Golf the Wireless Way

Fore! GPS Industries, a somewhat unusual Wi-Fi company, is looking to score a hole in one with its innovative golf course management system that combines Wi-Fi and GPS (Global Positioning System) technologies. Golf legend and industry kingpin Greg Norman — the Great White Shark — thinks GPS Industries is on to something. Norman agreed to sit on the firm’s board of directors.

The success of one of the company’s first deployments of the product, at the prestigious Mayfair Lakes Golf and Country Club near Vancouver, British Columbia, suggests the company is on target. Mayfair claims to have doubled cart rental revenues in the five months since installing a Wi-Fi network and the company’s ruggedized Wi-Fi/GPS tablet PCs on its carts.

The tablets help golfers play the course better by giving them precise positioning and video game-like graphic representations of the holes. They help the course track golfers’ progress and communicate with them wirelessly. This is just the beginning of what the technology can do, says GPS Industries vice president of sales and marketing, Blake Ponuick.

“The ability to have real time communications with golfers over the Wi-Fi network creates an entire new business opportunity for the course,” Ponuick says. “It’s not only a device for the golfer now, it’s a business tool for the course.”

GPS Industries, a public company, has been around for nine years. Its core technology uses GPS satellites to position golfers on a course. The original product was a handheld device, still sold, that provides basic GPS positioning and course graphics. It tells golfers the distance to the pin and shows where out-of-sight traps are lurking. Golfers use the information to help decide on club selection and tactics for playing the hole.

“It was primarily designed for the recreational golfer,” Ponuick says. “Caddies for tour pros already have this information in their heads — the exact number of paces to the front of the green from anywhere on the course, for example. We’re just conveying the same kind of information to recreational golfers.”

The new technology GPS Industries started selling earlier this year includes ruggedized tablet PCs mounted on the dashboards of golf carts in place of the handheld devices. They offer bigger and better graphics, but also support many new applications.

“It had to be a product designed for outdoors that could withstand the elements,” Ponuick says of the cart PCs. “We spent a tremendous amount of time and money on research and development, working with Astro Instrumentation, a company that manufactures medical equipment.” GPS Industries also worked with Sharp Electronics to develop an LCD display that would show up in bright sunlight. It uses special filters and “transflective” technology to solve the usual problems LCDs suffer in bright light. “More sunlight actually increases visibility on our screens,” Ponuick says. “This is unique to us. Nobody else has focused on this problem in the same way.”

The new offering is a complete turnkey system that includes the cart-mounted units, Wi-Fi network infrastructure, application and network management software. The company typically arranges lease financing from leasing companies that specialize in the golf industry. Coupled with monthly maintenance and support fees, it gives the course a predictable monthly cost. Complete systems range in price from about $80,000 to $240,000 with 80 golf cart units.

The company begins work at a course by coming in with GPS-based mapping tools and doing a detailed survey that produces a blueprint from which it can render the very realistic graphic representations. Then it implements a Wi-Fi network that provides ubiquitous coverage over the entire course. It includes a central hub and server at the clubhouse and from two to six repeaters (router and access point) around the course. GPS Industries custom configures the Wi-Fi infrastructure equipment, which is mostly ORiNOCO gear from Proxim .

The Wi-Fi coverage serves multiple functions and, according to GPS Industries, can pay dividends for the course in many ways. It first allows the company to implement differential GPS locationing — basically the system uses Wi-Fi locationing data to fine tune and correct the GPS data. Where a basic GPS system will provide accuracy to within a few yards, the hybrid technology can achieve accuracy to within about a foot, Ponuick says.

The Wi-Fi locationing system can also precisely track golfers as they play the course. This allows management to gather cumulative data about where greens and fairways are getting the most wear and tear, which in turn helps them decide where maintenance work is needed and when they should schedule re-positioning of pins on the greens. Course marshals can also see in real time when a slow-playing group is causing a bottleneck and either dispatch somebody to politely ask them to move on or send a message to the cart-mounted PC.

Golfers can use the wireless network to order ahead for food from the clubhouse or an on-course snack station. Ponuick claims this will increase refreshment revenues. Golfers typically order something quick and cheap, such as a hotdog, while they’re out on the course, because they have to get on to the next hole and can’t wait for something to be prepared. Now they can order something more elaborate, and expensive, like a clubhouse sandwich, and it’s ready for them when they swing by the club house or snack bar.

The Wi-Fi network may also keep golfers at the course longer. “Some golfers are what the courses call trunk slammers,” Ponuick explains. “They finish a round, throw their clubs in the trunk and rush back to the office. But if the course can get them to go inside and [use the Wi-Fi network to] check their e-mail with a laptop, now maybe they’ll stay and eat lunch or have a few more drinks. They’re not only generating some revenue from Internet access, it’s also keeping them at the golf course, spending money.”

Some courses want to attract convention business. For them, the Wi-Fi network can extend high-speed Internet access into clubhouse meeting rooms. They may be able to charge a little more for rental of the rooms as a result, Ponuick says. Tournaments are another increasingly important source of revenues for many courses. The GPS Industries product includes tournament management software that uses the Wi-Fi network for instantly updating leader boards.

Advertising is yet another potential source of revenue made possible by the Wi-Fi network. The course can push banner ads to the cart units along with the graphics of the holes and food ordering screens. The system even allows them to push ads according to a unit’s location on the course. A real estate broker advertising a home for sale that backs on to the course could have it timed to appear on the screens of the cart-mounted PCs as the golfers approach the property.

Some courses may be able to use the Wi-Fi infrastructure to link remote buildings on the course. In one case, a course was on the point of spending $75,000 to lay fiber to link a maintenance facility to the main club house. “We pointed out that our product could totally eliminate the need to spend that $75,000,” Ponuick says. “And if that facility moves or they put another up, they can use wireless to link it. too. It can mean a significant capital saving.”

Management could also use the network to communicate with maintenance workers equipped with PDAs or even Wi-Fi VoIP phones while they’re out on the course.

Ponuick claims that implementing and maintaining the full GPS/Wi-Fi system will cost most courses about $1 to $1.50 per round of golf played. They should be able to recoup that small amount and more from the applications the system makes possible. It’s a convincing case, and courses are apparently buying it. The company has already implemented 11 full-blown systems and expects to hit 30 by end of year.

GPS Industries makes some innovative use of Wi-Fi technology — for differential locationing and applications such as feeding tournament leader boards — but what’s more interesting about this company is the way it has so thoroughly worked through the business cases and return on investment (ROI) scenarios for its target market. There is a lesson for others marketing Wi-Fi systems: know your prospective customers’ business inside out and tailor the technology to respond to real problems or to generate real opportunities.

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