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Putting Public Golf in Good Hands

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photograph by Luigi Ciuffetelli
http://www.luigic.com

 

At the first whiff that MBNA might be putting its plush, private and pristine Deerfield Country Club up for sale, Forewinds Hospitality, a golf marketing and management company that debuted in the region with the purchase of Hartefeld National in nearby Avondale, Pennsylvania, was very interested.

“Deerfield fit our model perfectly,” says Forewinds managing director Ron Winarick. “It was a no-brainer for us, primarily because of the magnitude of food and beverage segment that was already there.”

But timing is everything in the golf course industry. By the time MBNA put the facility officially on the market, the state had already stepped in as part of its aggressive greenspace initiative and purchased the course. But the state then hired Forewinds to manage it. The group was delighted.

“We have a golf course that had been meticulously maintained for a year without a single round being played on it,” Winarick says. “Plus, we will be managing a 30,000 square-foot banquet and ballroom that can sit a 350-person event.”

That Winarick and Forewinds are licking their chops over the lavish banquet and restaurant capabilities of Deerfield—something that would have sent shivers of doubt up the spines of golf-only operators—provides insight into just what kind of golf company Forewinds is, and how it may be not only the new kid on the block, but one that may show some old dogs new tricks when it comes to golf course marketing.

“We are a hospitality company with a specialization in golf,” says Winarick, who became general manager of Forewinds as a division of Maryland-based Sawyer Realty in 2005. “What many golf clubs struggle to do well—provide a high level of hospitality—we do with ease, because that is our business. Where many club owners and operators see the food and beverage business as a liability, we don’t.”

Which explains why Deerfield was such an attractive property for Forewinds, whether to own it or to manage it.

“First of all, the state believed it was putting the club in good hands and that we would add the kind of value that would benefit both Delaware and us,” Winarick says. “Secondly, Deerfield is in close proximity to our other area holdings.” (In addition to Hartefeld, Forewinds also owns and operates Mountain Branch Golf Club and its Grille and Pub in Joppa, Maryland.) “Finally, Deerfield is in the heart of a hospitality market that both appreciates and demands the level of service and attention we provide.”

Call it an “urban sense” of hospitality standard set by our state being sandwiched between the likes of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. You’ll begin to see why Forewinds has anchored its business in the Delaware Valley.

The Forewinds business model is a simple one: Find a property on the market, then let the market and the property’s history determine what type of golf and hospitality facility it will be.

“We prefer private over public, simply because it’s more predictable,” Winarick explains. “Private facilities are less susceptible to seasonality, weather, trendiness and swings in public tastes. But we are a restaurant-based business, so we have to continue to cater to and open our doors to the public at large.”

Even after Hartefeld National completed its privatization in November, a portion of the dining facility remained open to the public. And while Hartefeld will join Forewinds’ other private facility (Sterling National in Massachusetts), the company’s other recent acquisitions—the aforementioned Mountain Branch, along with Avondale’s Inniscrone Golf Club and another Massachusetts property (Wentworth Hills)—are public. And, of course, Deerfield will remain public as long as the state owns it.

Forewinds’ interest in Deerfield is evidenced by the company’s pumping about $1 million into converting the exterior of the club’s facilities from the well-known gray-and-green-awninged monotony of MBNA to a gleaming white-and-maroon exterior with wide open views of the lushly forested course, courtesy of the hundreds of glistening paned windows that invite the outside in. Jeffrey Robinson, Forewinds’ regional director of sales, can’t wait for the makeover to be complete.

“Deerfield will be at the top of the line in terms of pricing attractiveness and presentation for the area’s event needs,” he says. “Deerfield will be a great community resource and destination in northern Delaware for any and all types of outdoor events, including concerts.”

Robinson acknowledges the tremendous amount of cooperation among state and business community interests to make and keep Deerfield a public facility. “Everybody gave up a little to make this happen,” he says.

At first, state park personnel were uncertain how a golf club, especially a formerly private club, would fit the state park’s philosophy of inclusiveness. But Forewinds was quick to reassure that exclusiveness was not in play.

Helen Haughey, marketing director for the Delaware Division of Parks and Recreation, praises Forewinds for its commitment to keep greens fees affordable ($56 for residents) and keep the club accessible to all, as befitting the state park system. “Forewinds demonstrated an eagerness to work with the state in providing a venue for the kind of programming that is part and parcel of our state park system,” she says.

Perhaps the long-range good news a company like Forewinds brings is a positive and upbeat vision of the future of the golf market. “I think we’re at the bottom of the restructuring of the golf industry now,” says Winarick. “We’re beginning to see some positive upticks in the number of rounds played at existing courses due to the number of courses that had represented an overbuilding in the market now going off line.”

Winarick is quite bullish on the growth of the golf industry here. “Within 20 miles or so of Hartefeld, there are already 1,200 approved housing starts on the books. We’re growing from the north, the south and from the west as well.”

Other reasons for golf’s positive outlook here include a nearly year-round golf season, and a market that continues to remain solidly mid-priced. 

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