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October 2017

Five-Star Experience

By Trent Bouts

How daily-fee facilities like Cowboys Golf Club manage to create a resort-like atmosphere

News that their green fee includes a complimentary shoe shine surprises most first-time golfers at Barefoot Resort in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. General manager Dave Genevro recalls one holding up a pair of battered Footjoys and asking, almost apologetically: “Really? Do you think you could do anything with these?” To which Genevro replied, “Well sir, I can guarantee they are going to look better, but I don’t know if we can get them back to that brand new look.”

Of course, Genevro is not the one applying the spit and polish, but he does believe “little things” like a free shoe shine can go a long way toward making daily-fee golfers feel like a king for a day. Gone are the days when new facilities sought to do that primarily through presentation with a palatial clubhouse set amid gushing fountains and elaborate botanical displays. Instead, these days, some facilities are delivering the royal treatment through more of a personal touch.

Perhaps nowhere is that philosophy emphasized to a greater degree than at Cowboys Golf Club in Grapevine, Texas. The only NFL-themed golf course in the country strives to establish what general manager Hagen Cleek calls “emotional connections” with golfers who can pay close to $200 for a VIP experience that covers everything except alcohol.

“First off, we’re not in the golf business,” Cleek explains. “That’s first and foremost. We’re in the experience business. Basically, we’re going to walk you through the whole process without you even knowing it. We’re going to give you somewhere between 12 and 15 touches, and you’re going to feel extremely comfortable from the second you turn around the corner to the second you leave.”

If that sounds a little like the Disney ethos, football fans wouldn’t be surprised. The club, which opened in 2001, was developed by Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys and the NFL’s spiritual doppelganger to Walt Disney. Jones, who spent $40 million on the big screen alone at AT&T Stadium, went all out with a clubhouse featuring shining replicas of the Cowboys’ five Lombardi trophies, Super Bowl rings, a tribute to legendary coach Tom Landry—that includes his trademark fedora—and a giant Dallas star on the fourth fairway.

Arcis Golf, which has about 70 facilities in a growing ownership and management stable, took over in 2014. Cleek says the company “definitely” stepped things up a notch with an emphasis on “service, service, service” that’s paying dividends. Cowboys is on track for about 45,000 rounds this year. “Even management staff is encouraged to be up and about engaging people,” Cleek adds. “But a lot of times folks will come find us. They’ll go out of their way to say thanks and let us know how enjoyable it was.”

Not every daily-fee operator has the wherewithal to provide a lavish resort-style experience, but Cleek, Genevro and Billy Casper Golf’s Dan Zimmer all agree that delivering resort-caliber service is possible regardless of budget.

“Twenty years ago, for the most part, you could get away with unlocking the front door and letting people in and still be successful,” says Zimmer, general manager at St. Johns Golf and Country Club in St. Augustine, Florida. “But it’s not that way anymore. You have to understand who your guests are and be able to create an experience that they’re going to want to come back for.”

Zimmer contends that getting to know the customer and tailoring the service accordingly can begin well before a single word is exchanged. “A lot of that can be done just from observation,” he says. “Just by seeing what they do when they walk in you can understand if it’s their first time, if they’re not quite sure where to go. If they’re more of a seasoned golfer, then you provide a little bit different information, like the speed of the greens, or how to play a certain hole, as opposed to somebody that needs to know how to get to the first hole or where the driving range is.”

Zimmer says St. Johns has offered mini-gifts like cold towels and chilled apples in the past but not any longer. “I don’t know if I would say it doesn’t make that much of a difference,” he says. “But I would say that our focus is on what we feel are the most important things for the guests, and that’s course conditions and the service experience. I think if you keep it simple and you focus on just providing a good experience, then you don’t have to spend a ton of money or have a lot of employees to do that.”

As Genevro, at Barefoot Resort, says: “You have to make sure that the golfer realizes that you’re happy to see him walk through that door…that you’re excited to have him at your facility.”

From that moment, other ways Barefoot Resort makes a fee-free fuss of its clients include unloading and loading bags, shuttles to and from the driving range, club cleaning at the end of the round and scented towels. Every cart is equipped with state-of-the-art touch-screen GPS where golfers can dictate which point they want a yardage to for their next shot. During peak season, live bands play at a cabana adjacent to the clubhouse that serves three of Barefoot’s four courses—by Pete Dye, Tom Fazio, Greg Norman and Davis Love.

“We serve drinks and hamburgers and, especially in the spring when people have come to the beach after a cold winter and they haven’t spent much time outside, they’ll sit out there for hours,” Genevro says. “It’s a lot of fun. It’s all just trying to create an atmosphere that has more of a resort feel.”

Genevro was an assistant professional when Barefoot opened, along with hundreds of other courses across the United States in 2000. He worked his way through the ranks, becoming general manager at the height—or nadir—of the recession in 2008. Since then, he’s seen maybe 20 courses close in Myrtle Beach alone, as golfers tightened their grip on their wallet and became more deliberative in where they played and why. So while shoe shines and shuttles count, he believes they don’t stand for much if the core customer service and conditions of the golf course fall short.

