Last Update :8/9/2019

The Jay Karen Story



Golf Content Network sat down with Jay Karen, CEO of the National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) to discuss his career path and a couple key initiatives in the golf industry. Find full story here.
Jay Karen is the CEO of National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA), where he leads the golf industry’s trade association and initiatives to support the success of the golf course business. He also serves as Chairman of the Board for WE ARE GOLF, a division of the World Golf Foundation.
The Karen Story
In August 1997, I was one year out of college and started the College of Charleston’s Masters in History program with the intent of becoming a public high school social studies teacher. I was looking for part-time work to help pay the bills. A friend of mine’s mother worked at the fledgling NCGOA headquarters office and needed a part-time assistant. Thus, I began my career in the association profession as a part-time assistant to the NGCOA’s head meeting planner. As it just so happened, I had played golf most of my life, and was excited to work for a golf organization.
Realizing how cool this place was, I quickly moved to part-time status with my graduate studies and began full-time at NGCOA. I stayed for ten years, spending most of that as Director of Membership before leaving in 2007 to run an association in the lodging industry. I came back as NGCOA’s CEO in 2015. I see myself as someone who works in the association industry, which also happens to be in golf. I am fortunate to work on behalf of an industry that is good for America’s economy and the well-being of people from coast-to-coast.
You wake up in the morning – what is your driving passion?
First, helping small business owners succeed through the work of NGCOA. Most small business owners risk so much – sometimes everything – getting into their businesses. However, once they’re entrenched in their businesses, they stop taking chances. Success is often found in taking chances with the customer experience, marketing, operations, etc. I see NGCOA’s role as fertilizing the ground in our industry with education, information and networking that will nurture the ongoing entrepreneurial spirit of golf course owners and operators.
Second, making the headquarters operation work successfully. I am entrusted by NGCOA’s board to run a successful ship with a headquarters team of twenty people in Charleston, SC. I enjoy employing progressive association management practices and achieving success with our operational and strategic goals.
Given the issues of participation — is it fair to say that if the total number of golf courses in America eliminated 20% of the overall total that the overall health of those remaining would be far stronger financially?
Maybe. On the surface and in the near-term, the supply and demand curve would improve for course operators that survived the 20% cut. But if 20% of golf courses closed immediately, that may also mean several golfers would stop playing, as their courses of choice — now shuttered — were nearby and convenient. Those players may not drive 10 extra miles to the next-closest course. While the ubiquity of golf courses has been a problem in many markets, a healthy supply keeps America playing. A shrinking supply is no long-term, strategic answer for a healthier industry.
Our industry must work together with serious attention and investment given to attracting and retaining life-long customers. Golf courses are uniquely difficult to close — entanglements of land use, zoning, pressure of nearby homeowners, etc. While supply will continue decreasing in the coming years, cracking the code of customer recruitment and retention should be our task.
Private equity-owned clubs are going through issues of maintaining relevance as Baby Boomers and the manner by which they participated in years past is clearly fading into the sunset. How do such clubs demonstrate their value to Millennials who are ambivalent about joining such clubs specifically and in playing golf generally?
Most businesses in America aim to be relevant to younger and older generations. The private club industry is similar. When I ran the association for the U.S. bed and breakfast industry, I asked members — almost all of them Baby Boomers — “Have you designed the experience at your inn after what you like or what your kids like?” I’d follow with, “If you’re serious about your business, build it around the experiences your kids want.” I believe older generations will gravitate towards a younger experience versus younger generations moving towards the experience built for their parents.”
While many clubs hold on tightly to traditions and experiences that haven’t changed much in 50+ years, the most progressive changes are happening at private clubs. When the lion’s share of income comes from membership dues — rather than green fees — you think about the holistic customer experience. Many clubs are doing wonderful things with new food and beverage offerings, recreational activities, social events, clubhouse improvements, etc. If these programs hit the sweet spot for the under-40 crowd, Millennials will join clubs. It’s about experience and value — at any age. Public course operators now have access to new strategies as well to improve the total customer experience.
Do new golf operations such as Top Golf and Drive Shack have a long-term impact in building the pipeline for future players or is it merely a fad of the times with a business plan meant more on selling buffalo wings and beer?
While no one has a crystal ball for that answer, our industry calls it “shot euphoria,” the feeling all golfers experience when your club impacts the ball and elicits that satisfying — almost addicting sensation. You want to repeat it again and again. If someone discovers shot euphoria at Drive Shack, they may want to carry that to a “real” golf course. In markets with “golf entertainment” venues, local courses should form partnerships with those venues – to feed each other business.
If that’s not happening, shame on us for not capitalizing on the millions who are swinging a club in one hand and eating wings with the other. The worst situation: If people love this “golf thing,” and ask the question, “What next?” Only to find we are not truly inviting them into the sport. In the end, I believe Drive Shack and Topgolf are the best answers to, “What should we do Friday night?” They aren’t here to supplant centuries-old, traditional golf experiences, yet current golf course operators can bring elements from the golf entertainment venue experience to their own operations.
