The strategy— and fast start— behind the latest venture of the ownership/management group that put Bandon Dunes and other top properties on the destination resort map has a very familiar feel, along with many intriguing new ingredients.
Recently, a report that highlighted the success realized by the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, after the team drastically lowered concession prices in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, caught the eye of Glen Murray, PGA, General Manager of Sand Valley Golf Resort in Rome, Wis.
After the Falcons introduced $2 hot dogs, $5 draft beers and $2 refillable sodas for the 2017 season, the report said, their fans spent 16% more on concessions than in the previous year. Even more notably, they spent 88% more on merchandise.
Not surprisingly, several other pro football teams took note of those results and quickly joined the “affordable concessions” movement. And in all cases, the teams instituting the wallet-friendly pricing didn’t cite the opportunity to make more money as the reason for making the change. Rather, they emphasized, it was all in the name of enhancing the “gameday experience” for their customers— a growing concern when the high cost and assorted hassles involved with attending games in person, vs. the economies and comforts of watching at home or elsewhere, has led more empty seats in stadiums even as pro football’s popularity continues to soar.
To Murray, the report confirmed what he and his staff have observed as an interesting phenomenon, as part of the overwhelmingly positive feedback about the guest experience at Sand Valley that they have received from those who have come there since the property opened in May 2017. The initial and primary attraction for those who have found their way to this remarkable piece of land in central Wisconsin has clearly been the opportunity to enjoy the latest unique and premier golf offering served up under the direction off Mike Keiser, the visionary and passionate advocate of “golf as if was meant to be” who over the last 20 years has parlayed his greeting-card fortune into involvement, directly or through partnerships, in creating homages to the sport’s history and traditions—most prominently with Bandon Dunes in Oregon, but also including other acclaimed locations, existing and future, in Michigan (The Dunes Club), Nebraska (Sand Hills), Nova Scotia (Cabot Links), Tasmania, Australia (Barnbougle Dunes) and Scotland (Coul Links).
While Sand Valley, like all of other destinations linked to the Keiser brand, quickly earned its right to also move into the top tier of worldwide golf venues, Murray and his staff have been amused to see—and taken note of—how so many guest comments from the start have also centered around non-golf aspects of being there—such as how great the showers are in the on-site lodging, and especially the thrill of having $2 beers, $3 bratwursts and $1.50 tacos at “Craig’s Porch” while on the property.
Craig’s Porch—named for Craig Haltom, the golf course construction firm executive who first came across the Sand Valley land and directed Keiser’s attention to it—looks like a state-park snack bar (see photo below), but it has been perfectly oriented on the property to not only overlook the resort’s namesake Sand Valley golf course, but also provide breathtaking views of both sunrises and sunsets.
Combined with its friendly menu pricing, Murray says, the venue has proved to be one of the most lasting impressions that guests take away, and rave about to others, when describing their “gameday experience” at Sand Valley. “They’re not talking about what a round of golf cost,” he says. “They’re showing the $18 tab they paid for all the food and drink that they and their buddies had at Craig’s Porch to their friends when they get back home, telling them what a cool place it is, and saying, ‘Can you believe this?’”
Finding the Right Mix
Much of Sand Valley’s immediate, “build it and they will come” success is the result of following the classic Keiser formula: 1) See the possibilities for great golf in tracts of land that have been overlooked by others, often because they are deemed to be too remote or are felt to require too much effort or expense to convert to a full-fledged, high-end resort; 2) Contract with top course designers (in Sand Valley’s case, Bill Coore, Ben Crenshaw and David McLay Kidd, with a fourth course by Tom Doak in development) to shape exciting, throwback-style layouts out of the land and with a top management firm (KemperSports) to run the operations; 3) Surround the golf experience with top-flight lodging, dining, merchandising, caddie services and other amenities, and have a singular focus on making the property fully available for guests, without any interruptions or intrusions that hosting tournaments would create.
At the same time, notes Murray, the Keiser “formula” also allows room for mixing in different and special, customized ingredients as each new property takes shape. “The Keisers don’t do master plans,” he says (sons Michael Jr. and Chris are now involved with the business as well, and have primary responsibility for Sand Valley). “They look for proof of the concept as it evolves. That’s why you don’t see fancy clubhouses, or maybe even any clubhouse, go up right away [as new properties are developed]—it’s always a crawl-before-you-walk, and walk-before-you-run approach.”
