Dan Shepherd has been working in the golf industry since 1998. He was Editor of Golf Inc., a global trade publication covering the industry, before joining Billy Casper Golf, one of the world’s largest golf course management company, where he worked for 17 years. Dan started his own strategic consulting business in 2018.
THE SHEPHERD STORY —
I first began working with the Explore Branson (hereafter “CVB”) in 2011. At the time, there were five golf courses that were essentially battling each other for budget/discount golf rounds. Marketing at the time consisted primarily of newspaper advertisements and a print brochure placed at tourism centers and other high traffic places. Since then, four more courses have opened (another is scheduled to open in early 2020), and the marketing strategy and tactics have evolved significantly.
Now, we promote the golf destination through an integrated marketing program that marries social media (“Branson Golf” – on Facebook and Instagram), a publicity and media relations program that garners earned media, ExploreBranson.com golf pages, and select media buys. Furthermore, we joined the International Association of Golf Tour Operators in 2018, and we are scheduled to host the IAGTO North American Conference in 2021, barring the unforeseen.
We manage a golf destination media familiarization trip each fall in tandem with the Branson CVB, and we work with Big Cedar Lodge during its annual spring media FAM trip tied to the Bass Pro Shops PGA TOUR Champions Legends of Golf tournament. These events have yielded global publicity and demand for Branson Golf – America’s fastest-growing, most-compelling golf destination.
What’s behind the secret for Branson’s overall success?
Value and options. There are nine good to great golf courses in the destination. They all feature the incredible beauty of the Ozark Mountains, a rich geographical setting wherein the golf course architects ingeniously integrated the area’s physical assets into the course layouts. Millions year old exposed limestone, is one example, natural springs and undulating landscapes are others. The courses offer diverse holes, terrain, and price points, and they include three of the top 10 rated courses in Missouri. The addition of several new courses by iconic golf name designers (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, and one soon-to-open by Tiger Woods) has created tremendous interest and demand.
How big a factor does golf play in the overall branding effort for Branson?
Branson is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United States. It draws more than 8 million visitors annually, thanks to its live entertainment theaters, three lakes, historic downtown, award-winning amusement theme park, and many other attractions. When Big Cedar Lodge began building new golf courses several years ago, then became the host venue for the Bass Pro Shops Legends of Golf tournament, the CVB witnessed the interest and demand that began swelling. Being the established, savvy tourism destination that it is, and having mined niche opportunities as they evolved historically, the CVB saw an opportunity to drive visitors through the golf niche.
What is the approximate overall revenue produced and people employed directly through golf in the immediate area?
Because all golf courses in the destination are privately owned, that information is proprietary and not released.
Golf course closings far outnumber openings annually in America since The Great Recession ended in ’09. Branson, primarily through the efforts of Johnny Morris and his spearheading with Big Cedar Lodge, has opted to open courses and expand its profile. What makes the push in Branson successful when others nationwide are clearly going in a far different direction?
It’s important to note that golf supply was grossly out of kilter with demand prior to the recession. Ironically, the recession was good for the most golf courses. The herd needed thinning, and the golf courses that closed, or will close, were not set up for success; they were often built too expensively, too far from population hubs. Also, golf is a fragmented industry, and what works in one place can be completely different in another, always depending on the variables.
In the Branson area, you have a complementary mix of established, high-quality courses and the hyper-exciting allure of the new courses being built by Johnny Morris. Like his resort, which has been voted “Best Resort in the Midwest” by Travel + Leisure Magazine readers on multiple occasions, the courses are unlike anything most people have ever seen. He brought on iconic course designers and then worked with them to simultaneously integrate his passion for conservation and his beloved Ozarks with world-class designs. That he’s known for investing prodigiously in his developments helped take his golf courses and resort into a rare echelon, and the golf destination is the grander for it.
What sparked, in your mind, the interest of Tiger Woods to design his first public course in the immediate Branson area when other locations likely were on his radar screen?
The personal relationship between Johnny Morris and Woods that goes back roughly two decades, when Woods ordered a Bass Pro Shops fishing boat and Morris personally delivered it with his son.
Securing the involvement of the architectural duo of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore in designing Ozarks National was also a major feat since the tandem routinely turn down more opportunities than they agree to do. What was the tipping point in getting their involvement?
Bill and Ben have talked openly about how the uniqueness of the land, and Johnny’s vision to make it representative of the nature that surrounds it, appealed to them. Then there is his contagious passion for the Ozarks, and his track record for building unforgettable businesses and places – Bass Pro Shops, Dogwood Canyon Nature Park, Big Cedar Lodge, and Wonders of Wildlife. One can see how his enthusiasm, ability to make dreams become reality, and reputation as a fine gentleman inspired them.
Given the state of the industry and the trends clearly taking place — how much more golf can the broader Branson area reasonably sustain?
It’s hard to say; the beauty of the destination is that the five existing courses – Branson Hills, LedgeStone, The Pointe, Thousand Hills, and Holiday Hills – don’t compete with the Big Cedar Lodge courses (Top of the Rock, Buffalo Ridge Springs, Mountain Top, Ozarks National, and the soon-to-open Payne’s Valley). The Big Cedar Golf courses are a destination unto themselves. That is, Big Cedar Lodge is like Bandon Dunes or Pinehurst – a place where unique, world-class golf beckons and astounds – while the established Branson courses are fulfilling and more affordable. While some golfers seek only Big Cedar Golf experiences, many visiting golfers like to mix playing courses from both tiers.
The bulk of golfers coming to Branson are in close proximity to the location — but the overall aspirations is to rival and even exceed to the most noted golf destinations such as Pebble Beach, Pinehurst, The American Club and more broadly Wisconsin, the Michigan market, Bandon Dunes, et al. How does Branson go from where it is now to where Branson ultimately wants to be?
When you build things that blow people’s minds, that word of mouth spreads quickly, both via consumer word of mouth, and media reviews. Add in the promotional savvy of Johnny Morris and his Big Cedar Lodge team – they have a strong marketing relationship with Golf Channel and Golf Advisor – and the decades of visitor driving best practices of the Branson CVB, and you have a wonderful confluence that drives interest globally. Oh, and having Tiger Woods in the mix should not be overlooked. He’s the Michael Jordan of his generation, a sports marketing icon who moves the needle in the extreme.
Is there a hurdle to overcome in terms of people coming to the area via a flight option when the nearest airport is 43 miles away in Springfield?
No. It’s an easy, scenic 45-minute drive. It’s takes longer and is harder to go shorter distances from many U.S. airports to various destinations. Think about Bandon Dunes. There’s no easy way to get there for the most people, yet they flock there. Same with going abroad to Scotland to golf. Also, there’s an airport in Branson that serves direct flights from select markets, and it’s believe that the number of carriers will expand with time.
What are the biggest short- and long-term challenges facing Branson and the strategies being put into place to deal with them?
Big Cedar Lodge is so adept at everything it does, its aggressive, incredibly smart marketing strategies and first-class customer service largely mitigate challenges. Johnny Morris hasn’t met a problem he couldn’t creatively solve, and that’s played out in virtually everything he’s done professionally. Couple that with Branson’s huge annual visitation and attractions that are constantly evolving, plus the support it gets from the Tax Board and state tourism, and the present and future is bright.
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