; credit cards only. Grab-and-go is offered for food service.

Christenson: No more than 10 guests in the clubhouse at one time. Rakes in bunkers have been removed, cups raised above ground so guests don’t reach into the cup. Flags remain in the cups and guests are asked to not touch or pull out the flags. Golfers can use carts individually. The grill and bar are closed inside the clubhouse, but guests can order grab-and-go food and beverage. Sanitizing stations are provided at the front door with two locations on the course. Outside service team are wearing gloves and wiping down golf carts with sanitizers, and guests are directed to load and carry their own equipment to and from their vehicles to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Wilson: Limiting tee times, one player per cart unless the guests cohabitate, no rakes, no coolers, no sand bottles, putting with the flagstick in. Lots of cleaning before and after each round. Our restaurant is to-go orders only, and we are still running a beverage cart, although with some restrictions and limitations.

Law: My personal company, Citywide Golf, is mostly a call center for golf reservations. All of my employees are now working from home with company phones and computers. All of the golf courses are taking precautions as well. Most are practicing no more than eight people in the pro shop at one time for check-in purposes. Some are doing online or outside check-in service. Golf carts, restrooms, and any other communal places that are touched are being sanitized frequently throughout the day. Green cups are raised two-to-three inches so golfers have no need to retrieve balls or touch the flag stick.

From a staffing perspective, what impacts are you facing now and likely in going forward?

Corbitt: Our focus is to keep as many of our associates employed or to assign them to other functions during this time.

Law: With call volume increasing, Citywide Golf will most likely be hiring more call center agents to handle all calls. Golf courses & resorts are experiencing temporary layoffs. Citywide Golf will look to temporarily hire those laid off employees to keep them employed.

Wilson: We are in a reduced-force situation. But we are doing everything we can to keep our associates employed and busy, even if it is cleaning versus servicing. Staffing levels will need to match revenues, so hopefully both bounce back soon in the future.

Christenson: Our staff feels comfortable with the precautions that we have implemented.

Spiess: We have to lay some staff off at this time, and our hope is that we will be able to get them back when normal business returns.

Are you instituting any financial incentives to get people to play during this time?

Christenson: We are offering a pre-season rate of $55 per player, a great value relative to our regular spring rates.

Spiess: We are selling memberships with incentives and the best offers of the year.

Law: Yes. This time of year is traditionally our peak season that attracts top dollar rates from traveling golfers. We are offering discounts and other incentives to attract local and regional golfers to get out and play.

Wilson: We are going to have to lower rates, as we are targeting more of our summer/local clientele than we are the transient golfer that comes here for Spring Break or Spring Training baseball. We also did a wine blowout sale to reduce inventory and a small portion of each bottle sale went to support our service staff.

Corbitt: There has been a slight reduction in rates in some categories and packages.

What kind of feedback have you been receiving – both from golfers and non-golfers – given your operational status?

Wilson: Our golfers have been very positive and supportive and even have taken to social media to thank us. Golfers understand. Non-golfers might have a different view, but so far nothing negative has come across my desk.

Law: Most customers are shocked to find we are open for open for business. Once we tell people we have been approved to operate, customers are pleasantly surprised and very pleased that they still have an opportunity to get out of their house, enjoy a stress -ree round of golf, and still practice social distancing at the same time.

Christenson: People are excited to have an opportunity to get out and enjoy the course. There was much pent-up demand.

Spiess: Members have been very supportive of the club and our efforts to provide as much service as possible while keeping our members and employees safe. They appreciate that we are trying to provide a much-needed social and recreational outlet for them, while following the needed social distancing guidelines.

Corbitt: Business levels have been very good, as has our weather. We saw some fall off of play due to room cancellations, which were expected. We will remain open and service our players as best we can. Golfers are enjoying the opportunity to be outside and play for a few hours.

Do you have any projections on how much revenues will be impacted if the current situation continues for the next month, two months, or even longer?

Spiess: Not at this time.

Law: This couldn’t have come at a worse time. Peak-season golf is what keeps us all in business. Revenue will be down for at least the next three months. But the good news is that we are not closed. We’ve just had to adjust our goals to appeal to the local markets and we are very pleased with the response thus far.

Christenson: There are concerns on how this may impact group/tournaments forecasts which generally account for roughly 25 per cent of our annual rounds. It is still an unknown at this point.

Corbitt: With the cancellation of [PGA Tour event] The RBC Heritage and this virus pandemic occurring during our busy spring season, the impact and revenue losses are significant in all operational areas of the resort. Our focus is to keep our associates who work in all areas of the resort employed and receiving their needed income. Our employees are so critical, so we need them to pay their bills and take care of their families. When we reopen all areas of the resort when this pandemic is behind us, we will need all our employees to return. Right now, we have reassigned many of our employees to other areas of the company.

Wilson: We are in uncharted waters, there’s no way to predict what the impact will be. But in this market, the end of Q1 and beginning of Q2 are the two largest time frames and represent a large percentage of our revenue and budget. So it’s safe to say 2020 will not match 2019 for desert climates.

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