|By Alan Blondin, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 30, 2005 - Phil Nagy of North Olmsted, Ohio, and John Brediger of Westlake, Ohio, traveled to Myrtle Beach on golf vacations for five consecutive years in the late 1980s and early '90s with groups of varying size.
But over the past 12 years, they've taken their groups to the Alabama Golf Trail, Santee, Charleston, Columbia and Aiken, and last year they went to Augusta, Ga., for the second straight year.
"The year after [Hurricane Hugo], they didn't treat us like they were glad we came.
They didn't treat us like they wanted our money," Brediger said of Grand Strand courses. "They've lost 12 years of business, and one year we took down 32 people." While a Myrtle Beach market that includes 116 courses and plays more than 4 million rounds a year searches for ways to attract more customers, it also may be turning away some business with poor customer service.
Many in the industry realize the need to improve the beach's image and are working to retain patrons through a high level of service because, in many cases, when you lose golfers for one year, you lose them forever.
"Really, it's been a blessing because we've found so many other nice places to play," Nagy said. "We've been gone for 13 years, and we don't miss it." The Sun News spoke to 85 golfers at consumer golf show in Cleveland last year who have been on golf vacations to the Grand Strand, and 10 of the players professed to being unhappy about their treatment.
The overwhelming majority of golfers were very happy with their experiences.
"It's been a fantastic experience every time," said Tom Janas of Elyriants, Ohio, who has been to the Strand seven times with groups of four to 16 people.
"You go there, and you feel like they want to help you have a great experience. I love it." But one unhappy customer can translate into the loss of many, if they don't return and also talk their acquaintances out of coming to Myrtle Beach.
"We can go anywhere else to spend our money," said Alan Roach of Olmsted Falls, Ohio, a member of Nagy's group who said he doesn't think believe there are better golf courses anywhere in the world, yet he hasn't returned to the Strand in more than a decade. "Aiken is a crummy little town with a few nice courses, but they welcomed you with open arms and cared about you." The theory of lost business works in reverse, as well.
"We look at it as one satisfied customer is 10 more satisfied customers," said Dennis Nicholl, director of golf at Inter national World Tour Golf Links, one of the Strand courses acclaimed for superior customer service. "They're going to tell 10 of their friends and that will secure our future. It all comes down to service."
An image problem is acknowledged by many in the industry. Thirty-seven pros, general managers, marketing directors and other employees in the market filled out a written survey at a customer service seminar last week, and 13 believe the Strand has developed a reputation for poor customer service. All but one thinks the reputation is deserved.
There's a belief some Strand courses became drunk on excesses in the market through the late 1990s, when the demand of golfers exceeded the supply of courses.
With sizable profits, full tee sheets and more golfers in waiting, treating golfers well wasn't essential to ensure business, according to several industry insiders.
"It seemed it wasn't that big of a deal how they treated the people as long as they got their money," said Chris Burns of Avon Lake, Ohio, who was part of a group of 24 that played on the Grand Strand for 10 years, but has been going to Santee for the past 12 years.
The recent decline in participation in the sport nationally, coupled with a Strand building boom that saw 83 courses open between 1985 and 2001 to spread the existing business through more layouts, has put more emphasis on serving the customer.
"I think it has become better over the past few years, but it improved only because people were losing money and had to look at their operation," Nicholl said.
It can be difficult for courses to get all of their employees to care about their product, especially rangers, cart attend ants, food and beverage workers, and members of the maintenance staff who are making a minimal hourly wage.
And the competitive and transient nature of the Myrtle Beach market can make it challenging to retain workers long enough for them to feel a connection to the business.
"It's hard to keep everybody beefed up on customer service, continually doing or saying what they're supposed to," said George Hilliard, executive director of the Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association. "Not everyone wakes up on the right side of the bed every morning." The Strand market also is also busier than most, especially in the spring and fall, making it difficult to be attentive to all golfers.
To magnify the problem, some courses reduced staff and cut maintenance budgets in order to combat decreased profits in recent years.
"People always look to cut out maintenance first. Unfortunately, the next thing to go is labor," Nicholl said. "What happens then, if you get busy, is you don't have enough people to handle the crowds. Now you have poor service and poor conditions, and instead of fixing the problem, you're compounding it."
Criticisms from golfers at the Cleveland show targeted both high-and low-end courses, and began with simple rudeness.
"People just weren't friendly," said Wayne Samuelson of Erie, Pa., of the staff at one of the high-end courses on the Strand.
Samuelson said he was usually treated "extremely well" over six years of visits to the Strand in the '90s, but he had a couple of poor experiences.
Others object to a pair of Strand staples: cart fees and surcharges. They consider cart fees of up to $25 and added surcharge fees for better courses in a golf package as nickel-and-dime policies.
