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Guest Column - July/August 2002

Fun First, of Course

Permanent vs. portable mini-golf course design

By Joseph Rogari, Mini-Golf, Inc.
and
Patrick Boylan, Harris Miniature Golf Courses, Inc.


Miniature golf as a sporting activity has remained popular for more than 50 years. The elements of miniature golf courses are balanced, some relying on luck as much as skill. That enables entire families, the young and old, the athletes and amateurs, to play and compete on a level field.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRIS MINIATURE GOLF COURSES, INC.
An outdoor permanent course at the Lahey Family Fun Center in Scranton, Pa.

Likewise, operating a miniature golf course can be a fun, easy and profitable business venture. After the initial investment in your location and the course itself, overhead consists mainly of upkeep of the facility and equipment, and day-to-day operation usually requires limited personnel.

Once you've decided on miniature golf as your entrepreneurial endeavor and investment, probably the biggest decision will be the type of course that best suits your needs. There are basically two types of courses on the market: portable courses (usually made of wood) and permanent (usually cement) courses. The game played is essentially the same, but each type of course offers differences for the owner that may make one type preferable over the other depending on several elements of your situation and on your vision for your course. Following is a comparison of both types discussing initial cost, size of the area needed and timelines, all of which are important to you the operator, as well as considerations for the players—your customers.

We'll start with portable courses. These feature wooden obstacles such as windmills, animals, and wishing wells as well as prefabricated greens and fairways.

The investment for a typical 18-hole portable course starts at about $15,000, while installation can be completed in less than a day.

Portable courses have that aspect as one of their biggest advantages. They even can be moved to a new location in a few hours. This is extremely beneficial to operators in areas where seasonal weather changes would affect business. A course that is outdoors in the summer can be moved indoors to be a year-round revenue producer. This portability is also an advantage for owners who must rent their space in the event that a move is necessary. Those who rent their locale also will appreciate the flexibility of portable courses.

PHOTO COURTESY OF MINI-GOLF, INC.
A two-tier pre-fab miniature golf course indoors.

An 18-hole portable course can be set up on as little as 2,500 square feet. Since most indoor sites charge rent by the square foot, this can make your rent more economical. Naturally a portable course, whether set up indoors or outside, can also include landscaping and other decorative additions to make the course bigger and more attractive. For the golfer, many of the obstacles in portable courses include timed elements to make the shots more challenging or added audio or visual elements to make them fun. For example, Fun & Games, a family amusement center in Honesdale, Pa., uses some sound effects. At one hole where the obstacle is a tiki mask, making the shot elicits a Tarzan-style yell.

Portable courses can also incorporate some of the features of cement courses and characteristics of regulation golf, including rough, sand traps, water hazards and contoured putting areas.

Permanent courses, on the other hand, are designed on paper and built on the customer's site. This type of course uses contour changes, undulations, banking, different size greens and placement of the holes to challenge the player. Once the preparation work, which consists of rough grading and fill, is done, an 18-hole course can be completed in three to four weeks. Indoor courses are usually built in golf domes but can pop up anywhere, like one recently completed course in a former department store in Oregon.

The cost of an 18-hole course starts at about $150,000. As with portable set-ups, the more elaborate the design, the higher the initial investment. One such variable is the water systems, waterfalls and fountains and how intricately they interact with the holes. Obviously a more elaborate design will also necessitate a larger area. While indoor courses and some simpler outdoor designs have been put on 10,000 square feet, the average permanent course sits on one-half to three-quarters of an acre.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HARRIS MINIATURE GOLF COURSES, INC.
The competition heats up at the 2001 Harris Cup National Miniature Golf Championship

While portable courses are the better and quite possibly the only option if you rent your site, permanent courses have an advantage in outdoor settings because they are designed and built to work with the topography of the landscape. The hills and ditches on your property and even your trees become an integral part of the course, creating both visual enhancement as well as challenges for the player. Of course, you can also use artificial fill to create contour on land where there isn't any naturally.

Both permanent and portable set-ups offer opportunities to add on or otherwise enhance your course. With portable courses, you can easily change obstacles or move things around to change how the course looks and plays. You can add holes to a permanent course or simply change some of your landscaping to create a different look and feel.

Whether you choose a portable or a permanent course, the most important element of a successful business is customer service. This sentiment was echoed by operators of both types of courses. Fun & Games has been in business for more than 20 years, with miniature golf being added 12 years ago. Gordie Potratz, owner of the facility attributes his longevity to never forgetting the customer.

"In this business, people start out with a bang," Potratz says. "Maintaining that is very important. The quality of your staff and how you treat the guests—I can't say enough about that."

Finally, on to one of the most important aspects for you, the course owner, which is revenue. This naturally will vary depending on your region, which will impact the length of your season if you only have an outdoor course. Using the industry average of $5 per game, figures supplied show the average operation grossing about $150,000 per year, with many grossing upwards of $300,000. This figure reflects revenue from miniature golf only. With both permanent and portable courses, you can add other revenue-producing amenities such as batting cages or a video arcade plus concessions or even a full-service restaurant. The bottom line is, permanent or portable course, the game of miniature golf is here to stay.

Joseph Rogari is vice president of marketing at Mini-Golf, Inc. Joseph can be reached at 570-489-8623 or jrogari@epix.net, or visit www.minigolfinc.com. Patrick Boylan is sales manager at Harris Miniature Golf Courses, Inc. Patrick can be reached at 609-522-4200 or info@harrisminigolf.com, or visit www.harrisminigolf.com.

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