Rolling on the River

By | March 30th, 2017

The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort, Shawnee on Delaware, Pa.

By expanding its reach as a preferred destination while aggressively promoting a new membership option, The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort is blending the best of all worlds.

America’s renewed interest in outdoor recreation has combined with the club and resort business’ revived emphasis on family-focused activities to create new opportunities for some of the country’s most traditional vacation-destination venues.

This is particularly evident in areas such as Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, where a number of impressive hotels were built a century or so ago around rivers and lakes, natural springs, ski mountains, golf courses and other features, to offer places where people from New York, Philadelphia and other population- and pollution-choked Eastern urban centers could escape to in just an hour or two’s time for some badly needed fresh air and a little personal space.

AT A GLANCE
The Shawnee Inn and Golf ResortLocation: Shawnee on Delaware, Pa.
Founded: 1911 (as Buckwood Inn; renamed The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort in 1994)
Golf Holes: 45
Course Designers: A. W. Tillinghast (1911); Bill Diddle (1963); Jack Nicklaus (1996, Signature Design Course, Great Bear Golf Club)
General Manager: Rob Howell
Assistant General Manager: Tara Brinker
Director of Golf: Steve Taggart
General Manager/Director of Golf (Great Bear Golf Club): Joe Manley
Head Golf Professional: Jason Hartline
Executive Chef: Dean Gardner
Public Relations Coordinator: Jeromy Wo

As new vacation attractions were then created by Disney and others through the rest of the country, the Poconos began to fall out of favor as a front-of-mind family-oriented destination, and the region tried to reinvent itself in other ways, including as a honeymoon spot known for “heart-shaped tubs.”

Recently, however, as travel hassles and soaring costs have made many Americans reconsider how far they really want, or need, to go to get maximum value from their vacation time and expenditures, the Pocono region has drawn renewed interest from hospitality investors who have taken a new look at how it is uniquely positioned to offer immense, year-round drawing power for the still-huge population base that resides within a 200-mile radius.

This investment interest has included new players from the casino and waterpark segments, including a $350 million, African-themed, 457-room property opened in 2015 by Kalahari Resorts in the town of Pocono Mountains, Pa., and a new “Galactic Snowtubing” attraction that was opened this past December by the operators of the Camelback Mountain resort in Tannersville, Pa., on the heels of $163 million that had already been pumped into that property.

At the same time, however, some of the area’s most traditional properties aren’t standing by idly, despite the added challenges that come from having to maintain and operate older (in some cases historic) facilities. The rebranding and renovation of the 115-year-old Inn at Pocono Manor as the Pocono Manor Resort & Spa is just the latest example of how a venerable (some might say tired) site in the region has received renewed attention and a significant infusion of capital.

A Poconos Mountain property that was once a playground for Arnold Palmer (left) and Jackie Gleason is now building on its traditions while creating new reasons for families and golfers to discover all that it has to offer.

Even in cases where big bucks can’t or won’t be spent, long-established Pocono properties are being energized with a new strategic vigor. Some of the most notable developments in this regard have come from The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort in Shawnee on Delaware, Pa., which has taken steps to expand its appeal, and reach, as a preferred family-friendly year-round vacation destination, while also aggressively promoting a new membership component.

Strong Ties to the Game
As its name indicates, The Shawnee Inn and Golf Resort is also defying trends by continuing to emphasize golf as a core offer, both for guests and members. While golf in the Poconos, both public and private, has not been immune to the same challenges that have affected its growth throughout the country, Shawnee does have the benefit of deep ties to the game that its management feels can give it a distinct edge over other options in the region.

The resort was created in 1904 by C. C. Worthington, a wealthy industrialist who made his fortune in pumps and automobiles. Worthington commissioned A. W. Tillinghast to design the first course on the property, and his invitation to pro golfers to compete on the course is credited with leading to the early meetings that fostered the founding of the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA).

Village of Shawnee map

The Tillinghast course was also used for the 1938 PGA Championship, and it stayed in favor throughout the 1960s with pros like Arnold Palmer, who frequently played matches on it with golf-loving celebrities like Jackie Gleason.

In 1977, the property was acquired by its current owners, Charles and Ginny Kirkwood and their family. The Kirkwoods are credited with taking the steps needed to operate cost-effectively on a year-round basis, by helping with the development of nearby attractions for resort guests, including skiing, an indoor waterpark and even an acclaimed theater playhouse.

Golf certainly did not get neglected amid all of the diversification, however. The current name (with the addition of Golf Resort) was adopted in 1994, and golf-related investments since then have included opening the Tillinghast Golf Academy for instruction, and creating a six-hole, chip-and-putt course and driving range that is lighted for night play.

Today, Shawnee guests have access to 45 golf holes. Twenty-seven surround the Inn, including the original Tillinghast design (one of only two of his courses that are open to the public). Twenty-four of those holes are located on an island in the Delaware River and are only accessible via a temporary bridge that the resort’s staff must dismantle in the fall and then reassemble the following spring. But in 2012, to provide an additional option for playing a quality course that could also be used for year-round play as weather permitted, the Kirkwood family bought the Great Bear Golf Club in nearby East Stroudsburg, Pa., which features a Jack Nicklaus Signature Design course that was built in 1996.

Shawnee Inn management continues to find ways, and room, to add contemporary appeal to the traditional attractions on its property, including riverside “glamping.”

Coming Full Circle
After Great Bear was purchased, it was operated separately as a sister course, with some sharing of resources and management. But in the fall of 2016, it was announced that all 45 holes would be merged into one entity that would be made available to resort guests—and that a new membership option was also being created, under the name of Shawnee Country Club.

