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May 2017

Opening the Door

openingthedoor.jpgBy Rob Carey

Weaving hospitality into the fabric of your company culture

It’s no revelation to say the golf industry grew thanks to the strong interest, and the sheer number, of baby boomers. Generation X surely hasn’t provided the same level of support for golf as they have, although Tiger battling Phil was enough to keep many of them interested. _Behind Gen X, however, is the Millennial Generation: At 90 million strong, the presently 35-and-under group has moved ahead of even the 70 million Boomers aged 55 to 72 when it comes to potential opportunity for the golf industry.

What’s going to get more of Generation X plus all those millennials to visit and revisit golf facilities, however, is not the quality and condition of the course. “Golf is about hospitality first,” says James Keane, senior director of operations for Marriott Golf. “To succeed, that idea has to be woven into the fabric of your organization’s culture.”

When Keane and other executives from the biggest hospitality brands discuss the challenge of providing true service excellence, they all cite similar factors they see changing among their customer bases. This comes from their companies’ broad footprint in everything from hotels to restaurants to spas to golf courses, and the treasure trove of customer data the companies gather through all those outlets.

What’s more, the data has led the big brands to adapt their customer-service training programs—including for the golf segment—in remarkably similar ways. “Front-line employees fail most often because they aren’t given the full picture of what is expected of them and how to make it happen,” explains Jon Hunter, vice president of operations for Omni Hotels & Resorts, with 11 golf resorts in its portfolio.

“Hospitality is a culture of complete care; a manager’s primary role is taking care of associates so they can best take care of customers,” adds Eric Claxton, director of golf operations for Hyatt Hill Country Resort in San Antonio and a 16-year Hyatt veteran.

Along with a deliberate approach to hiring and retaining the right employees, a strong service-training program at a golf facility creates a positive culture that feeds on itself. The result: memorable customer experiences, enhanced brand reputation, and a distinct competitive advantage in the age of social media.


What They’re Seeing

Besides closely monitoring the customer-feedback mechanisms on third-party golf-booking websites, plus TripAdvisor and others, golf facilities within the largest hospitality brands use programs such as Medallia to gather customer-experience data and observations. And “if someone says they had a bad experience, our director of golf communicates with that person and offers to make it right next time,” Keane notes. “Failing to respond to such comments is about the worst thing you can do these days, while having a manager personally contact the guest can completely alter the original impression.”

In recent years, the increasing membership bases at many resort and destination courses have become equally valuable to proprietary surveys and online channels for recognizing shifting customer preferences. For example, food and beverage is now as important to members and frequent guests as the golf experience itself. “It’s gotten more casual and more family-friendly, as a gathering place for the community with a fun and energetic environment,” says Darrell Morgan, a regional vice president of operations for Troon Golf.

With that evolving experience happening within the clubhouse, it’s critical that the wait staff is trained to deliver service in the same style as the golf staff. And if a director of golf has some say in the supervision of clubhouse wait staff, that’s easier to achieve.

The reason for such continuity is that “we see formality going away and casualness coming in across the entire golf operation, and we have to roll with that in our facilities, not just from appearance but also from our interpersonal style,” says Keane. The area where this is being most acutely felt is in the golfer’s initial transaction. “Speed at the counter—or away from the counter—is still number one,” Keane adds. “Every day, more people want to check in on their mobile device ahead of time, and then go right from bag drop to roll a few practice putts, and then go to the first tee. So our greeting process has changed, and we have to train our people differently for that.”

Morgan notes that F&B patrons and golfers differ in one way: Most golfers want efficient service because they aren’t lingering at the course as much before or after their rounds. “Everyone seems to be squeezing in golf around picking up the kids or taking them to practice or a recital, so there is pressure to get players out quickly and move them through at a good pace,” he points out. “The challenge for us is to balance that with genuine personal interaction—no guest should pass by any associate without the associate acknowledging them in some way. That fundamental is always in play.”

First Things First

The training that’s coming down from the corporate level of the large hospitality brands to their golf shops won’t work as intended unless front-line employees possess the right personality traits for their roles. “We need them able to read the customer: notice their bag tag or the team on their hat so you can start a conversation, unless the customer seems to want to move along,” says Hyatt’s Claxton. But he notes the younger generation is less practiced in reading body language and conversing because they communicate so much via technology. “So we have to start by hiring well, for an awareness and attitude that we can clearly see during the interview process. Even with our maintenance team, I need them to make eye contact with players and say, ‘Hello, thank you for coming out today.’”

