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TMCNet:  Golf courses take different approaches to strengthen bottom line [Interactive map] [Ventura County Star, Calif.]

[December 07, 2013]

Golf courses take different approaches to strengthen bottom line [Interactive map] [Ventura County Star, Calif.]

(Ventura County Star (CA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 07--Wedding and event planner Debbie Copsey liked what she saw at The Gardens at the Los Robles Greens Golf Course in Thousand Oaks.

The city-owned golf course's newly opened $1.5 million "Tuscan-style" outdoor event space has a tiered amphitheater, a large lawn for tents or open-air dining, a bar area, a patio and a building housing a bride's room and bathrooms, catering kitchen and storage.

"It's amazing. I love the openness," Copsey, who owns Creative Party Concepts and Events, said. "It's all there, but you have a lot of options, unlike a banquet room." With its landscaping and waterfall, the addition is an effort by Thousand Oaks to diversify uses at the self-supporting 18-hole course and generate more revenue.

(View a map of county municipal golf courses.) Los Robles Greens isn't the only area course to take steps to bolster its income. Some golf courses owned by public agencies in Ventura County are playing to their individual strengths and styles to compete for new and repeat customers, through marking, hosting tournaments and in one case introducing a fledgling sport.

Fewer golfers Local links were not spared from a national golf market downturn that began after a peak in 2003, according to the National Golf Foundation, a Florida-based nonprofit trade association. The market has declined 16 percent since that peak, the foundation found.

Two years ago, there were 25.7 million golfers in the country ages 6 and above. Core golfers account for the biggest decline, decreasing from 19 million to 14 million, according to the foundation.

Golfers played more than 100,000 rounds a year at Los Robles in 2000 and 2001 when the sport was booming and there were fewer courses in the area, Thousand Oaks Finance Director John Adams said.

Rounds have dropped to about 80,000 annually. Over half of those are played by nonresidents who pay a higher fee.

Los Robles has netted a profit six out of the last seven years. Last year, after expenses, the golf course made $155,499, while in 2011 it experienced a net loss of $110,113.

"The golf course, simply based on golf fees or cart fees, has a very difficult time being profitable because of the competition," Adams said, noting that a number of local courses have opened in the last decade. "You're fighting for every user." Food and beverage brings in 35 percent, or $1.5 million, of the gross revenues at Los Robles, which has long-had a banquet hall that has hosted parties, weddings and other events. The Gardens is expected to make $150,000 to $200,000 a year, which would increase the food and beverage gross revenue to 45 to 50 percent.

Rustic Canyon in Simi Valley is one of three golf courses owned by Ventura County. It recently received an expanded alcohol license allowing hard alcohol to be sold along with beer and wine, said Ron Van Dyck, the county Parks Department deputy director.

The county also owns Saticoy Regional Golf Course in Ventura and Soule Park Golf Course in Ojai.

All three courses felt the effects of the downturn, but Van Dyck said they have sustained themselves and operate in the black.

One change, however, was the management company at Soule and Rustic Canyon became more aggressive about bringing in tournament play.

"Those were some significant contributions made during the downturn," Van Dyck said, adding the courses have benefited from repeat tournament-related business.

Bad timing In 2004, the city of Ventura spent $15 million to revamp its two self-supported golf courses, Buenaventura and Olivas Links. And then the downturn hit.

"The timing was probably the worst for us, even though we had two new golf courses," Park and Recreation Supervisor Eric Burton said. Buenaventura offers wedding and event hosting services through a concessionaire. To bump up the course's customer base, the city invested in fixing the turf and adding golf cart paths at Buenaventura Golf Course.

The city also improved its marketing, uses cyber sales and strengthened programing, particularly programs aimed at getting women and children onto a golf course.

The courses, however, will not recoup their full expenses from the 2004 overhaul until 2016-2017, due to the downturn. Burton, however, sees an uptick happening.

"Conditions have improved, and that helped," he said, "We are seeing some small changes, some upswing. I believe our bottom line is improving." Oxnard-owned River Ridge is no stranger to money woes. It's recently been the subject of City Council conversations as the panel grapples with what to do with the course that is subsidized by the city's general fund. Part of the debt is from a 2008 expansion that doubled the course from 18 to 36 holes.

Green fees remain the golf course's bread and butter, bringing in 54 percent of its revenue, General Manager Otto Kanny said. Cart fees make up 19 percent of the revenue, while the banquet hall, which was added as an afterthought, Kanny said, brings in 17 percent of the annual revenue. The wedding market is different and attracts smaller events.

Kanny's best marketing tool for the two courses is his database of players. He sends out email blasts with tips and educational items. But that, along with a salesperson who works to secure tournaments, hasn't been enough to broaden River Ridge's use by a new customer base.

"All of the courses are in pretty good shape and everybody has got nice people," Kanny said. "What is it you do to capture that extra marketing share we are all fighting for?" New sport Enter footgolf, a fledgling sport with a national league founded two years ago. It is a combination of soccer and golf, that primarily adheres to the rules of golf. River Ridge was the first footgolf course in California to open, Kanny said, adding there are 26 courses in the country.

Next fall is when Kanny expects the course will take off. He hopes younger people will try the sport. The cost for a footgolf round is $10 and $5 for children.

"This has potential," he said, "No, we are not going to say this is an instant overnight success. We are going to try it. It's been something new for us to try out." Rancho Simi Recreation and Park District, also saw golf rounds slip at its two courses due to the downturn and the number of courses that came on line in the last decade, said Brian Reed, the golf course manager and head golf professional.

During its best year, Simi Hills Golf Course had 107,000 rounds played, while the nine-hole Sinaloa Course experienced a high of 40,000 rounds. Simi Hills now sees 70,000 to 74,000 rounds a year.

Marketing for the two courses hasn't changed, as officials stick with the same pricing models and promotions that have worked in the past. Reed said the reality is there are just more courses.

Back in Thousand Oaks, Jack Swisher, head of marketing at Los Robles Greens for Eagle Golf, Inc., which manages the course, said 13 weddings have been booked for 2014 so far, with another dozen inquiries made.

Dianne McKay, vice president of operations with Mustang Marketing in Thousand Oaks, said one significant selling point for the new Gardens is that golf courses are in demand as wedding locations.

"It's all about the pictures," said McKay, whose company has worked with Los Robles as well as other golf courses that serve as wedding venues. "Golf courses provide great pictures. Brides today want the best pictures." Like golf courses themselves, the market for those weddings is competitive. Officials, see The Gardens as a location to host a number of events.

"They are new and they thought through a lot of problems that outdoor venues have," she said.

___ (c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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