Keeping Ahead of the Curve at Kiawah Island Golf Resort

When Rory McIlroy took the 2012 PGA Championship by storm, it was just the latest example of how the South Carolina property has stayed up with the latest trends.

By Joe Barks, Editor

The ongoing marketing challenge for a destination resort is to get new guests to beat a path to an off-the-beaten-path location, and then to provide memorable experiences that will make them want to do it all over again year after year.

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The ongoing operational challenge for a destination resort is to motivate management and staff (who often have significant travel hurdles of their own, just to get to work each day) to have the right attitudes and approaches to ensure those memorable experiences for each new or returning guest. Operators must also make sure workers don’t tire of the place, or job, so quickly that they’ll run to a new employment opportunity the first chance they get.

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_1_Image_0002Rory McIlroy’s win at the 2012 PGA Championship on Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course linked the brightest new face in golf with a property that seeks to be ground-breaking in all aspects of resort management.

Throw in plans to bring a major golf tournament to the resort on top of these significant everyday challenges, and you can have a potential train wreck among neglected everyday guests, overworked employees, and tournament disasters that can permanently scar a property’s reputation.

But in the case of Kiawah Island Golf Resort, which hosted the 2012 PGA Championship on its Pete Dye-designed Ocean Course, bringing a major to the South Carolina property (its first since opening in 1976) was a winner for all concerned:

– Everyday guests took full advantage of the pre-tournament opportunity to play the Ocean Course; favorable weather and superb conditions created by Superintendent Jeff Stone and his staff combined to boost rounds on that course by nearly 10 percent this year, reports Director of Golf Brian Gerard.

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“We run an event here every day. Our goal was to produce one of the finest major championships ever held, and on balance we succeeded. We were very pleased with the whole experience.”
—Roger Warren, President, Kiawah Island Golf Resort

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_3_Image_0001014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_3_Image_0004After 25 years, Director of Golf Brian Gerard still gets a daily thrill from Kiawah Island’s special setting—and strives to make sure every guest leaves with the same feeling.

Kiawah Island Golf Resort
AT A GLANCE

  • Location: Kiawah Island, S.C. (17 miles south of Charleston)
  • Opened: 1976
  • Golf Courses (designer): Cougar Point (Gary Player); Turtle Point (Jack Nicklaus); Osprey Point (Tom Fazio); The Ocean Course (Pete Dye); Oak Point (Clyde Johnston)
  • President: Roger Warren, PGA
  • Director of Golf: Brian Gerard, PGA
  • Director of Tennis: Roy Barth
  • Director of Outdoor Programs: Elisabeth King
  • Director, The Spa and Salon: Missy Hughes
  • Director of F&B Operations, The Sanctuary: Vipin Menon
  • Hotel Manager, The Sanctuary: Bill Lacey
  • Director of Clubhouse F&B: Pietro Giardini
  • Superintendent, The Ocean Course: Jeff Stone
  • Chef de Cuisine, The Ocean Room at The Sanctuary: Andrew Venable
  • Chef de Cuisine, The Atlantic Room and Ryder Cup Bar, The Ocean Course Clubhouse: Jonathan Banta

– The PGA held an entertaining and competitive Championship on a uniquely challenging course that was eventually won by the brightest new face in golf, Rory McIlroy (pictured on the cover and on pg. 14, celebrating his clinching putt).

– And even for the resort’s management team, the addition of the Championship to their already-active yearly calendars proved to be anything but a burden or prescription for burnout. “I really didn’t want it to be over,” says Pietro Giardini, the Director of Clubhouse F&B who orchestrated the front-line maneuvers at the Ocean Course clubhouse’s Atlantic Room and Ryder Cup Bar. “Collectively as a resort, we saw this as our time in the spotlight, and welcomed the chance to rise to the occasion.”

Event-full Times

Roger Warren, who came to Kiawah Island as Director of Golf in 2003 and is now its President (he also served as PGA President from 2004-2006), wasn’t surprised by how his team met the challenge. “We run an event here every day,” Warren said after the tournament. “Our goal was to produce one of the finest major championships ever held, and on balance we succeeded. We were very pleased with the whole experience.”

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_4_Image_0002014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_4_Image_0001014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_4_Image_0003Director of Outdoor Programs Elisabeth King (left) has developed a wide range of opportunities for Kiawah Island guests to enjoy the area’s native wonders as well as more traditional resort recreational activities, which were enhanced with the opening of two new water parks/pools this year.

Inevitable issues with parking, traffic and crowd management that did surface, especially during the Championship’s third day when a storm halted play, will now be carefully analyzed as part of preparations for new major tournaments the resort now seeks to land (“The next available PGA is 2019, and we’ve expressed our interest,” Warren says). But with no useful working model to follow, he adds, the resort team’s overall performance was remarkable.