Players also believe they have been deceived by courses that intentionally failed to inform them about recent maintenance procedures such as aerification and verticutting that affect the condition of a course. Golfers say they also were also not told holes were closed at a course until they arrived to play. The most frequent complaint was a feeling of being herded through courses by rangers -- the theory being the more players a course can push through each day, the more money it can make. The issue presents a dilemma for course operators, who also regularly hear complaints about slow play. Most players accept cajoling to keep up their pace but say some rangers are excessive.
"Rangers are pushing you when you've got nowhere to go," said Jack O'Connell of Girard, Ohio, who has been going to Pinehurst, N.C., with a group for the past five years following 15 years of trips to Myrtle Beach. "It really got ridiculous. That's why we stopped going. You can only go as fast as the people in front of you. We live in Ohio. It's too far to go to put up with that aggravation."
And the complaints were more widespread at a golf show last year in Cincinnati, according to former Charlestown Management Hotels regional Director of Operations Tomas Zeisel, whose area included North Myrtle Beach at the time of the show.
"They were thinking they were treated very rudely by people at the golf courses," said Zeisel said. "It was one out of four. We were being told, 'Don't talk to us. We don't want to talk to you.' I never want to go back there."
The Myrtle Beach Area Golf Course Owners Association began annual customer service seminars five years ago because courses were receiving occasional complaints about incidents in pro shops.
"Whether anyone was at fault, the customer wasn't happy," Hilliard said.
The three-hour seminars feature nationally recognized speakers as well as entertainment, and traditionally attract between 100 and 125 course owners, general managers, club pros and marketing directors.
PGA of America professionals receive education credits. The last seminar was held Jan. 20.
"We emphasize [customer service] quite a bit," Hilliard said. "We speak about it in our bi-monthly meetings occasion ally and focus on it during our annual seminar." Many courses have taken it upon themselves to work hard to offer outstanding service.
The TPC of Myrtle Beach; International World Tour; Burroughs & Chapin Golf Management, which operates seven courses on the Strand; and Classic Golf Group, which operates eight courses, are all among the courses and companies that cut for space-have intensive employee service training.
The PGA Tour and its network of TPC courses have an orientation program called "Above and Beyond" that has been picked up by hospitality associations throughout the country, and the TPC also stresses commitment to employees.
"The operating goal at each club is to consistently exceed members' and guests' expectations by providing a quality product and exceptional customer service," said TPC of Myrtle Beach General Manager Rick Shoemaker. "That's the essence of our survival." The TPC of Myrtle Beach was named the TPC network's daily fee operation of the year for 2003 and has earned several service-related intra-company awards based on reports from secret shoppers hired by the network to play TPCs and rate their experience. We hold people accountable," Shoemaker said.
International World Tour earned the National Golf Course Owners Association's Course of the Year award for 2004, largely because of its service.
It's one of the few courses on the Strand with 10-minute tee time intervals rather than a common eight minutes to avoid overloading the course, and features an ambassador for every six foursomes who that tends flagsticks, rakes bunkers, finds wayward drives and leads groups to their first and 10th tee boxes on the 27-hole layout.
Many employees have been at World Tour since it opened in 1999 and graduated from other positions to become one of the facility's 50 ambassadors.
"It's all about the people you hire and the training," Nicholl said. "There's always a lot of turnover here in Myrtle Beach so if you get a good employee, you have to hold on to them. You can't necessarily teach people to have a good personality. It's finding that right person." Classic Golf Group General Manager Skip Corn, the former general manager of the TPC of Myrtle Beach, has taken an employee training policy similar to "Above and Beyond" to the Classic courses, and B&C has extended its companywide customer service training to its golf division. B&C also has additional periodic training for golf employees, utilizes secret shoppers, grades each of its facilities on customer service and offers free beverages or appetizers to players who fill out comment cards randomly given on the first tee.
B&C-owned Pine Lakes has long been known for its service.
Greeters are dressed in uniforms that include plaid Scottish skirts, and the facility also features Perry "Big Dog" Bellamy serving Manhattan clam chowder on the course during the cooler months, and another worker serving mimosas during the warmer months.
"Pine Lakes is more like a Broadway show, with uniforms and everyone in position," said Nicholl, who used to work at the course known as The Grand daddy. "There's a system that really worked there from a service level. That's really what you have to do is have a system." Calabash Links owner and General Manager Kemp Causey believes an established climate of cooperation with customers is the strongest deterrent to poor service. He once stunned a vacationing golfer by contacting him at his home after learning of the player's complaint.
"I know how I want to be treated, and that's what I emphasize," Causey said. "If it's expected, they're going to do it.
They're not going to be the odd man out because if they are, they're going to really be out.
"If I wasn't in a position where I was around, I'd pay a lot of attention to those comment cards."
-----To see more of The Sun News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.MyrtleBeachOnline.com
(c) 2005, The Sun News, Myrtle Beach, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. For information on republishing this content, contact us at (800) 661-2511 (U.S.), (213) 237-4914 (worldwide), fax (213) 237-6515, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.