(The clubhouse at Sand Valley only opened late this summer, with the staff still working for most of the resort’s second year out of temporary facilities to handle volumes of business that had doubled, or more, from first-year levels in all categories, including golf, food and beverage, lodging and pro shop sales.)
Adds Jeff Bertch, a Marketing Specialist on the Sand Valley staff: “Certainly, Bandon Dunes [and other Keiser properties] have been wildly successful and provide great models. But we don’t just want to recreate them here; we want to take their best ideas and practices, and then develop our own culture and personality that’s unique to this property.”
The special ingredients that are being sprinkled liberally into the Sand Valley mix include a host of other recreational options, including tennis on grass courts (see photo, opposite page), fat-tire biking on trails carved through the dunes (Michael Keiser Jr. is a fat-tire enthusiast, and management has aspirations of promoting Sand Valley as a natural mecca for the sport), bocce, paddleboarding, kayaking, fishing and many other current and planned sports and activities.
Even where golf is concerned, there is the opportunity to play the game in a way that still might shock many of the “purists” who have been drawn to other Keiser courses for their old-school, return-to-golf’s-roots appeal. Certainly, the opportunity to have that experience still exists at Sand Valley (Bertch says the most commonly heard comparisons heard from golfers while playing the original Sand Valley course or now Mammoth Dunes, which opened this year, have been to courses in London, England’s Heathlands region.)
But then there’s also The Sandbox, the short course that is located just 50 yards from the new clubhouse, and with only—gasp— 17 holes. And those holes range from 40 to 140 yards, have three tees marked with different color shovels, and a variety of unique green complexes, including a biarritz, double plateau, lion’s mouth, and a redan (many players choose to only use a putter for their entire Sandbox round).
The Sandbox has proved to be a part of the experience at Sand Valley where no one minds going into overtime, and are in fact eager for that to happen, the management team reports. It’s not uncommon for “eightsomes” to be formed, even after both other 18-hole courses may have been played, to scoot around the short course in an hour-and-a-half or two, even with time taken to linger at refreshment stands where beverages are served out of an ice-filled canoe.
“It never lets up,” says Director of Golf (and now also Tennis) Steve Kurtz, PGA, of the end-of-day activity at The Sandbox. “From 4:00 to 6:00 and even 7:00 to 8:00, they’re still coming off and walking away, talking about how much fun it was.”
While Sand Valley is only a seasonal operation for now, management certainly doesn’t dismiss the notion that it could someday expand to a year-round facility, with shoulder-season and winter amenities and activities like a spa and cross-country skiiing possibly added to the mix. Its central location has proved to be surprisingly strong for attracting guests from throughout the country in addition to the world, Murray says, with the guest log for many months already showing representation from 47 states. The property’s relative accessibility (in comparison to Bandon, Ore. or Nova Scotia) is also proving to make it more attractive for corporate group bookings, with Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and other cities all within a few hours drive.
All of these factors, Murray acknowledges, already have prompted management to start “toying with the idea of dropping Golf Resort [from the property’s name], and repositioning Sand Valley as a lifestyle brand.”
When in Rome…
Another special ingredient in the Sand Valley version of the Keiser/Kemper formula is how efforts have been made from the start to integrate the local community into the fabric of the property.
Neither Rome, Wis. (one location that’s listed for Sand Valley) nor Nekoosa (another) are noticeable when driving most routes to the property. But the staff has worked closely with groups and officials from those communities, as well as others in the tourist-friendly and recreation-rich central Wisconsin corridor, to not only coordinate the promotion of Sand Valley as a new attraction in that part of the state, but also to encourage local residents to view the resort as a new destination for their own enjoyment.
Special rates and end-of-season membership arrangements are offered for local players at The Sandbox, and with the new clubhouse open, communication is being stepped up to encourage local patronage of its food-and-beverage venues and enjoyment of live music on the patio and other events.
Murray, a Milwaukee native who returned to head Sand Valley after a 20-year career with Marriott and Ritz-Carlton properties, wants to pursue other ideas that could further promote a mingling of the local and guest contingents on the property. For example, he thinks Craig’s Porch would be a perfect setting for a regular Friday night community fish fry, a Wisconsin culinary staple.
