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June 2018

The Green Mountain Scene

By Rob Carey

Built in 1927 by Walter Travis, the course at The Equinox Golf Resort & Spa in Manchester, Vermont, is hardly the oldest feature at the resort. The original building on site, Marsh Tavern, was erected in 1769 and was among the first properties confiscated by colonial Revolutionary forces from British sympathizers. The main section of hotel was established in 1853 in a large homestead next to Marsh Tavern, and has been the centerpiece of this classic New England village for 165 years now.

Even as two of the resort’s “newer” components, though, the golf course and clubhouse are strong attractions for golfers and non-golfers alike, which suits Director of Golf Craig Luckey just fine. An 18-year resort-golf manager, Luckey says that in the seven years he’s spent at The Equinox he’s come to understand the power of both pedigree and place.

“Our point of differentiation is not just the reputation of the Travis layout and Rees Jones’ 1991 redesign,” he says. “We’re set in a valley between the mountains, so the views are amazing from many spots on the course and from the clubhouse. Our grill draws people from the resort and the local area to have a relaxing meal while looking out on the course.” To ensure that all hotel guests know about that experience, the grill is routinely featured in the daily in-room newsletter and on lobby signage, and promoted at other smaller hotels and inns. “We’re also introducing some theme-night dinners that are open to the public, with live music or a demonstration,” he adds.

Actually, this new programming speaks to the fact that a strong pedigree alone cannot sustain the health of any golf operation. While Luckey leverages the history and the natural beauty of The Equinox to fulfill about 15,000 annual rounds and draw a strong dining crowd, he must complement those elements with strategic upgrades, interesting offers and staff training in order to satisfy the evolving preferences of today’s golfers.    

As for upgrades, a course-wide bunker project in 2019 will reconstruct about 90 of the existing 120 bunkers while eliminating the rest, which no longer occupy strategic areas of play on the 6,425-yard course.

“The average golfer doesn’t need to be further penalized if they end up in those spots,” Luckey says. “Having fewer bunkers also frees up my guys to focus on other aspects of the course.”

Coming out of winter is a significant maintenance hurdle at The Equinox. “If we have an accumulation of ice for more than about 60 days, we can lose some greens,” he notes.
To fend off that possibility but still maximize revenue in a six-and-half-month golf season, Luckey watches mid-October weather reports closely to plan out how his team can apply topdressing and snow-mold repellent at the right times without affecting the experience of golfers who play into early November.

With nearly ideal growing conditions throughout the entire golf season, however, Luckey says that his greatest challenge is “keeping up with machinery and equipment to ensure it is suitable for the work we have to do. In the fall, maintaining the course boundaries and fighting off invasive growth takes a lot of work. And with so many mature trees, we always have to make decisions on branch or tree removal so greens get enough sunlight.”

As a result, he supplements the weekly meetings of all department heads and the general manager with an occasional one-on-one discussion to present the GM with potential equipment complications. But as a Troon Golf facility, “we get some comfort from our volume-purchasing leverage.”

LISTENING TO CUSTOMERS IS KEY

Most recently, Luckey has heeded the call from many of the 160 members of the annual pass program (priced at $1,000 for weekday play and $2,000 for anytime play) to make walking rounds easier by cutting more direct paths through the course and adding benches at several tee boxes. And though the non-passholder golf rate includes cart usage, “if a hotel guest wants to walk and asks about pricing, my staff is permitted to reduce the rate if that might be a deciding factor,” he says. Staffers also are able to make on-the-spot decisions about club-rental fees for potential players. “We don’t want someone walking away over a few dollars rather than seeing how nice the course is. It’s a small sacrifice for creating a repeat customer or a promoter of our course.” 
  
Another nod to evolving preferences: Luckey has started promoting nine-hole rounds with club rental for a noticeably lower total price. Given that the resort just completed a full refurbishment of all 190 guest rooms, “we anticipate more meeting groups coming here, and many of those attendees will be tempted to come over here for two hours if we make it easy,” Luckey notes. At the same time, he’s also promoting the practice facility to meeting planners for games and contests held during a group lunch or evening reception at the clubhouse.

Interestingly, the nine-hole special is aimed not only at individual guests but also at families staying at the resort; families staying at other local hotels and inns; and families who live in the area. The family special is valid every weekday after 4 p.m. “Families are looking for things to do together, and we have to get the younger generations interested in golf,” Luckey says.
 
With 40 percent of rounds coming from daily-fee players, Luckey focuses on being the preferred facility even for folks in the nearest city an hour away: Albany, New York. In particular, head professional Joan McDonald has cultivated a good relationship with the Albany chapter of Executive Women’s Golf Association, resulting in an annual tournament at The Equinox that attracts more than 120 women. “That is a strong funnel for us,” Luckey says. “We also provide their members a preferred rate, so a lot of them are willing to make the trip here several times each season.”

McDonald also has a good relationship with several local high schools, conducting occasional clinics and having their golf teams practice and compete on site frequently. And to keep those kids coming back on their own and bringing their friends, Luckey has relaxed the course’s dress code a bit. “We aren’t going to let it look like a playground, but we are not turning away people wearing nice T-shirts,” he says. “You have to give a little with younger players.” It seems to be working, since Luckey is able to get several local teens to work as course employees each summer.

McDonald also adapts her pro shop to changing fashions by rearranging aisles, displays and shelves every year, not only to highlight new goods and apparel but also to get repeat guests to stay longer. “People really do notice the change year to year,” Luckey notes. “For a typical small Northeastern shop, we do really well, particularly with Callaway balls and Footjoy apparel.”

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

 

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