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January 2020

Orlando Links Abound

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The City’s ‘Other’ Attraction Thrives

By Sally J. Sportsman

While much of Florida has been a golf magnet through the years, Orlando endures as a resort destination of choice for many golfing groups and families. There is plenty of good, year-round golf to be found at resorts in and around the growing city. Like the ever-expanding theme park attractions, golf resorts in Central Florida are amplifying their features and amenities, drawing new and repeat guests to their facilities.

Reunion Resort & Golf Club in Kissimmee, just outside Orlando, is a prime example. Reunion’s three golf courses, signature designs by three of golf’s all-time greats – Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson – offer varying styles and difficulty, so golfers can choose the playing experiences they prefer during their stay. An array of new amenities is drawing guests from around the country and the world.
 
“We recently got into multi-passenger golf carts for guests to drive around the community, allowing internal access without depending on cars. It’s a fun thing for families and groups to do and it’s a good revenue source for us,” says Kevin Baker, Kingwood International corporate director of golf & membership, who manages Reunion.

Of Reunion resort guests, Baker says, an average of 20 percent play golf, a figure that rises to 40 percent in the winter. One key amenity involves players’ golf clubs when shipped to the resort.
“We have them ready for you when you come in,” says Baker, “and you never have to touch them the rest of your stay. You’ll find them on the golf cart at the next course you plan to play.”

Rounds at Reunion have remained steady, according to Baker: 95,000 in 2019. The three courses are nearly always at capacity, so the focus is on getting travelers to stay longer for other pleasures, too, beyond golf.

Summer is a downtime for golf at Reunion, as is the case throughout Florida.

“We now are going aggressively to the local market, especially in summer,” Baker says. “When Florida courses close for renovation, we have a ‘golf escape maintenance’ program, inviting golfers to come stay at Reunion for a few days of golf and fun.”

There was a 5-7 percent increase in the number of local and regional golfers who came to Reunion in 2018, according to Baker. The goal for 2020 is to increase summer business by 10-15 percent as a result of this program. During summers, Baker says, 75 percent of Reunion golfing guests are regional, mostly from Florida and Georgia, and 25 percent are from abroad, mostly the United Kingdom, Brazil and Iceland.

To continue drawing new golfers and repeat guests, an 18-hole mini putt-putt course, lit for night play, will open at Reunion in January, a “player’s course” with long holes and plenty of challenge.
Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge, a classic Orlando golf resort, also is making changes. On many golfers’ bucket lists, it is home to the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by Mastercard, a PGA Tour event, founded in 1979, which will be contested March 5-8, 2020. Visiting a resort that plays host to a professional tournament is a special lure to golfers, who enjoy “walking in the footsteps of legends.” Since Arnold Palmer’s passing in 2016, Bay Hill has embraced the idea of keeping his memory alive while continuing the level of excellence he called for and expected.  

“Arnold Palmer is with us every day in how we treat our guests and the relationships we build,” says Don Emery, president and general manager of Bay Hill. “We consider our club and lodge business one of those relationships.

“We are constantly reinvesting. In 2018, we built a 2½-acre short game area, a new driving range and a new irrigation system on our championship golf course.”

More than 90 percent of Bay Hill guests are golfers. The resort features three 9-hole courses: the Challenger and Champion, which combined host the Invitational, and the Charger.

Palmer, who owned Bay Hill since 1974, occasionally greeted visitors personally, a touch that many returning guests remember with nostalgia and pride. All staff members at Bay Hill, many who knew Palmer, receive ongoing training so they can interact with visitors, relate resort history and tell stories about Palmer.

“We’ve had an increase of almost 8 percent in people wanting to stay at the lodge during 2018 and 2019, despite the competitive Orlando landscape,” Emery says. “With our 70 lodge rooms, the scale of Bay Hill is small enough that personalized experience works.”

Many people who attend conventions in Orlando choose to stay at Bay Hill. Reaching out to convention attendees is a smart strategy for resorts, suggests Emery.

Buddy groups visiting Bay Hill usually number 12-16 in size. Business groups – the resort’s “sweet spot” – usually number 30 to 50 people. Some visitors request off-site experiences, which Bay Hill is glad to arrange, such as guided fishing trips. 

One new initiative, introduced last summer with a limited number of spots through mid-January, is “Perfectly Palmer.” It includes a two-night stay, a round of golf on the championship course with lunch at the halfway house, daily breakfast and custom amenities curated for participants, including a keepsake gift of official Arnold Palmer merchandise and a special rate on shipping golf clubs to the site.

Facility upgrades are also part of what’s new at Bay Hill.

“This winter we have been working on our lodge with exterior work,” Emery says, “and all of our rooms are being renovated over the next two years.

Many other Orlando-area golf resort destinations also are implementing changes, upgrades and new guest amenities. There’s always something new in Orlando golf.

Sally J. Sportsman is an Orlando, Florida-based freelance golf writer.

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