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January 2018

Back in the Saddle

backinthesaddle.jpgBy Rob Carey

With an array of upgrades across the operation, a talented addition to the team and a refined sales strategy, Saddlebrook Resort is once again trending in the right direction

At the start of 2015, Thomas Dempsey made a bold move with Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel, Florida, 30 minutes north of Tampa. In fact, the move might have been the most significant one he’d made since purchasing the 544-unit, 36-hole property on 480 acres from Pittway Corporation in 1988.

Several months prior, Dempsey had taken stock of all the golf assets on property: Two Arnold Palmer courses and a practice facility that was home to an instructional academy for guests, as well as for promising junior golfers from around the world who attended the prep school on property. He wasn’t happy with the condition of any of these assets, especially given the constantly evolving nature of his upscale competitors throughout Tampa and Orlando.

So Dempsey acted. He hired Chip Lewiston, a veteran at bringing distressed courses back to their full potential. Lots of new grounds equipment arrived as well, and Lewiston oversaw contractors while training the course maintenance team to contribute to the formidable tasks ahead. Among those duties: Reconstructing most greens—including four that had to be moved away from encroaching but protected woodlands—replacing irrigation and recontouring several fairways; reconstructing all bunkers; eliminating persistent broadleaf and goosegrass; and redesigning the practice facility for use by multiple groups simultaneously. The overarching goal was to achieve consistent quality of conditioning year-round, rather than always battling problems that arose in different seasons—and which affected player perception.

By the end of 2016, most of the work was completed. Dempsey’s next move was fairly bold, too. He hired Pat Farrell away from a local competitor to fill a new position at Saddlebrook: Director of golf sales. Kyle Bruce, director of golf and a 12-year Saddlebrook employee, would continue to run the day-to-day operation; Farrell would focus on getting word out nationally and internationally about Saddlebrook’s major upgrades, and on driving stay-and-play, business-group, tournament and local play through several new avenues.

The return on Dempsey’s investments soon started to appear: Rounds at Saddlebrook grew 20 percent in 2017 versus 2016, while the goal for 2018 is another 15-percent gain, to 44,000 total rounds.

Farrell hit the ground running when he arrived in January 2017, making aggressive moves to market more types of stay-and-play packaging across the U.S., in Canada and even overseas.

“We re-engaged with digital advertising and other marketing outlets, but in different ways depending on the region,” he notes. “We’re telling our story at lots of regional golf shows across the Midwest and Canada, and our sales team geo-targets based on the seasons we’re promoting. We’re also communicating more strongly with private clubs up North—reaching out to head pros to get them to bring a group down here, and the pro’s stay is free.”

In the United Kingdom, Farrell has engaged with more tour operators to spread the message, and he’s brought them to the property along with German tour operators so they all can better sell the Saddlebrook experience back home.

In fact, on a recent media familiarization tour cosponsored by Visit Tampa Bay, Farrell wisely leveraged the international nature of Saddlebrook’s preparatory academy: He asked two German student-athletes to play a round and dine with tour operators from their country. “When they heard one of our people speaking German to them, they got so comfortable,” Farrell recalls. “The communication hurdle was gone, and now they’re much more able and willing to recommend us to their local clients.”

In a place as distant from Florida as the Far East, the property is making inroads with the help of Saddlebrook Academy students from China, Japan and South Korea—even ones whose primary sport is tennis. “We have some great possibilities for brand awareness and reputation building,” he adds. “Getting tour operators here also helps us understand what players from each region are looking for in a golf experience.” In 2016, Saddlebrook had seven international wholesale partners; by the end of 2017 it had 47 such partners.

Back in Florida, Farrell engages strongly with Visit Florida and the various in-state and regional golf guides to lure buddy groups from within a four-hour drive—that’s the entire state east of Tallahassee. “From June to November we focus on Floridians,” he explains. “We e-blast and also use Golf Advisor, GolfNow and Paradise Golf to promote daily specials and various package types.”

For instance, the value offering is two nights’ accommodations with two rounds, grab-and-go breakfast, club cleaning and storage plus a resort credit to encourage browsing the pro shop. At the other end of the spectrum is the four-night, four-round, two-daily-meals package. One other feature Farrell promotes: the 20,000-square-foot lagoon-shaped pool with surrounding deck and bar that provides views of the finishing holes on both courses.

Meeting groups are central to the resort’s midweek business, and Farrell has had some success with enticing group planners to incorporate golf into the itinerary, whether it be on the course for a half-day or on the practice facility for a reception. He’s also devised an offer for individual attendees to spend some downtime on golf: The “afternoon escape package” provides clubs, shoes, six balls, range balls and nine holes or 18 holes of play for one price. “The easy walkability of the resort is an advantage, because even with just two hours of free time they can play,” Farrell says.

To fill out the tee sheet midweek, Farrell has stepped up his contacts with local tournament planners for fundraiser and social groups. What’s more, the resort’s marketing team posts regularly to Facebook, Twitter and Instagram with photos and short videos highlighting resort features, recent course conditions and perhaps a swing or course-management tip.

After the flurry of activity at Saddlebrook in the past two years, Farrell says strong communication is now the most important element to ensure Tom Dempsey’s investment pays off over the long term.

“Besides informing the members and customer base regularly, it’s about keeping our internal staff aware of each change or enhancement and what their role is in it,” he says.

“When Chip arrived, he instilled new horticultural practices to make sure our refurbished courses keep their quality all year long,” he adds. “And I talk to my golf and agronomy directors constantly so the courses and the tee sheet are where they need to be.”

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

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