(Royal St. Cloud Golf Links’ General Manager, Bill Filson)
The 27-hole St. Cloud, Fla. property is hosting more than 75,000 annual rounds and continuing to promote growth through innovations like a Tuesday Tattoo League (where being inked is the only requirement for participation), considering a facility for “Big Barn Weddings,” and ensuring great service and experiences by emphasizing that no one on the staff is a “Justa.”
While many clubs in Central Florida have recently closed or are rumored to be on life support, the Osceola (Fla.) News-Gazette reported, Royal St. Cloud Golf Links, a 27-hole facility in St. Cloud, Fla., has been an exception to the rule.
Opened in 2001, Royal St. Cloud hosts more than 75,000 rounds annually, the News-Gazette reported, while receiving rave reviews for its layout, maintenance and reasonable greens fees. The News-Gazette conducted this interview with the club’s General Manager, Bill Filson, to learn how the property has been able to buck the trend and become one of the busiest and successful golf operations in the area.
News-Gazette: How and when did you become involved in the operation of Royal St. Cloud Golf Course?
Filson: I was a PGA Professional for 20-plus years and was living in Chicago when I met Tom Butler. Tom was the President and Chief Operating Officer of Discover Card Services and he was one of my golf students. We became pretty good friends, and we decided to get into the golf business together.
Tom and I were looking at golf courses in several areas to possibly buy. A few years earlier, the Reed Berlinsky family had reached an agreement for a long-term land lease from the city to build the Royal St. Cloud Golf Course. Unfortunately it opened a few days after the 9/11 tragedy. The economy was starting to go south and the original owners were having some financial issues with the course. It just so happened they were looking to sell their interest in St. Cloud the same time Tom and I were looking to take over a course.
N-G: Seems you were able to take over a really nice course…
Filson: No doubt about that. We had looked at Imperial Lakes in Lakeland, Fla., because I remembered it as being a pretty nice property from my college days. But when Tom and I looked at it, we realized it could never rebound enough to be a nice course again. The last place the broker showed us was Royal St. Cloud, and the potential just jumped out at us. Reed had some experience as a golf course designer and golf course builder. The original layout here was great. I like to think we were handed a beautiful painting that just needed to be finished.
N-G: You were taking over a golf property at a time when the housing market was collapsing and the economy was going into a pretty major recession. Were there any second thoughts to what you were going to do?
Filson: One of the things I was most proud of was Tom’s decision to go forward with our plans to turn this into a first-class golf facility. There was never a second of hesitation on his commitment or the investment that it was going to require. Shortly after taking over, we did a two-million-dollar renovation on the original 18, we constructed a first-class driving range and practice facility, we gutted and rebuilt the pro shop, we constructed the third nine, and we built the tavern and restaurant.
N-G: A lot of golf courses are struggling right now and doing things to cut costs. More than a few local courses have done things like filling in bunkers and planting grass, so they would not have the cost of maintaining the traps. It seems you guys have taken the opposite approach. On [Royal St. Cloud’s] #2 White, for example, you went from two bunkers in the left fairway to 13 of them.
Filson: Our philosophy is that we are always looking for ways to improve the course. The fact remains, two out of three golf courses in this country are running at a deficit, and we’re not exactly backing up the Brinks Truck to our door. But during the recession, when everyone was cutting back on building and operating costs, we made a conscious decision to invest in our course and continue to do so today. By doing so, we felt it was an opportunity to capture a bigger share of the local golf market.
N-G: Over the last decade, the actual course has changed a lot. You have rebuilt greens, added many bunkers, and taken out and replaced vegetation. Some have joked that you make these changes because you had leftover budget you felt you had to spend.
Filson (laughing): I can assure you that’s never been the case. Actually, everything we have done to all three courses has been well thought-out and done for a specific purpose. On #2 White, we originally had no irrigation down the left side of the rough. With no good grass growing down there, a lot of people were hitting drives just off the fairway and would watch in disgust as their drives would bounce into the water. Over a period of time, we added bunkers on that side that were shallow and relatively easy to hit out of, but they were put there to stop balls from rolling into the water hazard down the left side.
You mentioned that we were making some greens “bigger,” but the truth is we were just returning a lot of them to their original size. As a golf course matures, every time you cut a green you want to avoid scalping it. The first “cut” signifies where the green starts, and consequently the mowing pattern will miss cutting a small portion of the actual green. So over a period of 10 years you can end up losing five feet off the circumference of each green.
So in many cases, we are not making the greens bigger, we are just restoring their original size. But other changes are made to either make the course better or more challenging. We rebuilt the green on #2 Red and made it twice as big, because we simply thought it made it more of a links-style hole and would make it more challenging and more pleasing to the eye. It’s all in keeping with our philosophy on constantly tweaking the course to make it better.
