Thoughts from the Golf Industry Show: Part Three of Three, By Darius Hatami
July 16, 2013 2:44pm
July 2013 - The following is the last in a three-part series that examines the state of the Golf Industry today. The first article explores the history, brings readers an understanding of issues challenging the industry, and provides some context for readers. The second article explores the impacts to Golf Facility Financials and Value, while the third article looks to the future of the industry, and the issues that will shape its financial health moving forward.
Credit must be given to the large number of industry professionals at the show who were speakers, and whose thoughts, ideas and concerns I am liberally using. These insights are a direct result of their expertise and experience, and I would like to thank them for their input.
Part 3 The Path to Growth
While the first two parts of this series paint a rather uninspiring view of the golf industry, change brings opportunity, and many see potential opportunity in the current vacuum. While some of the opportunity comes in transitioning the golf course to another land use, many see opportunity in advancing the business model of golf to bring it in line with the desires of the coming generations.
A deeper examination of the make up of golfers in the United States shows some significant challenges to the status qou of the golf industry. The latest data from the National Golf Foundation shows that while the overall golfer population has contracted from a peak of 29,500,000 golfers in 2007 to 25,300,000 in 2012, Core golfers peaked in 2000 at 19,700,000 and have declined to just 14,400,000 in 2012. This means that we have lost 25% of the core golfer population in the last decade, and 75% of the loss of golfers since 2007 has been a loss of core golfers. The implications of this change are profound on a number of levels, but expressly in the type of product and the method of delivery that the industry currently offers.
While golf participation in the United States and elsewhere in the western world has waned in recent years, its worldwide popularity is on the rise. The fact that golf will be an Olympic sport for the first time in 2016 provides an important opportunity to market the game on a worldwide basis. The growth of the game in China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East is healthy and extensive, and will provide opportunities for future growth in golf tourism in this country.
There have been numerous industry studies in regards to former golfers and the potential to connect them back into the game, and certainly opportunities exist. It's also clear that the baby boom generation can still have an impact on demand, but they clearly can't change the larger dynamics of the markets. While there is a large percentage of the population that could return to the game and might provide a quick fix, the most obvious path to success for golf in the longer term is to appeal to over 90% of the population that don't currently play the game.
Another important factor on the demand side of the golf equation is the multiple hurdles that need to be overcome to more fully enjoy the game, especially for non golfers. These hurdles include the inherent difficulty of the game, the intimidation of being on the course for first-time golfers, the large time commitment, the financial costs, the wide range of competence between beginners and avid players manifest through the length and difficulty of the golf courses, and the myriad rules that govern the golfing experience. In essence, the industry needs find ways to remove the objections of former and non-golfers to playing golf. There is certainly movement within the industry on some of these fronts, but if greater progress in removing these obstacles can be achieved, there are significant opportunities to grow the game for the large swath of the population that is currently not involved in the sport. While these populations include Generation Y, women and minorities, they also include all those that can't seem to find a way onto the golf course because of time and financial constraints.
Perhaps the best example of a recreational industry remaking itself comes from the ski industry. It was several decades ago when the ski industry faced a similar challenge, as declining participation and limited growth opportunites seemed the likely future. That is when the opportunity of allowing snowboarders on the ski mountains, which were the expressed terrain of alpine skiers, challenged the essence and traditions of the sport. While there was a lot of resistance to the concept in the 1970s when snowboarding was seeking legitimacy, it is now reported by SnowSports Industries America that snowboarding accounts for 31 percent of all winter visits to ski areas. Of further importance is the fact that Ski Halfpipe and Ski and Snowboard Slopestyle events will all make their Olympic debuts in 2014 at the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. This evolution not only benefitted the ski areas, retailers and the direct participants in the industry, it also benefitted the sale of vacation residences, hotels and the overall economic health of these tourism destinations.
