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July 2012

Creating a Buzz

By Steve Eubanks

Several North Carolina operators are leveraging their location in wine country to drive business to their courses

Throughout history, entrepreneurs have overcome adversity by devising new and innovative ideas to solve problems. The first incandescent lights were invented for use on ships to cut down on fires, but when the shipping industry failed to embrace the new technology, the lighting engineers didn’t close their shops. Instead, they lit ball fields and found a burgeoning new market: night baseball. And when Ernest Hamwi couldn’t sell all his waffles at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, he and the ice cream vendor next to him (who ran out of dishes) pooled resources and invented the ice cream cone.

Golf remains a sport grounded in tradition, but those who market the game (at least some of them) are just as creative as the innovative entrepreneurs of the past. That’s why the industry is seeing a collaborative proliferation of health club/golf club memberships and concert promoters selling rounds of golf as part of their music weekends. These are but two examples of new means to an end—in this case, profitability.

One of the latest collaborative ventures comes from a region of North Carolina best known as the model for the fictional town of Mayberry. Surry County and the Yadkin Valley, about 45 minutes northwest of Winston-Salem, remain as rural and quaint as they did when Andy Griffith grew up there, but the area has also become one of the most popular wine destinations in the Southeast, with 40 wineries that produce more than a half-million gallons annually. Now, golf operators in the 1.4 million-acre region are partnering with the vineyards to create new tour packages.

“We have a lot of outstanding golf in the Yadkin Valley, and like everyone else, the courses were struggling with fewer rounds and lost memberships,” explains Chris Knopf, director of Surry County Tourism. “We realized that a lot of the people who were coming to the region for wine tours were the same people who travel to play golf—mostly couples in a higher-than-average income bracket. So last fall, we started packaging golf destinations as part of our wine tours and tastings.”

Three courses—Cross Creek Country Club in Mount Airy, Cedarbrook Country Club in Elkin and Olde Beau Country Club in Roaring Gap (owned by famed basketball announcer Billy Packer)—are collaborating with four vineyards: Round Peak, Old North State Winery, Grassy Creek and Shelton Vineyards. So far, the results have been better than expected.

“What we assumed might happen has, indeed, happened,” Knopf notes. “From the spring through the late fall, we’re attracting a lot of couples and groups who have an interest in wine and the history of the region.”

What history? In truth, the Yadkin Valley area was the largest wine-producing region in America in the 1860s and 1870s. Now, wineries harvest a different kind of grape—the same as are found in the wine regions of France and Italy. The wine “buzz” has grown so strong that the local community college is now offering a degree in viticulture.

For the operators, the obstacle was never working together as a group; it was finding a mechanism for pooling their efforts. Wine was the answer. The CVB books the package and buys the tee time inventory. It’s a one-stop shop for both the end-user and the golf course owner, much like a discount broker, but with more targeted results.

“As far removed as we are from anything out there, any promotion is good,” says Chris Wright, golf professional at Cross Creek Country Club. “It’s too early to get any good numbers, but the feedback we’ve gotten from the customers has been outstanding. I just saw our first batch of reviews and they’re raving about the package.”

The packages include two- to three-night stays, golf in the morning, wine-tasting tours in the afternoons and optional dinners. “I like that we’re getting the jump on this,” adds Tommy Maines, general manager of Olde Beau. “We feel this is something really unique that will draw the type of golf clientele that’s also interested in the wine country.”

Although new in its execution, Knopf has found no shortage of publicity for the program. Golf magazines are flocking to write about the wine/golf partnership, and many travel and culinary publications have given it positive reviews as well.

“It makes perfect sense,” says Zim Zimmerman, head golf professional at Cedarbrook. “A lot of people who are into the wine industry also have a set of clubs. We want more of them playing golf in the Yadkin Valley.” 

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and former golf course owner.

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