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September 2017

Flying Higher

By Rob Carey

Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa owners were close to shutting the operation down following the Great Recession. Since then, the Illinois facility has completely reversed its fortunes, and golf is a big reason why

The prolonged economic slide that started in late 2008 exacted its toll on hundreds of golf facilities across the country, even those with strong pedigrees. Take Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena, Illinois, as an example. Despite being a mainstay for generations of Chicagoans, with 300 lodging units and 63 holes of golf—including The General, a Roger Packard/Andy North design—“the owners were pretty close to shutting the whole place down” by early 2013, according to golf director Reagan Davis.

Instead, commercial real-estate player Capital Crossing purchased the property and handed the reins to Brickstone LLC, which combined the expertise of Texas-based Touchstone Golf and hotel management firm Bricton Group. Davis, a two-decade veteran of Marriott and Troon Golf, arrived on property shortly thereafter to turn around a golf operation in grave condition. “The clubhouses were falling apart, the edges of the courses were hugely overgrown, and the equipment wasn’t nearly enough to do the job,” he recalls.

With an initial infusion of capital from the new owners, Davis began the trek back to respectability. More than $700,000 went to course equipment and renovation labor. “It’s a selling point to customers that we’re on a 6,800-acre reserve,” he says. “But the native flora had encroached on the courses so much that parts of some tee boxes were unusable and shots that were just 15 yards off the fairway simply disappeared. Players joked that they scored their rounds by how many balls they lost.”

Starting on The General, Davis pushed back native areas by 30 yards and trimmed countless branches to restore the original playability and aesthetic. The work also improved pace of play by nearly 30 minutes. One other marketable feature he introduced: three dozen goats who graze on the steeper hillsides to keep them manageable without mowing.

A mid-six-figure sum also went toward reinvigorating the three clubhouses. The upgrades included: new vinyl and paint outside, new carpeting and trim inside, plus a new restaurant concept at The General’s clubhouse—WoodStones, an airy venue offering wood-fired pizza, hearty mac and cheese and other offerings aimed at the younger local population as much as members and resort guests. On a wider scale, the 80 rooms at the Inn were also renovated in the past year, as were aspects of the 200-plus homes in the rental pool.

Davis acknowledges that the timing of the overhaul was serendipitous. “It’s been a blessing with the economy in that people have loosened up and are spending to play golf again,” he notes. Demand across the three-and-a-half courses has reached 57,000 annual rounds, with 9,000 rounds coming from 140 members—up from just 30 members in 2013. Further, “we have about 300 more players who already belong to a club closer to home but come here a lot on weekends or on packages,” Davis adds.

One other stroke of good fortune: The recent success of PGA Tour players from the Midwest has raised golf’s profile among younger folks in the region. “Steve Stricker has boosted interest from Wisconsin, and Zach Johnson has helped make Cedar Rapids and Quad Cities in Iowa go crazy for golf,” Davis notes. “We have lots of rounds coming from those places now.”

Eagle Ridge’s momentum is such that its three pro shops regularly field calls from the biggest-name golf facilities in the Midwest looking for rate information. Even on summer weekends, Eagle Ridge charges about half the rate of the region’s most widely known destination courses.

However, the success of Eagle Ridge wouldn’t have reached its present point simply because ownership spent a pile of money at a favorable moment. The marketing initiatives implemented by Davis—in conjunction with the resort’s other manager—have maximized the public’s interest in the facility’s rebirth. For instance, May and June offer a variety of golf packages, most of which include value-added amenities such as discounted pontoon boat rentals or horse riding.

To get more city residents to think about the resort just as summer begins, Eagle Ridge not only has a presence in Chicago newspapers and magazines, but its marketing team also pitches local TV stations regularly. One recent hit: Morning program Windy City Live aired live from the Great Galena Balloon Race that the resort coordinates to benefit the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. “We have about a dozen hot-air balloons launch from the practice range, and it’s coupled with a wine and food tasting,” Davis explains. “We get at least a few thousand people in person in addition to the TV coverage.” For other local programs, Davis and his marketers successfully tout the “escape the city heat” and “quick getaway to nature” angles.

In the off-season, Davis and his golf staff drive to regional golf shows. “Chicago is our biggest focus, but we do events in Iowa plus the Milwaukee and Madison shows,” he says. “We emphasize that those cities are just about the same distance from Eagle Ridge as is Chicago—many residents don’t know that.” And starting this fall, Davis has off-season golf activities to promote in addition to Eagle Ridge’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating offerings. “Come October, we’ll have a golf studio with a simulator for lessons, club fitting and full rounds on 16 layouts,” he notes. “It’s one more way to entice golfers to bring the family for a mini-vacation in the cold months.”

The combination of capital infusion and dedicated legwork over the past four years has restored Eagle Ridge’s health. “Last year was our best since the Great Recession, and we gave all employees a raise—some had not seen one for at least a few years,” Davis says. With the revenue curve bending upward, “the thing I am most proud of is that we did the recent lodging renovations without having to ask the owners for any more money; it came from us reinvesting some of our revenue.”

Even so, Davis has also learned that managers and owners must not let any physical aspect of a golf and hospitality property stand still for even a few years. “We have to keep communicating to our owners the areas of momentum we’re seeing, so that they keep capital dollars flowing and no areas become dated,” he stresses. “There’s been so much hotel growth that people now walk into budget-chain properties and expect things to be new—they’ll drive past the property that has been open for two years for the one that just opened. Customers like new and clean, plus good customer service. That’s what will keep properties like ours above water when the market flattens out.”  

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

 

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