Finding a niche on the links
By KAY KRUSE-STANTON
There are so many golf courses in or close to the greater Chippewa Valley that a golfing fanatic could visit a different course every day for a month without stretching the gasoline budget.
Competition is fierce, according to the managers of two of those courses. But those managers enjoy the sport themselves, and have only praise for other courses in the region. All are working to establish their own niches in the industry, and the approach seems to be working, they say.
This is the 12th season Gail Skamfer has managed the Menomonie Golf and Country Club, a nine-hole executive course on Menomonie’s north side.
Sisters Bobbie Jo Mau and Tonya Carey are in the process of taking over Whitetail Golf Course from their parents. It’s an 18-hole facility south of Colfax. The setting is so rural that early-morning golfers will hear roosters crowing and, if they’re not careful, may lose balls forever in the adjoining corn field.
Skamfer sees the Menomonie Golf and Country Club as a good course for recreational golfers. It’s flatter and shorter than Whitetail’s course.
“It’s a course you can go to for maybe three hours at a time and you won’t get yourself in trouble with sand traps and water hazards and things like that,” she said. “You can play a round and not have the frustrations you might have at a more challenging course.”
Whitetail is a more demanding course, Mau said.
“The front nine is very open but very long, so you get your big swingers that can just hit that ball and they don’t have to worry much about where it goes because they’re still going to be out of trouble,” Mau said. “The back is shorter, but it’s definitely tighter and narrower and more of a challenge.”
Some people prefer the back; others prefer the front portion of the course, Mau said.
“We point out that when you come here you’re going to get two different kinds of nine holes,” Carey said. “That variety attracts some people.”
Other people appreciate the fact that Whitetail is family-owned. Mau and Carey worked there as teenagers, helping out their parents. Mau’s daughter is now helping with the Friday night fish fries Whitetail offers during the warmer months: the third generation starting to lend a hand.
Both businesses recognize the importance of customer service and developing a welcoming atmosphere for members and guests.
“In business, there is a fine line that we must walk between what the customer wants and needs and expects and what we can reasonably provide,” Skamfer said.
All businesses have to be concerned about making a profit and protecting investments.
“What will set a particular business apart is what you can provide for the customer on a non-tangible basis — feeling welcomed, respect and trust, developing that desire to be here, at the course,” she said.
Skamfer was a physical education teacher for many years. She was — and still is — a talented golfer, the type that teams hope to lure for competition play at Whitetail Golf Course, Mau said.
When Skamfer left teaching she worked at the Eau Claire Athletic Club, where she learned business management skills.
“A golf course isn’t that different from running any other business,” she said. “You have to work on customer service. You have to budget. We market memberships and work at retention.”
It’s unusual for a course the size of Menomonie Golf to have 200 or more members, but Skamfer manages to keep membership at that level through creating a sense of family that develops loyalty, she said.
“My philosophy is, if people are members they’ll know they can come here and have an enjoyable time and they’ll want to support the facility,” she said. “They’ll come and spend some time in the bar even if it’s cold outside or a bad day for golf. It becomes almost a family. It’s a social network.”
Skamfer schedules activities throughout the season, encouraging members to bring guests.
“We have 200-plus people who are members of our ‘family’ and we hold several events each month that center around having fun,” she said. The front lobby of the clubhouse and bar includes hundreds of photos of members participating in parties and outings at the course.
Twice a month Skamfer offers a supper night. People sign up to bring side dishes, and she’ll grill steaks or pork chops.
“Everybody helps. It’s really laid back, and we have fun,” she said.
Although league play cuts down on the amount of open golfing available at the course, Skamfer promotes the leagues because they help with membership development.
“I set my prices for membership so that if you play in two leagues a week, you might as well get a membership because it’s about the same price,” she said. “That’s done on purpose. We want to promote that sense of belonging.”
Leagues are also important at Whitetail Golf Course. With the two sets of nine holes, the property can accommodate as many as 200 golfers at a time. On most league nights, 65 to 90 people will return from golfing to the club house, all at the same time.
“That encourages a sense of camaraderie, and that’s what we’re after,” Carey said. “When I do my hiring I look for someone that’s going to be bubbly and pleasant. I tell people I’ve hired them to represent us and our image as a friendly place. I want people to be able to have fun, to have a nice round of golf, to have it be a good experience to come out here.”
A second focus at Whitetail is on promoting golfing as a family activity. During quieter times, such as Saturday and Sunday afternoons, children’s golfing fees are just $2 with a paid adult.
“It’s a good way to introduce kids to the game of golf and let them play at it,” Mau said. “If the kids decide at the second hole that they’re bored and they don’t want to play any more, you haven’t lost much.”
People have busy schedules these days, Carey and Mau agreed, but they hope the special prices will encourage families to consider golf as something parents and children can do together.
“Instead of just going and watching your child play some sport, golf with your child,” Mau said. “This is a lifelong sport. It’s not just something they’ll do until they’re 18 years old. They can golf all their lives.”
Courses offer different levels of challenge, so golfers can find a facility that matches their skill and physical abilities.
“We’ve had members who were here (at Whitetail) and moved to the Menomonie Golf Course,” Carey said. “It’s shorter. It’s less demanding. And we’ve gotten junior golfers from Menomonie who have started to come out here. They’re ready for the next level. They’re looking for something a little more challenging.”
Some golf courses promote themselves as a destination spot, Skamfer said. They advertise golf outing packages that include special rates at hotels and restaurants.
That’s not an option for the Menomonie Golf and Country Club, with its smaller facilities, Skamfer said. And it’s not an option for Whitetail Golf Course, Carey said, with its location in the country, far from hotels, restaurants, theaters and other attractions. Instead, they’re looking to the local area for customers.
“We are never going to be a destination course,” Skamfer said, “but we might be able to keep the business of people who wanted to drive to Hayward for a game of golf and have decided not to because the gas prices are getting so high. They may decide just to stay here.”
The Menomonie Golf Course and Whitetail are members of the Chippewa Valley Golf Association. The collection of clubs puts on a series of open tournaments from May through September. Dates are coordinated so courses do not compete with each other. Everybody benefits, Skamfer said.
“We’re all in the same business, but we all have a different niche, a different crowd,” she said. “I appreciate all the courses because I am a golfer. I appreciate their courses and what they have to offer.”
Kay Kruse-Stanton is a freelance writer from Menomonie. Contact the Chippewa Valley Business Report at (715) 723-5515 or through www.chippewavalleybusinessreport.com.
Email this story
Print this story