and Jamie L. Scheppers, Associate Editor Photography by Wood Sabold
Golf As A Greeting Card
In the modest conference room of Recycled Paper Greetings, headquartered in an equally modest building (a former dairy) on Chicago’s North Side, the walls hold slotted boards on which dozens of greeting cards are displayed and categorized by type of occasion or sentiment (anniversary, belated birthday, etc.). Each card has an information tab that summarizes a host of quantifiable details about its history, including how long it has been on the market, how it has scored in consumer studies for its humor or sentiment, and most importantly, how it ranks in revenue production over its lifetime.
To the uninitiated, this at first might seem to be a bit of micromanaging overkill. Hey, you don’t need a lot of statistics to tell you if a greeting card is a winner; it’s either funny or it’s not, it either strikes the right nerve or it doesn’t.
But of course, you don’t build a highly successful greeting card business—as Mike Keiser and his college roommate did after founding Recycled Paper Greetings in 1971—on gut feelings alone. And the same goes for golf courses and resort properties.
Keiser says he “purposely didn’t do a market study” when planning Bandon Dunes, “because I felt it would conclude there was no market.” He also professes surprise at how quickly the golfing world took to his offer to provide an authentic links experience in what he calls a “quite remote” part of the country.
“Who knew America was crying out for this?” Keiser says. “And we’ve still only gotten around the edges of the full level of interest, I think. It appears that only the most ‘avid of the avid’ have come [to Bandon Dunes] so far, and there are thousands more that we can still attract.”
But make no mistake, Keiser certainly did his homework as he pursued his dream in building Bandon Dunes. And from the beginning, he has directed its growth through the same combination of instincts and attention to detail that led to his success in the greeting card business.
For example, a major factor contributing to Bandon’s immediate appeal came from the glowing reviews and rankings it received, pretty much from day one, in leading golf publications. These did not come about entirely by chance; in fact, special advance “greetings from Bandon, wish you were here” messages were sent out that helped to ensure the praise and publicity.
“The site itself was so photogenic, from the early days of development we made it a point to send pictures to [leading golf] writers,” Keiser relates. “It captured their fancy and they made it a point to get out to see it and play it. Because it was public, they became especially passionate in wanting to tell their readers about what they had experienced—their appetite for finding quality in a public setting is voracious. Some were tracking and anticipating [Bandon’s] development for years before we even opened.”
The most direct parallel between the two businesses, though, can be drawn through the personality that Keiser was determined to instill in his new resort. “For a full year prior to opening, our mantra was that providing the proper experience would hinge on having people who were genuine, sincere, warm, authentic and friendly,” he says.
Market studies or consumer research aren’t needed to know that capturing those qualities makes for a great greeting card—and an even greater resort. —JB
On a postcard-perfect August Friday morning along the southern Oregon coast, General Manager Hank Hickox and staff at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort are preparing to serve golfers and guests during another peak-season weekend. Which means they’ll keep things in the same high gear they’ve been using 24/7 since the start of summer.
“High gear” Bandon-style, though, is decidedly quieter and more efficient than when most clubs and resorts run full-out. On this serene morning, for example, Hickox and staff suddenly get word that a convoy of classic cars is up the road and would like to make an impromptu stop at Bandon, as part of an antique car club’s trip down the coast to California and Pebble Beach.
Hearing of the cars’ impending arrival, Hickox pulls on a jacket and goes out to the circle in front of the clubhouse. Within minutes he’s greeting the car owners and directing them into parking spots, while ensuring that their unexpected arrival doesn’t disrupt the schedules of the many golfers and guests just now completing early rounds, checking in or out of the resort, looking to grab a late breakfast or early lunch, or preparing to tee off for either the first or second time of the day.
The car club members stay for an hour or so as Hickox and staff show them around, answer questions, and make sure their shopping needs are fully met in the Bandon golf shop. After an equally well-orchestrated departure sends the cars back on their way down the coast, no one on the staff collapses in relief or shows any sign that the unplanned visit has been at all stressful.
Rather, everyone calmly returns to their regular duties, and Bandon Dunes keeps running as quietly and smoothly as the finely tuned classic cars themselves. Hickox later describes the event as just part of dealing with the “ongoing animation” that comes with managing such a popular property. Most golfers and guests, in fact, had no idea the cars’ visit was a surprise, and instead were thrilled to see them as just one more unique aspect of the Bandon Dunes experience.
Taking On More In Stride
What’s most impressive is that the Bandon Dunes staff has been able to continue to perform in this not-missing-a-beat fashion during a year when the resort has expanded significantly. Now in just its sixth year of operation since making its spectacular debut in 1999, Bandon Dunes opened a new, third 18-hole course on the property this year (Bandon Trails, to join the original Bandon Dunes and Pacific Dunes, which opened in 2001). The resort also opened a new Trails End clubhouse this year in conjunction with the new course, reopened an expanded Gallery restaurant, and opened a third lodging facility, the 21-unit, 64-bedroom Grove Cottages. Demand has grown right in step with the expansions, so that anyone looking for a tee time or room at the last minute is still likely to find either in short supply.
