Superintendent Magazine - January, 2013

FEATURES

Ground Under Repair

The Golf Industry Badly Needed A Good Year
By Larry Aylward

Queen, manager of golf operations for the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kan., and Finlen, director of golf course maintenance operations at The Olympic Club in San Francisco, got on the GCSAA board at the same time. They've known each other for a long time, are great friends and have the utmost respect for each other.

"Pat and I have been working together to make sure our presidencies are in alignment," Queen says.

Rhett Evans, the GCSAA's CEO, is also down with what Queen and Finlen are doing. Evans, who's beginning his third year as CEO, took over that job when Mark Woodward left in June 2010. The embattled association seemed to be reeling after the sudden "resignation" of Woodward and the firing of several longtime GCSAA employees as part of the association's economic restructuring after revenues plummeted because of lost memberships and declining attendance at the Golf Industry Show (GIS) because of the Great Recession. Evans has spent a good amount of his tenure positioning the association to live within its means. It has been a challenging time for all.

But a few things have happened to cause Queen, Finlen, Evans and others to perk up about the state of the association and the golf industry in general.

It began with last year's GIS in Las Vegas. There was widespread enthusiasm at the show that hadn't been felt in several years even though its numbers, including attendees and exhibitor square footage, were down substantially from the good old days of 2001, when the show attracted almost 21,000 people to Orlando, and exhibitors accounted for about 278,000 square feet. Superintendents were also in a buying mood last year, which put vendors in a good mood.

Next month's show at the San Diego Convention Center will have similar numbers from last year's show - almost 15,000 attendees and roughly 177,000 square feet of exhibit space - so GCSAA officials are confident that last year's momentum is carrying over.

"I think [the show] has bottomed out and is starting to come back up," Finlen says. "I'm hopeful for the show because it still offers a vital service to our members."

Some vendors have mentioned that they'd like to see the show held every two years.

"But our board is adamant that this will be an annual show, whether any of the major companies participate or not," he adds.

Finlen has heard people talk about the demise of the trade show in general, but he says the GIS isn't going anywhere.

"It's not going to rocket ship back up like it came down, but I think it will continue to grow," he says.

The growth doesn't have to be dramatic, Finlen says. It can be as small as drawing more attendees from international areas. For instance, about 350 people from China attended the GIS last year.

Another good sign for this year's show is that numbers are up for the annual golf tournament after being down for about five years. Last year the tournament attracted 350 golfers; in its heyday, going back to 2000, it attracted about 700 golfers.

Queen hopes that San Diego will be even more successful than Las Vegas, which could set up for an even better show next year in Orlando, a city that historically draws well for the show.


PHOTO: BY LARRY AYLWARD

"Then we would have a three-year run of an upward trend of new enthusiasm and excitement," Queen says.

Looking down the road to 2015, Queen says there's already a buzz about the show being in San Antonio. But Queen is keeping things in perspective.

"I don't know if we'll ever get back to the numbers we saw in 2001 - we may someday - but I think the ground work has been laid to give us an opportunity for success," he adds.

A big reason that superintendents were in a good mood at the show last year was because of the warm winter weather and the subsequent increase in golf rounds throughout the U.S. early in the year. At the time, late February, nobody knew the good weather would continue throughout the winter and the spring and that rounds would be up more than 6 percent for the year.

The surprising increase only added to the enthusiasm for the year, but Evans isn't jumping up and down about it.

"One year is not a trend," he says.

Evans doesn't expect a 6 percent increase in rounds in 2013. "But I do think we'll see an increase," he adds.

So does Queen, who says one of the three courses he oversees was up about 20 percent in 2012. Queen says he looks at municipal golf as a bellwether for daily-fee and private golf. Municipal golf is at the bottom third of pricing. When those courses are busy, it puts pressure on availability of their tee times.

"It's a supply and demand issue," Queen says. "When the bottom gets full, it starts moving up. Let's call it the trickle-up theory."