“The whole landscape [of major golf tournaments] had changed dramatically from what we experienced with the 1991 Ryder Cup or other events we’ve had here,” Warren says. “And there were also the challenges of selling corporate hospitality in more difficult economic times, and in a location that’s not blessed with an abundance of large companies like New York or Chicago.”

Those factors prompted a bold decision to enhance the appeal of corporate sponsorships by setting up all available hospitality suites and tents with a view of at least one Ocean Course golf hole. This posed a whole new set of logistical challenges for servicing the venues—but here too, Warren says, the Kiawah Island team stepped up to find solutions.

“It all worked very efficiently and was actually easier than expected,” he reports. “We built a spine road through the back nine to handle the [on-course] service needs. We think we greatly enhanced the hospitality experience with the locations we provided, versus the villages that can often be some distance away and make it difficult for people to get out to see the players and the competition.”

Inspiring Environment

In describing how his department strives on an everyday basis to provide resort guests with memorable experiences, Brian Gerard points to Kiawah’s setting as a steady source of motivation.

“When I first drove through the gates twenty-five years ago, I could tell it was someplace special, and I still get that feeling every day,” Gerard says. “We try to make sure, with everything we do, that every guest has that same feeling when they drive out, too. We want them to say, ‘Wow, what a place—that was the best golf experience I’ve ever had.’ ”

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_4_Image_0005014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_4_Image_0004Director of Tennis Roy Barth came to Kiawah Island as its second employee, expecting to help start a program for the fledgling property and then move on. Thirty-six years later, he’s still at the helm of what’s now ranked by consumers as the world’s top tennis resort.

Maintaining that standard, Gerard notes, has required that the Kiawah golf program “become more flexible in understanding what the consumer wants, by not having as many restrictions on how we make golf available to them.” To that end, Kiawah Island has been in front of the trend of offering more family-friendly, shorter-course and reduced time of play opportunities. A Family Tee program, through which kids play free with their parents (who play for $45) after 5:00 p.m., was introduced in 2003 and has seen a doubling in annual rounds since then to 6,000 in 2011. The golf staff will now also accommodate those who just want to play nine holes anytime, Gerard says, and a popular program that offers the chance to play 18 holes in three hours [time is blocked out on one course for two hours in the afternoon] is now in its second year.

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_5_Image_0003014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_5_Image_0002The Sanctuary, opened in 2004, elevated lodging and dining at Kiawah Island to the standards set by golf, tennis and other amenities and activities—and then raised the bar throughout the property with a five-star training program that all departments now use. Plans are now being considered for a second hotel and additional lodges that could come on stream by 2014.

Gerard also highlights what Kiawah has to offer to the resort’s 1,500 employees through “Golf 101” seminars developed with the property’s training department. “As pros, we tend to forget that not everyone grew up playing golf,” he says. “It really helps customer service throughout the resort if we share what we know with everyone who’s going to be helping our guests. Plus, it can introduce some new people to the game who just happen to work here, too.”

Gerard points to the value of having a PGA professional like Warren set a management style that encourages all of Kiawah’s department heads to develop and run with initiatives they think will help meet everyone’s ultimate and mutual goal: creating memorable experiences for resort guests.

“Roger puts golf’s principles of honesty and calling penalties on yourself into management practice, and gives us the latitude to run our operations and make our own decisions,” Gerard says. “That’s led to some exciting things.”

014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_6_Image_0002014_CF0912v7BS-F_Page_6_Image_0001Even though one day of the tournament showcased Kiawah’s famous winds (left), and was followed by a storm that halted play, Superintendent Jeff Stone (second from right) and his staff earned championship marks for the conditions provided on The Ocean Course.

It’s also engendered impressive stability among top management—nowhere more so than in tennis, where Roy Barth, officially the second-ever employee at Kiawah, presides over what a website now ranks as the world’s top tennis resort, based on consumer voting.

Barth, a former Top 50 player who once took Bjorn Borg to five sets in the U.S. Open, came to Kiawah in 1976 from his native San Diego, expecting to stay for two years to get the new program started. Now, he works out of the Roy Barth Center, directing a staff that specializes in customized, player-friendly instruction techniques captured in Barth’s popular “Tips for Better Tennis” book (now in its third edition).

Similar experience and expertise runs through other Kiawah Island departments, all bolstered by five-star training instituted for all managers and employees after The Sanctuary hotel was built in 2004. It’s no wonder, then, that tossing the PGA Championship on top of all that goes on at the property every day didn’t send the workforce scurrying for the help-wanted ads. If anything, the experience seems to have made everyone eager to take on more.

“I think [the Championship] made us realize we could push the boundaries and raise our level of efficiency even further,” says Giardini. “It wasn’t easy, but I think we came through it nicely—and now we’re ready to capitalize on the exposure we gained and have even bigger things come our way.”

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