The costs to play golf is clearly a big-time issue — not just for greens fees and the like but certainly on the equipment side. Few people – beyond the deepest of pockets — can afford $500 drivers and golf balls that costs in excess of $40 per dozen. What strategies do you see working in this regard?
If that’s the dominant perspective – only the deepest-pocketed people can afford to play — we will continue to struggle funneling people into the sport. It’s simply not true. Saying playing golf requires a $500 driver would be equivalent to saying you must purchase a new Tesla in order to drive. Anyone can play golf on a shoe-string budget, or you can aim for a higher-end, aspirational side. Need to be frugal? Look for great used equipment. Need golf balls? Go to the second-hand sports stores in your market for cheap balls. Can’t afford 18 holes every weekend? Play nine. Every market has a public course offering good value. Those who say golf costs too much or takes too long? They haven’t been sold on the total value of the golf experience.
Going back to shot euphoria, those bitten by the golf bug find the time and expense worth it, and very much so. The perception of having to buy shiny, new $500 clubs to get into the game is where the industry needs to double down on the egalitarian marketing message — golf is for everyone — on any budget. And that’s the truth.
Time is a central issue for many people and golf is challenged to deal with this growing reality. How are clubs positioning themselves so that they encourage people to play and do so by honoring the time they can provide?
Time is a central issue even for avid golfers who play once a week – they wish they had more time to play. Time is a perennial issue in all aspects of life – there never seems to be enough time to finish office work —
never enough time to spend with your spouse and family — never enough time to begin tho
se house projects — never enough time to exercise as much as you need to. Many golf courses are doing the right thing for today’s time-starved consumer — reminding they don’t need to play 18 holes every time. Come out for 9 holes. Play the new Toptracer Range at your facility for an hour. Once someone realizes the value of the golfing experience – shot euphoria, time with family and friends, beauty of your surroundings – he or she will find time to play. It’s our industry’s job to navigate players to experiencing this value, not necessarily helping them find more time in the day.
What role should major golf organizations such as the USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA play in the promotion of golf, and is enough being done by them?
The organizations you mentioned are led by great people. I’ve been fortunate to speak with them all. Everyone wants growth, but the golf industry is not necessarily designed for executing on common goals, particularly player development. Collectively, these industry bodies have enormous funding and media assets. I’d like to see them utilized more effectively.
Promotion of golf” is only one aspect. If we add 20 million people to the funnel who “taste test” golf for the first time but don’t update the playing experience, we won’t retain as many as we could. Organizations should collaborate to lift the number of people playing for the first time. We also need programs and experiences that create healthy retention. That is more than promotion. Our culture needs to be beginner-friendly by reviewing the golf lesson model — how can we easily get people the “shot euphoria” at an affordable cost? Improving ways to connect people to play more games, matches and tournaments, refining the experience so the spouse and kids want to join, etc. For long-term, sustainable growth, our trade and sporting organizations must execute against the full golfing experience, not just promotion.
ou can change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be and why?
If I had a magic wand, the DNA of the golf industry and experience would no longer be male-driven. Think about the experience of dining out in America. Restaurants, cafes, diners and food trucks are designed as gender-neutral experiences.Industry workers
are dominated by neither women nor men. The result? Absence of fear by women to go out and eat. Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? That women would feel intimated by the thought of eating out. But that is golf’s reality. Fifty percent of our population doesn’t feel wholly welcome. Unfortunately, and perhaps fortunately in some instances, in an industry as fragmented as golf, nothing is unilateral. Our demand issues would be largely fixed overnight if I could change that item.
What role is NGCOA playing in promoting various golf initiatives to drive interest in the sport among minorities and women specifically?
NGCOA plays a leadership role by utilizing multiple assets to highlight these important issues. Golf Business: For many years, we have positively documented women and minority topics by intentionally selecting them for magazine covers, feature stories, board room images and teaching workshops.
WE ARE GOLF: NGCOA strategizes on initiatives to welcome audiences that have traditionally been excluded. Through WAG, great work has been done with our Diversity and Women’s Task Forces, including making inroads to minority leaders in Washington. Industry Support: We strive to continuously support the wonderful initiatives other organizations have launched. NGCOA cannot require or greatly influence our member owners and operators to execute diversity and inclusion initiatives. However, we can give oxygen and attention to programs in our industry such as PGA Junior League Golf — the best co-ed program for kids. The First Tee, Women’s Golf Day and #InviteHER campaign. NGCOA proliferates thought leadership to these issues so course operators find value in evolving. NGCOA also has its own initiative that will launch in 2020 to help change the faces of leadership in golf. Stay tuned.
Best advice you ever received — what was it and who from?
“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. The grass is greener where you water it.” – My mother.
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