One of the things the GCSAA brass hopes to do is increase attendance to the show by increasing GCSAA membership. Then the association can increase revenues on two fronts.

During the height of the recession, GCSAA's revenues plunged from $22 million to $15 million. With revenues still in a slight decline, Queen says his No. 1 concern is the continual loss of membership.

"In the past five years, it seems like we're averaging a 1 percent to 3 percent decline in professional membership," he says. "That's a concern. As you continue to take your dues base away, it impacts your revenues."

GCSAA membership is down for several reasons, mainly because of budget cuts at courses. The funds aren't available for superintendents and assistants to join. Even if the association finds a new revenue stream, it can get wiped out if there's a decrease in membership, Queen says.

The GCSAA is counting on its field staff program to grow membership. The purpose of the more than $1 million field staff program is to help chapters utilize GCSAA programs and services to a fuller extent. Several field staff personnel are positioned throughout the U.S. One of their goals is to attract new members. Field staff members are visiting facilities and talking to superintendents and their superiors about the value of a GCSAA membership and trying to convince superintendents to join or rejoin GCSAA.


PHOTO: COURTESY OF GCSAA

"If we can decrease or stop the decline in membership, that will have a significant financial impact on the association," Queen says.

The biggest problem with the GCSAA has been its inability to communicate the values of a membership, Queen adds.

The GCSAA also plans to add staff in governmental advocacy, because there are more environmental pressures on the GCSAA's members and their facilities. With four more years of President Obama, Evans expects "the screws will tighten up a little on the environmental side."

"We've seen increased regulatory pressure for the last four years," Evans says. "I don't anticipate that changing direction."

If members could see what the GCSAA does for government advocacy, they would say their dues are more than worth that one service alone, Queen says. GCSAA has put out fires for courses to comply with rules that duplicate existing rules.

"Nearly half of the [roughly 16,000] courses in the U.S. aren't represented by GCSAA superintendents, but we're out there advocating for every golf course in the U.S.," Queen says.

He admits that it's frustrating that those courses' superintendents aren't members.

"It's really unfair that they don't participate with the GCSAA because of the advocacy that we're doing on their behalf," Queen adds.

But he hopes those superintendents see the benefits eventually.

"That's one of the goals we have over the next several years - to try and get the golfing world to better understand what we do," he says.

Despite the revenue decline, the association hasn't put a freeze on spending. Finlen says the GCSAA is investing $2 million on a much-needed renovation of its headquarters building in Lawrence, Kan. He calls it spending on deferred maintenance, including a leaky roof, and cracked and heaved concrete on the building's exterior. The building's "very dated" interior was also updated with new furniture and fixtures.

The GCSAA borrowed the money to make the updates, even though it had the money in the bank to do so, Finlen says.

"We did that because we can borrow it at an interest rate that's way below what we've been earning on our returns in the stock market," Finlen says, noting the association received about a 12 percent return on its investments last year.

The focus is on increasing revenue, which has been down for several years. The association is currently slightly below $15 million in annual revenue.

"If we see it decline more, ultimately it would mean the reduction of more staff," Queen says, noting that revenues haven't turned positive since 2001.

Queen acknowledges that GCSAA's supplier members are also under financial pressure, and he salutes them for supporting the association.

"The majority of the companies have gone above and beyond in continuing to support GCSAA during these tough economic times," Queen says. "Without them we'd be in big trouble."

The GCSAA board is meeting early this year for a strategic planning session. Queen says 2013 will be a watershed year and the association has the chance to "take a giant step forward."

"I really anticipate in 2013 that you'll see some more aggressive initiatives coming out of the GCSAA to our members that will go beyond the stabilization of the ship and start moving the ship forward," Queen says, noting that members may have the opportunity to vote on some initiatives at next year's show in Orlando.

"I can't wait for a year from now," Queen adds. "It will be so interesting to be sitting here then to see where we are."

Aylward can be reached at 330-723-2136 or laylward@mooserivermedia.com.