AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | As marketing plans go, it seemed foolproof. Topgolf targeted opening its prototype community venue just in time for the 2020 Masters Tournament last April – a time and place that provided the perfect blend of golf obsession and exposure to make a big splash.
A press release rolled out last February as contractors rushed to complete construction of the facility just a mile from Augusta National Golf Club, citing “there is no better place to launch our latest venue concept.”
“Augusta rose to the top for so many reasons – it’s a town that loves golf and in many ways is one of the most important cities in America in terms of golf,” said Craig Kessler, the chief operating officer of Topgolf. “It’s got a diverse cross section in terms of population and the town was incredibly welcoming when we discussed the opportunity. It just felt like a great first place to go.”
The plan, as everything else, wasn’t virus-proof. The Masters was postponed as the world shut down due to a global pandemic. Topgolf Augusta delayed its opening until July 2020, not exactly the ideal time for a company to launch an entertainment venue during the summer of COVID-19. Nevertheless, Topgolf hit upon another ace with its new smaller-market prototype in the hometown of the Masters.
The first-of-its-kind facility features a single-floor, community garden design. The more flexible model was also later introduced in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and another will open this summer in Waco, Texas.
(Click on photos below to see larger images and for caption information.)
Despite the unfortunate timing of the concept launch, the design serendipitously turned out to be as close to perfect for accommodating socially distanced, outdoor protocols as any venue could hope to be. Roughly 90 percent of the Augusta facility – everything except the bar and entrance lobby – is open-air with plenty of space for its patrons to spread out in a well-circulated environment.
“It goes even one step further and naturally has an even safer feel than a standard Topgolf,” Kessler said.
Topgolf’s instincts for innovating its model paid off in a way it couldn’t have projected.
“There’s this deep yearning desire for community and the ability to break bread with friends and family,” Kessler said of a modern human trait enhanced by a global pandemic. “We talk sometimes at Topgolf about how boredom doesn’t really exist anymore today with the advent of the smartphone, but loneliness is at an all-time high.
“One of the things our guests have told us is they come to Topgolf to put their phones away and be with family and friends. What we discovered at times when we’re on a wait or when people are done playing Topgolf, if there were a way to create more communal space where people could use the venue as a hang and spend all day on a Saturday watching a football game or eating, drinking and playing with friends and family we’d be creating an opportunity to tap in to those trends. That was the kernel of wisdom or insight that helped guide our thinking as we created the prototype.”
Though the timing hasn’t been ideal, Topgolf Augusta has delivered the kind of experience the company hoped it would provide.
“So far we’re still in a COVID world but we’ve done fairly well based on what they projected. … I would be surprised if they don’t look to do that in other areas, even ones close to Augusta.” – Sean Frantom, Topgolf Augusta manager
“We have been a popular spot during the COVID times because people can be outside and feel safe with all the safety measures Topgolf has put in place,” said Sean Frantom, the manager at Topgolf Augusta. “Our outdoor garden feel has tables that are socially distanced apart.”
Other than not having the multiple levels of hitting bays that other Topgolf’s are famous for, the Augusta facility features a back-yard style pavilion and artificially turfed outdoor area that includes three fire pits, picnic-style dining tables and a nine-hole miniature putting course. Even though they have yet to be able to feature live music with disc jockeys and bands or break out yard games such as life-size Jenga and cornhole, they’ve still become a popular food, beverage and entertainment option in a community starved for things to get out of the house and do safely.
“So far we’re still in a COVID world but we’ve done fairly well based on what they projected,” Frantom said. “It gives them the ability to come into smaller markets with these single-level, community garden Topgolfs. I think it allows them to expand the brand significantly which is why they did it. I would be surprised if they don’t look to do that in other areas, even ones close to Augusta.”
Augusta’s Topgolf has proven to be a popular attraction, billing itself as more than just a golf facility. Equipped with Toptracer technology that is the most up-to-date in the world, patrons can play an array of games in the bays that include virtual rounds at Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, games like Angry Birds or Jewel Jam or the traditional target range contests that made Topgolf famous.
“The Toptracer is huge for us because it doesn’t matter how good your golf skills are to have fun,” said Frantom, who used to be a club pro at the now-defunct Jones Creek in Augusta.
The miniature putting course – just $5 per person (or free on Mondays) – has proven a popular stand-alone option or diversion for guests waiting for their reservation in one of the 36 hitting bays.
“Given the opportunity on a Saturday to spend 4 or 5 hours as a family, this venue prototype where there’s space for the kids to run and other activities to do like life-size Jenga and mini golf, it’s just a total win-win,” said Kessler.
Of course, the facility seems to have been designed to entertain the masses that flock to Augusta for Masters week. Tournament patrons who have been entertained by makeshift putting greens in restaurant parking lots will have a spacious outlet perfectly suited to feed, quench and entertain large parties when the time comes for those things to happen again.
“I cannot wait for the Masters to come back and the world that descends upon Augusta to have a chance to see this new venue prototype,” Kessler said. “I think people will be inspired by it and enjoy it. Some unbelievable memories can be created the week of the Masters once everybody is back to full bore.”
Of course, the Masters last November had no patrons and the crowd at Augusta in April will be limited again – delivering another economic hit to a community that counts on the massive receipts brought by a normal Masters week.
“I don’t think we’ll see the potential we could have here for a Masters week with 60,000 people here typically,” said Frantom, who expects more Topgolf traffic in April than last November because local schools will be out. “Masters was definitely part of (the design plans) but we understand that this model being the first of its kind needs to be sustainable 52 weeks of the year.
“We’re going to still be popular (Master week) because of the local aspect of things to do with golf, but at the same respect we know it’s not going to be as significant as we hoped for, for sure.”
Despite everything, however, Kessler said the guest feedback has been “unbelievably positive” and bodes well for the community-garden model to be incorporated into future Topgolf expansion plans regardless of location.
“I don’t think we needed the Masters Tournament to happen in order to feel confident that what we’re hearing is valid or not,” Kessler said. “What’s interesting about the concept is that because it checks so many boxes – in terms of delivering a great guest experience, being community oriented and largely outdoors, which given the times we’re in now provide a huge benefit – it can actually be used in all types of markets across the world.”
Photos: Courtesy of Topgolf
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