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February 2017

Building Your Kingdom

buildingyourkingdom.jpgBy Rob Carey

Reynolds Lake Oconee’s Kingdom of Golf is one of many expansions that have positioned the facility to capture business from dedicated and casual players alike

Set around a sprawling lake within the huge pine and hardwood forest between Atlanta and Augusta, Reynolds Lake Oconee has the right location, climate and property to be a golf mecca. Six courses serve more than 3,000 members within this affluent retirement and second-home community, while a 254-room Ritz-Carlton plus more than 50 multi-bedroom cottages and condos draw vacationing couples, families, buddy groups, and corporate meeting and incentive programs.

Since peaking at nearly 155,000 rounds in 2006, the property handles about 130,000 rounds per year today. But over the past 24 months, ownership and management have committed to significant changes designed to bring another 10,000 rounds per year on property, as well as more instructional and clubfitting business.

The biggest undertaking in the mix has been the Reynolds Kingdom of Golf. Originally built in the early 2000s to host a Dave Pelz Academy, the Kingdom today offers a top-of-the-line practice range and short-game areas, a newly-expanded indoor/outdoor hitting facility, extensive swing and ball-flight technology, and TaylorMade’s clubfitting expertise for amateur players as well as for the equipment company’s touring pros. Veteran director of instruction Charlie King oversees the instructional component of the Kingdom, partnering with the clubfitters when guests want the complete experience.

Besides recent changes to the physical product—including three new covered hitting bays plus two indoor hitting bays with roll-up doors facing the range—the philosophy of the learning and fitting programs at the Kingdom also shifted in 2016. “The two operations had never been a cohesive unit,” King notes. “Our owners agreed to coordinate these high-level services under one roof because there are only a few places in the whole country where you can get that. We could have gone to simply having five different manufacturers’ carts out there, but then we could not have done it better than many other facilities can do.”

King points out that many folks going through the Kingdom are not players with a single-minded focus. “The majority of the men and women who come out aren’t terrific players. They love golf and do play somewhat regularly, but the traditional golf school that’s focused only on fundamentals isn’t what these folks desire. They want a great personalized experience.”

In fact, the Kingdom is just the tip of the spear for Reynolds as it seeks long-term success in the upper echelon of destination golf. “For us to take advantage of the opportunities we see in golf’s high end, we must provide a unique experience that extends beyond the course so the overall feeling stays with guests,” says Mark Lammi, Reynolds’ vice president of golf operations, who announced his departure this month after 12 years at the property. “The assets here are designed to get people to tell their friends, make return visits, and perhaps become residents.”

Reynolds has seen buddy trips (the eight to 12 guys traveling together and playing a lot in a short period) to come back strongly, prompting officials to build several new four-bedroom cottages to serve them. With the bulk of its business coming from within half a day’s drive—Atlanta and Birmingham to the west; Charleston and Savannah to the east; and Columbia and Charlotte to the north—Reynolds enhanced its stay-and-play packages in 2016 with a “first round free” promotion that adds value (a day-of-arrival round) without reducing revenue. “It drives play during low-utilization periods and then lets us capitalize on profitable rounds on subsequent days,” Lammi says. “The package maintains rate integrity but with a value add that works for the customer and for us.” And to encourage spending time and money inside the clubhouse, the package also provides players with a free drink after each round.

At the property’s 27-hole National Course, that one drink often results in additional lunches and dinners. That’s because the National Tavern was built from scratch and opened in October 2015 “with a feel that’s meant to evoke everything a country club isn’t,” Lammi says. “It’s a casual, fun, loud, interactive space,” with a high-ceilinged bar area sporting exposed beams plus community tables and benches along some walls. “We wanted it to feel like a bustling tavern in an urban neighborhood.” With offerings being mostly hearty comfort food, homemade pizzas, as well as craft beers and cocktails, this outlet doesn’t mimic any of the three restaurants at the Ritz-Carlton, making it likely hotel guests will frequent National Tavern along with cottage guests and community residents. In fact, demand thus far has been considerably higher than initial projections.

Despite being a retirement community to a large degree, Reynolds is actively developing affinity among the next generation of players so that their families want to return, and so the kids will come back and play the courses when they’re grown.

Each course at Reynolds has U.S. Kids tees, which have proven fun to play even for adults. Furthermore, when the late Bob Cupp renovated the Plantation Course last year—the only Reynolds layout open to the walk-in public—he built tee boxes at interesting angles off the fairways on holes one through four, 17 and nine to create a “Quick Six” loop that takes one hour to play.

“We knew we wanted a short course experience, but we weren’t going to build a separate layout,” King notes. “It helps us reach not only the family market, but also the beginner market of all ages, because it’s an on-course experience that’s aesthetic and exciting but not overwhelming. Bob gave us high-value par-3 shots with smart approaches into each green. It’s perfect for the purpose.”

Besides parents and kids making the Quick Six loop on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoons, even some meeting groups from the Ritz-Carlton use it for an active social event. One other offering for the meetings market: Evening receptions on the ninth fairway of the Oconee Course, with pitch shots to a target anchored on the adjacent lake being a popular activity. “By hosting folks on the course rather than on the practice green, both the golfers and nongolfers will remember that,” Lammi says.

Even with all of this, the strongest driver of future play might be the landmark deal Reynolds signed in 2016 with the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA). The pact co-brands the Junior All-Star Series as “The Road to Reynolds,” with the Jack Nicklaus-designed Great Waters Course at Reynolds the home of the series’ season-end event.

“The brand is promoted each week at whichever tournament the juniors are playing,” Lammi notes. “We have a huge opportunity to gain impressions among families at each event, and they all aspire to get to Reynolds in October. Communicating regularly with this segment, to which we did not have deep access before, lets us show them the entire story of what our community offers.”

From the broader perspective, the plan at Reynolds Lake Oconee focuses on elevating the experience for every customer segment. “With resort golf, aside from the most iconic locations near oceans or mountains, you have to give people more than just nice courses to play,” Lammi concludes. “You must find your unique position in the niche. Don’t simply try to be the best at something that most other places do. Instead, figure out what you can be really good at that very few places offer.”

Rob Carey is a freelance writer and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight.

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