A new business model that has proven fruitful for the non-profit Durango Foundation
Unlike many industries, the COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be one of the best things to happen in the world of golf in 2020, and Hillcrest Golf Club in Durango was no exception.
With unprecedented hours of free time and health advice pushing people toward outdoor recreation, Hillcrest achieved a 59% increase in the number of rounds of golf played in 2020 compared to the last years before the pandemic.
The pandemic has made golf cold again, said Michael McCluskey, Hillcrest’s general manager. Since 2008-2009, golf has been in steady decline after an earlier plateau. People lost interest and did not participate, especially the younger generations.
Then all of a sudden, the only activities people could do was go outside while keeping a safe distance from each other. He said people with no interest or experience in golf chose it right away to stave off the craziness.
“It’s what we thought was very stylish for the sport in general,” McCluskey said. “But here at Hillcrest, in particular, we’ve been providing mental health benefits, really, to everyone through some of the toughest times we’ve ever had.”
In 2020, Hillcrest hosted 54,000 rounds of golf, a significant increase from about 34,000 in past years. In 2021, he said, Hillcrest held about 90% of golfers with a total of 48,000 rounds played. Hillcrest is on track to reach a similar number this year.
“Our doors usually open in the middle of March through the first week of December. So 52,000 shots in nine months is pretty big.”
McCluskey said course rules have been relaxed in recent years, too. Traditionally, golf is a “suffocating” sport with a dress code that sometimes requires polo shirts and cargo pants. But Hillcrest welcomes people who wear their favorite wardrobe staples (as long as it includes T-shirts and shorts or pants and shoes).
McCluskey said course rules are becoming more lax in allowing players to bring their own portable speakers onto the course, as long as they are respectful of other guests.
He said Hillcrest was supposed to be an agent for the Durango community. One disadvantage of the nonprofit is that people hear “Hillcrest Golf Club” and assume that only private members are welcome to use its facilities.
“Anyone is welcome to come here no matter if you want to play golf, you want to eat, or you want to participate in some of our programs like live music,” he said.
The pandemic has helped Hillcrest break through this misconception, which has drawn young people’s interest in the sport. But he suspects that many people are still unaware that Hillcrest is a public trail that rents land from the city of Durango.
However, he said that attracting young people is good for Hillcrest and sports in general. Without the involvement of younger generations, sport will become less important.
“One of the things I’m really proud of is junior golf because we have to focus on the future of our sport, right?” McCluskey said.
This year Hillcrest graduated more than 280 junior golfers in its various programmes, he said. The club hosts junior camps and leagues and joined First Tee, a global golf organisation, in 2020.
He said golf teaches more life skills than other sports because it teaches honesty and integrity and requires children to work with a variety of people as they navigate the course.
“You have to be comfortable dealing with adults, men and women, employees,” he said. “Because you’re kind of alone.”
The new management model adopted in 2019 has helped the club deal with the influx of new golfers, Chairman Brian Dommer said.
In the past, most golf clubs divided management responsibilities between the PGA golf professionals, who are usually contracted, and the boards of directors. Doomer said that councils would traditionally handle club and course maintenance while professionals take ownership of restaurant operations, golf carts and other aspects of the club. In recent years, club boards have moved to a standardized model where they have more control over supplemental services.
“In this model, we basically took on a lot of review and (more) responsibility,” he said. We used to be revenue, maintenance, and capital expenditures. This was the whole maneuver. (Now) Green fees, merchandise sales, and cart rentals. F&B (food and drink), does it make money? Does it bring what we think it should bring? “
Hillcrest’s new form entailed a general manager role, which was filled by McCloskey, also a professional PGA golfer. He oversees the day-to-day operations of food, beverage, merchandise, cart rental, and other services, but unlike the independent golf professional in previous business models, the club owns those services and receives direction from the board of directors.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, it was common for a professional golfer on the court to have more leather in the game,” McCluskey said. “The golf pro was usually a contract professional. And then they became a bigger part of the business because they owned more business.”
He said Hillcrest, Durango’s only municipal course, was one of the last golf clubs in the area to move to the newer business model. The board decided to reassess the way other clubs were regulating management when former golf pro John Vickers of Hillcrest PGA quit the club in 2018.
Dommer said that consolidating the club’s services under club ownership significantly lengthened the length of board meetings.
“Maybe we spend the first hour going through the KPIs that tell us how these different parts of the process are going,” he said. “We have this really broad view of things now.”
While the new business model has created more work for the board, it has also improved communication with staff and prepared Hillcrest for success when COVID-19 hit in 2020. He said club staff would have been overwhelmed by the previous business model.
“We were ready to deal with it,” Domer said. “It wasn’t easy. But these guys, they really had to work. But they handled it really well and the staff was enthusiastic.”
He said the reorganization allowed the club to modernize customer service, hire more staff, and formalize opening hours for serving the Deli & Grille.
“The nice thing about it is that you know when you’re going to open the grill. Before, it was just a random thing. You never knew,” he said.