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January 2022

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort

Meeting Challenges Creatively

By Sally J. Sportsman

In golf, as in any industry, finding and implementing solutions to problems both effectively and creatively can be challenging. Effectiveness usually is quantifiable, while creativity, often equally important, may be more elusive to measure.

Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, on Northwest Florida’s Emerald Coast, in Miramar Beach, has solved difficulties presented by the pandemic successfully. A 2,400-acre destination resort located between the Gulf of Mexico and the Choctawhatchee Bay, with four championship golf courses, it is consistently ranked among top resort-golf experiences.

“One of the special qualities that Sandestin possesses is that we span from the beach all the way to the bay,” said Bill Liedholm, general manager. “You are literally surrounded by water when you visit, not to mention the miles of natural beauty of the resort in between.”

All that beauty may have been no match for COVID-19 were it not for the staff’s dedication and resilience – and the success of the HR department in finding new hires. A bit of luck helped, too.

“We were very lucky at Sandestin as a whole,” Liedholm said. “We offer private accommodations in a vacation rental setting that allow guests to be able to social distance with ease.

“Being focused on outdoor activities such as golf, tennis and water sports meant people felt safe in the open-air environment, and as a result we experienced an increase in leisure travel and golf rounds.”

Sandestin enjoys a high percentage of repeat golfers.

“I would estimate that about 50% are return guests and families,” said Rick Hileman, PGA executive director of golf, “some of whom are multigenerational. Guests return because of the family-like service and experiences they receive.”

The resort is primarily a drive-market destination, so during COVID-19 the venue was able to “attract people who desperately needed to get out of their house,” Liedhom said. “This increased leisure travel enough to effectively replace the decrease in business and group travel.”

There were many unknowns when it came to marketing during the pandemic. Sandestin chose a soft approach: “When you are ready, we are here.” Along with cleaning initiatives in compliance with CDC regulations, safe meeting places were designated and social distancing encouraged.

Hiring and keeping staff has proven difficult, however, as has been the case nearly everywhere.

“We continue to try traditional advertising, job fairs and social media,” said Liedholm, “and we found that you also have to be patient. We have added some really great team members to the Sandestin family during this time and most of them were due to our amazing HR team who went out and found qualified people to fill the roles.”

Any cost savings at the venue came from unwanted labor shortages, not by design, according to Hileman. Wages have increased to remain competitive and attract workers, but the labor shortage has led to strain on existing staff. In golf operations, staffing has proven challenging across the board but most particularly with golf course maintenance. A multi-pronged approach to the problem was enacted.

“We flex schedules and cross-utilize team members as much as possible, and must incur more overtime than desired,” said Hileman. “We have addressed pay rates where appropriate, implemented various types of incentives for new hires and employee referrals, and have gotten creative in the services and products we offer.

“People are starting to come back to the work pool, but it has been much slower than we expected.”

Hileman’s advice for filling golf-operations positions: “Hire and pay the right people. Don’t just fill open positions with a ‘body.’

“You will spend more time and energy on hiring the wrong people.”

Golf remains a major attraction across the U.S.

“Numbers indicate golf has seen a 30% growth in participation since April of 2020,” Hileman said. “Businesses have changed, I believe permanently, and as a result, those who stayed away from golf because of time demands now find themselves with more flexibility between work, home and leisure.

“If we can retain just 50% of the growth, it will be huge for the industry.”

Hileman believes golf will hold onto a large percentage of the growth seen thus far, leading to more demand, which will drive up rates across the board. The game will continue to thrive, in his view.

Golf is vibrant at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. All four golf courses are located within the gates, and with shopping, dining, tennis and the beach, there is no reason for guests to leave the property during their stay.

Aside from golf and all the other amenities at Sandestin, the food and beverage choices are a major draw. Guests have over 20 different bar and dining options without ever having to exit the gates. At Marina Bar and Grill, a favorite, which overlooks the 226-slip marina on the bay, guests are greeted by Maryann, the resident macaw. The upscale Ovide, inside Hotel Effie, is curated by celebrity chef Hugh Acheson and offers a twist on Southern fare. And the hotel’s Ara Rooftop Pool and Lounge provides a 360-degree view of the resort, Choctawhatchee Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, guests remain blissfully unaware of challenges the management and staff have overcome to ensure their enjoyment.


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January 2022 Issue


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