The two gentlemen flying to Charlotte, North Carolina, for a meeting with health care industry consultant Lane Ostrow were puzzled when he boastfully told them, "You're going to like my office." Their taxi took them to Topgolf, located just 10 minutes from the airport. There they were ushered to the hitting bay, where Ostrow was waiting. They understood--and agreed. "I have people meet me there all day long, and they love it," says Ostrow. "They hit some balls, we do our work, and it works out nicely."
Like a traditional golf course, Topgolf has become a place where deals can get done--but without the need to spend four hours playing the game. And Topgolf is becoming a big deal itself. With its emphasis on food, drink, and fun, this venue has made golf more accessible, and in some ways more fun, while serving as an events space and business center replete with meeting rooms. "When people come to Topgolf, they're connecting--with friends, family, colleagues, business associates, or a great cause. Those are the real drivers," says executive chairman Erik Anderson.
If hipster bowling alleys such as Punch Bowl Social have made a working-class pastime cool again, Topgolf has restaged a stuffy, elitist sport with colorful LED lighting that bounces to the beat of whatever music is playing. This is golf as a large-scale video game. Or, if you don't care to swing a club, you can pick up a pool cue, watch sports, or dance.
In 1996, British brothers Steve and Dave Jolliffe wanted more from their driving range than tedious repetition, so they turned the experience into a digital golfing dartboard, where microchipped balls are smashed at targets with different scoring options. Their first venue opened in Watford, near London, in 2000.
But once the American licensee, Topgolf International, controlled by WestRiver Group, took over the company and technology in 2009, the business went into grip-it-and-rip-it growth mode. Anderson, who is WestRiver's founder and CEO, brought in investment from Callaway Golf and others. Topgolf made the Inc. 500 in 2014 with sales of $163.5 million, but since then revenue has reportedly passed $300 million. The company just opened its 47th U.S. venue, in Auburn Hills, Michigan, near Detroit--up from 10 in 2013.
Just over half of Topgolf's guests don't currently play on golf courses, and 68 percent hit that 18-to-44-year-old demographic sweet spot--potential converts for a sport that needs them. The National Golf Foundation reported a 7 percent increase in off-course golfers in 2017 while on-course golf was flat. More than 13 million customers visited Topgolf in 2017, a daily average of 35,000, with 17 million visits projected for this year.
And Topgolf is broadening its game too. Topgolf Swing Suite simulators are popping up in hotels and other sites. The company acquired the World Golf Tour mobile golf app and created a variety of original-content video series with branded Topgolf cooking, music, competition, and lifestyle themes.
Most Topgolf venues create about 500 jobs, which has made it a desirable target for economic development agencies. Anderson says the company will open seven to 10 U.S. venues annually. "We are very purpose-driven in connecting people in meaningful ways," says Anderson, "and I think the best companies build that sense of community and sense of belonging, and a sense of identity." Or you can just hit golf balls.