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June 2014

Back in the Game

Back in the GameBy Rob Carey

An extensive course overhaul has strengthened Black Butte Ranchís place in the Oregon resort market

With 30 courses in a 50-mile radius, Black Butte Ranch in central Oregon is set amid one of the more competitive golf markets in America. Offering 36 holes (the Big Meadow and Glaze Meadow courses), the resort relies not just on its 1,200 homeowners for play, but also residents of nearby towns as well as small- to mid-size buddy groups from Portland, Seattle and the San Francisco bay area who stay in the facility’s 110 rental units.

But by 2009, Glaze Meadow wasn’t pulling its weight. A bit too short, overgrown and quirky—not to mention hobbled by an outdated irrigation system—the 27-year-old course saw rounds drop from 21,000 to 13,000 in a few short years. Increasingly, both residents and guests alike would play Big Meadow but then go off property for other rounds rather than play Glaze Meadow. So in mid-2010, management put the question to the community, which controls the for-profit enterprise that runs the courses, recreation centers and restaurants: Does Glaze Meadow get an irrigation upgrade and some cosmetic changes, or does it shut down for at least 18 months and get a full makeover financed by significant borrowing?

The homeowners made the difficult, but ultimately correct, choice. Resort officials commissioned architect John Fought to rework the layout, making use of the existing fairway corridors to build a considerably better course—and one that offered a different challenge compared to the wide fairways, big bunkers and large greens of sister course Big Meadow.

“We got a classic-style course with many grass-faced bunkers, single-tiered bentgrass greens with run-off edges, and longer views even though there are still lots of Ponderosa pines framing most holes,” says Scott Huntsman, who became president of Black Butte Ranch the year before the community’s big decision. “And with four holes in particular, we just blew them up. They were disjointed with the land.”

The course’s surrounding amenities also received significant upgrades. “Our two facilities are at opposite ends of the ranch, so Glaze Meadow’s practice areas and food and beverage experience also had to match up with what was at Big Meadow,” Huntsman notes. Officials redesigned the range with grass tees and added a 60,000-square-foot practice green, then built a new deck at the back of the clubhouse to overlook both. The entire clubhouse interior was also refurbished, and the kitchen, which was once too small to even prepare hot food, was expanded.

In June 2012, Glaze Meadow’s new 18 holes came on line with a grand opening celebration and barbecue for homeowners and neighboring residents. To hit the ground running once the renovation was complete, Huntsman upped the 2012 marketing budget for golf by $75,000. Part of this was used to bring in 28 regional and national golf journalists for a series of familiarization (FAM) trips to sample the course and the resort’s other amenities.

“We had articles written in print and online all throughout that season, so that worked really well,” Huntsman says. And for the largest newspaper in the region, Huntsman made sure to offer some exclusive information as the renovation went along to ensure ongoing coverage and build momentum for the opening. “We also did a lot of direct mail to our databases and to databases we accessed in return for our advertising spend.”

Huntsman says that the key market segment they needed to capture—the four- to 16-player groups who stay a few nights or more—is now rewarding the resort for the work it’s done. “Group play is up almost 30 percent from prior to the redo,” he notes. “So it’s our strongest-performing segment, and has exceeded our expectations.” Food and beverage revenue has also tripled at Glaze Meadow since late 2012, and the increase in playing fees to bring them more in line with those at Big Meadow are more easily justified with the improvements.

For all the accolades and upside the renovation project has yielded, it hasn’t come without a few challenges. Huntsman points to three miscalculations he and his team might have made. For starters, he says the course hasn’t received as much play from property owners as anticipated.

“They love what we did and agree that the investment was necessary to remain competitive,” Huntsman notes. “But they have gone back to playing the same total number of rounds as before.” Then again, those rounds are split almost evenly between the two courses, which gives the resort more flexibility to accommodate outside play.

If he had it to do over, Huntsman also says he’d opt not to hire an outside public relations firm to help gain media coverage. “Our marketing team could have gone to selected media outlets on the national level without assistance and gotten the same number of hits,” he says. “And in the markets where we get a good amount of business, we already had existing media contacts and influence with them.”

Finally, in hindsight, Huntsman admits he would temper his rounds and revenue projections following the renovation, though he’s quick to point out that he’s satisfied with the ROI the resort has received from the $3.7 million investment. “If I had to sell the project to ownership again, I would say it isn’t about growing rounds some huge amount,” he says. “It’s more about staying competitive in the marketplace—making a reinvestment to keep our overall reputation where it needs to be.”

Rob Carey is a freelance writer and principal of Meetings & Hospitality Insight.

 

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