Area golf courses adopt dynamic pricing

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Roxanne Kania picks a club to play at Whispering Pines in Pinckney, which uses dynamic pricing.

Mike Apri went to pay his green fees at Whispering Pines Golf Club in Pinckney, and it was $18 for a round of golf. Another time, it was $25. He played again Monday, and it was $21.

"I've never really heard of (dynamic pricing)," said Apri, 52, who lives in Pinckney and plays golf about once a week. "It's new to me."

It's new to a lot of Michigan golfers, the dynamic-pricing model made popular by the airline and hotel industry that some courses are using.

At least five Metro Detroit courses have begun using dynamic pricing: Whispering Pines, Mount Brighton, Inkster Valley, Warren Valley in Dearborn Heights and Richmond Forest in New Haven.

Golfers booking through the courses' websites can get better rates during non-peak times or if the weather is sketchy, and can expect to pay more during prime times, like weekends and holidays, or when the weather is great.

In short, flexible golfers can get some substantial discounts, while courses can better fill up their tee sheets.

"It seems to work for other hospitality industries," said Rachel Kosin, general manager and special events coordinator at Whispering Pines. "So why not golf?"

Courses long have had firm rates for tee times, and most still do. But Whispering Pines and some others in Metro Detroit set prices days or weeks out, and then continuously alter the price for each tee time based on supply and demand. The goal is to get the price to where as many of the tee times as possible are sold.

Dynamic pricing isn't new to the golf world; the website GolfNow has used the model to sell tee times for thousands of courses all over the world since launching in 2001. Similar but smaller third-party sites have it, too.

Now, though, golf courses are trying to figure out a way to get their business back to their own websites and beef up their customer databases.

Three ways to get tee times

There are three ways to book a tee time: Call the pro shop and make a reservation, walk right in and play if the course has openings, or book online.

Courses are trying to eliminate, as much as possible, the first two options.

That's why some courses using dynamic pricing are charging golfers the "rack rate," or the standard rate golfers are used to if they reserve by phone or walk in. The rack rate is typically higher than online bookings.

"Being a 36-hole facility in Dearborn Heights, and also an 18-hole facility in Inkster, we wanted to be one of the first ones to start (dynamic pricing)," said Eric Bergsrud, general manager for Warren Valley and Inkster Valley. "We've got a lot of holes to fill. We feel we can give the customers the pricing they're looking for."

The theory is simple: Making a little money is better than no money, so at Inkster Valley and Warren Valley, while the rack rate might be $25, you could book online for as little as $12 for a tee time Tuesday of this week.

At Whispering Pines on Wednesday, dynamic-pricing rates were expected to range from $18 for seniors to $38 for 18 holes, depending on the time.

At Mount Brighton on Wednesday, rates fluctuated between $20-$30.

Once a tee time is booked online by a golfer, that rate is locked in, even if rates for tee times 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later eventually sell for less or more.

The five Metro Detroit courses mentioned all used different software or third-party companies in setting up their dynamic-pricing models, but each course has total authority in altering prices as needed, based on demand.

"I still have total control of the tee sheet and the golf course," said Larry Kuebler, Mount Brighton director of golf. "They set up the parameters and make suggestions, but it's still my show."

Kuebler said four factors determine the price: day of the week, date of the year, time of day and weather. When booking online through the courses' websites, the golfers still pay at the golf course.

"So far, the customer reaction has been good," Kosin said of the response.

At Whispering Pines, she said regulars can still get a set rate.

Linda Kilarski of Brighton hits out of a sand trap on the 10th hole at Whispering Pines in Pinckney on Wednesday.

Local websites pushed

Golf courses want to get more golfers to book directly on their websites to expand their reach for email blasts for promotions and deals.

GolfNow is believed to have between 50,000-60,000 Michigan customers in its database, and courses would like to add even a fraction of that to their database.

"We're capturing more emails," Bergsrud said. "We can capture their attention in whatever marketing we do, whether it's Mother's Day, any kind of marketing. On the phone, we just get a phone number and name."

That's a huge reason that while dynamic-pricing courses still have a relationship with GolfNow, they're trying to attract more golfers.

"That is the idea," Kuebler said. "If we book 80 percent through GolfNow and 20 percent through our website, I'd love to be 80 through me and 20 through GolfNow."

For Whispering Pines, Warren Valley, Inkster Valley and Mount Brighton, the new system appears to be working. At each course, the push for online bookings via dynamic pricing has increased business through the first weeks of the season.

Yet, the Golf Course Owners Association of Michigan estimates only about 5 percent of the more than 800 courses in Michigan use their own dynamic pricing. The reason it's not catching on quickly? Not every golf course has the infrastructure to pull it off.

"Courses that have a larger staff and the capability to manage it are doing it," said Kate Moore, in her 17th year as executive director of the owners association. "In terms of a trend, it's slow-moving, because it's not inexpensive."

'Dynamic' not for everyone

Moore said dynamic pricing has been a hot topic of conversation at national conventions for years, but doesn't expect it to be embraced by all courses. Many courses, after all, are content with their relationship with GolfNow, which can get a course great exposure in exchange for the course giving GolfNow two tee times a day in which to sell and pocket the money.

In the end, the big winners could be the golfers, who, in between making birdies and bogeys, could score some big bargains.

"It's a great idea," said Troy Feldpausch, 45, from New Boston. "My thought for these courses has always been, 'Would you rather have 12-16 guys on the course at a lower rate who then spend money on the bar/pro shop/cart girls, or would you rather we took our money elsewhere?' "