An Inside Look at Golf Course Management Companies and Multi-Course Operators

What’s it like to be part of a larger group of golf courses? What are the advantages? We talked to representatives from two different types of organizations for an inside perspective. Here’s what they had to say.

Benefit #1: Opportunity
“One of the biggest perks for a superintendent working for a golf course management company is opportunity,” says Scott Carrier, senior vice president of agronomy at Arcis Golf, which has over 50 clubs in its portfolio. “We cast a wider net, so if you’re a young assistant superintendent or you’re just starting out in the business, the path to achieving your goal is a little quicker. We get to see your potential and the next employer can see you in your current role, which is very helpful.”

The opportunities aren’t just limited to a single track, either. “You’re part of something bigger,” Carrier says. “We have people who have moved out of the traditional role of superintendent into a general manager role. That’s rare in the golf industry, but we’re able to do it because we’re able to provide the operational training as well.”

Benefit #2: Knowledge Sharing
Multi-course operator Marriott Golf manages approximately 50 courses in 13 countries, but it’s different from a management company in that its role is to support the courses within its lodging brands. Most of the Marriott Golf group’s recent expansion has been international, which has provided a unique opportunity to share expertise.

“It’s been fantastic,” says Robert Waller, senior director of golf grounds for Marriott Golf. “Our international courses approach golf a little bit differently than we do, and you can learn a lot from their operations. For instance, trends like organic principles and sustainable practices have become a bit more entrenched in the UK than they have in parts of the U.S. — and I think being exposed to those practices a few years earlier has helped our operations here.”

According to Waller, being part of a group also provides access to other superintendents who have encountered similar challenges. Many of Marriott’s superintendents and assistant superintendents have worked at other properties, and they draw on those connections when they are looking for advice.

“We do pick each others’ brains from region to region,” agrees Craig Kight, who is superintendent at Arcis Golf’s Eagle Brook Country Club in Geneva, Ill., as well as regional superintendent for five other Arcis Golf courses. “I’m always in contact with our courses in Cleveland and Baltimore because we tend to encounter the same or similar things. It might be the first time at my club that we’ve faced a certain challenge, but I can pick up the phone and talk to someone who has faced that challenge somewhere in the U.S. — and they can give us the pros and cons of how they handled it as well.”

Benefit #3: Training and Education
Marriott holds several organized training events, including roundtable discussions with regional “clusters” of properties. The group also holds an annual meeting, called GolfCON, for all of its golf course superintendents and directors of golf.

Like Marriott, Arcis Golf brings pods of superintendents together by region, because they tend to have similar challenges. These annual events typically bring about 15 to 20 clubs together for three days of meetings, where superintendents can compare notes. “The conversations that occur at these events are significant and accomplish a lot,” Carrier says. “Our superintendents are solving problems the whole time they’re there.”

In addition, Arcis Golf’s superintendents and regional team work with corporate partners like Toro to provide learning opportunities. “Not only do our superintendents get continuing education through traditional means like GCSAA and the local chapters, but they also have access to subject-matter experts from other companies,” he says. “It keeps our superintendents current. It’s a very dynamic industry — things are changing all the time — so sharing best practices as often as you can is invaluable.”

Benefit #4: Relationships and Resources
For Carrier, there’s a sense of camaraderie among superintendents that’s amplified within a management company. “When you’re part of Arcis Golf, you’re part of an even tighter-knit group,” he observes. “It’s really like being part of a family that supports one another.”

The same holds true for Ryan Copenhaver, superintendent at Arcis Golf’s Tatum Ranch Golf Club in Cave Creek, Ariz. He also serves as regional superintendent for five other area Arcis Golf courses. “From a superintendent perspective, the most important thing to me has been the networking and relationships that I have with the other superintendents, and being able to ask each other for help,” he says.

Having access to additional equipment is another benefit of those relationships. “When we go to do something like aerify greens, we can call another course in the area and borrow an aerifier,” Copehnaver explains. “We share equipment back and forth.”

Kight says the courses share other resources, too. “Here in Chicago, we have five clubs,” he says. “At any moment, any club can have additional resources of labor or chemicals within an hour’s time, whether for maintenance or operations. And we’re close to St. Louis, so if a superintendent calls and he has a big event or needs something, we can get it to him within a four-hour timeframe.”

“The other thing we’re noticing is that hiring crew members has become really difficult,” Copenhaver says. “But when we’re short-handed or a mechanic or an irrigation specialist is leaving, we can shoot an email out to everybody in the company and say, ‘If you know of anybody, send them my way.’ That’s how we do a lot of our hiring.”

