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September 2013

Alt Golf

Disc and miniature golf are experiencing a renaissance.

Written by Peter Oliver | 0 comment

Golf is a sport that, over the years, has spawned a number of mutations. Prominent among them, and now becoming increasingly prevalent at ski resorts, are disc golf and miniature golf. Do they add enough to the list of summer activities to justify this growth?

It doesn’t take much use to justify these two activities on an economic basis. The cost of a top-quality mini-golf course runs between $100,000 and $200,000, according to Burdette Bremer, marketing director for Castle Golf, a leading mini-golf course designer.

Disc golf is an even more frugal option. Designer Chuck Kennedy, course-development chairman for the Professional Disc Golf Association, reports that $15,000 is a “reasonable midpoint” for the development cost of an 18-hole layout. The main components of the cost are the fee for a course designer, the baskets and posts for the target pins, and the materials needed to build tee boxes – usually gravel, concrete, or wood chips – and the concrete for pin anchors. Kennedy notes that a resort can cut development-cost corners by using its own personnel as a construction crew, with the designer as a consultant, rather than hiring an outside team. Construction does not require the kind of specialized expertise that construction of a traditional golf course—or even a mini golf course—might call for.

Cost alone is a good reason to consider how disc and mini golf might complement such activities as ziplines, chairlift rides, Alpine slides and the like. Any resort trying to build an attractive package of summer activities has to calculate where disc or mini golf might fit into the overall matrix.

Among the obvious questions, in addition to questions about development costs and logistics, that must be asked: What sort of market demographics are in play? What sort of direct and ancillary revenues are generated? What is the return-on-investment time frame? What are the operational and maintenance costs?

Sugarbush in Vermont got into the disc-golf game relatively early. The resort opened two 18-hole layouts in 2007. “At the time, no one else in the East was doing it,” says John Hammond, Sugarbush vice president of mountain operations and recreational services.

The resort’s main motivation, says Hammond, was simply to “add to the menu of new things to do to attract more people to the mountain.” Sugarbush felt that disc golf was “a good match for our brand”—outdoor-oriented, athletic, and active. It also fit well into Sugarbush’s mix of summer activities: lift rides, downhill mountain biking, ziplines, and a kid’s camp. That was a package that could reach various market segments while retaining that active, outdoorsy brand identity.

The courses have not necessarily been “a big revenue bucket,” Hammond says. “There is not a huge payoff compared with the ziplines or other activities.” He estimates that the two courses see roughly 1,000 paid rounds per summer, at $5 per round. But exact revenues are difficult to come by. Disc golfers who play the upper-mountain course must also pay $15 for the lift ride, and resort guests can also include disc golf in a $65 all-access day ticket.

Nevertheless, operational costs are near zero. The courses are virtually maintenance-free and require essentially no manpower to operate. Hammond says that Sugarbush recouped its initial investment within three years. And to be able to include disc golf as part of the resort’s activities menu can be an attractive extra to entice potential resort guests to come to Sugarbush. While guests may never end up playing disc golf, the sport’s availability amplifies the image of a resort with multiple activity options.

Sipapu, a compact resort in New Mexico, can trace its disc-golf roots back even further than Sugarbush can. Sipapu’s 20-hole layout, says mountain manager John Paul Bradley, was originally developed in the mid-1990s, when the sport was still a rare novelty. (Course designer Kennedy estimates that there are now roughly 4,000 courses in the U.S., and as many as 12 million players.) The resort owners were “looking for ways to provide activities to fill lodging rooms,” says Bradley, and the local Forest Service ranger liked what Bradley calls disc golf’s “extremely low earth disturbance.”

Since then, says Bradley, the whole region has become “a disc-golf mecca,” where visitors actually come specifically for disc-golf vacations. There are several other top-rated courses in the neighborhood, and Bradley estimates that the Sipapu course sees about 8,000 to 9,000 rounds in an average summer.

The courses are set up to entertain a wide range of abilities. Sipapu has hosted important tournaments, but because it also relies on group business—family reunions, church groups, school groups—it has three different tee pads for different skill levels. “You need a course that is well-presented for the pros but which is beginner-friendly, too,” says Bradley.

Sipapu does not charge a fee to play, under the rationale that visitors drawn to the resort to play disc golf will spend enough money on lodging, food and beverage, and pro-shop purchases and rentals to more than compensate for the revenue “lost” by allowing free play. Bradley estimates that about $20,000 to $25,000 in annual revenue is directly linked to disc golf, a number the resort uses to justify the hiring of a part-time disc-golf pro. That’s an unusual move; the dearth of courses hiring pros, says Kennedy, remains one of disc golf’s bigger shortcomings.

Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire is the rare resort that has built both disc golf and mini-golf courses. It also differs from resorts such as Sugarbush and Sipapu in that it is not using summer activities as an enticement to attract guests to fill lodging rooms. Instead, it is reaching out to a large audience that visits the Lake Sunapee region every summer. The region is extremely popular as a summer retreat.

When the resort decided to expand its summer business with the development of its Adventure Park a couple of years ago, it aimed to package a selection of activities that would appeal to “three generations of vacationing families,” says Bruce McCloy, Mount Sunapee’s marketing director. Ultimately, the package has come to include zipline tours, an aerial adventure course, Segway tours, and chairlift rides, as well as disc golf and mini-golf.

The result was business that “way exceeded our expectations,” says McCloy, with the return on investment for the entire Adventure Park being achieved within one and a half years.

And ersatz golf has contributed to that success. On a busy weekend day, says McCloy, the mini-golf course can see about 100 rounds at $9 per adult (and $6 per child), while the disc golf course can see as many as 50 paid rounds at $8 per round, which includes a chairlift ride to the first tee. In short: mini-golf typically generates more revenue than disc golf, but there are much higher development costs that must be paid off.

The two activities not only complement the park’s other activities, but each other. While McCloy notes that there is some overlap in the demographics of the typical disc golf and mini-golf participants, they each have a unique user set. The mini-golf audience tends to be more family/kids oriented, while disc golf appeals to a somewhat more athletic crowd.

What are the key takeaways from these examples? Disc golf and mini-golf courses are relatively inexpensive to develop, operate, and maintain. On the cost side of the ledger, they are very economical options compared with such other summer activities as ziplines (more labor-intensive), chairlift rides (higher labor and energy costs), and Alpine slides and coasters (higher costs across the board). A return-on-investment time frame for a disc golf course is typically three years or less, and slightly longer for a mini-golf course. “For ROI, think in terms of three to five years.” says mini-golf designer Bremer.

For many resorts—Sugarbush and Sipapu being prime examples—disc golf (or mini-golf) will not serve as direct revenue generators in their own right, but add value to a package of activities that drive visits. Sipapu, of course, charges no fee, and according to Hammond, only about 50 percent of the players at Sugarbush actually pay to play. The resort is well aware that many local players use the course after hours without paying. But even then, the lost revenues in unpaid fees are more than recouped by simply having guests at the resort who will spend money elsewhere, especially on food and beverage.

Finally, both activities are relatively benign environmentally. That can be an important consideration for ski areas seeking to maintain the image of unspoiled, natural beauty that is central to their appeal to guests. This can also expedite any permitting processes required for a new activity on public or private land.

In the long run, the real impact to the bottom line comes from lodging, food and beverage, and retail sales generated indirectly from guests who come to play disc golf or mini-golf. Developing either a disc golf or mini-golf course is no get-rich-quick proposition. But while the direct revenue stream might be meager, the indirect impact can be meaningful. That, coupled with their low cost, makes each a no-lose proposition.