PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Let’s say you have a resort hotel that controls 85 percent of the tee times at one of the world’s most famous golf courses. Every day golfers travel long distances, from across the U.S. and internationally, and happily lay out more than $500 just to play a single round on this course.
Now, let’s say that this resort hotel also has a beach club hard along the Atlantic, where guests can lounge or play, depending on their mood. Or they can walk upstairs to the club’s restaurant and enjoy the ocean panorama while grazing on grilled octopus, homemade pasta, braised short ribs and seared scallops.
Finally, let’s say that this resort is the host hotel for the biggest tournament run by the PGA Tour. Each May during The Players Championship you can find the Tour’s biggest names wandering the hotel’s halls or relaxing in Alice & Pete’s Pub, which pays tribute to the Dyes and their work at TPC Sawgrass.
The Sawgrass Marriott Golf Resort & Spa has all of those assets and many more. It also appears to have a much healthier balance sheet these days.
It was only seven years ago, in March 2010, that the resort’s previous owners – two overleveraged Irish investment groups – sought bankruptcy protection, initiating protracted court proceedings.
Much has changed. Carey Watermark Investors Inc., a New York real estate investment trust, purchased the resort in 2014 and in October of that year brought in Marriott International to manage it. (The resort previously was managed by a franchisee.) Carey Watermark owns nearly three dozen hotels and resorts, including The Equinox Golf Resort & Spa in Manchester, Vt., and the Fairmont Sonoma (Calif.) Mission Inn & Spa.
Over the past two and a half years, some $25 million has been pumped into upgrades, which regular visitors will notice immediately on the hotel’s exterior and in all the rooms. Gone are the impractical Juliet balconies and the popcorn ceilings. New bedding, flooring, TVs, wall treatments and plumbing fixtures were installed. Just off the lobby is a keyed-off wing – 29 rooms and one suite – where guests receive butler and concierge service. The common areas also were freshened.
With new management also came a new sales strategy.“For many years it was run as a golf resort hotel – golf, golf, golf. And that’s important,” said Craig Shoffit, the resort’s sales director. “But we repositioned it as a convention golf hotel.”
He noted that business groups will be more inclined to use banquet facilities and other hotel services, generating more revenue, whereas visiting golfers might be inclined to eat at area restaurants or rent one of the hotel’s villas and cook their own meals.
“We definitely changed the strategy to be more convention-related in convention season, and focus on convention customers that have golf as a portion of their program,” said Todd Hickey, the resort’s general manager. “And then on weekends we market to the transient vacationer. We realize we have over 60,000 square feet of indoor meeting space that has to be filled with convention customers.”
Hickey said the heft of Marriott’s global distribution and sales force has been a key factor in the turnaround, helping bring more business groups to the resort. He said the number of groups exceeding 200 has tripled “from 14 to 40 or so” since 2014.
During a recent visit, a guest could see signs of odds and ends being wrapped up in the renovations. The elevator cabs were being refurbished, as were the restrooms near the convention space. The staff was awaiting the arrival of carpeting for the downstairs lobby. But for the most part, the makeover has been completed, Hickey said.
The changes seem to have gone over well with repeat visitors.
“It’s my favorite Marriott, and I’m Platinum Elite (in the Marriott Rewards program),” said Pam Bowron, a business traveler who has stayed at Sawgrass roughly a half dozen times over the past three years, most recently in mid-April. “I like the atmosphere and the resort feel, even though it’s kind of a standard Marriott. I usually stay in the villas because I like the larger space.”
Mark Howard, another business traveler who has stayed at the Sawgrass Marriott several times over the past year, expressed similar sentiments.
“It’s been great,” he said. “The property is stunning, the amenities are always there, some remodeling has been done and the staff is always great. So I always come back here.” Gwk