If you’re a tennis player, you’re undoubtedly familiar with one or more of the following scenarios.
*You’re on a business trip, in a city you don’t know that well. You have a spare hour or two between meetings, and you’d like to have a hit. But you don’t know where to look.
*You’re a player who doesn’t belong to a specific club in your city, and you want to find a place to play on an occasional basis. But you’re not sure what’s available, or where.
*You’re a player looking for a clinic to join for a few hours – whether it’s at home or out of town – and have no idea how where to start finding one that suits your needs and your availability.
In short, you love tennis. You want to play more tennis. But sometimes, it’s just too complicated.
Topias Soininen and Jesse Heikkilä, two Finnish tennis players and entrepreneurs, have created a solution called Playven that will make all these challenges a thing of the past.
They have built a state-of-the-art court booking marketplace and club management system that helps players find tennis courts, and tennis clubs fill their courts.
“The first idea came to us through our own experiences. We had a lot of trouble finding available courts, both in our hometown and when we were travelling. So we always ended up Googling for tennis clubs or badminton clubs, finding information on their websites, and spending a lot of time calling the clubs to see if they had an available court,” Soininen says “Often, they don’t have good online booking options. We ended up spending a lot of time at it, and we thought, ‘There has to be a better way.’ ”
Playven gets you on court with a few clicks
The concept of getting on your computer or smart phone to book any kind of service is part of our everyday lives. Golf tee times? Book online. Planning a trip? Go online. We all buy books and download music online. When we’re looking for a house or an apartment, we hit the web to look for options.
We book a table online at a nice restaurant, whether we’re home or out of town. And we find a gym and various classes online these days as well.
“We started to look at the business potential here, and we realized that it’s actually quite big. We couldn’t find anybody else doing this anywhere in the world, basically – at least, not doing it well,” Soininen says.
“These kind of services and platforms are common in other industries. For restaurants, there is Open Table. For flights, there are Expedia and countless other sites,” he adds. “These new business models have been really successful in other industries. But no one has done this in tennis. It feels like the tennis industry has been left behind. We’re trying to change that – and hopefully get more people to play.”
Testing ground in Finland
Soininen and Heikkilä began doing some legwork as they worked to develop the product and launch it in their native Finland.
It’s the perfect test market. Most tennis clubs in that country are open to the public; anyone can go in, and pay to play.
They contacted clubs. And then, they talked to a lot of players and asked them whether they would use this type of service, and what they would want and need from it.
They had a well-known investor and supporter early on. Jarkko Nieminen, the best player in the history of tennis in Finland and just retired from a successful 15-year playing career, came on board.
Even as they were setting things up at home, Soininen and Heikkilä already were contacting clubs in the U.S. to get some preliminary intel on how Playven could work there.
They began building the product in January 2016 and by May, they launched in Finland.
Simple, no-charge concept
The concept itself is simple. And there’s no charge to the player.
When a club becomes part of Playven, a link is added to its website to allow players to book via the Playven court management system. The members of the club can use it. And non-members can find the club directly on Playven by using the search feature.
The club pays a straight percentage to Playven for any court booked through its system. But the club can use the state-of-the-art club management system free of charge, regardless of whether the bookings come through Playven or through its own website.
The biggest expenses for most tennis clubs are the fixed overhead costs. In that sense, they’re like hotels: whether or not all the rooms in the hotel are filled or all the courts are booked, those costs remain essentially the same. So it’s to a club’s advantage to fill as many of its courts as possible, every hour it’s open for business.
Public or private – both can benefit
“It is quite clear that our sweet spot is to attract those clubs that allow non-members to play also. But Playven also works for private clubs if they’re open to new ways of attracting members. We have clubs using Playven that have started to allow non-members to play there, at higher price,” Soininen says, “The system allows anyone visiting the area or living there to book a court for, say, $50 an hour. It’s a really good way for those guests to get to know the club, to see if they like it.
“And if I play there 20 times, and I realize I’m paying $50 an hour each time, maybe I’ll want to join as a member. Because in the end, it will cost me less,” he adds.
The New York City area and the northeastern U.S. as a whole are similar to Finland in the sense that there are a lot of tennis clubs open to the public. So that’s where Playven is looking to establish its toehold in the U.S. market.
However, any club – big or small, urban or rural – can benefit from Playven and set it up in as little as 15 minutes.
Book a court – in a few clicks
Booking your tennis court online still is not a common occurrence, as many clubs still operate the old-fashioned way.
You know the drill: you call, and a receptionist checks court availability while you wait, as he or she handles other calls coming in as well as members coming up to the desk that need attention.
And Soininen says many of the club management and online booking systems available for tennis clubs often are used only internally, without any online booking capabilities.
When was the last time you called a travel agent to book a flight? Most people go straight to Expedia or Travelocity and do it themselves, with a few clicks – and no waiting.
In a world where we can get almost anything our hearts desire instantly, the time required to book a tennis court the traditional way can often be enough to discourage players from playing.
“We have one club using Playven in this rural city. And the people in that area have told us, before they had Playven in their lives, they sometimes skipped playing tennis at all because they didn’t want to call the club, and wait on hold for five minutes, just to have nobody pick up the phone,” Soininen said. “That has happened to me as well. I’m not going to play tennis if I have to spend 30 minutes finding a court, or waiting on the phone. I think it shouldn’t take more than 10 seconds to book a court with an app. It has helped me – and a lot of other players – play more,” he adds.
More features on the way
With their team of 10 developers, Soininen and Heikkilä already are building other features to add to the Playven experience. They want to expand it to help players in any given city find a coach for a lesson, or a group clinic to join.
Down the line, they may add some social features that will help players find each other.
“The reason we started building these coaching and clinic features is that a lot of clubs told us, ‘We love your product so far, but can you help us manage our coaches and clinics as well?’
“We didn’t have those features. But once enough clubs told us the same thing we thought, ‘Let’s fix this.’ There are lot of clubs that have tennis schools that offer clinics, so we will be focusing on getting those on board first,” Soininen says. “But the system could easily be used for individual coaches as well.”
An effective marketing tool
Getting private clubs to buy into the Playven system will be the biggest challenge. But the way Soininen sees it, even exclusive clubs with high membership fees can benefit from the system and add to their revenue streams in the process.
“Let’s say I’m a member at a really nice private club in Los Angeles. But when I travel to New York City, what can I do? I can’t play at the private clubs there, so I have to play somewhere else, where it might not be as nice. But I would have been willing to pay just about any price to get a court at the nicest club in New York,” he suggests. “Clubs can easily adjust the pricing on Playven, to attract the kind of clientele they’re looking for.”
Solid backing, big plans
Playven has solid backing from investors that been involved with some of the biggest online booking services in other industries – Open Table, Trulia, Airbnb to name just three.
“They have seen how these kinds of marketplaces were built in other industries. So they’re now helping us follow the best practices those flourishing companies developed in their early phases,” Soininen says. “And not only are they giving us their knowledge, they’re also giving us resources.”
The end goal? To make it so a tennis player can basically go anywhere in the world, open up Playven and find an available court – whether it’s for tennis, or another racket sport. “And down the line, the system can really be adapted for use in any other sport,” Soininen says.