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February 2018

Culture Creatures

culturecreatures.jpg‭By David Gould

Molding the service excellence your golf facility needs

Golf facilities start down the road to excellence by creating a great product and classy amenities. And yet, when successful operators discuss best practices for customer-pleasing, they seem to focus on the person-to-person element. With little prompting, sources interviewed for this article went straight to the challenges of hiring, training, motivating and rewarding staff people—never shying away from the tricky psychology of it.

They also shared canny insights about where the customer’s head is at these days, since excellence for any business is mainly determined by what customers think and feel.

The mindset of the people who provide service and the mindset of those receiving it have to mesh together, both logically and emotionally. That’s the view of Rich Mack, executive vice-president of The Mosaic Company, which owns the award-laded Streamsong Resort in rural Florida, east of Tampa. If someone wanted proof that America has indeed evolved into an “experience economy,” he would urge them to visit Streamsong.

“We built a resort in an unexpected place using lots of bold, unconventional architecture and design elements,” says Mack. “As a result, our arriving guests feel like they’ve made a wonderful discovery, and our staff recognizes that. It’s their job to make sure each guest keeps making one pleasant discovery after another, for their entire stay.”

It’s the “each guest” and “entire stay” part of the equation that can seem difficult to a worker serving well-heeled golfing visitors. Roughly 150 people check in and out of Streamsong on a daily basis, and the new arrivals don’t know how good an operation the staff ran yesterday—they’re demanding its ‘A’ game today.

“Obviously, in this business, complacency is a real danger,” Mack admits. He’s aware that if his workforce descends into “Groundhog Day” mode, a general dullness will permeate the property and guests will detect it right away. The Streamsong philosophy for avoiding that fate is to remind each employee that their skills and abilities are being continually refined and their personal connection to the place where they work is contributing to their quality of life.

“It’s up to the management team to inspire, engage and recognize the people who work at the resort,” Mack asserts. “Very often, ‘Are you doing a good job?’ and ‘Are you enjoying your job?’ are the same question.”

Check out Streamsong’s remote physical location and you won’t spot much sophistication in any direction. “We see employees whose parents and grandparents mined phosphate in this area grow from having zero background in golf or hospitality to being great servers, bartenders, and everything else,” Mack says. “We make sure they know how much they’ve grown and evolved since they got here.”

Motivating and guiding the front-line staff at non-essential businesses like golf courses and resorts has been a subject of careful study for a long time. Lately it’s been sped up by the revelation that rising generations are less likely than their predecessors to play the role of humble, helpful provider of personal service. “Working with the young people who join our staff these days can be tough,” says Bob Spada, head of the golf operation at award-winning Broken Tee Golf Course in Englewood, Colorado. “They’re committed to their personal lives, not so much their work lives, which makes hiring more difficult. McDonald’s pays more than we do, and if you stay at McDonalds for two months they’ll give you an X-Box.”

Any golf course needs marshals—at Broken Tee they’re called player assistants—to check on pace and help with customer issues, but golfers don’t like being approached out there. Spada heads out on the fairways with his goldendoodle dog, Charlie, riding shotgun, which breaks the ice and removes tension. He carries $5 food-and-beverage vouchers to sooth any ruffled feelings due to service shortfalls or other unpleasantness. The days of scolding anybody, employee or patron, are mostly over, in Spada’s eyes. He’s been reading a service how-to book by the brilliant New York City restaurant owner, Danny Meyer, from which he’s learned the concept of “constant gentle pressure” to keep up standards.

“The salt and pepper go in the middle of the table—you make that part of the training, but when it doesn’t happen you make a point of putting the shakers where they go while the staff person is watching, even though you don’t say anything,” says Spada, who is coming off an excellent 2017 for rounds and revenue. “Some standards are absolute—a trash container with a spike base gets put back vertical, with zero tilt, after you empty it. The benches on the range all line up,” he insists. “These things aren’t negotiable.”

Working under someone like Spada, employees will tend to recognize the manager as having a “stickler” personality type. That means the worker needn’t take what is said personally, they just have to try and imitate the boss’s compulsiveness in certain areas. If you can get that to happen, bingo, you’ve created a culture.

Focusing on personality types can actually be quite fruitful, in an upscale golf environment. So says Whitney Reid Pennell, the founder and president of Virginia-based RCS Hospitality Group. A published author and in-demand seminar leader, she’s recognized worldwide as an expert in club management.

“Among the assets we provide to clients is a training seminar called “Discovering Your Personality Spectrum,” she says. “It identifies people as having one of four predominant personality traits, geared toward helping them work as part of a team in a service function.” The system—which is along the lines of the Myers-Briggs test, benefits from the simplicity of color-coding for type. So, someone who is a blue may work particularly well with a colleague who is an orange. “People are intrigued to learn about themselves—younger people in particular,” she notes. “They’re interested in self-knowledge and in understanding why certain relationships work better than others—they feel it opens their horizons.”

There are four words you’ll never forget if you go through a seminar with Pennell—those are welcome, comfortable, understood and important. The new employee needs to experience all four of these feelings as they’re being trained, and in turn the employee must do anything possible to make each customer feel them. “The younger generation wasn’t taught the same sort of manners that my grandparents and parents taught me,” says Pennell. “So, we’re compensating for that by teaching some of the basic social graces.”

What a manager could do in these instances is sell the young employee on the advantage of becoming a rare millennial who has learned the old-school courtesies and etiquette, and can put them to use in situations that call for it. “I’ve had people come to a training and stay in touch long afterward,” Pennell says. “One young woman sends an email several times a year telling me all the different situations she has applied her training to.”

At the vast, 108-hole Georgia resort community that’s now known as Reynolds Lake Oconee, a culture of excellence is continually honed, even as the atmosphere of the property loosens up and becomes less formal. Lon Grundy, now in his third year as general manager, credits the rural Southern gift of natural hospitality for making this possible. “It’s in the DNA of the people from this region to be kind and caring and respectful,” says Grundy, a Texan who has spent a long career in golf and club operations, mostly in the Southwest. “They can provide first-class service quite effortlessly, and enjoy themselves in the process.”

Employees in service positions at Reynolds need to exercise a particular form of sensitivity and attunement to the people they serve, according to Grundy. “Our resident members want attention from our staff members mainly to chat with them and be sociable,” he says. “Our resort guests will want an employee’s attention mainly to get information and be guided around. So, it’s a matter of shifting gears slightly.”

In the effort to complement what employees provide by way of guest information, Reynolds Lake Oconee uses the Kipsu software platform for text messaging between guests and the resort. “You get a number to plug into your phone, and you text us just like you’d text anyone else, only we’re telling you when a tavern opens, or how to get a box lunch, or anything else you need help doing, with no delay,” says Grundy.

Since its purchase by MetLife in 2012, Reynolds Lake Oconee has prospered, particularly in its most important line of business, selling homes and home sites—in 2016 there were 265 real estate transaction and last year about 300. Management’s greatest wish for any front-line is to become skilled at persuading resort guests to take a pontoon-boat ride with a real estate sales person, or arrange to tour a model home. “We’ve got a 15-year selling window and 6,000 acres of real estate to sell,” Grundy says. “If we’re great at making resort guests feel a desire to upgrade their experience and become property owners, that’s going to ensure success in what is basically our core business.”

There’s definitely a bit of magic in the air anytime a golf property’s employees and its guests or members start to think alike—both believing sincerely the place they’re at is something special. There’s no surer way to achieve high standards of excellence, and to guard those standards by ingraining them as a culture that will endure.

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

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