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A Simple Mission

Just over a year ago this time, Jesse Menachem and his staff at the Massachusetts Golf Assoc. (MGA) were fighting — and fighting hard — to convince the state simply to let golf-course owners maintain their property.

Despite some intense lobbying by his group, Gov. Charlie Baker made golf courses part of his broad shutdown of non-essential businesses in March 2020, and for weeks, the industry lingered in a sort of limbo, not knowing when, if, and under what circumstances courses would be allowed to reopen.

When they did, in mid-May, a number of limiting restrictions kept play at modest levels. But then … the lid came off, and the industry found itself in an enviable position. Indeed, golf was one of the few activities people could take part in during the pandemic, and people started taking it up — or taking it up again, as the case may be, a development that benefited public and private courses alike.

“I’ve heard from clubs that recorded anywhere from a 20% to 50% increase in rounds, which is incredible, because capacity was limited due to the longer intervals between tee times, as mandated by the state,” said Menachem, president of the MGA. “You couldn’t find tee times on weekends at many facilities; with people working from home, working remotely, not traveling, not having family activities like Little League and soccer, golf became number one in a lot of people’s minds, and the game really benefited.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

“If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Now, as the 2021 season gets set to begin in earnest (some courses have already been open for several weeks), the golf industry has a simple, yet also complex, mission that Menachem summed up directly and succinctly: “make it sticky.”

By that, he meant those managing the state’s courses have to take advantage of this huge opportunity they’ve been granted and compel those who took to golf last year, because there were few attractive options, stay with the game now that other options exist.

“That’s our job; that’s what we’re up against — we have to make sure it’s sticky, and that’s something we have not been very good at,” he explained. “If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Indeed, as they go about this mission, courses will have advantages and selling points they didn’t have last year, said Menachem, especially when it comes to their 19th holes, many of which were closed in 2020, while those that were open faced a mountain of restrictions on what they could serve, when, and how. They have also learned some lessons from last year, including how those longer intervals between tee times improved pace of play, reduced logjams on the course, and improved the overall player experience.

But golf will also be facing far more competition in 2021 when it comes to the time, attention, and spending dollars of those who found the game a year ago. Indeed, as restrictions are eased, individuals and families can return to restaurants, museums, the cottage at the beach, and more.

For course owners and managers, the emphasis must be on providing a solid experience, one that prompts a return visit — or several. This has always been the emphasis, he said, but now even moreso, with courses being presented with what would have to be a considered a unique opportunity.

“It’s really our obligation to make sure that experience is favorable,” Menachem told BusinessWest. “For those who are being reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, we’ve got to invite them back; we have to make them feel comfortable and cater to what their desires are. We have to do everything within our power to make sure that golfer on site has the best experience possible and keep them coming back.”

 

—George O’Brien

Opinion

Editorial

If you watched Gov. Charlie Baker at his highly anticipated press conference to announce the state’s reopening plan last week, you may have been very disappointed.

The governor said he is trying to create a balance between keeping people safe and attempting to resurrect an economy that was seen by many as being one of the strongest in the country — although not anymore, thanks in part to the governor.

If balance is the goal, this plan — if we can really call it a plan — falls way short. It doesn’t move quickly or profoundly enough, and it leaves far too many of the small businesses that form the backbone of the state’s economy without any real chance to weather this storm.

In short, Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside (if they can); a situation where a yoga school with eight students is put in the same category as a Planet Fitness with thousands of members.

As most everyone knows by now, the Baker administration’s reopening plan has four phases — named ‘start,’ ‘cautious,’ ‘vigilant,’ and ‘new normal.’ On May 18, a day every business owner had circled on his or her calendar, the governor gave some details on phase 1. Manufacturing and construction could restart immediately, with restrictions, as could places of worship, while hospitals and community health centers can now provide high-priority preventive care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions. On May 25, laboratory and life-sciences facilities can open; offices can reopen, except in Boston; and recreational-marijuana shops can reopen, as can salons, barber shops, and pet groomers. Retail facilities can open for remote fulfillment and curbside pickup.

Gov. Baker’s plan creates winners and losers, haves and have-nots —  a situation where Walmart or Home Depot can open their doors to the public, but small, locally owned retailers are forced to keep theirs closed or operate curbside.

But there are no details on phase 2, which includes restaurants and lodging, some healthcare facilities, and playgrounds and pools, or phase 3, which includes bars, casinos, gyms, and museums. All that’s known is that each phase will last at least three weeks and could be extended before moving on to the next stage, depending on factors like COVID rates, testing, and healthcare-system readiness.

For small businesses, this slow, plodding pace and lack of details makes it difficult, if not impossible, to plan and — more importantly — stay alive. The governor’s plan is anything but a plan, and it will spell the demise of many small businesses.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, put things in perspective when he told BusinessWest, “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with those protocols. They’ll need to plan, order equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight.”

The reopening panel could have recognized the needs of small businesses and implemented common-sense protocols to allow them to open. Instead, it chose not to. Clearly, there doesn’t seem to be an appreciation for just how endangered our state’s small businesses are, or what will become of our cities and towns if they are allowed to die on the vine.

These businesses need more than a belated plan with cleverly (or not-so-cleverly) named stages. They need a common-sense blueprint for effectively reopening an economy that’s been shut down for two tortuously long months.

The governor’s ‘plan’ is anything but that.

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