Wireless sees the green: resorts turn to Wi-Fi, GPS to drive golf course revenue

Wireless sees the green: resorts turn to Wi-Fi, GPS to drive golf course revenue

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Beneath a golf course’s surface of peaceful landscapes and promise of escape lies a bedrock of unforgiving business concerns. Golf courses are looking for ways to maximize not only goiters’ course time, but their own profits as well. And wireless networks and services are beginning to figure prominently into that profit picture.

Wireless carriers have enjoyed a relationship with golf for many years. Sprint serves as the official telecom provider to The PGA of America, offering wireless, data and other services at major PGA events. Other wide-area commercial wireless carriers offer golf-oriented services such as wireless scorecards and downloadable course diagrams, while boutique network suppliers are tailoring their networks to serve not only golfers on the range, but the resorts themselves.

Both carriers and boutique network providers “know golfers and resorts are two markets that can spell big profits. They’re addressing those markets differently, however. Verizon Wireless, for instance, began offering a mobile wireless scorecard for its wireless phone customers in September. The service taps Golf Magazine’s Scorebuddy electronic scorecard application with its Get It Now service bundle. The application allows wireless phone customers to use their devices to track their scores and the scores of three other players on the course, score side games, e-mail scorecards and download course diagrams. The Scorebuddy service costs $2.99 a month.

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GPS DIRECT Smaller network providers are chasing golfers in a different way. GPS Industries (GPSI), a provider of location-based services for golf courses, has added Wi-Fi networks to its portfolio. The company is now selling–for between $200,000 and $250,000 per course–a combined Wi-Fi/GPS network to golf resorts. The company, formerly Inforetech Wireless Technology, changed its name in 2003 to reflect a broader focus.

GPSI expanded from GPS networks, used primarily by resorts to inform golfers via on-site or mobile GPS terminals of exact distances between tees and pins–a critical piece of information in choosing the right club–to providing resorts with a way to make more money from their customers. The addition of a Wi-Fi hot spot network on a golf course gives a resort a new revenue source by allowing the resort to push food advertisements, club house sales, condo specials and other marketing information to golfers directly on location.

The GPSI Wi-Fi network allows the resort to access a captive audience and sell directly to them, says Blake Ponuick, vice president of sales and marketing for GPSI. “Golfers had been lost to golf course management for four hours while they were on the course,” he says.

Additionally, the network allows interactive services to golfers and resort personnel, from communications among course managers to speeding golfer throughput on the course. For resort staff; the network can provide virtual private network communications. On the customer side, it can offer streaming video of other sporting events via terminals on golf carts. Golfers no longer have to refrain from an afternoon of golfing because the football game’s on, which means more golfers on the course, Ponuick says.

Resorts honing application-specific wireless services, especially GPS services, is a growing trend these days, says Marina Amoroso, analyst at the Yankee Group. Amoroso, who follows location-based services (LBS), says resorts are finding that the more feature-rich they can make wireless-based services for their guests, the quicker they’re accepted. She notes a western ski resort’s GPS-based service only allowed skiers to find their companions on the mountain in a limited fashion, making them stop at specific locations to query the system. “At $20 per family for the service, it didn’t offer a compelling case” to purchase, she says.

The interactive quality of the golf resort Wi-Fi network, although a relatively new development, could be the key to its success with golfers, she says. However, it’s difficult to gauge how much revenue wireless carriers might be losing out on from the boutique network suppliers because many fees are buried in other things, such as greens fees.

So far, about a dozen courses have installed the GPSI system in the last few months. It helps that golf and sports personalities are backing the company. Golf celebrity Greg Norman is the primary investor in the venture. GPSI announced in December that Norman had made a $3 million capital investment in the company. Other backers include Jeff Lurie, owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Michael Levy, CEO of CBS Sportsline.

The company is looking to leverage that sports cache as it moves further into resort communities in the coming months. It’s looking to sell the system not only for golf course applications, but to golf communities, where it could provide Internet access and security services for residents and resort owners.

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