Why Links Matter in a Crisis

A crackdown on golf courses in China has helped one association see why connections in the country are so important.

Some valuable things are easy to hide. A handful of bills. Jewelry. A smartphone.

Somewhat less easy to hide: A golf course. But that hasn’t stopped some from trying.

Last month the New York Times reported on China’s recent crackdown on the nation’s golf courses, which for Communist Party leaders have increasingly become symbols of Western decadence and corruption. New construction of golf courses has been banned since 2004, but developers have kept building them, the Times reported, cloaking them as “leisure” facilities or “walking paths.” Fun’s over, though: 66 courses across the country were shuttered in March in the name of preserving farmland, according to the Times.

For the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, this is something of a problem. GCSAA represents the people responsible for maintaining golf courses, minding matters such as water and chemical use, and four years ago it began making a serious investment in China as a growth market. According to Eric Boedeker, Senior Manager, International Development at GCSAA, the closures came with little warning. “It was surprising to see this action taken, and certainly for the folks who are first on the list,” he says. “Government officials rolled up with bulldozers and said, ‘Today’s your last day,’ and plowed the courses under.”

Government officials rolled up with bulldozers and said, ‘Today’s your last day.’

This is frustrating for GCSAA, which had been gaining traction in China—a difficult place for associations to work, in part because of its cultural resistance to membership and other association-model mainstays. GCSAA’s strategy in China has revolved around education, publications, and especially meetings—it’s partnered with other organizations on tradeshows, which Boedeker says have had good attendance in keeping with the sport’s growth.

Though there was nothing secretive about the events, which government officials have attended, he notes that the atmosphere at the shows could be awkward. “Within that event, you’re out in the open—you have consumers, you have developers, you have [managers of] current courses, doing things that you might see at a regular tradeshow domestically,” he says. “At the same time you have some developers, you have some architects and folks like that who are using that event and keeping it secret because they don’t want anybody to know what they have coming on.” Contradictions like this are par for the course in China: Tiger Woods was tapped to redesign a Beijing course just days before the crackdown.

Contrary to the cliché, “crisis” doesn’t really mean the same thing as “opportunity” in Chinese. But Boedeker sees a silver lining in all this, and much of the reason for that has to do with the advance work GCSAA has done building sources and making connections in the country. Thanks to that effort, he says, the association leadership knows that while many of those recently shuttered courses are now on their way to becoming farms again, the Chinese government isn’t about to force citizens to abandon the sport entirely. “This list of course closures is a sort of market correction, if you will, to weed out some of the bad offenders,” he says.

Moreover, Boedeker adds, this predicament may help the association better serve its contacts there, since one bit of fallout from the closures may be the government announcing new regulations on golf-course maintenance. “If they do come down with new regulations, that will essentially provide us with a road map for the education to provide,” he says. “And I think it will make things, specifically in the Chinese market a lot easier for folks to follow through on.”

The lesson? Especially for tough markets like China, the time and expense spent making contacts and establishing relationships isn’t wasted effort. Indeed, relationships are the coin of the realm when it comes to growth in China—knowing people who do the work in country kept GCSAA from slipping into panic mode when the Chinese government shifted course.

“Through our partners, through our relationships, through our members that we have on the ground, we’ve gotten a lot of good information that’s help us navigate this situation,” he says. “That’s been the most important thing. I would say if we’d started our China efforts 8 to 12 months ago, we’d be waving the white flag right now.”

What kind of work do you do to build relationships in advance of your international efforts? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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