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November 2017

The Wigwam Way

thewigwamway.jpg‭By constantly emphasizing how it’s different from its local competitors, one of the oldest resort golf facilities in the Phoenix and Scottsdale valley has enjoyed several years of growth

Even in a golf mecca like the Phoenix and Scottsdale area, a 25 percent growth in rounds and the doubling of membership in seven years is an impressive feat. But since The Wigwam resort and its 54 holes of golf were purchased in 2010 by JDM Partners—aka, Jerry Colangelo, David Eaton and Mel Schultz—that’s precisely its track record. For an 88-year-old resort that’s in the west valley, a solid 45-minute drive from many of the newer and more well-known layouts in Scottsdale, the performance figures are that much more notable.

Overseeing the operation since 2010 is golf director Leo Simonetta, a 30-year Valley resident but a native of suburban Philadelphia. That mix of geographic experience helps him relate to every segment of golfer targeted by The Wigwam: snowbird members, resort guests and local players. Especially because The Wigwam’s three courses—two being R.T. Jones, Sr., layouts designed in 1964 for Goodyear Company to rival Ohio’s Firestone Country Club—are parkland rather than typical desert designs, Simonetta proactively touts the quality of the playing experience when interacting with members and guests, when visiting corporate offices across the valley, and across social media.

In addition, Simonetta led the initiative a few years back to modernize the courses; the result has been solid online reviews and additional fodder for his marketing efforts. Specifically, the famed Gold Course went from 89 bunkers to just 37, while the Blue Course (now called Patriot) got similar treatment, with some guidance from local resident Tom Lehman.

“I was so happy when the first thing Tom said was, ‘Why are all these bunkers out here?’ because we were thinking the same thing,” Simonetta recalls. “The landing areas were designed for persimmon heads and balata balls, and those bunkers at 210 yards were only punishing 20-handicappers and slowing down play.” By removing them and creating new pinch points 250 yards to 280 yards out, the course maintained its championship pedigree and still became friendlier. “The members don’t score better, but they’re much happier,” Simonetta adds.

Other elements that make members happy are the variety of on-site activities included in a golf membership, plus playing privileges at Arizona Biltmore Resort in the East Valley. “We’ve tailored membership to the whole family,” Simonetta says. The monthly dues include course play and practice-area use, but also tennis, fitness center and the resort pools for spouses plus children under age 23. “We see so many people coming to play five or six holes, often with their kids, and then use the pool or have a meal. Especially for couples under age 40, the value is there.”

The Wigwam was also the first valley resort to offer Footgolf in the late afternoon. “The older members say it’s the greatest thing because they could never get the grandkids to come to the course with them,” he adds. “Now they can play nine holes of golf while the kids play Footgolf alongside them.”

It’s also a means of converting the next generation into traditional golfers, along with the efforts of head instructor and former NCAA individual champion Warren Schutte. Inside his academy, Schutte has a wall of photos that feature students of his signing their golf-scholarship agreements. “He coaches kids on how to get it around the course in their own way,” Simonetta says. “It’s so motivating to kids and parents alike to see his approach, and to see the results on that wall.” And to give back to the community as well as broaden the public’s awareness of the facility, The Wigwam will host The First Tee program come January 2018.

For package business, Simonetta does well with an unlimited-play package in the fall and spring shoulder seasons while still encouraging players to experience desert golf at least once while there. “We promote our parkland feel and that you won’t lose many balls because you can punch out from our rough areas rather lose them in the desert,” he notes. “But we have informal partnerships with several nearby tracks to push players to each other in order to enjoy the variety. Players will then come back to us on a future package and try a different desert course.”

In fact, Simonetta has his staff advise players on how to get the ball around desert layouts. “If you hit the same clubs there as you do on our courses, it puts a lot of pressure on your game. Instead, use clubs that get you to the widest parts of a desert course; there’s room out there if you look for it.”

Interestingly, The Wigwam gets strong weekend-staycation golf package demand in the shoulder season. “People in Scottsdale feel like they’re getting out of town when they come here,” Simonetta says. “And the price is such that we see some families and buddy groups two or three times in a season.”

With 60 percent of The Wigwam’s 90,000 annual rounds coming from daily-fee and fundraiser-tournament play—most of it outside of high season—Simonetta is especially focused on differentiating his facility from local competitors. For instance, “bounce back” rates where players receive a discount for playing again within 30 days have proven popular, as have value-added specials that provide a sleeve of balls or other product while maintaining rate integrity.

“When it’s more than 100 degrees or around the overseeding period, we’re willing to do a lot to get people to play,” Simonetta says. “We tried different offers to find what works, and combine those with the message that there’s plenty of shade here to keep you more comfortable.” One offer that’s eye-catching: Rounds played after 9 a.m. in July and August receive a shop-merchandise credit equal to the green fee. Simonetta says there’s still a margin to be made with the offer, and “players need to eat and drink a lot on days like that, so some revenue is better than none.”

For tournament business, Simonetta actively monitors event schedules at other valley facilities and invites the organizers for a day at The Wigwam a few weeks after their event takes place. He notes that many organizers don’t realize resorts are open to play beyond members and in-house guests. “Getting them on property is definitely the strongest selling tool,” he posits. “I spend a lot of time in corporate and nonprofit offices in Phoenix to explain our atmosphere and show them photos on our website, with the goal of getting them to experience it in person.”

Simonetta also monitors review sites such as Yelp and GolfAdvisor every day for customer comments that deserve follow-up. “If there was a challenge for a customer and they take the time to write about it, we make sure to respond,” he notes. “It’s amazing how much of an impact that makes. Most people say, ‘I never expected to hear from you—I appreciate it.’ Many of them end up as loyal customers and promote us to others.”

To maximize the number of customers who become ambassadors for the resort within their social circles, Simonetta asks his staff of 85 full- and part-time employees to be ambassadors themselves. “There are a lot of courses to play in this area, so nobody has to come here. It costs nothing for us to be pleasant, upbeat and proactive, so that has to be part of our value proposition. Folks will come back where they feel welcome and appreciated. Everyone wants to feel like Norm on the TV show ‘Cheers,’ right?”

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

 

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