Benefit #5: Financial Success and Stability
As Waller points out, being part of a multi-course operator like Marriott Golf allows for greater purchasing power through strategic partnerships with manufacturers and suppliers. Management companies enjoy the same benefit. “For us, one of the main benefits is our relationships with our vendors,” Kight says. “We don’t hold each club specifically to a vendor, but we do have national accounts that give us a purchasing advantage.”

Waller also says that Marriott strives to align expenses and expectations, ultimately adding stability and helping the courses remain competitive. “We try to provide some consistent asset value and brand protection at the golf course that may be at greater risk if it was operated by itself,” he adds.

Similarly, Carrier says that being part of a golf course management company tends to lessen exposure to the kind of financial instability that could force a standalone course owner to make tough decisions about resources and staffing. “There’s more security, and as a result, our turnover is very low,” he says.

Kight adds that golf course management companies like Arcis are smart about growth. “Some companies in corporate golf grow too fast,” he says. “I like the approach we are taking. We have growth, but it’s purposeful and strategic. We have an opportunity to review and analyze course conditions prior to any management deal or purchase. Additionally, as an operating company, we’ve done a good job of being dynamic leaders with the capital investments that we’ve put into a lot of our facilities, which sets us apart from others in our industry.”

Benefit #6: Competitive and Innovative Practices
For management companies like Arcis Golf, having a forward-thinking strategy is a differentiator. “Arcis Golf’s focus is definitely not traditional,” says Carrier. “Our focus is more on the lifestyle play — being inclusive of all family members, getting everybody out on the golf course, enhancing the food and beverage experience, and enhancing service essentials.”

Arcis is doing that by expanding programming with gamification (e.g., cornhole and bocce ball), movies on the driving range, wine tastings and more. “At the end of the day, the main driver for all of our clubs is still golf,” Carrier says. “We have to have best-in-class service and best-in-class golf course conditioning in whatever market we occupy. But we’re also looking at how can we take that to the next level and become more of a destination. We’re not interested in just being a commodity.”

For Marriott, a key differentiator is the group’s service-oriented approach. “Our core belief as a company is if you take care of the associates, they will in turn take care of the guest,” Waller explains. “We make most decisions looking through the lens of creating an environment where our staff and associates want to execute daily on the best customer service.”

Data provides another advantage for larger groups. “From a business perspective, the marketing aspect of a management company is huge with the experience and databases that they have,” Copenhaver notes. Marriott is also a data-driven company when it comes to golfer satisfaction. “We mine that data from several different internal and external sources, and those results drive decisions in capital spending, operational cost, staffing and countless other areas,” Waller says. “Some single owners may not have the ability to access and use data like that.”

Final Thoughts: Myths vs. Reality
In addition to these benefits, the individuals we interviewed shared a few thoughts about some of the misconceptions that may exist about management companies and multi-course operators. We have included their comments to help round out the story and give a better understanding of the big picture.

Copenhaver says people need to know that not all management companies are the same. “What makes Arcis different is that they’re not a cookie cutter model,” he says. “They don’t try to run all their properties the same; they look at each one individually. I think that comes from the top — we’ve got best-in-class leaders who have come from both other management companies as well as from outside the industry, and they’re bringing all their insight from what they’ve learned together.”

Carrier also points out that Arcis Golf focuses on performance, not politics. “It’s a true meritocracy,” he says. “You’re not going to lose your job because the greens chairman decides he doesn’t like you. If you’re doing your job, putting in the effort, hitting your targets and doing it in a professional manner, you don’t have to worry. That’s a benefit that can’t be understated.”

Another misperception that Kight has encountered is that management companies are a bunch of computer superintendents. “I disagree with that,” he says. “We do have policies and procedures in place for reporting, but it’s reporting that every superintendent should be doing — whether you’re with a management company or not. It sets a knowledge base for your property for things like soil temperatures, chemical applications or how you train your staff to maneuver through the golf course. It just makes a superintendent an overall better manager, financially, by understanding the entire 360-degree picture.”

“Management companies sometimes get a bad rap in our industry, but the myth of the corporation that’s all about profit is not right,” Kight adds. “In my experience, they always give each facility the support they need — whether it’s a capital influx or programming. They also provide you with a network of people you can reach out to in your industry. The structure and support you receive is great.”

Management companies may deal with the misperception that they’re all about profit, however multi-course operators can encounter just the opposite. The bottom line is that both are smart about how they maintain that profitability. “I think sometimes when people hear ‘resort golf amenity,’ they think that means it can have a negative impact on the P&L, and that’s not how we view golf at all,” says Waller. “Marriott is in the for-profit golf business. It needs to be able to stand on its own.”

“I think Marriott’s culture is a lot like Toro’s,” Waller adds. “We both strive to be industry leaders in all things that we do. We don’t really rush products to the market or make a lot of drastic changes; we’re very methodical in how we go about our business.”