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June 2017

Legendary Griffin

legendarygriffin.jpg‭By Rob Carey

Already among the premier golf facilities in its area, Griffin Gate Golf Club nonetheless took on major renovations and revised sales strategies to preserve its market position

At the end of 2014, Griffin Gate Golf Club ranked second in course conditioning among the 52 properties in Marriott Golf’s portfolio. Shortly thereafter, management celebrated the achievement by calling Rees Jones—who designed the course in 1981—and asking him to come dig up a lot of it.

Six months and a million dollars later, the Lexington, Kentucky, course reopened with several bunkers eliminated, while the remaining 75 were rebuilt for better drainage and reshaped to reduce total bunker area by nearly 53,000 square feet. Other course changes included redefining the lines of the bluegrass fairways, plus the creation of chipping areas around several greens to give players more shot options and improve pace of play.

Director of Golf Colin Gooch says the bunkers were the lone weak spot on the course. “Thunderstorms are prevalent in our golf season, and after some storms, too many bunkers became unplayable or their material would wash out,” he recalls. “We needed to improve their consistency and reduce the time our maintenance team spent on them so they could focus on other course elements.”

After the course reopened in July 2015, customer feedback was positive on several fronts. First, “smaller bunker lips and better lies made people happy,” Gooch notes. “The new chipping areas were letting players putt or bump a hybrid onto the green rather than risk a poor chip or pitch that misses the green. And our maintenance crew found time to do tree trimming that revitalized grass on some tee boxes and in the rough that weren’t getting enough light.” Between better conditions and faster pace of play, Gooch saw the customer satisfaction scores in post-round email surveys rise considerably, even at one of the top-tier courses in the region.

To leverage the facility’s advantage in course conditioning, Gooch maintains an attractive website and image-heavy social media accounts. “We take a lot of photos so people know how things are going here week to week, even when we’re aerifying greens,” he explains. “We never want a guest to arrive and be surprised by what they see.” And while his social-media coordinator is with an outside agency, “we’ve spent a lot of time educating him about golf, so he’s very good about taking the things I want and making them appealing to golfers on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.”

Even after a busy 2015, Griffin Gate wasn’t done with its improvements. A $200,000 clubhouse renovation completed earlier this year brought new décor and lighting to the golf shop; new furniture and decor in the locker rooms; a redesigned bar with several big screen TVs and new furniture; and a new outdoor patio.

These upgrades were done for a few reasons. First, to boost the club’s corporate-membership effort, as Lexington enjoys strong momentum not only in its famed equine industry but also in health care, information technology and even manufacturing. “Giving these folks the feel of a complete club with all our resort offerings—including a golf clubhouse that’s classy but comfortable—is a strong opportunity for us to grow membership,” Gooch says. “We’ve only had this category for a few months, but we think it can grow like crazy.” One interesting element for corporate members: introduction to the resort’s events-management team. “We want these members to not only play golf, but also have their work-related events and parties here,” Gooch says. To maximize flexibility of use, corporate memberships take the form of prepaid rounds—30, 50, 100 or 200 per calendar year—and membership includes use of the resort’s fitness center, plus discounts on guest rooms, spa services and restaurant meals.

Interestingly, Gooch won’t seek more than 60 individual members for the club. “The amount of event business we do for local charities, combined with the business outings the hotel brings to us, means we don’t want to limit the days we can host those events,” he boasts.

The second reason for the clubhouse renovation was to entice guests at the 400-room resort to make the short walk to the clubhouse for a meal or drinks, and perhaps spark their interest in playing the course. Lastly, the renovation helps the club draw both daily-fee players as well as stay-and-play business from several regional cities. Although Louisville and Cincinnati are both about 75 interstate miles away, “we always get people from those places who call early to check availability for later that day,” Gooch says. “We needed to offer them a social experience they would enjoy as much as the golf.”

And while he utilizes dynamic pricing strategies and won’t discount rates for last-minute bookings, Gooch guarantees the lowest rate on the club’s own website and also offers a players card for $100 that provides season-long discounts on play. “The card puts us in the same price range as our local competitors, so it pays off for us and for the players,” he notes.

For stay-and-play business, Gooch has boosted his marketing in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, where players are willing to drive south to extend the season or use the resort for a two-day respite as they drive to and from warm winter destinations. Furthermore, the club’s golf show presence in Cincinnati and Louisville paid off handsomely this past winter after Gooch landed a 32-player group. For 2018, “we will probably commit to shows in Columbus and Detroit as well, based on the zip-code tracking in our reservation system,” he explains. “Anything I can do to drive room-nights and get people out on the course at least once makes a difference today and for the future.”

To ensure that word of the renovations and the overall quality of the Griffin Gate experience reach deeply into the desired markets, Gooch does whatever he can to collect email addresses of everyone who passes through the club or visits the website. “While you must have a steady social media presence, you really need to have as many email addresses as possible,” he says. “We have little slips of paper at our counter to enter into a monthly raffle for a free foursome. That’s a small price to pay for the couple hundred email addresses we get each month, because we’re pushing out not just our golf offerings, but all the resort’s programs and special events.”

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

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