Survival Of The Fittest (2 Of 7 In A Series) – Minnesota Resort Golf 2011, Don’t Wait Until The Last Minute!

By Steve Dowling

In the April edition of Tee Times we introduced the first in a series of articles about the state of golf in Minnesota focusing on public courses. A panel discussed the upcoming season. The article concluded that providing value, and even better, added-value, for a fair price is a far better position for any business than to simply cut fees to stay afloat – when price becomes the driving force, everyone loses! The best marketing strategy for golf operators is a position of providing quality, customer friendly service and hospitality along with a well-conditioned course to earn the golfers business rather than just a cheap price. In 2011 many of the successful golf course operators will be striving to find that perfect balance of the highest level of the “Experience” i.e. location, setting, amenities, quality, hospitality and service while offering guests the best possible rates – not necessarily the cheapest.

In preparation for this article on Resort Golf, we chatted with a number of Central and Northern Minnesota resort course Owners and General Managers including:

• Brian Thuringer, Owner – Madden’s on Gull Lake, Brainerd
• Tom Beaudry, PGA , General Manager – Wilderness at Fortune Bay, Tower
• Bruce McIntosh, Owner – Golden Eagle Golf Club, Cross Lake
• Eric Peterson, PGA, Director of Golf – Cragun’s Resort, Brainerd
• Input from others associated with resort courses

Resort Golf In Minnesota
Minnesota maintains a leadership position in our country in the number and quality of “Resort” golf courses – courses that lend themselves to being considered a “destination” to include great vacation accommodations and great golf courses. The courses generally are located in central and northern Minnesota with a concentration in the Brainerd Lakes area and Biwabik/Tower area. Many of these resorts also serve as destinations for conferences and meetings. These Minnesota resorts collectively account for dozens and dozens of national awards and ratings from Golf Digest, Golf Week, Links Magazine, GolfWorld, Travel & Leisure, Midwest Living, and MN Meetings etc.

The season for Minnesota resort golf is short with courses opening in the latter portion of April through early May and closing early October. The resort courses tend to have four seasons for pricing schedules: Early Spring; Spring; Peak; Fall. The Peak season will generally run parallel to school vacation periods of June-July-August and Early September.

Resort courses derive most bookings from the following categories: Resort Guests; Local Residents; Cabin Owners; Day Trippers; Members and Transient Travelers. The vacationers for Minnesota resorts come from all over the country and from Canadian provinces with the greatest number of guests coming from the Twin Cities area. Northern resorts enjoy a higher volume of Canadian guests however the number of Canadian guests tends to vary with the US dollar-to-Canadian dollar exchange rate.

Depending on the golf course, the percentage of available tee times utilized by resort guests is from 60% to 80%. Resorts specializing in conference and meeting packages tend to have the higher percentage of their course’s tee times utilized by guests. For those resorts with a higher percentage of meeting and/or corporate guests the struggle for golfers has been tougher as a result of corporate expense policy changes due to the economy, government regulation of entertainment expenditures, etc. One resort notes that in 2000 the ratio of “corporate” guests to “social” guests (families, family reunion, independent traveler etc.) was 70% corporate and 30% social. Today the ratio is totally inverted at 70% social and 30% corporate but a favorable shift back to increased corporate business has been emerging.

For the first time in five years these area courses can see the trend of golf rounds move upward, a sign that the Minnesota golf economy is turning around. Although rounds were not up significantly, the numbers are encouraging, considering that the past five years saw rounds in a general decline with only a slight upward blip in 2008 for vacation bookings. Those resorts that have a higher percentage of clientele in the conference and meeting category saw only steady declines through the entire five years. The golf industry has been a rough ride over the past five years. So, any improvement is huge.

Resorts are addressing marketing hurdles head on and it is working! One such challenge has been gas prices.

“Just a Tank Away” is a marketing mantra for many resort courses! AAA expects regular-grade gasoline retail prices, which averaged $2.76 per gallon last summer, will average $3.86 per gallon during the current driving season.  The fact that a solid percentage of “Day Trip” golfers originate in the greater Twin Cities (140 – 160 miles drive) means they will use less than a tank of gas is a selling point for many courses especially the Central Minnesota resort courses in the Brainerd/Cross Lake areas. In regards to gas, The Wilderness at Fortune Bay will initiate a program of two daily drawings – each awarding a tank of gas on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays during peak season as an inducement to traveling golfers.

Consumers are also staying closer to home versus taking a golf trip to out of state destinations like Myrtle Beach, Pinehurst, or Florida, which will benefit Minnesota resort courses. This has assisted in buoying up bookings for 2011.

With the Minnesota economy and confidence improving, consumers are looking for great value when taking golf trips. Minnesota resort courses are committed to offering great value for 2011 and beyond.

• Added-value offers with inclusion of breakfast and dinners in vacation packages
• Flexibility for resort guests to play other local courses as part of their golf packages
• Greater variety of customizable stays involving: rooms – courses – tee times
• Inclusion of a golf lesson or clinic as part of the golfing package
• Availability of weekday and weekend membership packages
• Frequent free demo days
• Senior days
• Family days and hours
• Co-op programs with local restaurants and resorts without golf courses
• Renewed attention to outstanding customer service
• Heightened efforts to ensure superior course conditions
• Corporate business is trickling back
• The resurgence of the “Annual Golf Trip” by the groups of 8-12-16 golfers
• The Canadian dollar exchange rate is now at “par” and is bringing more golfers south

• “Great season ahead for 2011” ~ Tom Beaudry
• “Looking forward to one of the best seasons in years” ~ Bruce McIntosh
• “Exceedingly Optimistic” ~ Brian Thuringer
• “Early bookings strong – this year’s potential is better than past years” ~ Eric Peterson

Times are still challenging, but as owners head into the new golf season, they’re more upbeat than ever.

The consensus of the Resort Owner/General Manager group was that golfers and vacationers to resort areas can expect that prices, fees and packages will be priced similar to 2010 with an outlook that there will be seasonal marketing initiatives along with a general approach to upgraded service and amenities resulting in a rebounded demand for prime time room bookings and tee times.

Over the past five years the phenomena of consumers spending considerable time shopping and delaying decisions to purchase their vacation, including golf, has benefitted them with more than the occasional last minute deal. However, for 2011, with increased advanced bookings (particularly during peak times), the consumer will need to make commitments earlier to ensure they are able to secure the dates that fit their expectations for both room availability in the desired accommodation category and course tee times. The pricing timeline will be best for early bookings.

Not only is the economy rebounding and consumer confidence returning but resorts and resort courses are shifting their attention to providing greater value for the guest. Discounting, beyond current price levels, is unlikely. However, the combination of the improving economy, multiple marketplace adjustments, successful marketing strategies, enhanced amenities and flexible creative packages/programs is giving rise to the fact that 2011 will be a stronger year for our Minnesota resorts and resort courses. The potential customer is in a great position with value priced quality products however that potential customer will need to act quicker than in the past to confirm the vacation or golf outing that best meets their expectation. BOOK EARLY!

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