I had the pleasure of speaking with matt staffen, president and general manager of st. Marys golf & country club in ontario, canada. In the three years st. Marys has been us, matt has been a leader in implementing our messaging tools and technology solutions. With the help of boost and matt’s marketing vision, st. Marys golf & country club app has grown their app users from 800 to over 2,500 - in the last season alone! plus, their clubhouse kitchen sales have increased by 28%!
Whether your golf club is big, small, private or public, we could all take a page out of matt’s book on how he has grown his business, and more importantly, built a golf community where his customers feel at home.
- Molly jasco, Gallus Golf Marketing Manager
Molly: Can you tell me what career and life decisions led to you the golf industry and becoming the President and General Manager of one of the top golf clubs in Ontario?
Matt: Our family purchased St. Marys Golf & Club Club in the early 90’s when I was about six years old. I started working at the golf course when I was 15 or 16 years old and then went off to university and started working for some really high-end in golf courses up in Muskoka, a well-known tourist region here in Ontario just two hours north of Toronto. I also worked for a big corporate retailer for five years and what drove me back to St. Marys was not just my love for golf, but more of my passion for the marketing side of the industry. So that’s really what led me to my decision to come back to operate the family business and operate St. Marys and grow it to its full potential.
Molly: How have you utilized your marketing background to grow your club?
Matt: What I really love about this industry and why I love showing up to work every day is the marketing side of it, and what influences a golfer to choose your golf course over the hundreds of other golf courses they have the option to play nowadays. There are 60 golf courses within 45 minutes of us, so that's obviously a big challenge. But we’ve been able to grow our business by taking advantage of the e-marketing side. It started with a lot of emails to our member base, then our Facebook Page, Instagram, and really took off in the last year with the app.
We're a mature industry and in order to survive today, you have to grow and be the best. That’s the mentality we take every day and we’ve grown the business that way - whether it’s for our weddings, memberships, or our junior program which all have taken off in the last couple years - revenues have grown 100%. It’s been a whole lot of fun to see our golfing community transpire into what it has become today.
Molly: St. Marys is in a competitive golf market, what is your club doing that sets you apart?
Matt: First of all, we are continually staying in touch with them. We’ve found that adding the app to our efforts made perfect sense, especially for the younger generation, under forty, who have their phones in front of them all the time, and are not always checking their emails anymore.
We also have created a culture and an atmosphere from the moment they walk in the club and play 18 holes and then come back in for food and drinks, to the moment they walk out the door. We want them to they feel like they're at home and a part of a community. That was the second part of it.
The third part was reinvestment back into the golf course, back into the property, into our equipment, into our people. For example, the last two years we've undergone a bunker renovation program so we're redoing all of our bunkers and it will be completed next year. We're also buying new golf carts to keep our equipment up to date, our people head of the game, trying to be as progressive as possible, while also growing the revenue side. We know if we only focus on the cost side eventually our competitors will catch up, so the reinvestment was a big initiative for us.
It's really about being innovative, reinvesting back in that property, and creating that culture where people want to spend time.
Molly: You ran an aggressive campaign for “Free 18 Holes For Downloading The St. Marys App”. Some may wonder why you would potentially give a round away to an existing customer. What was your reasoning behind that and how has it impacted your season?
Matt: I felt the need to be aggressive with that offer in order to build our number of users from the 800 range we had been stuck at for the last couple of years.
With the help of the boost team, i wanted to go after that market, and attack it quickly to grow our app audience. And we successfully grew our number of users from 800 to 2,500 in a matter of a few months.
With the Free 18 Holes offer, we thought it would be easy to give away something for free, but how do you turn that into future sales? We knew the younger generation redeeming this offer would want an experience and beer would be bought on the course and food purchased after their round. That incremental revenue in just doing that offer was good enough for us to justify doing something so aggressive. And now we can reach out to them and try to bring them back with different offers and value plays that will get them interested in spending time here.
We’ve used Push Notifications a lot to target that same demographic of forty and under, who are more likely to receive and look at a push notification than an email. Using that Free 18 holes offer and growing our app users was really about the long-term ability to communicate with our customers in a more modern way.
We’ve also utilized and pushed ontap to our customer through push notifications. We want to remind people when they are on the course that they can order food through the app. That was a big thing, as well, because our kitchen sales are up 28% this season. If someone has the app on their phone they will make that decision quicker than looking for a local restaurant.
