What type of place do you want to create?

Features - Turfheads Take Over

Consumers are seeking unique experiences in recreational pursuits. Randy Hoffacker makes the case for thinking of a golf course as a story.

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December 9, 2020

© Martha Hudson/ Tobacco Road Golf Club

In my profession of master planning new golf communities, revisioning existing golf facilities and enhancing golf courses through landscape design, I have studied and analyzed what exactly is the magic sauce that creates successful projects that leave timeless memories for the people who have enjoyed them.

For me, it all started with a great day of golf that I will never forget. In the Southeast, there is a golf hotbed known for its pine straw-covered sandy soil, lush green forests, some big-name courses and several lesser-known facilities. It is one of the best golf destinations in the world.

This “boys’ golf trip” was a special one for me, as we were going to play a course that had been at the top of my list for quite some time. The early morning 30-minute drive to the course took us through small-town America and featured local shops, pubs, diners and unique businesses one would expect in the rural countryside.

Anticipation was high, as I knew we had to be getting close. It was then that I spotted the unique signage tucked behind high sand dunes covered with wavy, native grasses that kind of guarded the golf course from the outside world. The entry road continued to meander through the sand dunes, offering a few carefully choreographed views of the golf course, helping build the excitement of the day. I will never forget that moment when, nearly to the clubhouse, the 360-degree view was so dramatic that we had no choice but to leave the real world behind.

The air was fresh and the scene tranquil. As my golfing buddies and I walked past the driving range tee, we heard subtle bluegrass music, began to smell the aroma of comfort food served from the snack bar and discovered a diverse selection of libations, including a local beer I had never tried. “This is going to be a good day,” I thought to myself.

We stepped onto the long porch of the 5,000 square foot cabin that overlooks the 18th green and boasts a high-vaulted ceiling and a historical lodge-like ambience. The staff’s Southern charm encouraged us to slow down our roll and relish the day.

The starter at the first hole explained the course’s conception, how it was constructed and the “local” rules. Now, it was go time! Interestingly themed and sculpted tee markers grabbed my attention and heightened my anticipation of something special to come. With a deep breath, I drew back my driver and gave it a swing, slicing into an area that I can describe only as an abyss. I took quite a bit of ribbing from my friends as I stepped off the tee. “Yeah, I have to get myself together,” I thought.

The remaining 17 holes are still so vivid that I have shared my thoughts of them with hundreds of people. As a passionate golfer, I believe these moments should be felt more than a few times in our lifetime.

When a general manager, superintendent, director, owner or greens committee member asks me about updating their golf course, I begin by asking them a few questions of my own: As a property team, do you have a collective idea of how you want patrons to feel as they arrive at your property? How can you provide a holistic experience so unique that your guests sing your praises long after the round? Most people I come across only put a Band-Aid on the problem and don’t look at the entire facility and operation from a comprehensive approach. This is the reason that most facilities are maintaining but not growing.

These ideas that go beyond your daily operations encompass theming, branding, storytelling and creating a destination. Absolutely everything matters. Today’s golfers are searching for places to play, and they are demanding experiences that make spending their time and money worthwhile.

The most successful companies in the hospitality industry not only understand this, but they embrace it and fine-tune it to an art. Every detail is orchestrated by professionals to tell a story targeted to a specific, hand-picked market. The highest level of hospitality brands, such as Aman or Six Senses, are experts in custom crafting by specifically responding to the “place” where they are located.

“Place” is made up of local traditions and heritage, historical events, materials and patterns, native landscapes, architecture and home-grown ideas that have lasted the test of time. The golf industry is no different than the hospitality industry. We must weave these magic threads into the fabric of our properties to make them a timeless and authentic experience. There are two approaches to creating an all-encompassing experience. One is spending a huge amount of money to create something artificial like Disney World. A great example of this is Shadow Creek, the legendary Las Vegas course. The other approach is to create something based on location. This doesn’t necessarily have to cost a lot of money.

Taking a creative, out-of-the box approach that is driven by a well-thought-out vision adds tremendous value to your property. You are probably capturing more of the market than your competitors if you’re already implementing some of these ideas. You are losing revenue if you are just another 18 holes. The experience includes, but isn’t limited to:

Operations and service. How do you greet, right down to the detail of staff uniforms?

The landscape (natural or created). Everything a guest can see helps tell the story. Does yours?

Maintenance. Are we trying to maintain Augusta National, Chambers Bay or Erin Hills?

Interaction and branding. During the round and after, how do you look on social media?

Food and beverage. Are you serving a generic menu, or does it resemble local cuisine?

Ancillary golf “stuff.” Flagsticks, trash cans, tee markers, etc. … all of these are important.

The arrival experience. This actually is a long process that begins when a guest visits a website or social media, to their physical arrival and check-in. You have only one chance to make a first impression. Make it count.

So, stop and think how you can incorporate carefully chosen and executed components to differentiate your property from competitors and most compellingly tell your unique story.

Changes are often difficult. Knowing where and how to begin can be so daunting that taking the initiative to drive change seems like too much work. In my professional role, I support my clients in developing a “total golf experience” without breaking the bank.

I challenge you to take an honest and internal look at your own golf property. Perhaps these ideas will help you look deeper into your role and become the essential change agent to providing a total golf experience for your guests.

Randy Hoffacker is the founder of Lee-J Studio, a boutique planning and landscape design studio that focuses on creating unique environments. Follow him on Twitter @rjhoffacker and Instagram @leejstudio.