N-G: It’s not just the golf course and facilities that you are concerned about. The panoramic view when driving on to property, the areas between the tees and out-of-play areas outside the fairways have beautiful landscaping.
Filson: Two things about that. First, I am fortunate enough to have a great staff that really cares about the appearance of the club. But more importantly, I am provided with a maintenance budget that allows us to keep the course beautiful.
It all relates back to the philosophy that it’s not just about the condition of the course or the condition of the greens that are important, it’s the total experience that we try to provide. There are a hundred places to play golf in Central Florida. Once a player chooses to play Royal St. Cloud, we want them to enjoy a great experience, and we want to give them a reason to come back.
N-G: You mentioned that the success of the property has a lot to do with the staff. Can you elaborate on that?
Filson: In high season, we have about 75 to 80 full and part-time employees. Some courses use their snack bar personnel to check in golfers in the offseason or have eliminated the pro shop altogether, and some don’t send a beverage cart out in the summer. We just don’t think that is the way to run a golf course. When golfers first step on to the property, we want to them to feel like they are walking into a vibrant place.
I think we do a pretty good job of selecting and getting the right people. We take a lot of pride in our training program. We meet with the staff about three times a year and have two-hour sessions where we talk about every aspect of the operation. We try to make those sessions fun but they also serve a great purpose for us. We try not to have any “Justas” working for us.
By that I mean one time I was talking to our staff about the overall cleanliness of the place, and one of the kids looked at me and said, “But I’m ‘justa’ cart boy.” I looked at him and said, “We don’t have any ‘Justas’ here—if you work for this organization, you are critical to our success.”
You want all your employees to know that they are appreciated and needed—and when they take ownership of the fact that we are all responsible for our guest having a good time, it makes for a good employee. I think that’s reflected in our mission statement. It’s simple and to the point: “We are in the Happiness Business.”
N-G: Royal St. Cloud Golf Course was one of the first courses in the area to have a different price structure. You lower your rates in the summer like everyone else, but your twilight rates are not static: They go down at noon, and then go back up at 4 in the afternoon. Your member cart fees are not set at one price for the year; they are cheaper in the summer, and you don’t offer resident rates. What is the philosophy behind those decisions?
Filson: When it comes to rate structure, from the beginning we have tried to make golf affordable for all. We got some blowback from the competition saying our winter rates were too cheap and we were hurting business for everyone, but we never saw it that way. In some respects, we started pricing our product like the airlines. When you have an afternoon summer rate, we were finding the vast majority of players were waiting until 4 p.m. to play. So it made sense to offer a less expensive rate between noon and 3 p.m.—the hottest part of the day—and then raise the rate slightly at 4 p.m.
The Florida Resident Rate never made any sense to me. Central Florida is an international destination, so why punish someone with a higher rate just because they live in a different ZIP code? But overall the philosophy remains simple—try to make golf affordable for all.
N-G: What are some of the short- and long-term concerns that you face?
Filson: First and foremost, the costs of running a golf course. Labor, fertilizer, insecticide, grass seed, gas, insurance—none of that stuff is getting cheaper. That’s the biggest challenge we face on a daily basis: try to keep a first-class facility, but make it affordable.
On the long term, golf is a stagnant and even shrinking industry. But in that challenge I continue to see great opportunity for us. If we can give the golfer a great course at a reasonable price, if we can get the kids interested in playing, and if we can get the casual or once-a-year player to come out a few more times, we have an opportunity to stay ahead of the curve.
I think that’s where we do a pretty good job of thinking outside the box. We have military and Latino groups that play several days a week. We just started a Tuesday Tattoo League, where the only requirement to play is you have to have a tattoo. I think we may be the only course in the country that has a league that requires you to have a tattoo to play in it.
Golf has a long history of being an “exclusionary” sport—we want to make it as “inclusionary” as possible.
N-G: Is the long-term survival of golf predicated on growing youth golf?
Filson: In short, I think so. One of the things that has always bothered me is when golf courses talk about supporting youth golf, but that support pretty much starts and stops with them maybe hosting a tournament or two each year. That’s not enough.
We are committed to youth golf. We have several youth programs and two PGA Professionals who are excellent teachers for the younger golfer. We offer free golf for our younger players, and we allow our local high school players and teams to practice, play and host their home matches on our course without charge. We not only support the national programs, but we understand the importance of going the extra mile and actually providing access to these young golfers.
N-G: Are there any new projects on the horizon for Royal St. Cloud?
Filson: Nothing immediate, but weddings have been a big part of our business in recent years and we are giving a lot of thought on how we can expand that aspect of our business. “Big Barn Weddings” are becoming immensely popular, and we are thinking about building a facility that would allow us to host both “barn weddings” and some bigger events.
As far as the golf course, we will always look for ways to make the course and playing experience better. It’s sort of in my nature to always ask, “What can we do to make the course better?”