Molly: Third Party Sites and Golf Network Apps, like 18 Birdies, have a large audience of users and courses available. What would be your advice to someone who is on the fence between using a Golf Network App or a branded golf club app?
Matt: Third Party Sites has helped grow our revenue, but it's a challenge because if you’re not the cheapest you’re less likely to get the sale and to me, that is not a good long-term play. I want to control as many of the green fee bookings as possible. So if we can do that through our app and website (with dynamic pricing), that will keep the customer coming directly to us. Also, it's a lot easier to communicate our message to them as opposed to competing with every other golf course that’s on those 3rd Party Sites. With the Gallus Golf services, we can bring them here by owning that communication.
Molly: It can be very difficult for any business to grow their social media following, but St. Marys app and social media engagement is very strong. How have you grown your online audience?
Matt: I think if courses focus on growing your brand and not trying to sell, that is key. We typically don’t go on Facebook and promote an offer. It’s more about having your audience see what the brand brings, what the experience and the culture we are trying to create at St. Marys. We believe they will be attracted to that.
Molly: Given the success St. Marys has experienced due to your strong marketing strategy, what suggestions would you have to clubs who are struggling to find time to market their Club App?
Matt: The Golf Tournament Module has been big for us and it’s so easy to use. Our Pro Shop Manager, who initially didn’t want to have anything to do with computers, now uses it for everything - even our Glow Golf Night, for scorecards and cart signs. He has really embraced it this year and we’ve even added sponsors to each hole. This allowed us to increase our annual hole sponsor fee by $50, so it’s helped our club on many different levels.
Obviously with the BOOST program that was big for me. It made me take the app more seriously and realize its benefits. Why we moved forward with BOOST was because we were content with our 800 followers but it also meant I had to spend a lot of time during the busy season coming up with marketing ideas. When I have our monthly meetings with the BOOST Team it makes it much easier to just talk about those good ideas and put them into action. It work on both sides, but it keeps us organized and forces us to stick to a plan. BOOST is always timely that way. To try to manage the app, in addition to Facebook, and email, it can be a lot for operators, especially in an age when we are trying to manage our labor. To have a full-on marketing team, who are good at what they do and also understand the game of golf can be a challenge to find.
Having boost on our side gives us a team we can work with, who are quick and ready to take on the things we need to do. To sum it up, the back end module is easy to use, but boost will take the app to the next level.
Molly: Golf can have the reputation for being a little behind the times when it comes to implementing new technology. Sometimes we hear, “Our club doesn’t need an app because our golfers are older” or “We don’t need Instagram because of X, Y, Z”. If a club was unsure of utilizing new technology to communicate to their golfers, what would you say to them?
Matt: There are different ways to target different audiences. The younger generation, who are under forty spend an insane amount of time on their phone, so the way to communicate with them is through the app.
We still have great success with our emails, but I’ve noticed in the last couple of years that our email open rates are declining slightly. The older crowd is still responding, but the younger generation is more engaged with a quick one-line message in a push notification. As marketing evolves and that younger generation becomes your customer base, it will be tougher to target them if you don’t have your app available on their phone.
Molly: Are there any technologies you’ve seen in other industries, that you would like to see the golf industry to adopt?
Matt: Yeah, I think one of the fears with the industry right now, especially with these 3rd parties taking on more and more, is that if you’re not the cheapest, you’re not going to get the customer. Trying to be innovative through marketing, and persuading a customer to come to you, despite what the price is - I think that is a big challenge we are all facing. The hotel and airline industry had experienced this same challenge and figured out the dynamic pricing model, because finding those super cheap deals are not as common today. I believe dynamic pricing is a huge way of the future in our sport and what we do in our industry because it’s figuring out what the price should be in the high and low demand. I think integrating that into the app is a big thing - we’ve done that with our tee sheet.
We shouldn’t be trying to be the cheapest, because then it becomes a race to the bottom. It’s more about trying to provide customer value and an experience. If you have your own app, you can connect with the customer that way and offer different things for them to connect to your business. For example, onTAP is a new way to get orders that can be available to someone on the course or a local nearby that wants to pick up food.
There are a lot of opportunities out there, you have to figure out who you are targeting and what it is you’re offering - and keeping that customer close to you - instead of the 3rd party sites. Yes, they will always have a place, but if we can control that customer experience, we will all be better off.