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July 2017

Tranquil Tranquilo

tranquiltranquilo.jpg‭By Rob Carey

Efficiently using the foundation of a former Disney-owned facility, leadership at Tranquilo Golf Club has aligned the course, clubhouse and experience to the Four Seasons brand

To be sure, it’s no easy feat to adapt every aspect of a golf operation to the standards of a new ownership group, especially one with a strong brand reputation. But consider the challenge that Charlie Kent faced in March 2014, when he became director of golf at a 22-year-old facility previously known as Disney Osprey Ridge Golf Course. Come that September, the facility would reopen as Tranquilo Golf Club and serve the newly built Four Seasons Resort Orlando next door.

What’s the starting point in getting a golf course and clubhouse that was constructed in 1992 to match the styling, features and experience of a brand-new, AAA Five Diamond hotel? “First, we took what customers really liked here and enhanced it,” says Kent, who had overseen the opening of three newly-built layouts in his career, but never a revamp and reopening. “The course itself has a unique personality for Orlando, because a lot of earth was moved to build it. The Osprey Ridge layout was very well regarded by folks who came to play the Disney courses, and the Disney properties are still our neighbors. So we were very careful to not overdo the changes.” The main alterations: resurfaced greens, some additional strategic bunkers, plus more pronounced facing on many existing bunkers.

The factor that made the bunker enhancements possible was Kent’s purchase of specialty sand. “It’s not a typical Florida sand,” he notes. The grains are angular in shape so they lock into the liner and pack into themselves more tightly, providing consistent firmness. “It allowed us to add more dramatic shapes—to create flashes down the fairway that catch a player’s eye—because the bunker faces won’t wash down in big summer thunderstorms anymore.” As for pace of play considerations related to the new bunkering, Kent says that “the previous business model here relied on a higher volume of play. Our price point will reduce volume to about 25,000 rounds, keeping the pace intact.”

Besides the course changes, Kent focused on creating what he calls “unique touch points” across the player experience that reinforce the brand standard. “[For instance], we ordered golf carts with really soft leather seats that make players say, ‘Wow, I never knew a golf cart could be so comfortable,’” he says. Other accents include Titleist Pro V1 balls on the practice range and on-cart coolers pre-filled with ice and bottled water. “A lot of courses have done away with that feature, but we think it’s necessary here,” he posits.

Lastly, on the course are a few cooler stations where players can restock water and pick up chilled oranges and wrapped apples. “We tell them as they go to the tee that there are sweet-but-healthy snacks out there for them,” Kent explains. “We want them thinking that this place is different.”

Away from the play and practice areas, Kent faced a more formidable task. “We weren’t going to do a full gut of the clubhouse and start from scratch,” he recalls. “It’s like we had a 1992 penny that we were going to shine up really well so that almost all of it looked like new, but there were still a few aspects we knew couldn’t get there.” The biggest one: the facility’s architecture, which is pegged to the period when it was built. To overcome this, Kent gave the clubhouse exterior new paint and trim that sharpened its appearance. And on the inside, they added modern lighting, flooring and furniture. “We made each space a warm environment in its own way,” he notes.

That warmth was carried into the food and beverage outlet as well. “We wanted it to be recognized by hotel guests as an outlet that’s equal to those within the hotel,” Kent says. The result is Plancha, a restaurant and bar with cuisine based on the spices and flavors of Cuba, plus specialty cocktails and a large selection of cigars. “We’re one of the few places in Orlando where you can smoke a cigar in public,” he notes. “For the golf crowd, there are burgers and fries, but players are getting a cloth napkin and service elements that define the Four Seasons experience.”

Even though this was his first reopening project, Kent drew lessons from the three new openings he previously led. “With each one, you have to figure out the exact nature of the experience you want, then set standards for your staff and actively maintain them,” he notes. “Fortunately, being in a destination with so many golf courses meant we had a lot of potential employees. That allowed us to have a deep interviewing process and pick only the best people we saw.”

Since its 2014 rebirth, Tranquilo has been open to outside play, in part to leverage its popularity with Disney resort guests who’ve played the course before. But with Disney developing a few branded, high-end housing communities nearby—the first, called Golden Oak, has 100 of 298 homes already completed—Kent and his bosses are considering whether to eventually end public play in lieu of more members. “It bucks the industry trend to turn off that revenue stream,” Kent says. “But we did our research and saw that there’s a housing boom all around the theme parks. The possibility is there for us to build a strong membership from those developments.”

In the meantime, Kent has made a strong effort to drive more rounds from guests at the 443-room Four Seasons. “Golf must compete for people’s time when they’re in a resort destination, especially with five huge theme parks less than 15 minutes away,” he notes. For the meeting-group segment, then, Kent promotes cocktail receptions around the practice green as a social event. Also being discussed is the creation of a dedicated putting course for sometime next year, which would entice vacationing families to venture over to the golf facility as well.

Another time-sensitive offering Kent introduced is “7 holes for $77,” with kids under 12 playing free and kids aged 13 to 17 playing for half that price. “We promote it on the lobby boards, and it also gives our reservation agents and concierge a reason to mention golf or to respond if a guest says, ‘I’d love to play, but I don’t have time on this trip,’” says Kent. What’s more, a short video that plays on the in-room TVs not only references the deal but also shows a family using the resort’s four-seat golf carts. “Most families will do the theme parks for two or three consecutive days, but then they need a break,” Kent notes. “That’s our opportunity to get them to play, and we’ve done well with it so far.”

Interestingly, the results that Kent has gotten from his efforts over the past three years can be seen most clearly in the comments of those arriving to play Tranquilo for the first time. “Almost every day I hear a customer say at check-in, ‘You guys are priced a little high, but I read the reviews online and had to play here.”

From this, Kent takes away two lessons: First, “customers recognize the little things enough that they’ll take the time to post their experience to GolfAdvisor and other social media sites.” And second, “the experience is the deciding factor for golfers, not price.”

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

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