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July 2017

Service First

servicefirst.jpg‭By Steve Eubanks

By encouraging activity at outside businesses, Justin Wood and Fairmont Hotels are building goodwill in the golf-traveler community

When a hotelier owns golf courses, the business rationale is straightforward and simple: golf begets room nights. Golfers must sleep, eat and, perhaps, get in a workout and massage or two during their trip. Obviously, even in golf-centered properties, not all the hotel guests are golfers. Pinehurst, where the game dominates everything in the area, there are still a few bird watchers, wine tasters, the odd lawyers’ convention and a few lawn bowlers in the mix.

But the reason for a major hotel chain to be in golf is no mystery. By managing all possible revenue streams, including golf, the hotelier controls the customer experience and profit centers from beginning to end. Why go anywhere else when you can eat three great meals and get in somewhere between 18 and 36 holes a day?

“Because you want the guest to experience everything surrounding the property as well,” Justin Wood, the director of golf at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, says in answer to that question. “When you’re in St. Andrews, for example, you’re there to walk the streets of the old town; you’re there to see the sites, to have dinner at the Dunvegan and play a lot of bucket list golf courses. We understand that and we don’t want to discourage it. In fact, we want to encourage it.

“What I recommend to people all the time is to make our hotel (the Fairmont St. Andrews, located on A917 just five minutes east of the Auld Gray Toon and the Home of Golf) your base camp so that you can come back to the accommodations you want–things like a gym and a pool and a spa and some room comforts–but play The Old Course, and Carnoustie, and Kingsbarns and all the great monument courses that are around there,” he adds. “But, then I’d suggest you play a few that aren’t quite as known but that are great experiences—places like Crail, Ladybank and Elie, and we have two great courses (on the Fairmont property called St. Andrews Bay).

“So, sure, I understand that we have a duty to our owners to keep as much revenue in house as possible and to make all those [revenue] centers profitable, but our first obligation is to make sure the guest has a great experience,” he concludes. “At St. Andrews, that means we shuttle people from our hotel down to the Dunvegan and Old Tom Morris’ [Golf Shop]. That’s why [the guest] is there.”

By doing these things—promoting Fairmont-owned courses, but also encouraging guests to experience other courses, other restaurants, other sites in an area—Wood and his team have applied the old “Miracle on 34th Street” model to golf. As a result, they’ve built an enormous reservoir of goodwill within the golf-traveler community.

And it isn’t just St. Andrews where Wood encourages players to hit up properties that Fairmont doesn’t manage. “When you look at Scottsdale, we have somewhere close to 300 golf courses now,” Wood notes. “But if you’re visiting here, the three you really want to see are TPC Scottsdale, which is our home course at the Fairmont Princess, Grayhawk and Troon North. All of those are within 15 minutes of our hotel, so we’re the perfect spot to stay and play all three, including the TPC, where the Waste Management Phoenix Open is played every year.”

Bermuda is another example. The Fairmont Southampton has one of the best par-3 courses in the world, the Turtle Hill Golf Club, which hosts the Grey Goose World Par-3 Championship, an event that brings in the likes of Rory McIlroy (who met his wife, Erica Stoll, at the Fairmont Southampton), European Tour player Barry Lane, and former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver. But Wood and his staff not only expect their guests to play Port Royal and the Mid Ocean Club, they encourage it, shuttling players to those properties while suggesting that they save a little time on either end of their day for a quick tour around Turtle Hill.

“The golfer who is staying in a Fairmont Hotel is usually there to see more than one course and do more than one thing while he’s with us,” Wood admits. “We want to make sure he has everything he needs.”

That sense of “service first” goes back to Wood’s childhood. A native of Tucson, he was introduced to golf through an altruistic foundation for kids. “There was a program sponsored by the Conquistadors where, if you were under 18, you could play golf for free on the municipal courses,” Wood recalls. “My parents weren’t golfers, so that’s how I got into the game.”

He loved golf and knew it would be a terrific career. Wood’s first job was picking the range and working in the bag room at Tucson Country Club. Then he was a forecaddie.

As he became a better player, Wood teed it up in a few professional events in the area. During all that time, he worked as an assistant pro and shop manager. He even coached high school golf for a couple of years.

“As you hone your skills and broaden your career, people lead you in certain paths,” Wood says. “That certainly happened with me.”

One of his bosses in Tucson talked Wood into moving to California to open Rancho San Marco in Santa Barbara. “That had some interesting challenges because of weather, financial issues and all kinds of other things,” he notes. “We closed right after we opened because El Nino blew in and took out a couple of holes.”

From there, Wood took a different route, moving to New York and working as a professional at the Metropolitan Section of the PGA for a summer. “If you’re a traditional golf pro, there’s nothing better than working in the Met Section,” he says of his experience at one of the stately clubs in Westchester County. “It was a wonderful place, and a great time.”

Wood’s life would have been very different if he’d stayed in Westchester, where private clubs operate as the industry did in the 1960s and 1970s. But Wood took a different path, one that led him to Doral Resort in Miami for two and a half years. At that time, he not only worked in golf, but also dipped his toes in hotel sales, where he had a lot of success. Melding his knowledge of golf into his aptitude for group and hotel sales made him the perfect bridge between two often competing sides of the business.

After Miami, Wood moved to the Bahamas, where he gained experience bringing in golf groups from all over the world. “I sat on a board where we worked with the (Bahamian) government to get charter flights in with golf groups,” he says. “That was quite a learning experience, but one that’s been great. Now, when we’re talking about chartering flights for larger groups, I can be part of the conversation.

“A lot of times, people outside our company will say, ‘Why am I talking to the director of golf about chartering a plane?’ I always chuckle at that one,” he adds. “I certainly had exposure to some very different environments.”

Those disparate experiences come in handy now that Wood coordinates operations for a dozen courses from Le Chateau Montebello in Quebec to the Sonoma Mission Inn in California.

“We’ve run Banff Springs in Canada for years,” Wood says. “That was the first golf course in the world that cost more than $1 million to build. So, the company got into golf as part of providing more services to hotel guests early on.”

But the business has grown to much more than that. Now, as Super Bowls and College Football National Championships make regular stops in Glendale, Arizona, and the eyes of the yachting world turn to the tiny island of Bermuda this summer for the America’s Cup, Wood and his crew are ready.

“There are consistently these largescale events in our markets,” Wood says. “But no matter what event people are coming in town to see, they’re going to play golf. That’s become a given. And we’re ready to accommodate them.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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