The transistion to snowboarding was key for the ski industry because it connected the sport with the younger generation in a way that alpine skiing could not. The ski industry has embraced this change and has understood the importance of connecting in a meaningful way with the younger generations. While the equivalent of snowboarding may not exist for the golf industry, the industry needs to take note of how it connects with not only youth, but also with families, women and minorities.
But golf also has lessons that can be drawn from the soccer industry and its connection with the youth. According to a 2006 FIFA survey of soccer players, there were 24.6 million soccer players in the United States, on par with the number of golfers, and there were 3.9 million U.S. youth involved in the game of soccer and about 2.4 million youth involved in the game of golf. The number of children playing soccer in the United States is significant and has had extensive growth in the past decade as golf participation has declined. Across much of the country, the youth are now playing organized soccer with their friends on nearly every weekend, and their parents and families are wrapped up into that experience. The Golf industry needs to provide greater opportunities for the youth and their friends to get involved and for families to enjoy the sport and experience golf together.
Luckily, the golf industry, and particularly, the National Golf Course Owners Association, were aligned to highlight these emerging opportunities at the 2013 Golf Industry Show. The NGCOA events highlighted SNAG golf, a great concept for teaching the game to youth and provided a venue for those making these changes happen at a facility level to share new concepts to grow the game. This adaptation of the industry provides optimism that the industry can and is rising to the challenge.
In the end, we believe there needs to be a paradigm shift in the management and marketing of the golf facility such that it appeals to a wide variety of clientele. There specifically needs to be a strategy at the national level and at the player level to diversify the clientele. Efforts and opportunities should be made to attract:
Another interesting concept that has been evolving and needs to be implemented is a move away from strict tee times to a concept of events or fixed time periods for certain groups. This rethinking of the capacity of the golf course, particularly in down times (excess capacity) without impacting the experience of core golfers, can offer significant new opportunities.
The challenge for the industry is that it needs to simultaneosly embrace its tradition, while also embracing the future, the youth and the family. I think the recent numbers show that despite the decline in core golfers, the industry has shown some improvement in its ability to attract new golfers to the game. While the number of occasional golfers has been fairly flat over the past several years, it is our belief that the industry can make progress on the growth of occasional golfers and is beginning to implement programs that are changing that dynamic.
On one side of the equation, the financial pressure for redevelopment of golf courses into other higher and better uses will continue to remove golf courses from the market. The continued financial struggle for many golf courses that cannot find the capital for improvements will see their facilities become obsolete, closed or repurposed. As there has been a decline in golfers, it is likely to put added financial pressure on non-performing assets and force more facilites to evaluate alternative models or alternative uses. Although we know of no obvious examples of facilities purchased by competitors explicitly with the intent to close them, I have heard it whispered about, and that is an event that is likely to occur with some frequency in the coming years.
Optimism or Ego
Although many markets would benefit from a reduction in supply, the loss of a golf course can be a fairly emotional event, and one that many stakeholders will work diligently to avoid. The recent trends in the sale of golf courses provides some interesting perspectives on golf facility supply and investment. In the current market a large number of golf facilities, including many that are not operating profitably are transacting based upon Gross Income Multipliers (GIMs), as opposed to the more traditional measures of value such as capitalization rates or discount rates that rely on net income projections. This valuation concept relating to GIMs has moved to the forefront of appraisers minds, as a necessity of rationalizing why facilities that have negative operating income are continuing to sell. While golf facilities that are not profitable have historically sold, the number of these types of transactions in the last several years has been extensive.
Current sales and surveys of golf-related transactions illustrate that golf facilities that have negative net operating income are selling at a multiple of between 0.6 and 1.5 times gross revenues. The variation in the rates seems to be primarily due to differences in the anciallary revenues generated by food and beverage or other outside income sources. The use of the gross income multiplier on a property without operating income is an interesting benchmark, as the very premise of market value for an income property is based upon its ability to generate a financial return.
