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Michigan’s Shanty Creek Resorts bounces back

Dec 07, 2020

Forecasting budgets for 2021 is no exact science, given the uncertainty surrounding the economy and the coronavirus pandemic, but Mike Mooney, Director of Golf & Club at Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire, Mich., can’t help but feel optimistic about the future.

Mooney and his staff have learned a lot during the ups and downs of the pandemic in 2020, which entailed a state-mandated closure from March through April followed by a boom of business from June through October. Long-term, the bumpy ride may have been worth it.

“I am forecasting an 8 percent increase in rounds in 2021,” Mooney said. “We will get the rounds back in early May and June that we lost due to the pandemic and hope to hang on to the rest of the rounds captured during a busy summer and fall. We are feeling more optimistic. There will be a vaccine. People will be ready to be get out (and travel). I’ve talked to others in the area, and they feel the same way, too.”

Considering the dread Mooney felt during the early days of the pandemic when he was forced to close the resort, including its golf courses, business in 2020 turned out pretty well. Shanty Creek was able to reopen all four courses, although its pools remained closed and restaurants operated with limitations to account for safety. “All the courses pretty much finished on what were their budgeted rounds for the season. A couple were up significantly, up to 10 percent from 2019,” he said.

Despite a closure early on, mask requirements and a limit to how many people could be in the pro shop at one time, merchandise sales for Shanty Creek ended up five percent above 2019. All of this was achieved while the hotel and courses were limiting occupancy and capacity to 75 percent.

Mooney said the region benefited from low COVID-19 case counts for much of the year. With the international borders closed, Canadians were missed, but the resort’s traditional drive-in market still attracted people from lower Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and the Chicago area.

“The pandemic did teach us some things,” Mooney said. “We learned about our guests and where they are coming from, and what they want to do when they’re here.” He said they were cautious with their tee sheets, being careful not to handle too big of a load but still handling a lot.

“We feel like it was a good year, and we managed it very well,” Mooney said. “As a golf pro looking at the big picture, we saw a lot of people that were either golfers who haven’t played in a while or people new coming into the sport. They got out and played, and now our challenge in the industry is to keep these people engaged and get them to play more golf.”

Technology also helped Shanty Creek throughout 2020. Mooney said social media and e-mail communications allowed the resort to stay in touch with customers as rules and protocols changed. Online booking through GolfNow helped the resort target golfers for more return play after their original visit. Mooney even believes that some COVID-19 protocols might stick around permanently – notably the ball retrieval system connected to the flags and the removal of bunker rakes. “They speed up play,” he said.


Golf Course Operator survey reveals impact of COVID-19

Nov 09, 2020

The year 2020 has been a roller coaster for golf facilities around the country.

After a strong start, the low point came in March and April when many facilities were forced by local and state mandates to close anywhere from six to eight weeks during the early stages of the pandemic. At that point, no one could foresee the incredible ascent the industry would experience through the summer and into fall as courses reopened and participation boomed because golf was considered one of the very few safe and accepted recreational opportunities for social distancing. This wild ride leaves many wondering what the future holds. Will golf’s momentum continue well into 2021, even after a COVID-19 vaccine? Which of the new COVID-19 protocols could become permanent industry practices?

The 2020 Golf Operation Impact survey by GolfNow might help owners and operators better understand the pandemic’s long-term impact on the game. More than 300 owners and managers, mostly from public and semiprivate clubs, responded to the anonymous survey, representing 45 states, six Canadian provinces and several international properties, as well.

The 2021 outlook is generally positive based on the survey results, despite some stumbling blocks in certain segments. Two-thirds of the respondents are “very optimistic” that golf will be able to capitalize on the surge of interest and newcomers to the game. Roughly 51 percent of respondents agree, at least somewhat, that the pandemic is a new “silver lining” for the game of golf, and 46 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the new interest in golf will be “short-lived.”

