By Erik Matuszewski
When the coronavirus hit in the U.S., GolfBoard President Jeff Dowell’s first thought was, “Uh oh, this could be ugly,” as he watched existing orders for his company’s single-rider boards cancelled or put on hold.
A month later, many others in the industry had what he calls an “A-ha moment.”
When one-rider-per-cart mandates started becoming common safety practice in some parts of the country, course operators had to adjust.
“They discovered two things happened they don’t like,” says Dowell. “One, I’m out of carts and I can’t cycle them through the way I normally would and the way we’ve done for decades. And two, I look down my first fairway or 18th green coming in and I can see 12 carts on each hole. I’ve got four people on the tee box, four in the middle of the fairway, and four around the green, and I can’t imagine how much I’m tearing up my golf course. Suddenly, the phone started to ring.”
A number of courses are now seeking smaller alternatives to power single riders around the course at the same pace as a golf cart, or faster. For GolfBoard, inquiries have come in every day for the past several months and production has been ramped up to meet demand.
GolfBoard still has a small footprint, with its product in only about 300 of the more than 14,000 U.S. golf facilities, but it’s among a number of single-rider vehicles trying to meet a need during the current environment.
“Single rider will absolutely be commonplace at courses within the next couple of years, but only if we and every other single-rider cart company do this right,” says Caruca President Josh Hein, who first raised funds for his electric cart/scooter hybrid via Kickstarter back in 2016.
The company, which made its PGA Merchandise Show debut in 2018, has temporarily halted all outbound sales efforts to handle incoming requests, with website visits up 440 percent during April and May. Caruca has also restructured purchasing options to better suit courses, including driving better profit margins from its carts.
“We have to deliver results both financially for the courses, and experientially for the golfers,” adds Hein. “We’re finding that many of the people contacting us have seen or considered single rider carts in the past, but it just wasn’t a pressing enough issue for them to make a change, nor did they fully understand the value proposition of single-rider carts. We are taking this opportunity very seriously.”
Finn Scooters is a relative newcomer, first showing up on golf courses in July 2019, but the company’s sales have more than doubled in the past two months. The average order last year was four cycles, but current orders have now jumped to 12–16, with a high of 24.
When Tetherow in Oregon recently brought in 12 Finn Cycles for a rental fleet, the company almost immediately sold another 12 to members at the course.
At the end of 2019, there were 300 Finn Cycles at courses and, given the current interest, the company projects that will jump to at least 1,500 by the end of the year.
A Canadian company called Vantage Tag Systems recently introduced a one-rider cart called the Pacer to North America, taking orders for 800 in its initial industry outreach. One course in Florida even upgraded its entire 144-cart fleet with single-rider Pacers, which come in five colors, are Bluetooth compatible, and have charging ports for phones.
“This is not a fad. This is the new new,” says CEO Bob Silzer, who has been in the golf business for 25 years. “This is the way it’s going to be for many years to come.
One of the selling points beyond effective social distancing is that facilities don’t have to pay for the carts, as Vantage is offering a revenue split in which it gets 70 percent and the course keeps 30 percent. All Pacer carts come factory-equipped with the Vantage Tag System, which helps track location for pace of play and security purposes as well as geo-fencing.
Silzer says he expects to distribute between 2,000 and 3,000 carts this year.
“An average golf course has 72 to 80 carts. Over the course of now and three years, the single riders will be working its way up by 10 percent to 15 percent every year,” Silzer says. “Golf courses will see the difference.”
Phat Scooters has signed on upwards of 10 new courses the past several months, up from two or three previously. Inquiries are “through the roof” and the standard ask has gone from four scooters to eight or 12 units, with some courses asking for fleets of as many as 48.
While social distancing is the prime motivator, operators are realizing that there’s added benefit.
“They notice when they give a (standard) cart to each person in a foursome, they play faster,” says CEO and co-founder Peter Johnson. “Pace of play was always one of our big pitches, but you’d get to the CFOs and guys that control the money, and they’d wonder if was just us talking or is it actually real. Now, they’re being able to see it in a mass scale. Yes, we’re able to send out three or four more rounds and increase our revenue, but our golf cart fleets are depleted.”
Adding more carts isn’t a viable solution for most given infrastructure limitations, such as the size of the cart barn, Johnson says. He notes that the Phat Scooters take up less storage space, are easier to maintain, and operators are able to charge a premium for their use. “People have a blast doing it and they’re attracting new and repeat customers,” he says. Currently, about 20 percent of the company’s business is golf-specific, up from about 5 percent just a couple years ago.
“We’re not here to replace the golf cart, but can we offset some of the golf cart fleet? Yes,” adds Johnson. “Say a course has a fleet of 150 carts. When they renew their lease, would they renew it for 120 and take 30 scooters? I think it’s a viable option and I think people are starting to look at it more and more that way.”