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 professional/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.
TRYING TO WEATHER THE BUSINESS OF INDOOR TENNIS
With good management and an adaptable game plan, they can be very profitable.
By Rod Heckelman
With indoor tennis facilities, there is no common method of operation. Everything from booking court time to scheduling group or pro lessons must adjust to the many variables created by the different weather conditions. That factor is completely governed by the seasons of different regions. There is also the variable with incomes of many areas, as well as locations, such as city versus suburban locations. The fact is, having a national fixed game plan is not in the cards for indoor courts, but an adjusted strategy may work just fine.
It all starts with the weather, the primary reason for the development of indoor courts. When the tennis explosion of the early ’70s happened, it opened the door for hundreds of new indoor facilities across the country. What is interesting to note, you could almost draw a straight line across the country, matching the latitude that determined whether these indoor courts would prosper. Many of this country’s central states were on the border of that line and had to wrestle with the choice to build indoors or pass on that option. Those facilities were the ones that struggled with defining their season and in turn, their business. This criterion has not changed. Many of today’s indoor facilities are still trying to find the right method to address these issues.
The savior for many indoor facilities was contract court time. With these seasonally purchased programs, the customer would buy a fixed court time for 30 to 36 weeks of the year. The rest of the year, the facility relied on those who wanted to avoid exposure to the sun, partake in camps or other teaching programs, which would fill the courts. Of course, there were those few players that got spoiled by not having sun or wind conditions. There was also a strong push for programming discount prices and events that would eat up those 16 to 20 weeks of decent weather. In retrospect, the contract system is a great deal like what the skiing industry does. The customer would buy a seasonal pass, and whether there was snow or not, the facilities had guaranteed income.
It’s that time of year again when indoor facilities come under more demand. This demand means more organization of programs and schedules. These club operators are now dealing with optimizing sales and still having enough space to handle any sudden demand. Included in that group are the tennis teachers who were able to park their programs indoors while the weather was good, now they must adjust to having fewer available courts. These are a few of the challenges, but again, here is the real dilemma, what will work in Denver, will not fly in Chicago, and what will work in rural areas, will not likely be a good fit for the metropolitan clubs.
Let’s start with the obvious. No indoor facility challenged with the overhead of owning a large amount of real estate is going to want a program that operates under a program of “Pay to Play.” There are so many parts of this country where the weather can turn and suddenly you have four weeks of reasonable outdoor conditions…tennis players just won’t pay for their tennis when it can be free? Add to that, there are many people who are stuck inside due to inclement weather and are hungry to enjoy being outside to recreate. This factor is huge and may be the main reason racket ball had issues with financially supporting indoor facilities. It remains to be seen if the same dynamics will take place with Pickleball. Every racket sport will need to address this or end up hitting a headwind in participation and growth.
The answer to this dilemma is programming with a mix of contract court time, scheduled programming, and open drop-in programming. A flexible program that adjusts to the sudden open court time may be the only way to survive those sunny days. There are many alternatives to open programming, including drop-in discounted tennis that features drilling, like LiveBall or flash competitive play, or altering your programming so the indoor courts can become Challenge Courts. These Challenge Courts are great for social tennis and essentially are King of the Mountain format that provides a nice combination of social and competitive tennis on a drop-in basis. Players sign-up on a waiting list and become partners with the person in front or behind them on that list. They play a no-ad set, lose, leave the court, win, stay on for a second set maximum. It creates rapid turnover and players find others to play with at their level. This can resolve the age-old problem that contract court time endured…the loss of one or two of the participants that ended their commitment. At the end of the day, the solutions will be tough to find with each community, as said, will have to navigate the many variables to discover what works best for them.
It should be noted, there are some indoor facilities that are exposed to constant inclement conditions for seven straight months or more. Their focus is on maxing out their usage. If the level of competition in their local market with other indoor facilities is reasonable, they should do fine. They will still need to address the retention of customers and put together winter programs that can find a way to comfortably and financially segue into the spring and summer programs. After all, most of the expenses of operating an indoor facility do not go away when the weather turns favorable.
In addition, indoor facilities offer the perfect venue for “Green” projects. The move to LED lighting and the potential installation of photovoltaic systems (often referred to as solar panel systems) are more possible with the available and convenient vast roofing space. Both can lower overhead, and in some parts of the country, the local energy providers may compensate for the cost of installation and purchase of the materials. As much as these alterations will positively impact your energy bill, they are not likely to address your heating bill which is likely to be gas generated. There are few great answers here, but you might investigate Co-Generation systems, or the possibility of purchasing gas through other providers that will lock down a set fee for an entire winter, allowing you to better control you’re budget and safeguard against sudden increases. Also, consider indoor fans for good inexpensive circulation, this can help avoid having open vents which are dependent on accessing outdoor cold air. The goal for the players is to have a flow of air that can create a more comfortable condition. You will still need some exhaust fans, but they too can be adjusted so that less heating will be needed.
Lastly, maybe one of the most challenging factors to running an indoor facility is guest usage. In many locations, there is no “Turnstile” entry. Monitoring and keeping track of these guests can be awkward. On one hand, there is that need to control usage, but at the same time, try not to create too much of a policing environment that can impact the club’s ambiance. It’s a bit of a dilemma since providing guest usage helps expose the facility to a potential member that will help with sales. There needs to be in place a method of evaluating the obvious, “Is this guest a potential member, or just someone looking for temporary access.”
Indoor facilities are very difficult to manage with so many variables, and today that problem is challenged as the value of real estate escalates. Can you afford to host the income of such a large amount of real estate for tennis and pass up getting far more income from other real estate options? With good management and an adaptable game plan, they can be very profitable. Another more esoteric benefit is that they also provide a focal point for the community, especially for family communities.
We’ve watched over the last 20 years the loss of many bowling alleys, ice skating rinks, and indoor tennis clubs, let’s hope that this recent growth in tennis popularity will help our tennis facilities weather the complexities of running an indoor facility.
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