Bright lights, brassy beats, billowing bars and the bare pleasure of launching a ball into the night—Topgolf is not your grandfather’s driving range.
In a handful of years, Topgolf has turned the glorified game’s grandeur on its head and reimagined sports, and in essence, flipped the traditional driving range model to create a new high-tech entertainment category for millennials.
And it’s just getting started for the rapidly expanding, natively social brand. In September, the chain secured $275 million in funding to facilitate its aggressive expansion plans throughout the US. Topgolf plans to build 7 to 10 locations a year with its sights set on 50 US locations by 2017.
Their roots are originated in Watford, England, the location where they first started serving a digital golf audience in 2000. They quickly expanded stateside shortly afterward and have since grown to 29 venues and serve 13 million guests annually.
With golf courses around the country accelerating toward a decline, those numbers are even more impressive considering the amount of golfers in the US has dropped 20 percent, from 30 million to 24 million since 2005, according to the National Golf Foundation.
With its nightclub-like vibe, Topgolf is far from being a ghost town. It’s the closest thing to unearthing the next Happy Gilmore.
Susan Walmesley, vice president and sales and marketing for Topgolf, joined [a]listdaily to discuss the fast-growing company’s aggressive strategy in building a unique integrated entertainment and sports experience.
How do you describe a Topgolf experience for someone who has never had one?
The games can be played by anyone—any age or skill level. Players use real golf clubs and hit microchipped golf balls, aiming for giant targets on a 215-yard outfield. In the classic Topgolf game, the farther the target and the closer to the center of the target you hit, the more points you score. Your yardage and score is instantly relayed to a TV screen in your hitting bay. The hitting bays are covered and climate-controlled for year-round comfort. While you play, you can enjoy music and delicious food and drinks brought to your bay. Each venue offers other entertainment options, such as pool tables, shuffleboard and Xbox Kinect. The venues also offer golf instruction, leagues, tournaments, kids-only events, theme parties and more. There’s something for everyone.
How does Topgolf intersect with the traditional sport’s elements?
Topgolf is a great entry point for traditional golf. People who might not otherwise pick up a club jump right into playing at Topgolf because the environment is fun, casual and non-intimidating. We offer golf instruction for all ages to help promote that transition to green grass.
Who is the demographic you are trying to reach?
Topgolf appeals to all ages, but the majority of our guests are ages 18-to-34. Female visits have increased by 13 percent in the past three years, and we are excited to see that fan base grow for us. Approximately 32 percent of Topgolf players are women.
How are you leveraging a purely social approach to further build on your brand? How do you judge the success?
Topgolf is an inherently social and shareable experience because of the interaction the environment fosters. In fact, the average group size is four people. With our private-events business, we bring together diverse groups of people who bond over the playful competition. The majority of our visitors are non-golfers, and they are eager to share photos and videos of their swings on social media. We make sure that we engage with our guests online and remind them to interact with us on social media through in-venue advertising, our social wall that populates near real-time content, step-and-repeat photo backgrounds, Snapchat geofilters, and more. Topgolf’s popularity was largely built on word of mouth and social media. We judge our success on social based on quality and quantity of engagement activities with likes, comments, shares, retweets, follower growth, referrals to Topgolf.com and several other KPIs.
What is Topgolf’s approach to social? Are there any platforms you’d like to test further?
Up until this year, we had a decentralized marketing model in which each venue had its own social media accounts. This year, we faced maintaining more than 150 accounts and decided that it would be best to post from only one main corporate account on Twitter and Instagram. The venues will maintain their Facebook accounts so they can still share local content and guests can ‘check in’ locally. Our new approach will help us track and respond to guest service issues as well as share higher-quality content. We are excited to explore Snapchat further in the near future. We’ve experimented with geofilters and have had huge success with them, so the next step is creating our own Snapchat account to share the Topgolf experience.
What is your approach and strategy in telling the Topgolf story? What works? What hasn’t?
Topgolf has gained significant brand awareness through earned media. Our story has evolved so much over the years—we started off focusing on being a really cool driving range then evolved to become a sports entertainment venue. Our relationships and partnerships within the golf industry have evolved over time as the industry grew to embrace Topgolf for how it could help grow the game. This year, we are thinking beyond the venues to foster Topgolf as a lifestyle brand that fans can tap into in-venue or online. In terms of PR, we find it’s critical for reporters, tastemakers and influencers to experience Topgolf firsthand so they can help tell the story from their unique perspective. It’s hard to explain Topgolf to someone who has never heard of it—visuals are necessary to tell our story and convey all that we offer.
Topgolf recently secured $275 million in additional capital to execute an expansion plan across the US. Where will we be seeing new Topgolf locations?
We are opening in Jacksonville this month and Edison, New Jersey in December. Next year, we will be opening in Charlotte, Orlando, Nashville, near Indianapolis, near Philadelphia and in Fort Worth. In 2017, we will also open our first location in Australia.
Which of your current markets have been performing the best? And why?
Our Centennial venue near Denver is a top performer. The Denver culture embraces outdoor recreation activities, and Topgolf is a place where you can play outside year-round. Our Tampa venue is another high-performing location. Its food and beverage sales have broken company records; there aren’t as many casual dining restaurants in the vicinity as some of our other venues. Our Scottsdale location usually leads the pack in terms of our private events business because its tourism industry is so strong. And of course, Las Vegas is our flagship venue that opened this year and is performing extremely well. It features swimming pools, a concert venue, a Callaway fitting studio, a retail shop and many amenities that aren’t available at our other venues.
Is there a non-location-specific experience you’re looking to offer? Or is it only for fans within a region?
We are actively working on creating a Topgolf experience that can be enjoyed in markets where we don’t yet have a location. There will be more details to come on that soon. Our fans can also play Topgolf 24/7 on the WGT Golf app. The game is incredibly realistic and has gotten rave reviews.
Where do you see Topgolf in five years?
I see Topgolf moving beyond being a great brand to becoming a noble brand. We are focusing more than ever on giving back to charity and helping grow the game of golf. In five years, I also believe Topgolf will be a household name regardless of location. Topgolf has always been a digital-first company, and I’m excited to see how we will innovate and personalize the guest experience as technology advances.
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