Fast-Growing Topgolf Expects to More Than Quadruple Visits in Just Three Years

Not Your Father's Golf Game

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Credit: Topgolf
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For many, golf conjures images of expansive green vistas, chirping birds and buttoned-up business types. Topgolf has reimagined the sport, injecting youth, neon lights and plenty of big-screen TVs.

The company's Austin, Texas, facility spans 65,000 square feet and three stories -- and young men and women are flocking to it. It's just one of 24 U.S. locations in states including Texas, Virginia and Illinois that blend a staid sport and a raucous sports bar. The 15-year-old chain is trying to shed golf's elitist image by making it accessible to the masses -- particularly new, younger masses.

Like a normal driving range, it's cheaper and quicker than playing an 18-hole round, requires no equipment of your own and is easy enough for first-time players to grasp. But Topgolf has also added microchipped balls and field targets to deliver a new competitive element. Hitting stalls have lounges, TVs and table service, so guests can hang out with family and friends.

Susan Walmesley, VP-sales and marketing at Topgolf.
Susan Walmesley, VP-sales and marketing at Topgolf. Credit: Topgolf

"It's much more of a social, laid-back atmosphere," said Susan Walmesley, VP-sales and marketing at Topgolf.

As far as competitors go, the brand is less concerned with golf ranges and golf courses and more attuned to entertainment hubs like bowling alleys, pool halls, adult arcades like Dave & Busters and ping-pong clubs like Spin.

"If you're choosing to take a group of people somewhere and go spend your spare dollars, that's the time that we want you to be at Topgolf," said Ms. Walmesley.

At its current growth rate, Topgolf expects to attract more than 18 million visits in 2017, up from 4 million last year. By comparison, NFL home games garnered about 17.6 million visitors last season, according to ESPN. NFL games, of course, can be a more expensive endeavor. A hitting stall for up to six players costs $20 to $40 per hour in Austin depending on the time of day and requires a onetime $5 membership fee per person. (Some locations are priced per game.)

Ten new Topgolf locations are slated to open this year. A Las Vegas outpost set to open next year will include a swimming pool, rooftop bar, concert venue and cabanas.

The company spent less than $18,000 on U.S. measured media in 2014, according to Kantar Media. Instead, it focuses on local outreach and enhancing the game experience through social efforts. Topgolf charges marketing managers at each location to tap into nearby events such as rodeos and pub crawls, for example, with sponsorships and cross-promotions.

"Our audience base is so young that they're interested in localized content," said Ms. Walmesley. "They want something that's personalized for them."

Ms. Walmesley said Topgolf invests in marketing but spends more on people than media. That's how it affords marketers in every region and a big in-house team. "If we don't have the local presence, those things just wouldn't happen," she said, referring to Topgolf's local outreach. Social media is also managed locally.

Topgolf's lead agency is The Marketing Arm. Youth-marketing agency Archrival handles experiential campaigns aimed at teens and 20-somethings through pushes with Red Bull and other brands.

AT&T Social Wall.
AT&T Social Wall. Credit: Topgolf

The company urges fans to share their visits, using 70-inch social-media screens introduced in partnership with AT&T last year to post customer photos from each location. "People love to be able to see that their content made it onto the wall," Ms. Walmesley said. "They'll actually stand and watch to see if they got on there."

Topgolf is working to make mobile more integral to the experience. Its app, released for Apple devices in 2013, lets users check scores, view leaderboards by facility, buy priority passes, see menus, locations and events, and change the channel on the TV in their hitting stall (one of the most popular uses).

For the next phase of the app, the brand aims to introduce a Fitbit-style leaderboard so players can compete with friends whenever and wherever they visit, somewhat like a fantasy-sports league, and to smooth out the sign-up process.

Right now, visitors sign up for memberships, load cards with cash to pay for games and join the wait list for a stall from the lobby. Topgolf wants to streamline that process so visitors can check in by phone, pay at the stall and monitor their spot on the line remotely.

"I want it to be all mobile-driven," said Ms. Walmesley.

The effort may also help Topgolf collect more data from inside the venue. It currently misses people who are there for events because they don't have to sign up for memberships. At some locations, corporate events are nearly 40% of the revenue, Ms. Walmesley said.

Capturing that crowd and developing them into loyal consumers is key for Ms. Walmesley, who says the company must have a dual focus on growth and retention. "I have a fear that we're too focused on the growth," she said. "The challenge is growing while maintaining our core demographic."