It is clear on some level that there are factors outside of a financial return that are at play in the buying and selling of golf facilities and an element of investment that sets aside the financial reality of golf facility operation. There are a variety of explanations for this why this happens, but in the end it is our belief that the "why" golf facilities transact on this basis has to do with the social, status and lifestyle aspects of a golf facility. Often this type of transaction could be viewed as based on investment value. In other words, a golf facility might be purchased in order to achieve alternative goals, which might include filling hotel rooms, selling homes, having a place to entertain clients, or to fulfill other personal objectives. In some sense, golf facilities at this level trade much like residential mansions in the fact that the price is a secondary factor in the purchase. For a golf facility, the income produced by the golf facility is less important than the ownership status.
Another factor influencing the supply of golf courses in the United States is the changing business models for many operating facilities, the most apparent is occuring at private clubs, which are opening up their golf courses to greater levels of public play to supplement income. In fact, 2012 saw almost 5.4% of private clubs in the United States either close or change their operating structure. The last three years have seen around 11% of all private clubs do the same. This realignment is an obvious sign of distress and shows that there is still a significant amount of repositioning occuring within the industry.
In the end, while there will be a continued reduction in the supply, the level of contraction is projected to be below what might make sense from a strictly investment perspective. Without subsequent increases in demand, the reduction in supply will be insufficient to change the golfer per course ratio, and additional contraction of supply would be warranted.
On the development side, the barriers to entry for new golf facilities are growing more significant and will continue limiting future supply to a greater extent once the market stabilizes. It is hopeful that developers will also understand that while golf is a loss leader for real estate or hotel properties, it can be a heavy burden on the back end of the development if not structured properly. The future developers must also understand the longer term strategies that keep the golf facility solvent will be a key to the sale of the residences.
It is however safe to say that the supply side of the market is going to contract in the coming years, with the number of courses declining, but the all improtant measure of golfers per course may not follow. Currently the number of golfers per course is 1,724, and this key indicator is the ratio that essentially determines the overall health of the golf facilities. It is our opinion that an average ratio of 2,000 golfers per 18-hole course would provide a healthy market, and at this level the financial success of the majority of golf facilities should be achievable. Realistically, we believe the number of golfers per course would need to reach a minimum of 1,850 golfers to provide some stability for operators.
If no more golf courses are constructed, there are about 14,500 18-hole golf courses in the United States, this means there would need to be 27,000,000 to 29,000,000 golfers in the United States in order to reach stabilization or financial health. Alternatively a reduction of 850 to 1,900 golf facilities would also achieve this objective. The more acheivable occurance is the stabilization of golfers at closer to 27,000,000, and a concurrent reduction in supply by between 600 to 800 courses. The reduction in supply should occur within a 6 to 8-year period, while any increases in demand will occur directly with the amount of innovation and effort industry leaders works to find and promote solutions and to adapt to the new challenges it faces.
Implications for Golf Course Finance
It is clear that there will be substantial pressure on golf course profits in the near future due to the general economic conditions, the current oversupply of golf courses, the lack of demand, and the decline in golfers. In order for the industry to become financially healthy, progress must be achieved in the supply and demand factors discussed above, but the financial model of the golf facility and the golf clubhouse must be further diversified.
One metric that helps outline the prospects for future golf facility financials is the fact that the golf participation rate is roughly 8.3% of the total U.S. population at year end 2012. This means that there is around 91.7% of the population that does not participate in the game of golf. While efforts are underway to grow the game and increase the participation rate, in the meantime, generating business from this 91.7% of non golfers can provide additional business opportunities and assist in achieving financial success for the golf courses.
For most golf facilities, the clientele is only the golfer, but to achieve greater success, facilities need avenues to bring in non-golfers. The opportunites are very unique for each facility. There is a need to examine the needs of the community and look to small incremental ways to provide services that are in demand locally. Each golf facility must look for ways to combine the needs of the community with the potential to bring more or new golfers to the facility, and then get them to stay and enjoy the existing amenities.