When Bandon first opened, it was the thrill of oceanside links golf that rightfully elevated the course and resort to immediate status as one of the truly memorable club experiences. But as the level of not only rounds played, but nights stayed, meals served, and Bandon merchandise sold has continued to climb at eye-opening levels, the success of the golf experience at the resort has become as closely tied to who’s providing it as to the course itself. “I now get as many, if not more, compliments about our people as about the golf,” says owner Mike Keiser.
Hickox makes the same observation: “While everything here still centers around the golf experience, and always will, when customers write to us they now talk about the staff as much as the courses,” he says. “That tells us the two can’t be separated and are equally important in creating and preserving the special experience that we want al
l golfers and guests to have.”
Like the Bandon Dunes courses themselves—carved out of gorse-covered property that lay undeveloped for decades—the management structure and style of the resort has been shaped through fresh approaches and an attitude of “whatever it takes to get it done right.” As Mike Keiser assembled the team that could help him bring his vision for Bandon to life, he only asked that they adhere to two guiding principles: First, provide the experience of “golf as it was meant to be,” a mantra that seeks to capture and evoke the links-based origins and challenges of the game as purely and faithfully as possible. And second, ensure that the Bandon experience would always be available to anyone in the golfing public who wanted to come and play.
In pursuing these principles, Keiser saw the value of drawing on talents and insights from beyond the usual scope of conventional country club or golf experiences. For example, to develop the property he partnered with Howard McKee, a native Oregonian and a land planner and architect. While McKee is not a golfer, he convinced Keiser that even a course designed to attract golf purists, no matter how spectacular and challenging, would benefit from non-golf-related amenities (food and lodging) that could be tastefully introduced into the surroundings and not detract from, but actually enhance, the experience.
“I was determined at first, after we’d bought the property, that it would succeed on the basis of the golf course only—we’d operate out of a double-wide trailer and see who came,” says Keiser. “Howard convinced me that if we had more amenities, designed to fit in with and complement the course, rather than overwhelm it, we’d be more likely to provide a memorable and fulfilling golf experience.”
For operations management at Bandon Dunes, Keiser turned to KemperSports Management. “I knew I couldn’t manage it on my own,” says Keiser. “[Kemper was] a natural choice; they were Chicago-based, and I had partnered with them in a number of other golf projects.”
Here again, however, there was a departure from conventional practices. Josh Lesnik, son of KemperSports President Steve Lesnik, was tapped to be the first General Manager at Bandon Dunes, even though he had no previous experience managing a club or resort property. “He had excellent business sense and good people skills and judgment,” Keiser says. “Those were far more important than [property management] experience, especially since we were opening a property unlike anything else that currently existed.”
For Lesnik, his new role didn’t require drawing on any previous experience to stay on message. “Mike had a clear vision of what he wanted, and our job was to make sure we didn’t waver from that,” he says. In tandem with Jim Seeley, another senior operations officer at KemperSports, the management team was quickly faced with challenges and decisions unlike anything related to other clubs and resorts managed by their company.
“I was the most vocal in challenging the feeling that this should be a walking-only course,” Seeley recalls. “If we didn’t allow golf carts, I felt, we’d never get repeat players, especially with such naturally rugged terrain. I’m happy to now say I was voted down, because boy, was I wrong.”
Seeley also took the lead in taking on the challenges presented by the oceanside grasses. “It’s all fescue, with just a bit of colonial bentgrass,” he says. “It’s a completely different character—both for playing and maintaining—than what’s typical for American parkland courses. It was a challenge just to find superintendents experienced with these [grasses]. Eventually, we just decided to ‘grow our own’ [superintendents]; we found up-and-coming talent and sent them to the British Isles, to learn from greenskeepers there about what it takes to maintain a true links course.”
Another decision that needed to be made early on was how to provide caddies—an especially critical consideration for a course where carts would not be allowed (exceptions are made only in cases of physical disabilities).
“We looked at using an outside caddie management service, but decided to keep it in our own bailiwick,” Seeley says. “Caddies spend more time with our guests than any other individuals on the staff, so it was critical that we ensure that they are professional, friendly, and good spokespersons.”
Bandon now has a caddie management program that Seeley feels is “as large and as creative as any to be found”; some 325 caddies are now covered by it, Hickox says. As if the opportunity to be on the Bandon courses and make very good money helping guests negotiate its links aren’t enticements enough, the resort provides perks such as special
lounges and snack bars, uniforms and transportation to assigned courses, and tuition reimbursement.
“We treat ‘em well, and in return they help ensure a good experience for golfers who come here having never played this kind of course or encountered these conditions,” Hickox says.
Regarding those conditions, it should be noted that one pleasant discovery that has been made as experience has been gained with the Bandon site is that the notorious coastal Oregon weather has actually proved to quite tolerable—so much so that Bandon operates year-round.
