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The Business of Recreation: 5 Lessons from Randy Rohlfson, Emerald Hills Golf Course in Okoboji

Our Dream Big series introduces you to savvy entrepreneurs who have built their businesses from an idea to an innovation. We’re chatting with them about how they started their businesses, their steps to make them grow, and essential advice to future business owners.

Are you a bike enthusiast? A plant lover? A fitness fiend? For every hobby, there’s a business that supports it. That means you can turn your favorite pastime into a flourishing business.

Recreation businesses are a fast-growing corner of commerce. Picture a cookware store that doubles as a culinary school or a climbing gym that builds strength and community. This wave of entrepreneurship has been huge in the past decade, with people of all ages turning their hobbies into fulfilling careers.

Randy Rohlfson built his career on recreation. He owns and manages Emerald Hills Golf Course in Lake Okoboji, Iowa. He is personable with everyone he meets and dedicated to sharing the sport. That combination led to almost constant growth for Emerald Hills. Today, Randy proudly says the course is busy every weekend, and every golf league is at capacity.

With 31 years in the business, Randy is opening his strategy book for current and aspiring entrepreneurs in recreation. How do recreation businesses grow? What are the strategies for managing these enterprises? And what does it take to lead a business based on play?

1. Be prepared for the good and bad times.

Blog Image: Emerald Hills Randy Rohlfson on courseRandy initially bought Emerald Hills with investment partners in 1993. He said this was a positive experience, especially in the early days as young managing partner.

But shortly after investing, catastrophic floods limited Emerald Hill’s golfing season for two summers. Then, two years after that, their clubhouse burned down.

“Well, there wasn’t much choice,” Randy remembers. “We had to rebuild because we were all into it do too deep now to think, ‘Well, let’s just get out of it.’ Then we would’ve lost everything.”

Emerald Hills came back bigger and better than ever. Randy is still grateful for his early partners’ advice and financial support. Emerald Hills has been smooth sailing ever since, but it’s still a seasonal operation. That’s why Randy is grateful to work with Bank Midwest for business lines of credit and operation loans in winter.

Ultimately, no business is immune from bad times. Still, Randy says every business owner should rely on outstanding partnerships to prepare for the best and worst-case scenarios.

2. “Smile, and make their day.”

Blog Inset Emerald Hills Golf PracticeThe golf season typically lasts from late spring to fall, meaning most of Randy’s employees are seasonal. But he is proud to have a friendly, welcoming work environment that his staff wants to return to.

“That is something that you don’t see in a lot of places, and that’s what I kind of want to hang my hat on at Emerald Hills,” Randy says. “We want to be friendly and promise everybody that walks through the door a fun, good day. I gotta pass that on to all of my employees.”

Cultivate an employee culture where everyone is passionate about your work and authentically engages with your guests. Randy says this is central to influencing the community you build around your business.

3. Build a community with passion and education.

Blog Inset Emerald Hills Golf CartsRandy’s office is filled wall-to-wall with photos of tournaments and junior golf camps at Emerald Hills from their first summers to now. Those programs are what he’s most proud of when he looks back at his career.

“I used to call junior golf the future of golf, but for me now, it’s the present of golf because so many kids that were on those early pictures are now my full members,” Randy explains.

Use your passion and dedication for your business to fuel its growth – it pays off in the short and long term. It will also make you an enthusiastic teacher for new people joining your community.

4. Embrace your multi-hyphenate job.

Blog Inset Emerald Hills GreenRecreation businesses often have multiple revenue streams. Think about a book store that hosts author talks and classes. It’s like a three-in-one business operation.

That’s why, at Emerald Hills, Randy says he wears a lot of hats during the day.

“I have evolved into a guy that wears seven or eight different hats every day,” he explains. “I’m teaching, club fitting, doing a group lesson, organizing a ladies’ day and checking in a hundred or so members, running and scoring a men’s league at night, and maybe selling a set of clubs in the middle somewhere.”

Randy says being the person who does everything is par for the course in business ownership. But in recreation businesses, you need to be the expert in every part of your operation and jump in whenever needed.

5. Know where your business can put its best foot forward.

Blog Inset Emerald Hills ClubhouseEmerald Hills offers a golf course, a snack cart, a bar, classes, and a pro shop. But there’s one thing most golf courses have that Emerald Hills does not: a restaurant.

“We have a very nice clubhouse, which does not include a full-fledged restaurant, which I’ve chosen through the years,” Randy says. “A lot of country clubs do, where you sit down, order off a menu, and take two and a half hours to eat. We are not that kind of place.”

There are two reasons Randy says Emerald Hills didn’t expand into a restaurant. First, there are over seventy eating options in the Okoboji area. Instead of vying for a share of that market, Randy strategically decided not to compete. Second, he wants Emerald Hills to be a place for all golf enthusiasts. So, instead of a restaurant, they offer “golfer’s food” at the snack bar – hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and cheese sandwiches – to get their guests off to the next tee.

Understanding where to channel your energy for optimal business and community growth is at the heart of success. For Randy, recreation business owners should stay focused on the mission of their business. Evaluating where your business can be its best is essential for carving your business’s identity and scaling.

Looking for more advice for growing your dream business? Want to hear more about Emerald Hills’ rising success? Listen to Dream, Plan, Live: the Bank Midwest podcast for more tips from the business experts in your community and at Bank Midwest.

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