The change was characterized as a “merger” that created a new “club,” because while both properties offered primarily public play, they each did have membership components. On the Inn’s side, its membership history harkened back to the earliest days of the property; even before The Shawnee Inn name had been created, there had been a Shawnee Country Club (which at one time had Sam Snead serve as its touring pro). In electing to reemphasize that name, and logo, for the new combined membership, the property also saw an opportunity to reinforce its long and rich history with golf.

“Our decision to merge the membership of Great Bear and Shawnee Country Club was many years in the making,” said Steve Taggart, Director of Golf, when making the announcement. “We feel that joining two of the finest courses in the area under the same membership gives us the opportunity to position Shawnee Country Club as the best option in the area when choosing a golf membership.”

Shawnee Inn offers an on-site manufacturing/tour/entertainment venue for its proprietary craft beer.

And that “area,” says Joe Manley, who has served as Great Bear’s General Manager and Director of Golf, has pretty extensive boundaries—he and others on the Shawnee team now plan to get the word out at golf shows as far north and east as Connecticut and Long Island, and as far south as Philadelphia and Delaware, to tout the benefits of membership in the “new” Shawnee CC. Already since the announcement of the “merger,” Manley says, there has been strong response to the appeal of unlimited play and a host of other discounts and access privileges at both properties, and he is confident that the goal of full membership in the 225-250 range is well within reach.

Always a Place
While golfers who live within a few hours’ drive are being encouraged to use the two properties as their regular “home courses” through a Shawnee CC membership, plenty of attention is also being paid to finding ways to get the Inn, and all of the attractions that surround it, on more peoples’ maps as a preferred vacation or meeting destination.

While the property has the distinction of being the only resort that sits on the banks of the Delaware River, from the start the resort’s developers—as evidenced by how they were undeterred in finding a way to have Tillinghast take his golf course design onto the island—haven’t let the water define boundaries or limitations.

In 2015, management found an area on the island to introduce “glamping” (glamorous camping). The activity sold out, prompting Shawnee management to find room for more spots, this time within walking distance of the Inn and in between existing recreation facilities, tennis courts, boat docks and guest cottages, where the well-appointed tents could be pitched.

Most of Shawnee’s A. W. Tillinghast-designed golf course (one of only two from all that he designed that are open for public play) is located on an island in the Delaware River that is only accessible via a temporary bridge that must be dismantled by the resort staff each fall and rebuilt each spring.

The resort now offers a total of six glamping sites, and as General Manager Rob Howell told C&RB last year (“The Glamorous Outdoors,” March 2016), the amenity has proved to have “all over the map” appeal, being used by families who want to give their kids a more gentle introduction to camping, as well as by couples for unique anniversary celebrations and “girls’ getaway” groups who combine the activity with spa services and a winery tour.

Guests are also surprised to find a working craft brewery on the property—and especially one that is located directly behind the original Inn. But the ShawneeCraft Brewery has also proved to be immediately popular, not only for its accessibility, but also because it offers tours and houses a Tap Room that features food and live music on the weekends and an open mic/trivia night on Thursdays. ShawneeCraft beer is also offered at the resort’s dining venues and other local establishments, further extending the resort’s brand.

The limitation that may finally cause the Shawnee team to have to stop introducing new ideas and activities, in fact, could be alphabetical—the “key to amenities” on its property map now uses A through U to mark the full range of offerings that are identified and described.

Shawnee’s ownership acquired semi-private Great Bear GC in nearby East Stroudburg, Pa., in 2012 and has since operated it as a sister course. Last fall, it was announced that the membership components of both the resort and Great Bear would be merged into Shawnee Country Club, an identity that has deep roots in the property’s history (Sam Snead once represented Shawnee CC as a touring pro).

Fanning the Flame
Efforts to extend the Shawnee brand also gain continuous fuel from an active social media presence that encourages photo postings and comments throughout, and after, a guest’s experience. The comments are scrolled on the property’s mobile app and website (www.shawneeinn.com), and those posting them are often rewarded with discount offers.

Shawnee’s extensive communication and outreach efforts also include regular blog postings that highlight the full variety of activities available when visiting the property—and also what’s not, for those who might still harbor outdated impressions of what going to a Poconos resort would involve.

A recent blog post promoting a Valentine’s Day getaway, for example, was headlined “No Heart-Shaped Tubs Here,” before offering less-cliched suggestions that included exploring the outdoors (guided hikes are offered throughout the year), hitting the slopes (at the nearby Shawnee Mountain Ski Area) or having s’mores around one of the fire pits on the Inn’s Grand Lawn.

And guests’ posted comments have reinforced how that may be proving to be a much more effective image for Shawnee and the region—as well as how more people may be rethinking their approaches to vacation and getaway planning, to shift from always seeking to explore new places and instead now leaning toward sticking with tried-and-true properties that promise, and can deliver, a wealth of fresh experiences.

“We got engaged to get married at your campfire s’mores, and we come back every year for our anniversary,” one guest wrote. “We love Shawnee and will always come there.” Added another: “One of our favorite weekend getaway spots. We try to get there once every winter. Beautiful grounds, friendly and accommodating staff—we will be back next year!”

The comments also affirm what Howell sees as keys to success in today’s resort environment, even for a property with such a rich history and solid golf base as Shawnee. “Golf will be the number-one driver of room nights for us,” he says. “But we have to emphasize how much more there is to do here. As our slogan says, ‘So much or so little to do. It’s your choice.’”

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