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March 2018

Taming The Beast

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By Rob Carey

Director of golf Kevin McKinley keeps Treetops Resort’s 81-hole operation on point and in demand with superior customer service—and a novel stay-and-play strategy.

What could be tougher than overseeing 65 employees across two clubhouses that service five courses, and handling more than 100,000 rounds over a six-month season? One answer: Changing the sales approach to double rounds and revenue in seven years. Somehow, Kevin McKinley has managed to do all these things.

Of course, it wasn’t easy. Upon his arrival at Treetops Resort in Northern Michigan in 2004, McKinley actually contended
with a steady drop in play right through 2010. “We saw the nasty trend that developed, where people would wait until the last minute to book rounds in order to get better prices,” he recalls. “We had to figure out how to reverse that behavior or it would kill us off .”

So for 2011, the director of golf and ski operations implemented a new strategy. “Before the season began, we offered a stay-and-play package with a lower rate than we had ever done—but it was only available on our website for five days and had to be fully paid at that time,” McKinley notes. “We also went to the instate golf shows with similar deals that were available
only during the show.”

The result: Before anyone stuck a tee in the ground in 2011, Treetops had 60 percent of the previous year’s total rounds already on the books, a figure that’s been matched almost every year since. And with rates edging higher as the season progresses, golfers have learned to book their stay-and-play at the 236-unit resort as early as possible. What’s more, McKinley has discovered that players who pre-pay for packages generally spend more on F&B, merchandise and other discretionary items than do other players. As for those customers who still solicit tee times just a few days out, Treetops’ golf shop has the leverage it needs to control pricing. “We’re no longer saying to them, ‘We have room for you from 9 a.m. until 1
p.m.,’ ” recalls McKinley. “Now we say, ‘There’s nothing available until 12:30 and we’re full again after 2. So if you want to play in that window, here is the price.’ And if they don’t like it, we can let them walk away.” But with many of these inquiries representing groups of eight to 16 players who are staying at nearby private residences or at non-resort hotels, Treetops successfully converts a good percentage of this last-minute business on its terms.

Another factor that’s driven the resort’s strong growth in rounds and revenue is engaging out-of-state players through consortium marketing. Under the moniker of “America’s Summer Golf Capital,” 10 Northern Michigan resorts spread their message of course quantity and quality in big cities across the country. For his part, “I make sure we have package offerings and prices across a wide range, because this is the luxury part of the market that tells us our courses would be three times the price if they were located near them,” McKinley says. “We’ve seen our percentage of fly-in players go up, so it works to pool our money with other properties for destination awareness.”

For all these strategies to succeed, however, one other element is critical: Treetops must drive a high rate of repeat business year over year. And that’s where McKinley’s attention to customer service comes in—a task made especially daunting by
the volume across the facility.

With 63 holes going out of the Treetops North clubhouse, “we can have an 800-round Friday followed by a 900-round Saturday here,” he notes. “While we do get a lot of same-day replay, every part of the operation must be buttoned up to move 600 players through their day smoothly.”

For all golf groups, McKinley has assistant pros contact the leader two weeks out to see if they’ll need signage, scoring
or other services, and to set up the leader to singlehandedly check in the entire prepaid group on each day of play.

“Clubhouse traffic can be a great thing and it can be a terrible thing, so we try to manage it,” McKinley says. “We only have two counter terminals for check-in because we want to deal with people in person—but not all of them at once.” To get each player inside at least briefly, though, package rounds come with a bag of practice balls handed out in the shop. The result:
“Our merchandise sales are really strong,” McKinley says.

What’s more, McKinley works the bag drop during tournaments and other especially busy times, hustling alongside his subordinates. “I forget how much I love doing it, because I have so much desk time and behind-the-scenes work,” he says. “It’s great to take an hour and interact with people and lead by example. Bag drop is the only place where every golfer must
come through, so it’s our best chance to provide knowledgeable and friendly service that leaves an impression.”

The other offering that cements the customer experience is lunch. While each course’s halfway house is substantial, McKinley admits that the grill room at Treetops North clubhouse is rather small.

Then again, player traffic is spread out just enough that the wait staff can provide personalized service. “The 24-person group playing at 7:30 a.m. is eating at noon and replaying at 1:15 p.m., and then the 9 a.m. group comes through at 1:30 and tees off at 2:45,” he notes. “It’s rocking and rolling all day long, but it’s not too much that we can’t show everyone we’re happy to be hosting them.”

In return, McKinley shows his appreciation of conscientious employees with consistent feedback plus occasional departmental breakfasts or dinners. And while he tries hard to hang onto his best employees, his success at
training them to handle the busy operation has resulted in no fewer than 16 of the 40 PGA professionals and apprentices
he’s overseen accepting roles elsewhere as director of instruction, head pro and even general manager.

“It’s fun to see an employee’s face the first day they deal with a 900-round day here,” he says. “But after a while, they look at other facilities and think, ‘That would be a piece of cake.’ And the other facilities understand that, too.”

In 2018, McKinley’s biggest challenge is finding front-line staff for both the clubhouse and the grounds. “The H2B visa program has worked well because we’ve gotten people who don’t shy away from the grunt work that makes our courses
stand out,” he says. “But with all the immigration debates presently going on in Washington, we don’t know what
it will mean for us.”

In any case, McKinley’s approach to Treetops’ golf operation is always guided by his core values. “There were a few times in my career where I compromised on what I believed in to solve a problem at that moment, and most times it bit me in the tail,” he says. “So I would tell other managers to not compromise on those—write them down, instill them in your people and live by them so that your people see you abiding by them.”

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

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