Topgolf, already drawing a crowd in Edison, is growing in N.J. — and has even bigger plans

By Meg Fry
Edison | Apr 25, 2018 at 11:34 am
From our print edition

It’s easy to assume what Topgolf is.

A driving range.

A place where great golfers and wannabe great golfers go to improve their game.

A fad.

All of those assumptions, company officials say, are wrong.

Topgolf, which has been doing great business since opening its first location in the state in Edison in December 2016, is preparing to open a second facility in Mount Laurel in the fall.

Each facility, it said, brings 500 local jobs and $264 million into the local economy in the first 10 years.

And company officials said they can make these promises because Topgolf is as much about entertainment as sport — and as much for novices as experts.

“One of the trickiest things about Topgolf is explaining who and what we are to someone who has never been here,” Sean Crofton, director of operations at Topgolf in Edison, said.

First, Topgolf is not your average driving range.

“We are an entertainment venue for all ages and skill levels,” Crofton said. “Golf can be an intimidating sport for those who have never played — which makes up more than 50 percent of our guests.”

Second, Topgolf’s demographics range outside of those traditionally found on the golf course.

“Nearly 20 percent of our guests are kids; more than 30 percent are women; and nearly 50 percent are between the ages of 18 and 34,” Crofton said. “We are trying to make the game of golf more accessible and inviting to those who might never have played the game if it weren’t for us.”

Topgolf’s main attraction is a 240-yard driving range with colorful, illuminated targets in which guests can play a variety of games by scoring points based on the accuracy and distance of their shots. Company golf balls are equipped with proprietary microchip technology that gauges and reports the distance traveled when struck.

“In this way, the game therefore becomes more like bowling or darts,” Crofton said.

Third, the Edison location also contains 3,000 square feet of event space, including a signature room for up to 250 guests, a conference room for up to a dozen guests, an outdoor rooftop terrace and live performance space for up to 180 guests, and a lower level lounge for up to 80 guests.

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The Topgolf concept was created in 2001 by Steve Joliffe and Dave Joliffe, twin brothers in a suburb of London who wanted to make driving ranges more competitive by knowing just how close their golf balls were to their targets.

The brothers partnered with a microchip manufacturer and outfitted existing two-level driving ranges in England before licensing the technology throughout the world, including to the company that would become Topgolf in North America.

Topgolf, now headquartered in Dallas, officially purchased the intellectual property and the three existing facilities in the United Kingdom in the mid-2000s.

With a goal of opening seven to 10 venues each year, the company opened nearly 20 venues within the last two years, for a current total of 41 facilities worldwide.

“The business is just lightning in a bottle right now,” Crofton said.

Crofton joined the company in October 2016 to open New Jersey’s first venue, in Edison, having previously worked for OTG Management at Newark Liberty International Airport and Bonefish Grill.

“Topgolf is such an aggressively fast-growing company, and I also had heard great things about their culture,” Crofton said. “So, when Topgolf reached out to me through LinkedIn, I couldn’t say no.”

It is the culture, Crofton added, that keeps the company ahead of its competitors.

“Other companies have tried to copy our business model, but the thing that still separates us is our culture of fun, guest inclusivity and interaction that cannot be duplicated elsewhere,” he said.

It takes more than 500 year-round employees to keep the 65,000-square-foot venue on more than 12 acres of land in Edison operating smoothly.

The three-level facility is outfitted with 102 climate-controlled hitting bays, complete with a variety of golf clubs, a television and a table in which to enjoy “at-bay” food and beverage service.

Bays are rented by the hour for one to six players, with hourly rates ranging from $30 between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m., $40 from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., and $50 from 5 p.m. to closing at midnight, or at 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Topgolf’s locations also include a restaurant, bar and scratch kitchen that feature varying chef-driven menus.

The menu in Edison, for example, ranges from American classics such as cheese fries and chicken wings to “Mushi,” or Mexican-inspired sushi with cilantro sticky rice, spiced chicken, jalapeno tortillas and sriracha hot sauce, and Don Julio pineapple mint margaritas.