Avenues for growth at the golf facility include the retail operation, the bar and restaurant operation, the learning facility, as well as banquet and convention opportunties including weddings. For private clubs, the country club aspect, including pools, tennis, spas, and fitness centers are common opportunities for diversification. The potential of bundling additional revenue centers with limited use of the golf facilities, putting greens, or range has been evolving and offers additional opportunities. For the food and beverage outlets, opportunities exist to provide a variety of menus or to allow or sponsor food trucks from time to time. We have also seen halfways houses that effectively serve as small restaurants for the neighborhood and provide great amenties for the residents.
Other important considerations involve finding uses for the golf course during slow times or during the off season. Some interesting non-traditional diversification of uses at golf courses that we have come across include:
For private clubs, the diversification to include non-golfers is an option that has been growing readily. The addition of fitness centers, spas and swimming pools has allowed these clubs to serve the entire family and provided a lifestyle improvement that can sometimes provide more than the golf course.
While not an ongoing source or revenue, a potential avenue of advancing the financial potential of the golf facility or to provide funds to pay for needed capital improvments is the redevelopment of a portion of the property. This can either be excess land that can be carved out of the golf course or it can be the redevelopment of a portion of the existing golf course to another use. This development may occur through a reduction in the number of holes or conversion to a shortened or alternative course. Additional uses could include a hotel or cottages, a condominium development, or a traditional residential development. The new development would be best structured to increase use of the golf facilites, and thus to provide long-term benefit to the course. New development in close proximity to the clubhouse presents potential synergies with the clubhouse and could include changes to retail and food and beverage operations.
The Role of Community and Community Associations
A large number of golf facilities are integrated into real estate communities, and the community association is a vital component in the success of the golf facility. While higher than the 8.3% gofler particiapation rate, the ratio of golfers in these communities typically ranges from 20% to 50% of the residents. The role of the community association in the financial health of the golf facility can be crucial to its success. There have been numerous studies on the impacts of golf courses on increased home values, but what is even more important is the obvious dimunition in value of homes when golf course maintenance is cut back or a golf course closes. Although the majority of the residents in a golf community may not be golfers, they do have a vested financial interest in the continuedoperation and maintenance of the golf course. The non golfers in the community need to understand that investment in the golf course provides direct benefits in terms of lifestyle as well as property value. The financial relationship between the golf course and the community has been consummated by the introduction of what has been termed "amenity preservation fees," or an additional contribution to the POA dues that provides a subsidy to the golf facility that has nothing to do with golfing or otherwise utilization of the facility.
Amenity preservation fees represent excellent opportunities to diversify the services and amentities to better serve the people in the community. All residents of the community need to understand that the success of the golf facility depends on their continued patronage, and the golf course must make inroads into assuring they include the community in their plans.
It might not be well understood that the business of operating a golf facility is fairly complex, but it includes managing a broad array of businesses, in conjunction with complicated environmental and agronomic endeavors. While opportunities for savings on the cost side do exist, they tend to be marginal in terms of their impacts. Some specific areas of cost savings include economies of scale, refinement of staffing, refinement in managing the profitability of food and beverage operations, reductions in costs and staff through removing of turfgrass. A more complete list of items is presented below.
The industry is now moving more and more towards a model that involves the alignment of golf courses and clubs into an advanced loyalty program. The industry has recognized the desire of golfers to experience different courses in the local markets, and affiliations of golf courses, especially for private clubs is becoming more and more common. This broader redefinition of a membership promises to be an area of great change in the coming years.
In a similar way, the growth of third-party tee time resellers competing for the loyalty of goflers, is also having a significant affect on the market. It is clear in many markets that many courses have been losing control of their tee sheets and pricing. While these entities presented a needed service for some golf courses, they have evolved into a threat to the industry at the current time. The original premise of third-party sellers was that they were selling tee times that were going unused, and therefore were adding to the bottom line. What has happened over the past several years is that these third-party sellers had more data and information on the golfer's preferences, gained greater access to the facilities' tee sheets, and were offering discounts that the golf courses themselves would not match. This in turn created an incentive for golfers to book through third-party providers. The volume and market share of the third-party sellers has resulted in a siphoning off of income that would otherwise end up at the golf course. This loss of income translates directly to a smaller bottom line and reduces income available for paying operating expenses, or allowing for capital expenses. The loss of this income is creating further difficulties for an already struggling industry, and is also impacting the value of the facilities. Perhaps the largest gains from refinement are to be made in the area of marketing and devising ways to utilize third-party resellers to increase the number of golfers in the market and increase golf course utilization.