“We have been amazed by how good the weather has proved to be,” says Keiser. “Even when it does rain, it often clears in 10 minutes. There really are only two touch-and-go months, December and January. When people ask me if June is a good time to go, I tell them yes—but February through May are at least as good.”
The surprisingly favorable climate hasn’t stopped the resort, though, from designing and marketing what Hickox calls “the ultimate caddie rainsuit. We know people who aren’t that familiar with how good the weather actually is will think, ‘If the caddies at Bandon Dunes wear it, it must be some rainsuit,’” he says. “It retails for $450, and we can’t keep them on the rack.”
Something for Everyone
Caddies aren’t singled out for preferential treatment among Bandon Dunes personnel, of course. The entire resort staff (now approaching 475 people) is eligible for benefits such as profit-sharing that does not require a matching employee contribution, and “natal gifts” through which $1,000 is put into a college fund six months after any employee or caddy has a child.
There are also many special programs for resort staff that have been instituted by Hickox, who was brought in as General Manager in 2000 when Lesnik returned to KemperSports’ corporate offices, after it became clear that Bandon’s popularity and growth would require someone with extensive hospitality experience to be on site. A native Oregonian, Hickox had managed a variety of hotel and resort properties in challenging locales throughout the world, including Hawaii, Micronesia, Kiawah Island, Napa Valley, Nevada and upstate New York.
“We didn’t have many overnight rooms at other KemperSports properties, certainly not to the extent that we quickly saw we would need to add them at Bandon [which now has over 200 rooms],” Lesnik says. “So we felt we needed to bring in a hospitality pro to complement [Kemper’s] knowledge and abilities on the golf side. It&rsq
uo;s proved to be a good blend of talent, because Hank knows how to quarterback all that’s involved with an operation of this size.”
Hickox actually likens the job to “running a small city,” and uses techniques like these to try to maintain a small-town touch while keeping everyone focused and motivated:
• A “Seasonal Survivors Club” that encourages part-time and seasonal help to return each year. “This is not for students who are summer help, it’s for about 150 part-time rangers, pro shop sales clerks, housekeeping and wait staff, and grounds maintenance workers who give us a full six months, from May through October, each year,” says Hickox. “Many are retired seniors for whom this has become a second profession. We make sure they know they are valued and try to reward them for their loyalty. Some now have sweatshirts with six “Survivor” rings on the sleeve—it’s become a source of great pride.”
• “Manager on Duty” shifts through which each salaried staffer must be on site as the “go-to person” for one eight-hour period once a month. “It teaches how to muster resources and direct others when needed,” says Hickox, “and helps managers who don’t otherwise interact with other departments understand why, for example, sometimes tee times really do have to be adjusted when a guest’s plans change. We also require every Manager on Duty to have a meal in one of the restaurants during their shift, so they can experience things from the guest’s perspective.”
• Hot meals made available to every staff member midway through their shifts. “I learned long ago that being hungry detracts from the ability to provide service,” says Hickox.
• Personal orientations between Hickox and each new employee. “I just think it’s always very important to shake their hands and make eye contact, as an important initial foundation for their work here,” he says.
As a native of the region, Hickox also thinks the nature of Oregon employees is a big contributing factor to Bandon’s special brand of service. “This is an area that hadn’t had a lot of bright stories for a while,” he relates. “There were a lot of displaced workers from the timber and fishing and cranberry industries. They’re grateful for the opportunity and very proud to be able to show off their part of the country in such a natural way, and through such a novel experience.”
Mailing Them In
Bandon Dunes has been able to return the kindnesses and enhance the feeling of regional ownership and pride in the property through special offseason programs that allow local club pros to arrange outings.
“Each November I send 700 letters to club pros in the region,” Hickox says. “I invite them to come with groups from among their club memberships to play sometime during the offseason (through mid-March) as part of a special package that includes unlimited golf, unlimited use of the practice facilities, and breakfast. The pro becomes a hero because now he’s bringing his members to Bandon. Last year we had 44 groups, and the average size was 24 people. Many clubs are turning it into an annual tradition; some even come twice during the year. And what’s it cost me? 700 times 37 cents.”
Similarly, Bandon Dunes holds a “county day” on the property two or three days before Thanksgiving, featuring food and entertainment. While it’s one of many ways the resort reaches out to the local community on a regular basis, it’s also a great way to work off a lot of leftover inventory in the golf shops. “We sell everything at cost plus 10%,” Hickox says. “If you happen to be here as a guest that day, it’s your lucky day.”
All of these types of events are also in step with Bandon management’s fervent desire to maintain a highly public and unpretentious posture, even as it continues to grow (the long-range master plan for the property allows for two more courses to be built, although there is no defined timetable for further expansions).
“No matter how big we may get, we never want to get away from seeing things in terms of one golf round, or one hotel room, or one meal or one guest at a time,” says Hickox.
“We don’t want to know who came in on a corporate jet, versus who flew in on Horizon Air because his wife saved up to send him here for his 40th birthday. Being well-defined and focused has been the basis for our success, and we don’t want to ever lose that.” C&RB
Tell Us What You Think!
You must be logged in to post a comment.