“Why not create a scene where resort guests can stumble into a local event and get outside their own groups, to really see what life here is like?” he asks. “Central Wisconsin has a built-in friendliness to its culture [and] people here treat you
like a neighbor even when they are meeting you for the first time. So why not do all we can to make sure that’s part of the guest experience, too?”
The Resort as National Park
A third unique ingredient in the Sand Valley mix is the dedication of the resort ownership and management to not only preserving, but restoring and generating new appreciation for, the special character and history of the land it sits on and is surrounded by. Central Wisconsin’s dunescape was formed under a massive glacier that eventually melted to form a huge lake. After the lake dried up, pulp and paper companies planted pine trees on the scrubby land, creating what one ecologist called “a cornfield of trees.”
The timber mining wasn’t favorable to the area’s ecology, and consolidation within the industry eventually left large swatches of abandoned acreage. When the Keiser/Kemper team looked it over and heard its history, they not only saw how golf courses and a resort property could be shaped out of it, but also how acquiring the land offered the opportunity to help restore it to its natural state.
Conservation and preservation efforts have become important parts of all Keiser projects, and at Sand Valley, those initiatives were immediately installed as an ongoing aspect of the property’s management approach. Chelsea Sorbo, the daughter of a local golf professional, took the position as Field Operations Manager, to coordinate efforts for a Sand Valley Restoration Trust that has been established.
In that role, Sorbo works with consultants to pursue restoration initiatives designed to transplant native species and create more hospitable habitats for species of butterflies, birds, lizards and other plant and animal life that had been on the decline as the area went unattended. Sorbo and a local garden center operator have also developed an on-site community garden that now yields an abundance of fruits, vegetables, herbs and other ingredients for the 100-percent scratch operation in the Sand Valley kitchen, which is headed by Culinary Director Joe Simons and Executive Chef Daniel DeHay. The morning breakfast buffet in Aldo’s Farm & Table, the clubhouse’s new restaurant, also features fresh eggs from a chicken coop kept near the garden.
Aldo’s is named for Aldo Leopold, a University of Wisconsin professor whose essays on conservation were collected and published in 1949’s A Sand County Almanac (the state does not have a county by that name, but the essays include reflections drawn from his knowledge of the area that now includes the Sand Valley property). The writings of Leopold, who was also one of the founders of the Wilderness Society, have been compared to Henry Thoreau and John Muir for their importance to environmental understanding and preservation causes.
A paperback copy of A Sand County Almanac is placed in every Sand Valley guest room, and the management has been pleased to see how many guests have taken them up on their suggestion to not only read it while relaxing and immersing themselves in the property, but also to take it with them when they go.
Michael Keiser Jr.’s eventual vision for Sand Valley, says Bertch, is to “make [the resort] the center of a pseudo-national park.” In an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier this year, the younger Keiser described how that goal is being pursued by having the Sand Valley management and operations team “do whatever we can to get people outside.”
“If it’s playing golf, great. If it’s hiking, great. If it’s fat-tire biking, great,” Keiser said. “We want people to be connected to the ground and excited about the habitat and landscape.”
In the middle of September, Murray gathered members of his team for Sand Valley’s regular Wednesday-morning “resort leader meeting,” held in the Crenshaw Cabin, one of the new lodging options that have popped up to meet the swelling demand for accommodations. (Reservations were received this September at a pace that was three times faster than the same month last year, Murray says, and the window for availability continues to stretch out, with much of next year already booked; the resort will bring 18 more rooms on stream next year, to have a total approaching 120 as it tries to keep up with the growth.)
At the conclusion of the leader meeting (conducted with everyone standing, “so we can talk faster and be done in 30 minutes,” Murray explains), he took time to commend the managers—and to encourage them to do the same for their reports—on what he summarized as “the story of the year: We doubled our business and handled it well. And [the resort operation] is really starting to feel settled in.”
A key to that establishing that settled feeling, Murray explained later, has been the emphasis management has placed on making everyone on the Sand Valley staff feel comfortable in the midst of so much activity, and on “being themselves.”
“If the staff is comfortable, guests are comfortable,” he says. “If it’s clear they enjoy working here, it’s easier for them to help guests enjoy what an incredible place this is, and tomake sure they are always relaxed as they do so.”