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July 2016

Divine Destination

divinedestination.jpgBy David Gould

You can imagine a New York City consultant visiting the glacier-scraped panoramas of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and knitting his brow at certain details of Destination Kohler’s golf operation, made up of two 36-hole meccas, Blackwolf Run and Whistling Straits.

Should the latter’s renowned Straits and Irish courses, for example, really have sheep roaming loose on them? And aren’t motorized golf carts a better bet than caddies for maxing-out revenue at these public-access courses? Then there’s director of golf Dirk Willis, serving as coach of the Kohler High School golf team for the past decade. Has he got time for that?

Jim Richerson, who is general manager of golf for the Kohler Companies, can answer such queries in more than satisfactory fashion. Of course, Richerson assumes you know that Herb Kohler, Jr., chairman of the 143-year-old plumbing products maker (along with its famed hospitality subsidiary) is likely better educated—the Choate School, Yale University—than our hypothetical consultant. And that, over 30-plus years, basically every important decision he has made about the building of Destination Kohler has hit the bull’s-eye, beginning in 1981 with the astounding renovation and reinvention of The American Club hotel. So, yeah, there’s a track record.

“We have a responsibility to every guest who comes here looking for Midwestern hospitality, beautiful lodgings and amenities, great golf and, most importantly, the chance to forget what’s stressing them and recharge,” says Richerson. “We have our particular way of doing that, and it’s been working for us.”

Herb Kohler is a man you partner with on any kind of project, if you can, and the PGA of America has done that in spades. Whistling Straits, specifically the Straits 18, hosted the PGA Championship for the third time in 11 years in 2015 (previously in 2004 and 2010), and in 2020 it will host the PGA’s other crown jewel, the Ryder Cup. There was also a U.S. Senior Open in 2007 on the Straits course. For its part, Blackwolf Run has hosted two U.S. Women’s Opens. All four courses are designed by Pete Dye, with considerable input from Herb Kohler—who also had the inspiration to craft the lyrical name, Whistling Straits—a fine piece of branding right there.

Within Destination Kohler, Whistling Straits is the asset that drives international as well as North American fly-in customers. “There’s a big branch of our business that wouldn’t be there without Whistling Straits to attract it,” says Richerson, son of a former assistant football coach at the University of Wisconsin. “Of the four courses, Straits does the largest number of annual rounds and it charges the highest green fee, but all four courses have their loyal following,” he says.

With smart marketing and devotion to the smallest detail, the company’s golf revenues have done much more than bump along, according to Richerson. “Overall, our golf business has worked its way back to pre-2008 levels,” he affirms.

Not surprisingly, corporate golf as a category pivots off the worldwide fame of the Straits layout. In general, Destination Kohler is one golf resort with a decent story to tell about this oft-elusive sales niche. Along with revenue from vacation-social bookings, the corporate spend has also returned to what it was before the Great Recession hit, with basically one hitch.

“These days, we’ve got to work twice as hard for the same level of corporate business as we were doing before 2008,” explains Richerson. “Like other golf facilities that do well with business groups, we basically never get the full-course shotgun or the full-resort buyout we used to get. So, it takes a lot of smaller groups to add up to what the very big groups used to generate for us in the past.” That said, the feel of the corporate trade has seemed solid to Richerson and his colleagues of late, which is significant. “Companies are very active entertaining clients,” says Richerson, “and they’re coming here with a lot of smaller internal teams and work groups for serious meetings mixed with golf.”

As someone whose Midwestern boyhood included such rural experiences as playing high school golf matches on courses with sand greens, Richerson understands the region from an insider’s viewpoint. Meanwhile, he’s trained to study his operation through the eyes of visitors from all over. Wisconsin’s advantage as a destination, he points out, is partly owing to its location in the center of the map. “We’re fairly easy to get to from any major city in the United States or Canada, including cities on either coast, so with our national profile that’s definitely a plus,” he says. With Lake Michigan conveniently alongside, the summer air stays cooler and even drier than many arriving guests imagine, which is good for sweater sales in the golf shops.

As a former member of the PGA of America board of directors—and a would-be PGA officer now running for the association’s secretary position (which tracks to the presidency)—Richerson has a great feel for how big business currently views golf. “The game has retained its appeal for corporations,” he asserts. “You see it in the big tournament sponsorships—such as what Kitchenaid has just done with the Senior PGA Championship, and from there it extends to actually playing the game.”

In particular, Richerson observes how much “cause marketing” and CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activity companies engage in, feeling that golf’s intensely charitable bent, plus its standards of behavior, position the game and the industry very well. “We have to get business people learning the game and playing it competently—that’s the actual missing piece,” he says. “Culturally and in terms of image, we’re in a good place right now.”