At El Conquistador Golf & Tennis Club near Tucson, Arizona, head professional Erick Womack has changed out most of his nearly two dozen front-line staffers since his arrival in April 2016 to better match employees to the tasks he’s training them for. The 45-hole facility was purchased by the municipality in 2014 and sought more public play alongside members and Hilton resort guests, so “we’ve definitely changed things to make it more relaxed,” he notes. “The culture used to be mostly about the members,” with a noticeable separation between member and nonmember experiences. Over his first 12 months there, Womack has emphasized through training that “every guest is a member in our eyes—we reach out our hand to introduce ourselves, ask the person’s name, start a conversation and see how we can be of service at that moment.”

Womack uses parent firm Troon’s service-training principles and framework but has tweaked a few things to the specifics of the property’s customer profile and its physical layout, which Troon encourages. And when the performance of some employees didn’t change sufficiently after taking in the program, he made that known. “The training I oversaw when I first got here was not getting through enough, based on what I saw afterwards,” he recalls. “I had to reinforce my delivery in a few areas but we also had some turnover, which was a good thing.”

Today, the entire golf shop consists of employees chosen by Womack. “Personality was what I was after. My interviews are casual conversations where I see how fully they respond to my questions, whether they ask their own questions, and whether their body language is open and comfortable. You can’t teach those things, but you need them.”

How They’re Doing It

During orientation training and annual refreshers, the big hospitality companies seek to instill behaviors that create memorable moments of service. “We know we’re going to have at least 10 or 15 different interactions with each guest,” Claxton notes. “When every one of them is pleasant, that guest walks away saying, ‘They were happy to have me there, and I’m looking forward to coming back.’”

Memorable moments of service hinge on two factors: engagement by employees and empowerment of employees. For the first, “we stress that the guest experience is something that must be delivered, not something that just happens because the course and clubhouse are terrific,” Hunter affirms. In fact, Omni teaches that only one-third of a front-line staffer’s job is dedicated to completing the tasks of the job. The other two-thirds should be dedicated to engaging with guests—even the ones in a hurry can be connected with if an associate recognizes that and adapts his or her approach.

Omni trainers spend a full day with associates, reviewing case studies and conducting role-plays so each associate gets comfortable dealing with a range of situations. Furthermore, all associates undergo monthly audits of select guest interactions they’ve had, while managers are trained—and compensated in part—on their ability to keep associates engaged at high levels over time.

When it comes to employee empowerment, training quality will dictate whether associates are prepared enough to act independently—and wisely. Such investment has proven worthwhile, though. “Those of us with hotel experience saw the positive impact that came from front-line people being able to make decisions on their own,” says Troon’s Morgan. “So if our golf associates feel they must do something specific to take care of a guest, they do it and they have our full support. Especially with the time factor, you can’t expect them to go up a level to find an answer. The biggest thing we impress on our people is that they have the power to act.”

Marriott’s Keane sees it the same way. “When we ourselves are customers somewhere, we notice people who aren’t empowered aren’t as energized or happy. It’s uncomfortable for an associate to have to say no or ask a guest to wait while they ask. There is simply a different demeanor among associates when they can say yes to customers.”

Of course, Marriott International’s hotel brand Ritz-Carlton is famous for allowing associates to spend up to $1,000 to remedy a guest situation without seeking permission. “It almost never happens, but it definitely affects how associates interact with guests,” Keane adds. At a more practical level, Morgan cites times when he was a general manager and “a waitress would come to me and say, ‘I comped dessert for that table because the kitchen speed was off for a few minutes.’ My reply would be, ‘That’s great you had such awareness.’ Those actions help drive a customer’s intent to recommend, and they often make it onto review sites and social media.”

Another common element among the large hospitality firms is the pre-shift meeting that reinforces service principles as they relate to that day’s flow of activity. In front of his early morning and early afternoon crews, then, Hyatt’s Claxton goes over the superintendent’s report, who’s on the tee sheet, other resort activities for that day, and any positive customer comments received in the past day.

Keane says the pre-shift meeting is critical for pushing front-line staff to act with awareness and initiative throughout the day. “The trickiest part of their job is downtime,” he notes. “Customer service starts way before the customer is in front of you. When it’s slow for a few minutes, they need to be reloading scorecards and bagtags, lining up recharged carts, getting bottled water to player assistants, and everything else. Otherwise you can’t deliver the right service when it’s time.”

Lastly, directors of golf and other managers must set the example, Morgan says. “If you want associates to buy into the service training, they have to see you in front of customers at certain times, too. The team takes on the personality of its leader. Being in your office all day doesn’t promote the idea of delivering great customer service.”

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

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