From a business perspective, doing the same thing you’ve done in the past can sometimes be a legitimate strategy. “Doing more” and “trying harder” can pay dividends, particularly in young and still-developing industries.
Golf, however, is neither of those things. On the contrary, it is steeped in tradition and celebrates its centuries-old history, and while that’s one of the things that makes the game so great, it doesn’t help to attract a new audience.
There are already thousands of courses and driving ranges around; adding more won’t do anything to grow the game or increase its appeal among important demographics. But if you can take golf’s basic concept and put a fun, high-tech, high-octane spin on it, you’ll attract an entirely new type of customer – and have the opportunity to convert that customer into a lifelong golfer along the way.
That’s the idea behind Dallas-based Topgolf International, which describes itself as a “global sports and entertainment community focused on connecting people in meaningful ways.”
The company combines golf and technology to provide an experience that doesn’t exist on any actual course, to its own benefit and that of golf as a whole. Topgolf offers an entirely different type of experience, and it’s proving to be hugely popular with two of golf’s most highly desired demographics: women and millennials.
If golf really wants to extend its reach in the coming years, those two groups are critical to making it happen. To learn more about Topgolf’s recent growth and plans for the future, correspondent Mike McCue spent some time speaking with Ani Mehta, Topgolf’s vice president of corporate development.
How many locations does Topgolf currently have, and where are they? What are your short-term expansion plans?
Mehta: Right now, we have 37 locations here in the United States and three more in the U.K. I don’t know the exact number, but we served about 13 million customers last year alone. As for our future plans for growth outside of the U.S. and the U.K., we’ve announced deals with partners in Mexico, Canada and Australia. We will be opening eight to 10 venues in each country in the coming years. We also recently announced a single venue in Dubai; it’s a partnership with Dubai Golf, which owns a number of courses there and is intimately familiar with the local market and culture.
So you’re serving an average of 300,000 customers per year at each facility. Who are those people? What does Topgolf’s customer mix look like?
Mehta: That’s the fascinating thing because our demographics are different from what you’d find on a golf course — and we think that’s wonderful. About 35 percent of our guests are women, and roughly two-thirds of our customers are 34 years old or younger. The customer base for the golf industry as a whole is about 15 percent to 17 percent female, and the millennial number is really, really small, too, because the average golfer is a middle-aged male. Those are two very attractive demographics for golf because they represent a large — and largely untapped — population. If golf wants to grow, that’s where the opportunity is.
When you want to open a new facility, what do you look for? What characteristics make a region attractive to Topgolf?
Mehta: You can probably guess the main ones: the overall population and population density; income levels; demographics; and obviously the availability of a land parcel that is large enough and attractive enough for one of our facilities. That road map has been given a lot of thought and it’s been laid out to a certain degree of confidence for the next several years, so now the idea is to execute against our plan, while still keeping an eye open for opportunities that come up, even if they aren’t part of that plan.
Why do you think your numbers are better among women and millennials than actual golf courses are? Is it about providing an easy, stress-free entry into the sport? Is it less intimidating to go to one of your facilities than to walk out onto an actual course?
Mehta: I started playing golf about 8 or 9 years ago, and I remember the first time I went to an actual golf course. It was a public golf course in the Bronx, and it was an extremely intimidating experience. You hit the nail on the head: New players are not confident about their skills. They know people are behind them and those people want them to play faster. They know that the marshals are trying to urge them along. It’s a tough experience. But golf doesn’t have to be a stressful, six-hour trudge. That’s what Topgolf does — it makes the game more fun, and it’s easy to do with friends and family and colleagues, regardless of age or skill level. I think the industry needs to ask itself: What does it mean to “play golf”? Does it mean that you have to walk with a caddy for six hours on a golf course, or can it also be going to a Topgolf facility and hitting golf balls and having fun? I think that’s a question that needs to be answered, and it’s an important one for the game’s future.
How important is technology to gaining a foothold among the younger, tech-savvy crowd? Is that a necessary component to consider as the game moves into the future?
Mehta: Topgolf, at its core, is a technology company, and that technology enables the creation of an experience that people can enjoy. We are also doubling down on that approach with Top Tracer Range, which is our ball-tracking technology intended to be used at driving ranges. It can turn any driving range into a ‘mini Topgolf facility.’ Imagine that your local driving range had cameras that track every golf ball that you hit, and all of that data is displayed on a screen that is installed in each hitting bay. That screen helps you practice better because you have data to work with, and all that data is tracked and stored in your profile. But having fun is what Topgolf is all about, so you can also “play” famous golf courses from around the world, and you can play a variety of target games, and you can compete with friends and family on who’s closest to the pin, or who has the longest drive.
Recently, Topgolf has put emphasis on the international market. You hired Troy Warfield, formerly with British Airways, to spearhead your international expansion. How does Topgolf approach a new overseas market?
Mehta: Our number one goal is to identify strategic markets where golf already has a little bit of a following — markets like Australia and Dubai, which are very attractive to us. We’re also looking for partners that can help us gain a foothold in a given market — strategic partners that already have strong experience in operations and hospitality. Maybe that’s a company that runs amusement parks or has expertise in running malls and movie theaters. Those are the types of partners we’re looking for.
Beyond turning a profit and increasing the game’s popularity, what are some of the other Topgolf goals? The company makes a point of touting how many jobs it brings when it opens a new facility, and the company donated hundreds of thousands of meals to help the local community after Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas last year.
Mehta: We have five core beliefs at Topgolf, and one of those core beliefs is caring. That’s caring not just toward people on the inside and toward our commercial customers, but also toward the community and finding ways to give back. Erik Anderson, our chairman, is a very strong believer in philanthropy, and his foundation is doing a lot of good work. Most certainly, corporate social responsibility and helping those in the communities we serve is a big focus for us.
Topgolf has grown so fast and has so many new things in the works. Five years from now, what’s Topgolf going to look like?
Mehta: We’re always innovating, and we’re always looking for new ways to grow. That’s our core focus. In the coming years, you’ll find us in a lot more cities in the United States, but you’ll also find us in a lot more places around the world, including Mexico and China.