The traditional driving range is a timeless place where golfers go to practice their swings, perfect shots and master various techniques. However, a visit to Topgolf, a chain of golf entertainment facilities, quickly demonstrates how gamification, the Internet of Things and analytics are disrupting the driving range experience golfers know and love.
"If you think about the barriers to entry to play grass golf, they are pretty high," says Andrew Macaulay, CIO of Topgolf. "At Topgolf, you're coming into a fun environment where tons of people of all kinds of demographics are there with you, and technology is at the heart of it."
The tech behind Topgolf
During a visit to the Dallas area last month, I went to Topgolf in The Colony, Texas — yes, that's the city's name. I've been to a number of driving ranges to work on my (novice) golfing skills. However, New England, where I live, doesn't have any Topgolf facilities, so this was a new experience.
Upon arrival, you check in at the front desk and receive Topgolf cards, which basically act as visitor identification credentials. You use the cards to initiate your game and keep track of all of your activities, including how many times you visit and how many games you play. You use the same card when you go to other Topgolf locations, as well.
The driving range is composed of individual "bays" on several levels, and the facility also has a bar and restaurant. Each bay includes a hitting area, seating area (to order food and drinks) and a TV, as well as a monitor that displays game statistics and player information. To begin, you swipe your Topgolf card near the monitor in your bay and select a game; the company offers are variety of games for different skill levels. The cards connect to Topgolf's custom-built system, which stores and tracks visitor information. Staff members can see the specific visitors who are waiting for a bay to open up, the people currently occupying bays and the groups wrapping up their sessions.
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When you finish the setup process, the screen displays your player information, including your name, the length of time you have left at the bay and an empty scoreboard that's waiting to be filled. In my case, I selected a club and made my way to the turf. I waved my club over the ball dispenser and it released a golf ball. The ball dispensers are equipped with RFID readers that can tell when you wave a club over the sensor. The ball also contains an RFID chip that tells the Topgolf system that it's you who's about to hit.
"We know that you're the one playing because that ball is tagged to you," Macaulay says. "Once you hit it, we wait for it show up somewhere in the field."
After a few practice swings, I hit the ball and looked up to see where it landed. Again, Topgolf isn't your ordinary driving range, and it doesn't have signs to mark the yardage. Instead, there are 500 RFID readers in the field that form various zones. Each zone is a circular net with sections, and the closer your ball gets to the center of the zone, and the further the zone is in the field (240 yards), the more points you earn. When your ball falls into a zone, the readers scan its RFID chip, and the data is passed back to the Topgolf system to register the score.
Topgolf, data analytics and gamification
Macaulay says the company gathers customer data on the games that are most popular, and how well golfers in certain regions perform, from Topgolf cards and real-time scores. "We compare ourselves to a high tech bowling alley, going to the movies or a pro sports game. But if one person buys the tickets, they don't know anything about the other people in that party. We have data on every single player."
Throughout the games, players take turns hitting a certain number of times. The screen also displays challenges to "gamify" the experience and get the competitive juices flowing. One such message I saw: "Is that as far as you can hit it?"
"That fits our culture, we don't take ourselves too seriously. People are there to have fun," Macaulay says. "But it's something we can do a lot better in the future, to think about gamification and badges and awards online."
The company is also currently working on ways to gather more real-time customer insights; today, Topgolf cannot view and act on customer data as it's being collected. "Nobody's looking at what's happening right now at this moment at one [Topgolf] site," he says. "We're actively on the roadmap to change that." The company is also starting to compile more data streams from customers and combine them with external data, such as food and beverage preferences.
Topgolf is looking into enhancements for its mobile app, as well, so customers can do more than just view game history and find location information. The company also plans to open four new locations this month and as many as 12 locations a year in the future.