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Casino course managers say reservations are on par

Big season expected on the links

The prime golf season is approaching, and Mississippi’s casino-owned golf resorts are hoping the national economic downturn will not have as profound of an affect as it has on other sectors.

To reach that end, advanced marketing in anticipation of the traditionally busy period from March through May has been heavy.

“I would say we’re probably not going to be down much at all,” said Matthew McNeill, director of golf at the Links at Cottonwoods in Tunica, a Hale Irwin-designed course owned and operated by Harrah’s Casino. “We’ve got a really strong marketing program, and we just did a lot of renovations to the golf course. That helps us out quite a bit. We really haven’t seen as much of a drop-off as some of the other places.”

Intense marketing before the busy season has been the focus for Kevin Drum, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Golf Association, which partners with casino-owned golf resorts on the Coast to draw golfers.

Drum said he and his staff have been to more consumer golf shows this year than they went to last year, an unlikely phenomenon in an economy that is forcing nearly every sector of business and industry to reduce travel spending.

“We’ve been aggressive,” Drum said. “We were thinking our competitors were going to go to less because of less money.”

Drum’s association prepares and distributes golf package guides that lay out the details of each of its member courses. So far, Drum said, more than 40,000 have been distributed.

All of which leaves Drum expecting a slight increase over last year’s volume. But, the Coast is a region whose tourism industry was way laid by Hurricane Katrina, and getting back to pre-hurricane levels has been a challenge.

“Us getting an increase is different than a mature destination getting one,” Drum said. “I think we’re pretty comfortable in the fact that we deliver such good value that, in these tough times, people are not going to travel to those far-off places. People have to get more out of their vacation.” Revenue from golf-specific spending last year was right at $22 million on the Coast last year, Drum said, with expectations that it could hit $30 million this year.

One of the Coast’s more popular casino resorts is Grand Bear Golf Course, a 1,750-acre complex with a 600-acre course that sits in the DeSoto National Forest.

Grand Bear lost 5,000 trees to Katrina, most of them on the perimeter. Grand Bear director of golf Tolby Strahan said there was an unintentional benefit to it, though.

“It really enhanced the grass coverage we now have because there are no shade issues,” Strahan said. “We don’t have any shade pressure around the fairway areas we once did when we built it.”

This will be the first season since Katrina struck that bookings for golf packages will extend further than a week to 10 days out.

March is a good indicator of how the rest of the three-month season will play out, with golfers taking advantage of the first extended period of favorable weather after winter.

“We are really looking good for March,” Strahan said. “The pre-bookings look favorable this year for March. With the economy taking the dip it did toward the end of the year and first of the year, we’re not sure if we’re going to get busier or slower. I think the people that are booked are coming.”

How the rest of the season plays out after March is still uncertain, Strahan said. Discretionary spending is the first thing to go when consumers trim their budgets.

“We’re optimistic that it’s going to be a good spring. The end of February through about the middle of May is our (money-making) season,” Strahan said. “We’re expecting to have a go at it. The golf course is perfect. We had a pretty cool winter. But, all it will take is a little warm weather and a little rain and the course will be greened back up and be beautiful.”

Casino golf courses

• Fallen Oak Golf Club – Saucier – operated by Beau Rivage Hotel and Casino, (228) 386-7015.

• Windance Country Club – Gulfport – operated by Island View Casino, (228) 832-4871.

• The Bridges Golf Club at Hollywood Casino – Bay St. Louis – operated by Hollywood Casino, (228) 463-4047.

• Grand Bear Golf Club – Saucier – operated by Harrah’s Casino, (888) 5-BILOXI

• Dancing Rabbit Golf Club – Philadelphia – operated by the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, (866) 44PEARL.

• The Links at Cottonwoods – Tunica – operated by Harrah’s Casino, (662) 357-6079

• River Bend Golf Course – Tunica – operated by Resorts, Hollywood and Sam’s Town casinos, (662) 363-1005

Contact MBJ staff writer Clay Chandler at clay.chandler@msbusiness.com .


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