Rod Heckelman's career started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 1976 he took over as head pro/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference. Rod has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013, and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.”
He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.
Now We See What’s Next?
By Rod Heckelman
They call it the new normal, but for the traditionally stable tennis world, it will be more like the new abnormal. Everyone in the tennis industry will have to adjust to survive. The teachers, the clubs, the retailers, and more, will all have to find a new pathway to be able to eventually prosper. The greatest challenge may be that there is virtually no history to work from, truly little time for trial and error, and most importantly, no examples of prior success stories. As a result, there are really no experts, no prognosticators to help, so most of us will be flying without a net. Our best bet is to just try to assess the damage, how it has impacted us, and take an educated guess on how to get back on track. Add to this challenge that it is likely that those corrections will largely depend on our unique situations, i.e. community, type of facility, size, and the economic local impact, and we have some work to do. One thing is for sure, we will have to adjust.
So what adjustments are likely to take place? Let’s start with the teachers.
Social distancing is a key new equation for the teachers. Say goodbye to close physical contact to demonstrate a stroke or help a student through physical guidance on how to execute a stroke. Pros will need to be able to better articulate change through their communication skills. Better analogies, metaphors, and the like will be more common in their vocabulary. Group clinics will be impacted, not just because of social distancing, but also because competitive tennis is on hold, and it was competitive tennis that motivated many to participate in lessons, especially doubles lessons. With that in mind, the focus for a while in tennis instruction will likely turn to the art of learning and improving stroke production and movement. More coaches will become great ball feeders and be able to maintain long rallies. The bottom line, coaches will need to hone these skills and get in shape.
In addition, for quality instruction to take place, the scheduling of lessons and practice will have to come from a new dynamic. Remember, team play is mostly on hold, players will need the help and aide of the tennis instructor to find independent connections to mostly one-on-one sessions. Court time, which would seem to be more available, may be a challenge as reservations probably will be required for some time. No more “Let’s just go down to the courts and play.”
This in turn will create a tremendous challenge for the tennis facilities that flourished from the walk-ons, challenge courts, and drop-in tennis. For some time, the ability of a club to have an ongoing venue for open play was one of the greatest attractions. In retrospect, the primary reason for tennis enthusiasts for joining a club, was finding others to play with and court availability. Both aspects will need to be created with an entirely new concept for programming.
This entire issue will be challenged by the prospect of a slow recovery. We all hope not for long, but it will take the world-wide economy to recover enough for recreational choices to become an option once again, especially in this country. We are a consumer-based economy that also has always featured a robust service industry. When finances get tight, the consumer turns to only the basic needs and puts the optional requirements on hold. Most consumers really do not need to join a club to complete their lives, they do so as an option to enhance their lives. They do not have to travel or take vacations, or go out to dinner, or buy toys and sports equipment, all of which feeds the service industry…which is exactly the category where the tennis facilities are listed.
Given time, these consumers gain confidence and a sense of security, and soon stop putting their money into savings and begin to look for the activities that enhance the quality of their lives. The keyword here is time, a measurement that we have no prediction for, nor likely will have soon. All we do know, which is the positive that can come from all this, is that the very nature of people is to find a way forward, create a better lifestyle, and work towards building a better quality life…that has always been a constant that brought people into tennis.
In the meantime, don’t be surprised to see many smaller clubs find more economic ways to operate. If there are fewer members and fewer students, smaller clubs may seek out those in the industry that can both manage a club and teach tennis. Two salaries become one, and that one salary is subsidized by the income from lessons.
There will likely be more creative marketing to recruit new members and bring back the prior members who took off in fear of either the virus or the cost of a membership. Clubs will have to deal with the conflict of deciding how to find a fair way to bring back those who left to avoid dues, with those loyal members who hung in there for those few months. Loyalty awards will be in order, maybe even a system where the loyal members can recruit those who left and have the dues of those returning partially go to the loyal members…the bottom line is that sales will need to be more creative.
For those in the tennis retail market, they will be the last to come to the party. First the return of the players to the courts, then the rebuilding of the basic tennis environment of programming and activities, and then the need for the equipment to play the sport. This need will be no different than in the past, it will be based on numbers…the more people who play, the greater the demand. The problem this time around is again the timeline.
As many other sectors of the retail business world have found, waiting for demand in a potential vertical market, may take them out of the game. They will have to be able to see trends and be out in front of any potential rapidly growing market. The ease of purchase will be high on the list to capture that consumer as they begin to drift through the recreational market. When that parent recognizes that their children like the game of tennis, the retailer needs to be there to help connect those in the supply chain. The club and the pro will be the catalyst that helps make that connection. The tennis organizations will be the facilitators.
This is the time to really research and educate yourself about any new software or new approaches that will help with rebuilding your business. During tough times, especially Shelter in Place, it’s easy to hide out and disconnect. This is not the time for that, quite frankly the opposite, we need to team up and focus on the path forward. We need to share solutions and ideas. It really doesn’t matter how we got into this; it only matters how we get out of it.