It was a good time to own a golf course in 1998. The economy was robust and a lot of people were making a lot of money.

In fact, things were so good that 1998 saw one new golf course built for every day that year, 365, at a time when just building one was all you needed to do to make a profit.

But how things change. With the economy struggling owners of private and daily use golf courses are scrambling to keep their customers and looking for ways to find new ones. The solution, says Teddie O’Keefe, of O’Keefe Consulting, Marketing and Public Relations is simple — treat your customers like they’re gold and create a culture that says extraordinary is the norm.

O’Keefe will speak at the inaugural New Jersey Golf Course Owners Association Conference on Wednesday, October 7, at 9 a.m. at the Grand Cascades in Hamburg. Cost: $50 per person. To register visit www.njgcoa.org

The conference will also feature Matt Mulhall, a professional geologist who will discuss water allocation rules in New Jersey; financial advisor Richard Silva, who will speak on maximizing land values, and Mike Hughes, president of the National Golf Course Owners Association.

Treating customers like gold, says O’Keefe, could mean doing things as simple as walking the property every day, getting to know your employees, and giving them more responsibility for customer service.

O’Keefe has spent the past 35-plus years in community relations and promotions in a variety of ventures on the east and west coasts. She studied English and journalism at Penn and went to work for Air California, directing the firm’s customer service training and then in its public relations department.

She returned to the East Coast and she started a weekly newspaper in Atlantic City. Nearly 10 years later the paper was sold to a broadcasting company.

During her public relations career, O’Keefe has worked with clients in the hospitality industry, including hotels, resorts and golf courses. “After being so involved with golf clients and working on all the ideas on a regular basis on how they could perform better, I became more involved in the golf industry,” she says.

O’Keefe is one of seven daughters. Her father was a union leader before going on to work for the Pennsylvania Speaker of the House in Harrisburg.

Getting linked in. An avid golfer herself, O’Keefe knows that the people who play are passionate about their sport. What will keep them around is the same thing that will keep them coming to the same restaurants, clothing stores, or car washes for years, she says. Golf course owners need to keep their customers happy. That, O’Keefe says, begins and ends with making them feel special.

“Condition of the golf course is usually the number one reason people pick a course, but it’s not always the reason they come back,” O’Keefe says. “Customer service determines whether they come back. Word of mouth is so important, especially on the golf course.”

O’Keefe says that the success of the past 10 to 20 years means that many golf course owners have not had to master the fine art of customer service, and the trickier art of making each duffer feel like the most important customer in the clubhouse. The skill is basic to nearly any business, however, and is something they need to learn quickly.

Culture of change. Successful change must start from the bottom up, creating a professional culture among employees that not only stresses the importance of keeping customers happy, but rewards them for doing it, O’Keefe says.

“It’s about establishing a culture on the course that they’re all in this together, and that ‘extraordinary’ is the norm,” she says. “It’s really a team effort, how one’s job affects everyone else’s job and how it relates to customers.”

She says owners should establish benchmarks in each department for service, and reward employees for meeting those benchmarks with bonuses, trips, and anything they can afford.

Recognizing that your employees are doing well is key to keeping them happy, and motivated.

“Many are happy to have a job, and they basically want to do a good job,” she says. “So their leaders need to recognize that.”

Public and private. O’Keefe says that while there are differences between daily-fee courses and private clubs, both have incentive to make the customers happy.

With daily-fee courses, 22 percent of customers are responsible for about 60 percent of revenue. The goal of a daily-fee course is to retain that 22 percent.

“You don’t want to send them somewhere else,” she says. “There is no loyalty because there is non-membership.

For the other 78 percent, O’Keefe says, “you want to give those customers the opportunity to stay by providing them with greatservice and great course conditions.”

At private courses, where members pay an initiation fee as well as yearly dues, owners know they have guaranteed revenue. O’Keefe says that every employee of a private club should know the name of every member from that club. From the bag boy all the way up to the pro shop to the starter to the valet and the servers, employees should be on a first-name basis with their customers.

“They deserve the best you can give them because they’re keeping you alive by giving you guaranteed revenue. Yet there are courses out there that, during the boom times, took it for granted, and that trickled down to the employees,” says O’Keefe.

Is everybody happy. While daily-fee courses are getting some increased business from people leaving private clubs, they’re also feeling the pressure to be competitive, and that reaction usually leads to lower prices. O’Keefe says that that’s not the answer.

“There are not fewer golfers, there are fewer rounds being played,” she says. “Owners have to get more creative with what they offer without appearing that they’re discounting. You get into discount wars with courses and no one wins.”

Instead, try to give customers something they can’t get anywhere else. Private courses allow members to bring guests in for a day, offer introductory memberships, and hold events that encourage friends and members to get together. “People want to play where their friends play, that’s why people play at private clubs,” she says. “They become social hubs. If any of them are leaving it’s because of their financial situation, and they’re leaving for a daily-fee course.”

Upping the ante on daily-fee courses may pay off big too, as for many of those customers, it’s simply about the golf. Holding family day events and providing other events similar to those found at private courses can go a long way.

“Some owners constantly try to compete on that level,” O’Keefe says. “They’ll try to set up events where they’re going to establish loyalty. It’s about social life as well, so if they’re smart, they’ll put events like that together.”

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