On the subject of player-development efforts, when you’re known the world over, do you still have to do the grassroots work of bringing new golfers into the game? “Absolutely,” answers Richerson. “It’s part of our mission to keep developing programs and keep bringing in new people. We have 230-plus juniors in programs at the four courses, combined. We also stay busy with the junior golf tournament groups, especially the Wisconsin PGA junior events.”

With its 24-man contingent of players and its unusual, three-day competitive format, the Ryder Cup is a tricky event to stage, even for the Kohler and Whistling Straits managers who have navigated three PGA Championships and a Senior Open. Evidence of the unusual challenge it presents lies in the fact that PGA tournament personnel working on the 2020 Ryder Cup were holding meetings with their Kohler compatriots even before the 2015 PGA Championship took place. “Managing the gallery, the traffic and parking, the players’ expectations, organizing volunteers—it’s a big operation,” Richerson says.

Arriving guests from far-flung locales don’t visit Sheboygan only for the cool summer air and resort amenities—there’s also the appeal of Midwestern manners and the down-to-earth ease of those born and bred here. Destination Kohler’s service culture is referred to in training as “gracious hospitality,” built on a sincere desire to provide service plus the natural, understated friendliness that typifies people from the region. “You can’t teach that mix of warmth and politeness that our service to guests is based on,” says Richerson. “So we draw upon the pool of candidates who are like that by nature, and we train them in our best practices.”

Operationally, Whistling Straits relies on tactics that are quite modern and high-tech, while holding fast to others that are traditional and old school. The caddies and forecaddies that guide walking golfers around the Straits course and the Irish course are holdovers from another era. For that matter, a glance at the open landscape of the Straits will also reveal flocks of Scottish blackface sheep, allowed to wander the property freely as a nod to the pastoral origins of the game.

Similarly, as Dustin Johnson’s travails in the 2010 PGA Championship remind us, the course’s sand bunkers are maintained in a throwback, minimalist way—smoothed mainly by the wind, rather than by those riding bunker rakes that leave their telltale swirl in the sand. It takes some independence of mind, but the team of Herb Kohler and Pete Dye has no shortage of that virtue. Indeed, at a resort company where the first “guests” to benefit from lodging and dining service were immigrant blue-collar workers brought in to manufacture valves and faucets, it only makes sense that you would still find elements of simplified, early-American folkways.

But as Richerson points out, technology deployed skillfully can also help create a good feeling during your day’s round of golf—thus the digital platform that supports pace-of-play efforts at Whistling Straits. “What we’ve basically got,” he says, “is a couple of tech programs that let us monitor all movement of groups from either a desktop, a laptop or a handheld device—using pocket send/receive units carried by caddies and forecaddies.” The happy result is avoiding that circling marshall, coming around several times in silent disapproval, prior to even confronting the slow-moving group. “It’s high-tech you don’t see,” says Richerson. If the resort can keep up a good pace of play, not only does it improve customer satisfaction, it also means guests can add other activities to their day—and thus, contribute to other revenue streams.

Like other golf and resort operations in the country’s upper tier, Whistling Straits comes into some of its loveliest weather just as seasonal workers head back to their studies in high school and college, or even to their teaching jobs. Department managers start planning for this two-month squeeze in early to mid-summer, scheduling shifts creatively to make it all work. “Fortunately, we have some local colleges with which we do internships and a lot of regular hiring,” says Richerson. “The kids will come back on weekends, and some will come back after their day of classes during the week. We have to patch together the schedule sheets in such a way that the guests don’t notice any difference, and we’re able to do that.”

And, like any other golf property in the Upper Midwest, the 560-acre Whistling Straits complex faces an annual showdown with harsh winter conditions and potentially flooding early-spring rains. Affluent golfers the world over sing hosannas to this destination, but floods, snow mold and dollar spot fungus don’t know if you’re a five-star mecca or a lowly muni. “We get our challenges from Mother Nature,” confirms Richerson, “especially when winter meltoff and big spring rainstorms coincide. When that happens, we do what every other course does—get the crews out and clean up.” Led by golf maintenance chief Michael Lee, the seasoned turfgrass staff at Whistling Straits contains a lot of veterans, Lee most notably, who “always seem to spot the signs of challenging conditions before they hit,” says Richerson admiringly.

The London-born author and clergyman Timothy Radcliffe once wrote that “to be a preacher “requires two apparently contradictory qualities—confidence and humility.” A long look at the management mindset at Whistling Straits—and Destination Kohler in general—shows those two traits more in agreement than contradiction. The people who work there know they possess the resources to produce excellence. Likewise, they know it will take their full and sincere effort, each day, to get the job done.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance  writer frequent contributor to Golf Business.

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