Additional strategies have been implemented in certain markets that will create synergies and cooperation between regional golf courses or associations of golf facilities that look to get a greater understanding of the market. A greater alignment of golf facilities will need to occur on a large scale in order to protect the ability to control pricing and tee time availability.
A further important element in the future of the golf industry is the adaptation and use of social media. Social media is a tool that adds significant opportunities to connect with the youth and to facilitate the changes in demand that the industry needs to grow the game. Social media and database marketing have changed dramatically over the past decade, and many operators have failed to adapt to this changing environment.
Some factions of the ski industry are on the forefront of utilizing social media to connect with their patrons and to enhance the experience of their guests. The use of apps and interaction with Facebook posts provide new and exciting enticements to enjoy more and varied aspects of the resorts, create competitions between skiers, and provide incentives for greater use and participation of all aspects of the resort. The majority of the golf apps now on the market are focused on improving a golfer's score, but in order to grow the game, the focus needs to be on improving the experience of the golfers in other ways. The opportunites on this front are immense, and there is a need for the industry to better understand this new world, and to change their marketing strategies accordingly.
Upgrading the industry financial infrastructure
The exodus of the national lenders from the market during the Great Recession has created a vacuum in terms of financing for the industry, although there are a few players reentering the market, they are operating in the very safe niches, and are looking at golf facilities that are in the top 5-10% of all facilities.
In order to provide some perspective, we have roughly estimated the total capitalization of all the golf facilities in the United States at the peak of the market at about $50 billion, with traditional loan to value ratios, there was total debt of around $30 billion. It is clear that a significant amount of equity in the industry was lost during the last downturn, and for many golf facilities, the debt amount still exceeds the value of the golf course. Today the overall capitalization of golf courses as a total asset value is unlikely to exceed $30 billion. The debt level is likely close to 75-85% of this total market capitalization.
Additional efforts in upgrading the financial reporting of the industry would pay dividends in a variety of different ways. A significant problem for capital investment in the golf facility industry is the quality of the information available to the financial investors and lenders, both in terms of the facility level, as well as in terms of the regional and national industry level. This includes operating statistics, as well as the financial measures and standards of the golf course.
One excellent benchmark comes from the hotel industry, which has many of the same business components as a golf facility, but the available data and the financial infrastructure for the hotel industry is significantly advanced. Smith Travel Research, serving to provide occupancy statistics and average daily rates for hotels now has around 60% penetration of all hotels reporting operating statistics, and 90% of all chain affiliated hotels reporting. The participation rate is so high, because the hotels with the better market information are better able to define their niche, their market, and are succeeding financially because of this greater market knowledge. This inforamtion is forcing other hotels to also share their information and gain market knowledge or to continue to lose market share. While the golf industry does have PGA Performancetrak data, the collection rate is still just a fraction of all facilities. There is clearly a long way to go to meet hotel industry benchmark for participation.
The standardization of accounting principles for the varied types of golf facilities, as well as the transparency of the market through accurate data on the health of the industry would provide significant benefits to all course owners and operators. The ability of golf facilities and clubs to consistently track rounds play, track the number of golf and other memberships, is a necessary first step in developing the data neeeded to better understand the markets and dynamics of the industry. With greater data, comes greater feedback, and better decision making, industry benchmarks, market definition and awareness.
