Sign of the times: rapid adoption of pre-payment online

Apr 29, 2020

“Necessity for doing business,” say course operators

When COVID-19 recedes and Beekman Golf Course returns to normal, the staff might not have to resume its love-hate relationship with the golf shop phone. This spring’s bizarre circumstances caused the 27-hole course outside Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to require that all bookings be made online and all fees paid at time of booking. General manager Jon Phillips, who’s also a co-owner of the facility, was forced to enact this policy and now dearly hopes he can keep it in force.

“Warm weather got here early and just about every activity besides golf was banned,” says Phillips. “We held a meeting to figure out how we could handle the demand while keeping ourselves safe and the golfers safe. Having every staff member picking up the same phone and having golfers coming into the shop for check-in were clearly unsafe practices. We found a way to avoid both.”

Technology allowed Beekman’s skeletal staff to funnel golfers from the parking lot to the first tee while maintaining social distancing and preventing people from touching objects and surfaces others had also touched. Stir-crazy golfers responded unflinchingly, to protect their own well-being and to keep the course from having to close.

“When you called our phone, the greeting would tell you to book online and pay in advance,” says Phillips. “People learned about the new rule that way or they found out from their friends – there was a lot of word of mouth about it.” There was also a lot of cooperation because Beekman’s regulars and newcomers understood that they were taking all the right steps necessary to make their golf environment safe. For the staff, online booking was gold – keeping it that way has emerged as a new priority.

“I keep thinking about the 1,500 calls we get every week in the summertime,” says Phillips. “If we can stick with our payment policy – now that customers are getting in the habit – we can eliminate the majority of our phone calls each week, which would make running our business 100 times simpler and improve the level of service we provide.”

Once he realized his standard procedures were out the window, Phillips contacted GOLFNOW and requested details about the pre-payment option. Senior Specialist Scott Jewell set to work upgrading the Beekman tee sheet and arranging for prepaid green fee dollars to hit the facility’s bank account.

“Over the past year, GOLFNOW has been continually innovating our payments technology and we were quickly able to pivot to meet the increased demand of providing pre-paid tee times,” said Jeff Foster, senior vice president, GOLFNOW. “Now, more than 500 courses are either offering a prepaid option or have signed up to implement the GOLFNOW technology, a number that continues to grow as more states are opening back up and golf courses start to come back online.”

“I knew GOLFNOW could do this,” Phillips says, “but I was surprised at how rapidly everything happened. Their first step was to flow the cash to us, which they did immediately. Then pretty quickly thereafter they set up our software for tracking deposits and managing the funds internally. During that conversion period I would send Scott 50 or 60 emails a day—it was like he had come to work for us full-time.”

A similar case of innovation in the face of disruption has unfolded this spring for the Country Club of Arkansas and its general manager, Tim Jenkins. Sometime in February, Jenkins found himself on a golf operations online forum devoted to just one topic – the questions and even chaos surrounding coronavirus and its threats to human health and the economy.

“We were able to get out in front of it,” says Jenkins, whose early spring weather in the Little Rock region turned very favorable for golf. He realized that standing in the shop loading 16-digit card numbers and expiration dates into the computer, with the phone ringing constantly, was clearly not viable. “We brainstormed for every idea we could think of until we had an operating format that we felt would ensure safety. Central to that was payment in advance online.”

Jenkins reached out to his GOLFNOW specialist to ask about installing the pre-pay feature and within 48 hours the requirement was built into C.C. of Arkansas’s account. He and his team used their voicemail greeting to explain this new approach and echoed that with plenty of signage—including tournament-style placards on the golf carts with each player’s name and their tee time. When golfers showed up, they found the cart key—disinfected— already in the ignition, plus any beverage or merchandise items they had ordered online. Equipped with the Visage communications system, the carts became rolling receivers of coronavirus information and instruction, another vital tool in the course’s pandemic-countering strategy.

“Our golfers were more than okay with pre-payment,” reports Jenkins, who heard thankful responses to the stocked and staged golf carts. “People would walk over and see their name, see their beer, their range balls, and whatever else they asked for, and they’d be tickled,” he says.

During one busy morning Jenkins paused to reflect that, different as the new system was, it actually bore a strong resemblance to what consumers experience elsewhere. “Think about it,” he says. “How often do our customers fly into an airport, walk past the rental car counter and go straight to their vehicle? I’m going to guess that’s how they do it every time. It’s only golf that was still doing things the old way.”

There’s a long list of inventions that emerged from sudden, disruptive events and occurrences. From what course operators have experienced during this pandemic, you’d naturally expect that pre-payment of green fees online might just join that list.