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Topgolf in Edison consistently has three-hour wait times on most Saturday nights, even with weekend reservations costing an additional $50.

“Last week, we had more than 14,000 guests, and that’s just card swipes in the bays,” Crofton said. “That doesn’t include spectators or those simply coming in to dine with us.”

Crofton, however, said the 10-person sales team at Topgolf takes nothing for granted.

In fact, he said, Edison certainly has its work cut out for it if it wants to maintain the level of sales the company expects.

“One of the toughest things in New Jersey is that, as much as it is a densely populated state, it is comprised of many small towns,” he said. “We don’t run many radio or television ads, with all of our advertising being more grassroots run through digital and social media, so it can sometimes be a challenge to get our name out there while also helping people to understand who and what we are.”

How do they do it? Boots on the ground.

“We ask ourselves, how can we effectively introduce ourselves to and create relationships with nearby towns such as Metuchen, Woodbridge, Iselin, East Brunswick, New Brunswick and more, while also capturing other markets further into the state?” Crofton said.

The answer is by attending nearly three events per week, he said, including those hosted by the Edison Chamber of Commerce.

(READ MORE from ROI-NJ on Topgolf’s growth in New Jersey.)

This can lead to company sales.

“For example, we’ve had two full-floor buyouts so far, with a health care company and a financial organization in New Jersey,” Crofton said.

Crofton, however, was quick to say the company looks for ways to give back to the community, too.

Topgolf, he said, has worked with several national organizations, such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Bunkers in Baghdad, Folds of Honor and Meals on Wheels America.

“We also invite local high school golf teams to come and play for free for a few hours during the week, especially in the offseason,” Crofton said.

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Chris Callaway, chief development officer for Topgolf, said the company always is looking at new areas and regions in which to expand.

The Northeast, he added, always has been on their radar, for a couple of reasons.

“First, Mount Laurel’s proximity to Philadelphia and other surrounding cities makes Topgolf a prime entertainment option for everyone in the area,” Callaway said. “Second, we want to offer a cold-weather option for fans of the game during less-than-ideal weather conditions. Our bays are climate-controlled and allow for year-round enjoyment of our venues.”

Crofton said that both Edison and Mount Laurel are indeed the right locations for Topgolf in New Jersey.

“We want to be located where people live and not necessarily where they work,” he said. “Edison, for example, is such a great, centralized location accessible from multiple highways — a crossroads right smack dab in the middle of one of the most densely populated states in the country.”

But even with the additional location coming this fall, Crofton said he believes the New Jersey market is far from maximized.

“I’m not sure of what the specific plans are for New Jersey, but I can tell you that, with our location in Edison and a new location in Mount Laurel, northern New Jersey would likely be a market to watch.”

Lessons, leagues and memberships

Topgolf in Edison currently offers the following leagues, lessons, membership plans and opportunities for New Jersey golfers, with the Mount Laurel location soon to follow:

  • Leagues run from April to June and from September to November, with two-person teams costing $245 and four-to-six-person teams costing $490.
  • Golf professionals currently offer 60-minute classes, group and individual lessons ranging in price from $25 to $89 each. Topgolf also offers spring, summer and winter academies for kids ages 6 through 12, consisting of five half-day golf clinics, with costs starting at $199 per child.
  • Topgolf offers multiple membership options, ranging from early drive membership play during morning hours ($500 for six months) to platinum memberships, which include unlimited game play and perks (such as a $1,000 hole-in-one prize on brown, blue and white targets) for an initiation fee of $125 and $250 per month. With costs starting at $425 per month and annual membership fees of $5,100, corporate platinum memberships can be shared.
  • Topgolf in Edison can host tournaments for up to 612 players at once, with space for 600 additional spectators. Pricing depends on the date and time of the event, but typically ranges between $20 and $55 per guest.
  • Companies looking to host fundraisers with Topgolf may enjoy half-off game play, private event space for more than 30 guests, or a raffle consisting of a three-month corporate platinum membership.

 

Meg Fry | mfry@roi-nj.com | megfry3