“You read, time and time again, of reviews or even articles about people going to a higher-end facility where they were made to feel like they were bothering people,” he notes. “The people behind the counter continued their conversation instead of turning around with a welcome as soon as the door opened.”

In the daily-fee world where the internet and social media increasingly drive consumer choice, an unhappy golfer can inflict a lot of damage in a hurry. It’s no longer just visits from a magazine’s rankings panel that facilities have to worry about. And it’s why companies like Billy Casper Golf, with the largest portfolio of daily-fee facilities in the country, routinely scout service levels with mystery shoppers.

“We get graded on how well we do that service delivery,” Zimmer says. “It’s just reading each person and tailoring the experience to them. It doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s just being aware of what their needs are and being able to create an experience that they’re going to want to come back for. Otherwise, they’ll go some place down the road that will provide them that.”

Cleek concurs. “The number one thing is that you make your guest feel as welcome, and at home as quickly as you possibly can,” he says. “Take the opportunity to walk them through the process—whatever that process is—because that’s an opportunity to create an emotional connection that will get them to come back.”

Establishing that connection and cementing in the golfer’s mind that his or her satisfaction is the primary concern can have secondary benefits, Genevro believes.

“If the customer service level is at the top there and the conditions are down a little bit, perhaps because you’ve just aerified or come off a tough winter, I think your chances of retaining that customer the following year are very good,” he says. “People are more forgiving at that point. But if both are down, then it’s going to be a challenge. And beyond that, if the service isn’t there, then golfers are going to be more critical of everything else for the rest of the day.”

At Cowboys, work on the “emotional connection” begins with a “cheery welcome” at the first touch, when golfers pull up and have their bags unloaded. An eclectic mix of carefully chosen music plays in the background—“So they’re not stepping out into a stale atmosphere,” Cleek says—while attendants explain where golfers can park and where to head next.
In the pro shop, guests receive a magnetized nametag that doubles as a souvenir. “It lets everybody know you’re checked in and that you’re a VIP,” Cleek explains. The all-inclusive pricing has its skeptics, at least until golfers head to the restaurant, which most do before a round since it’s all part of the package.

“People who haven’t experienced it immediately go to, ‘OK, so I’m going to get a hamburger or a hot dog,’” Cleek says. “Not even close. It’s a pork chop, or it’s redfish, or it’s deviled eggs with chorizo and onion jam, or it’s salt and pepper shrimp.” Indeed, the club’s Ring of Honor Kitchen and Bar and adjacent Five Points Patio were part of a $2.4 million expansion in 2016.

“We want you to leave here not talking about how much it cost, but how good of a time you had,” Cleek says. “If we can do that, then we win.”

When golfers are ready to warm up, they’re presented with their golf car, which also has their names displayed. The fleet of 100 cars is new each year and each is emblazoned not with numbers, but with the name of a Cowboys star player or coach. An attendant at the driving range is ready with “towels, balls, tees, whatever you need,” Cleek says. “As you can imagine, you’re already googly-eyed and having a great time.” And the round hasn’t even started.

“Then the starter will come and get you when it’s your time and take you down to the No. 1 tee and give you a rundown on the layout of the land and any rules for the day,” Cleek notes. In addition to the course itself—which he adds is “absolutely the best in north Texas from a daily-fee standpoint”—the layout also includes two open-air food stations at No. 7 and No. 11 dubbed the Sideline Grill. A specialty is a foot-long jalapeno sausage, but the menu varies.

“It might be a ham and raspberry panini, or it might be smoked wings. Who knows?,” Cleek adds. “It’s something else. It’s another touch point for us. You’ll also see the beverage cart three or four times during the day.” At 18, as golfers putt out, another attendant moves their golf cart beneath a pole-building, cleans their clubs, and offers beverages along with a cold mango-scented towel.

“There’s no racing to stuff tees in your bag,” Cleek notes. “At any other daily-fee, if we were to say this, we’d get shot. But we tell everybody our pace of play is four hours and 45 minutes. Because we want you to stop at the Sideline a couple of times, we want you to enjoy your day and not be in a hurry and not be pressured.”

As Genevro points out, immaculate golf course conditioning 365 days a year is “just not realistic.” For all the science and training brought to bear, the golf course remains a living, breathing organism subject to the elements. “But,” Genevro says, “One thing you can control is the level of service.”

“Our service goal with every single guest is to provide a fun and enjoyable experience,” St. Johns’ Zimmer says. “With a member versus a public player, that experience might be a little different and both have to be tailored. But the ultimate goal is the same for everybody who walks through the door. More than anything, it’s about consistency. No matter when you come out, the service experience is going to be very good. You’re going to be treated well.”

Regardless of amenities or the nature of any facility, Cowboys’ Cleek says, “When you’re comfortable you always have a better time. Right?”

Trent Bouts is a South Carolina-based freelance writer and editor of Palmetto Golfer magazine.

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