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August 2018

Riding‭ ‬the Wave

RidingtheWave.jpg‭By Rob Carey

With Nashville a red-hot destination right now, Hermitage Golf Course is reaping the benefits while also securing its future.

Thirty years ago this summer, Hermitage Golf Course in Old Hickory, Tennessee, first stamped its name onto the golf world’s map. Just two years old at the time, its General’s Retreat layout — the name is a nod to former local resident Andrew Jackson — hosted the LPGA’s Sara Lee Classic. That arrangement lasted 12 years, and afforded owners Mike Eller and Ray Danner the opportunity to build a second layout in 2000 called President’s Reserve (after all, Jackson’s historic mansion is less than a mile away).

Five years ago, Eller noted that the 36-hole facility’s business was split evenly between local play, corporate and charity outings, and tourist rounds. But since then, Nashville has exploded in popularity as a business and leisure destination. Its reputation as “Music City” has grown, as have all the elements needed to support that: hotels, restaurants and attractions. As a result, nearly half of The Hermitage’s golf business now comes from out-of-towners, and annual rounds have broken through 56,000 each of the past two years.

In April 2016, Eller added another dimension to the property: eight year-round cottages, each with two bedrooms and a screened porch. Nashville is such a popular destination that “many people rented the cottages sight unseen, even before we opened them,” says Chris Pierce, director of golf and head professional for the past seven years. “Buddy groups are big for us — including ones that aren’t all about golf, like bachelor parties.”

Given the hotel rates in Nashville recently, “it’s less expensive per person to stay with us and take an Uber 25 minutes into the city for dinner and nightlife,” Pierce says. Rates are $349 per cottage Sunday through Wednesday and $399 Thursday through Saturday. Demand is such that another eight cottages are now on the drawing board.    

Interestingly, Pierce notes that the cottages are not connected to a stay-and-play package at the moment. That’s because “some of our guests aren’t golfers, but they ask if they can just ride along with their friends for nine or 18 holes, and we allow that.”

Cottage guests who do play will pay the daily rate (different for Monday through Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday through Sunday) but receive free same-day replay as available.
To make it easy for guests and to keep pro shop staff focused on golf services, cottage check-in is automated.

“We email guests the information packets and door codes 24 hours in advance,” says Pierce. “We just ask that when they get here to stop by the pro shop so we can welcome them in person and say, ‘Let us know if you need anything and we can get it for you.’”

The cottages also have been a boon for the property’s wedding business. Ceremonies are held in a large rose garden surrounded by high shrubs, while receptions take place in a covered outdoor pavilion adjacent to the garden and near the clubhouse. The rose garden and pavilion were added to the property during a clubhouse renovation in 2004, but the debut of the cottages has helped land more than 40 weddings each of the past two years.

To get golf business from visitors staying in downtown Nashville, Pierce enlists a travel agent who recommends play at The Hermitage to folks booking their travel through the agency. Otherwise, “we market ourselves mostly on the internet: Google, Yelp and TripAdvisor.” The club’s website also is very detailed, with photography displaying all aspects of the facility plus a professionally produced video on the homepage.

Because so many out-of-towners are coming through the door — mostly from Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois, but also from fly-in cities — Pierce recognizes the opportunity to cement long-term demand through strong repeat business and the power of referrals.

“We have a beautiful physical product but we’re always looking to do something new to keep players excited,” he says. “So right now we’re overhauling the bunkers on General’s Retreat with the Better Billy system.”

Meanwhile, President’s Reserve is well known for having a roaming flock of sheep; Eller brought them on property several years ago after seeing them on Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits GC.
Beyond course quality, however, Pierce also pushes his staff to provide memorable customer service. 
“We want to always initiate the interaction with guests in every area of the property, and have them think, ‘Hey, these folks are really friendly,’” Pierce says. “So we’re in the middle of creating a training program with more role-plays and people telling stories of situations that have happened on their shifts, how they handled them, and if that was the best course of action. We don’t want our people just sitting in training meetings and getting talked at.” 

FINDING THE RIGHT BALANCE

With 15,000 annual rounds — 27 percent of total business — coming from corporate and charity outings, Pierce notes that “our service training definitely focuses on the specific needs of those events.” He and his three assistant pros will team up to handle the dozen or so 36-hole shotguns the property sees each year. Further, “our cottage sales manager and even our president [Ashley Cottrell] will step in and lend a hand at those big events.”

Two staffers sell the corporate and charity market in addition to selling weddings and social events. Both are well known within Nashville’s chamber of commerce and its convention and visitors bureau so that local firms and nonprofits as well as out-of-town meeting groups consider The Hermitage for a golf outing in addition to considering Gaylord Opryland Resort’s nearby course.
Even with most group events being shotgun starts on just one course, Pierce has made a pledge to the roughly 100 annual pass holders who play the courses almost year-round.

“We won’t do shotgun events on Saturdays,” he notes. “Our pass holders asked for that, and we want them to feel that the place is all theirs at least some of the time.”

Moreover, Pierce won’t sell more than 125 annual passes each year because “it gets hard to satisfy everyone when we go above that number.”

With local daily-fee play, The Hermitage is enjoying a bit of a boost thanks to TopGolf.
“It helps attract younger people and women to us, because they want the course experience after realizing at TopGolf that they can hit the ball decently.”

Pierce’s assistant pros, one of them female, also are building a base of future rounds by running the area’s PGA Junior League.

So if another destination rises up to replace Nashville as America’s hottest business and leisure destination, The Hermitage is well prepared to keep rounds and revenue at the desired levels.

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

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