From our perspective, growth in the amount and quality of the data is a critical initiative that needs to be undertaken to a much greater extent than is currently happening. Increasing the quality and the quantity of data available would allow additional clarity for investors and would provide meaningful benchmarks that would allow for better understanding of the market, and consequently better business decisions in terms of pricing and yield management. Right now, third-party tee time providers and those that use are gaining market knowledge, and have better informaiton than the independent golf operators, putting the owners at a disadvantage. The oversupply of golf courses is dictating that the distress is feeding business to the third part resellers, and further eroding the financial resources for all of the facilities.
Assuming a return to equilibrium in the supply and demand characteristics of the golf market, an industry initiative to streamline and enhance these processes can provide additional confidence for lenders and investors looking to enter the market. If additional lenders and investors can be attracted to the industry through greater condifence in the future direction of the industry, the greater availability of capital would serve to drive down cap rates, and to increase asset values. All existing owners have a stake and a role to play in improving the financial infrastructure of the industry.
As always in the golf industry, the performance in local markets is what matters most. The ability of the local facilites and markets to unite and to adapt will ultimately determine the path of growth and stability for the industry. There are many signs that the battle for new golfers is making progress, and there are signs that the industry thinking is advancing, but the progress has been slow and insufficient to turn the tide, and unless a vast rethinking of what golf can be occurs, will likely be slow in the future. There has been no industry watershed event that served as a catalyst to innovation, but change is oocurring gradually. A catalyst is definitely needed to reform the thought process of what golf is and what it can be.
While the future of the industry promises slow improvement in the financial performance of the golf facilities, and continued fluctuations due to the changing weather, the market is clearly better than it was at during the heart of the great recession. The ability of the industry to generate significantly greater growth will depend on how the industry meets challenges on the numerous simultaneous fronts. Most obviously, the industry must work to fix the supply/demand imbalance. The supply side will be market driven by difficult financial prospects, and will continue to correct over the next several years. The demand side growth will continue to be marginal until greater, more consistent and more comprehensive efforts are in place. It appears the momentum is building for innovation, and the sharing of these innovations will be key to foster continued change. It is my personal opinion that the strategy for the growth of the sport is to focus on the longer term, and the best avenue for securing long term growth is to connect with the younger generations.
Some of the challenges on the accounting front will be addressed through further consolidation of the golf facilities, and it is hoped that the continued evolution of data collection within the industry will lead to greater market knowledge. The first steps to greater market knowledge are in place with the PGA PerformanceTrak, but there needs to be additional avenues that provide impetus for greater buy in to this program. The industry should be setting goals and look for avenues to move towards achieving 50% or greater participation for collection of rounds data, and needs to expand to track membership data as well.
There are no major forces in place that are likely to alter golf and club values significantly over the coming years. Lending for golf courses will likely remain difficult for most facilities for a number of years, gross revenues and net incomes should increasingly stabilize as more courses close, and financial performance should slowly begin to improve, but the shifts will be modest. Golf affiliated with real estate development will start to see growth in play as the markets for seasonal and permanent housing return.
The potential for the golf industry to come out of this difficult period is in the hands of all the industry players. Looking at the many areas ripe for improvement from business diversification and refinement to utilizing social media to advancing data collection and management, the industry players have several options in how to improve the golf industry overall. It's time to get started making the change they want to see rather than waiting for it to come. It is my hope that the thoughts learned at the golf Industry show, as well as the many similar comments that have been written by other industry professionals will serve as a cause of action to creative thinking and help drive the industry forward in the coming years.
Contact: Darius Hatami
HVS Golf Services
HVS Golf, Residential and Resort Community Consulting and Valuation Services, established in 2004 with headquarters in Boulder, CO, specializes in the market and financial analysis of golf, club, residential and resort communities. This division of HVS is charged with consulting and valuation services that evaluate the macro economic and financial environment surrounding the golf, real estate and resort development. Services include appraisal, valuation, feasibility, litigation support. For specific information on the division, please visit www.hvsgolf.com.
Contact: Leora Lanz, HVS Director of Marketing
+1 (516) 248-8828 ext. 278
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