“We remain positive for the future and we have learned a lot in 2020,” reads a comment from one survey participant. “The golf industry will have a great year in 2021. I am convinced with the generation of 25/35 (year-olds) who have just discovered golf. Our industry will do well.”

That cheery outlook is being fueled by the more than 81 percent of facilities that reported rounds increased year to date (through September), including 36 percent where revenue was up more than 25 percent during the peak summer season. More golfers meant big summer revenue gains in many categories compared to last year – green fees (77%), cart fees (70%), pro shop (36%), on-course F&B (34%), instruction/lessons (26%) and clubhouse F&B (22%).

Not every part of the business is thriving, however. Unfortunately, for those with wedding/events businesses, 74 percent have virtually seen their bookings vanish. The group/outing business was down 86 percent at all facilities. Resort courses, which rely on traveling golfers staying in hotels, aren’t feeling a sunny 2021 forecast: 31% are not at all optimistic.

More than half of the respondents (54%) spent the spring and summer without their second-biggest asset – the clubhouse. Roughly 69 percent had reduced F&B operations. 75 percent of courses began to offer grab-and-go choices to boost sales, with one operator noting that building a new snack “shack” at the turn was an innovative way to solve the problem.

“Keeps people from going inside,” the anonymous comment read. “They like it and cannot miss it (drive right past it). Keeps pace of play moving also. No bar open and beer sales are up 20% this year. Partly due to more players, but mostly due to making it easy for people to grab it before they start and at the turn.”

How to distribute carts while keeping riders safe has been a polarizing issue from the onset. 71 percent of facilities went to single-rider carts, a trend worth keeping an eye on. Players with their own carts have loved what amounts to a bump in pace-of-play, but the practice puts a strain on facilities that only have a limited supply available. The extra cart traffic is hard on the turf, as well.

With an eye toward the future, more facilities may begin utilizing technology more than ever before. Pre-COVID, only 4 percent of facilities said technology investment was important. That number nearly tripled to 11 percent. Almost half (47%) now believe technology is a priority, up from 27 percent pre-pandemic.

Some facilities went to prepaid tee times to promote “contactless” check-in, with 31 percent saying it will become a standardized feature moving forward. 54 percent are still undecided.

Although in-person check-in (96%) and in-person credit card payments (89%) remain standard procedures, online (85%) and mobile (81%) tee time bookings are outpacing in-person bookings (74%). 

“The ability to book online was great. So glad we invested in GolfNow late last season” wrote one operator. “… we were ahead of a lot of other courses that didn’t have that ability.”

To view a summary of the survey results CLICK HERE.


Destination golf pivots strategies during pandemic

Oct 26, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic has been both good and bad for the golf industry. On the plus side, tee times are booked solid. The down side is reduced food and beverage revenue due to state and local restrictions on dining, as well as limitations on how special occasions, like weddings, can be hosted.

But as the pandemic persists and the seasons shift for golf courses across the country, perhaps one of the more pressing issues on the minds of many operators located in destination markets is the expectation of a drop in seasonal tourist business due to travel restrictions – both real and perceived.

The latest GolfNow Industry Roundtable, moderated by GolfNow’s Vice President of Sales Jerramy Hainline, discussed these issues and more with three experienced industry leaders from around the country – John Bixler, General Manager of Celebration Golf Club outside of Orlando; Steve Leonard, General Manager of the 36-hole Talking Stick Golf Club in Scottsdale; and Chip Smith, owner of Atlantic Golf Management, which manages four courses and a restaurant in and around Myrtle Beach, S.C. Each shared his unique perspectives on the state, and future, of the game during the hour-long discussion. All three facilities are located in warm-weather tourist areas that are popular with golfers, especially during the upcoming winter months. With international borders currently closed, they’re all adjusting their marketing plans and budget expectations.

Bixler said Celebration Golf Club is bracing for the loss of its international clientele from Europe and Brazil who come for Orlando’s theme parks, golf courses and sunny weather. “We are shifting a lot of marketing efforts to drive markets in the Northeast and Midwest,” he said.

