The driving range: a few golf balls, some old clubs and an open field. What more do you need for some good old-fashioned fun?
Kevin Vouglitois would suggest the addition of computer chips, wireless networks and flat-panel monitors.
Yes, it's happened. Technology has invaded the driving range.
Tomorrow in the Kingstowne section of Alexandria, Vouglitois and his team will open a $4.5 million souped-up range called TopGolf that they hope will change the relationship between golfer and ball.
The theory is this: Instead of solitarily hitting ball after ball into an abyss of grass, players can compete against each other. It should be interesting enough to attract non-golfers, but serious enough to keep fanatics coming back again and again.
TopGolf gives customers targets to hit and keeps track of the score electronically. And, of course, there are "caddies" walking around serving chicken fingers and glasses of wine.
"It creates this fun environment . . . so a father can say, 'Wow, I can bring my whole family here," said Vouglitois, general manager of TopGolf USA.
Each player is assigned specific balls that are embedded with computer chips. Thus, when a player sets his ball on the tee, the computer network knows which person is up. The goal is then to hit the ball out to a series of target holes in the artificial-turf field that are between five and 25 yards in diameter. Points are awarded based on the distance to the hole and how close to the center of it the ball landed.
The holes contain chip readers so that when a ball comes in, it's identified immediately and a wireless network shoots data to the computer system so points are awarded to the right player. The 80 bays are equipped with monitors that keep track of scores, making pens and pencils obsolete.
The games change as players up the ante and want more challenges, but the price per player stays between $3.80 and $5.80 per game.
The concept originated in England, with two entrepreneurs who were bored with traditional golfing ranges. They spent three years developing the system and opened the first one in Hertfordshire in 2000. The company has since opened two more in England and one in Bangkok. The Kingstowne site is the first in the United States, but the firm is dreaming big, hoping to open more than 100 throughout the country over the next few years.
It remains to be seen if TopGolf will take off in the United States the way Vouglitois and his partners hope. In England, more than half of the customers had never played golf before, and that has been key to the firm's success. The Kingstowne center is trying to replicate that broad appeal by catering to couples on dates, children's birthday parties and corporate outings.
This lucrative little government contracting sector we've got in the Washington area is apparently looking pretty attractive, even from afar.
Local tech companies that do business with the government have been gobbled up by foreign companies over the past year, and those in the know say demand isn't waning.
In March, Serco Group PLC, of England, bought Resource Consultants Inc., a Vienna government contractor, for $215 million. In June, Fairfax-based PEC Solutions Inc. was sold to Canadian company Nortel Networks for $448 million. BAE Systems PLC, Europe's biggest defense firm, bought Rockville-based DigitalNet Holdings Inc. for about $600 million in October, and in June it completed its $4.2 billion acquisition of United Defense Industries of Arlington.
And this week QinetiQ Group PLC, also of England, said it will buy Apogen Technologies Inc. of McLean for about $300 million in cash, while another of its subsidiaries bought Planning Systems Inc., a Reston technology firm, for $42 million.
"I think what has happened is that companies in the U.K. in particular have become much more aggressive in pursuit of growth in the U.S. because it's such an important marketplace," said John C. Allen, a managing director of BB&T Capital Markets/Windsor Group, a boutique investment firm in Reston that specializes in mergers and acquisitions in the government contracting sector. "They feel a sense of urgency because of the consolidation led by domestic companies -- they need to catch up to keep up."
David Anderson, chief executive of QinetiQ North America, said that's part of the attraction. Buying U.S. companies also gives them a shot at contracts they might not otherwise be out of reach.
"It's important in many cases to have a local presence . . . because many of the problems Defense and [the Department of Homeland Security] deal with are not something they can disclose to people overseas."
Should we take bets on who's next?
Acterna Corp., the 36-year-old Germantown telecom equipment maker that soared to the highest point of the telecom bubble, crashed into bankruptcy soon after and slowly crawled its way back to solvency, was officially sold to San Jose-based JDS Uniphase Corp. yesterday in a deal worth about $760 million.
"I'm personally very relieved. It's just been an enormous amount of work to get this deal done," said John R. Peeler, Acterna's former chief executive and executive vice president of the new JDS unit.
So they probably celebrated with a big bash, complete with a swinging band, full buffet and lots of new corporate swag, right?
Well, not quite.
The troops gathered for beer and snacks in the cafeteria yesterday afternoon and, according to Peeler, "We handed out some pens."
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every Thursday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.