Smith echoed that approach for Myrtle Beach, which relies heavily on Canadian snowbirds. “We are spending a lot more resources going after the Northeast and Midwest, looking at Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Chicago,” he said. “They still can drive in and spend a week or even months in our winter rentals. It is our lowest price time of the year, so we can get very aggressive during that time period.

“We can advertise a $69 per night (package) for golf and room, because it’s an inexpensive time of year. We are ramping up that side of it, getting more aggressive to replace the Canadian market that we’ve enjoyed for so long but don’t have now.”

Leonard said Scottsdale already has experience dealing with the pandemic in high season since the original U.S. wave hit in March during its busiest time of the year, baseball spring training. Not only is Talking Stick still hoping to attract golfers from as far away as Chicago and Seattle, whether they fly or drive, it is also marketing to locals more than ever.

“We are fortunate, too, that we have a large population here in metro Phoenix Arizona and a lot of avid golfers,” Leonard said. “We’ve been focusing really not just on the outreach for the drive-in markets and snowbirds and the leisure traveler, but also ramping up our loyalty programs and attracting the residents here and trying to make sure we are backfilling anything we may be missing from the leisure traveler with our loyalty program, players club and Talking Stick card.”

Unfortunately, charity fundraisers and group outing business have taken a serious blow in 2020. Bixler said it’s been a 50-50 split on whether an event scheduled for this year has been held or postponed. For clients that have hosted events, Celebration figured out how to send out a fleet of carts and serve buffets within COVID-19 protocols to keep people safe. Auctions to raise money have generally been moved online. Fortunately for Bixler, as Florida has eased restrictions, Celebration can host full events again.

“Everyone is thinking outside of the box on how they can still get people here to play golf to participate and to donate money,” Bixler said of group outings. “That’s something every industry is seeing right now. You’ve got to get a little creative. … We are going to continue to evolve as this evolves.”

Leonard emphasized that “THE ISSUE” facing operators heading into the winter season is how to handle single-rider carts. Talking Stick adjusted its pricing strategy this year, so that golfers can choose between a single-cart rate, a shared-cart rate and a walking rate when they book an advanced tee time. It also purchased 24 pushcarts to encourage walking. Leonard said if too many people want single carts, then facilities are going to face inventory issues. “In order to accommodate as many people who want to play golf, operators and golfers are going to have to work together,” he said.

Technology has been a key part of dealing with the pandemic, most notably the rise of pre-paid tee times. Smith said one of his courses will replace the beverage cart with the SmartPlay app through GolfNow’s G1 software that allows golfers to order food and drinks delivered to them on the course. “We are going to experiment with that, and a couple of the communities that have large resident populations in there, if we can perfect it on the golf course, we may even deliver it straight to the homes,” Smith said.

Leonard admits that his 2021 budget forecasts are on the conservative side with the status of spring training up in the air. But positives have emerged. He said area resorts, hotels, courses and attractions are working together now more than ever to market the region collectively. This approach of a ‘rising tide raises all ships’ has been a signature of Myrtle Beach for decades.

“As I like to say it, the consumer, when they come into town, they don’t know who owns what golf courses or who operates the golf,” Smith said of his competitive market. “They just want to have a good time and play the golf courses of their choosing. We have always done a good job of packaging with each other as it benefits everyone involved.”  

Smith shared a heartwarming story of one member who has, when picking up a to-go order, twice left $1,000 tips for the wait staff. Men and women’s golf groups have also taken up collections to be shared among the staff. “That really brought our communities together and made us all feel as one,” Smith said.

Bixler’s most positive takeaway from the pandemic could have the greatest impact on the future of the industry. He said lesson business at Celebration’s golf academy has grown 64 percent and club sales have more than doubled from 2019. “We’ve had an immediate increase in not only lesson package purchases from new players but former players who came back to the game,” he said. “It is just growing immensely.”

To watch the full roundtable discussion CLICK HERE