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Sunday, July 14, 2024

Power list interview: Tom Pashley, president of Pinehurst Resort, talks with Nido Qubein

 


Pinehurst Resort President Tom Pashley joined High Point University President Nido Qubein in the Power List interview,
a partnership for discussions with influential leaders. Interview videos are available at www.businessnc.com.


 

 

Tom Pashley has worked at Pinehurst Resort for 27 years and was named president in 2014. The business owned by Dallas investor Robert Dedman Jr. operates four hotels with a combined 400 rooms, nine restaurants, nine golf courses with a tenth opening in April, and employs 1,500 people. The courses cover 2,500 acres within a three-mile radius, making it one of the world’s golf meccas. Pashley has a bachelor’s degree
from the University of Georgia and a Duke University MBA.

This story includes excerpts from Pashley’s interview and was edited for clarity.

What was your first job at Pinehurst?
My first job was in a one-year management training program, where I spent anywhere from a week to a month in the different departments from golf course maintenance, to the kitchen, to night audit. I got to learn how all the pieces of the business work together. When that year was over, I began working on the 1999 U.S. Open, our first at Pinehurst.

What do you consider to be a good occupancy rate?
An annual occupancy rate would be about 65%. We don’t look at occupancy as much. We are driven by golf. So we pay more attention to golf rounds. It’s the total package. Revenue per occupied room. In the low season, you could be as low as 30-33% occupancy during certain times. In the high season, you’re up to 100%.

What percentage of your revenues are from residency?
It’s 70% or so. That includes food and beverage. The remainder of the 30% might be our membership. We have a country club that has 4,500 members. Most of them are in-town residents, people who have retired to Pinehurst.

How many business conferences do you have in a year?
We probably have 200 to 250 events. The weekends are busy, but sometimes mid-week is when you need that conference business to keep your employees working, to just drive some additional revenue. It’s also a great way to bring in people to the resort. They come for business, and they return for pleasure.

Do the seasons make a difference in occupancy?
Spring is our peak season. People come from all over the world in the spring and fall.

How do you adjust to the occupancy changes labor-wise? 
You really do have to expand when you’re busy and contract when you’re not, and so we have a lot of seasonal people who take time off. Seasonal layoffs, if you will. People who enjoy taking December through February off. And then they come back. It’s always neat when they return for the season.

It must be complicated to analyze profitability.
I think the biggest change we’ve seen recently is the profitability of the leisure traveler, the golfer coming to Pinehurst for a golf trip versus a corporate meeting attendee. The golfer is much more profitable. It used to be about half and half of our business was split between corporate and leisure. Now, leisure is 70% of our business. So, we’ve seen a sea change in our margins, if you will, because they’re coming in, they’re buying retail, they’re playing golf, they’re at the bars and restaurants, whereas a meeting-goer could be in a meeting room all day. Leisure right now is really strong. Golf is booming.

What did you do during COVID? Did you just not sleep at night, worry and pray a lot?
A lot of that. We closed our hotels for two months. We laid off 1,200 employees at the time and the golf courses, fortunately, stayed open so our 4,500 members still had an opportunity to come out and play. We got through it, and in the Fall of 2020 when we opened back up, golf was booming. We really haven’t seen the leisure demand slow down since then.  

During the closing, did you worry about keeping things alive?
Yes, anything that sits still for a while can age quickly. We still had a core level of staff who were around. The Carolina Hotel opened in 1901. I liken it to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. We’re constantly updating that hotel, and we never want to lose the charm. 

By October 2020, we were seeing exceptionally high demand from golfers, and for us the challenge was staffing a restaurant, for instance. The golf part was easy. They could go outside. But now we need to feed them. One of the most difficult positions for us to fill was the culinary positions, and so we had restaurants closed. We were not able to fulfill all the demand because restaurants were not available.

We’ve brought in international visa workers who have helped keep our restaurants open, thankfully. So 2021 was a record year in terms of demand from leisure travel, but it was a tough year for us because our managers worked overtime. It was not a sustainable year. In 2022 we finally reached the point with staffing where we felt it was sustainable. 

International staffers seem to offer outstanding performance. Why is that?
Maybe they realize they only get to have the visa for a year, and so I think they’re maximizing their year. This is a learning visa, and so they are educating themselves. I think our team is excited because they’re coming from a different country. So, they do add a different level of vibrance.

How do you house them?
We had to go out and acquire or rent townhouses in the area. We house and transport them. 

What do you look for every day?
I came up through the marketing realms, so the customer is most important to me — the guest. So I start my day reading an email that recaps our guest survey data, so it’s numbers, it’s scores. It’s an electronic survey and then we extrapolate the verbatim comments are really what I like to read. About 25% of our guests will fill that out. We view that feedback as a gift.  

How many people do you have in marketing?
We have seven. We have a person who does video only. We have a content creator. We’ve really doubled down on social media and creating new content. We have a whole other sales team calling corporations throughout the state and around the country. 

What makes Pinehurst special?
It’s the golf. If you were starting this resort, you’ve got to have the golf courses. You can’t just create a golf resort in any area and think people are going to come. You’ve got to have the right golf course architect, the right aesthetics.

Right now, it’s kind of a trend to be remote if you’re a golfer or a destination. Almost the more remote the better, because it’s this discovery process. People want to get away and they don’t want to see planes flying overhead necessarily.

How do you deal with special requests from patrons?
There’s an acronym, HEAT. When a guest isn’t happy about something, you’ve got to take the heat.

The H is, you’ve got to hear, and listen. You’ve got to let them express themselves. Don’t interject too quickly because you want them to fully express their frustration and their concern.

The E is empathize. Now that I have heard you, I’m going to acknowledge your concerns.

The A is apologize. Apologize that you’re not happy with us. You don’t want to admit fault, but I’m very sorry this is not going the way you hoped it would be.

The T is take action. Solve the problem. 

What percent of your guests are repeat customers?
About 25% of our folks return within a three-year period.

How about families with children. What do you do for them?
We’ve got a great pool outside at the Carolina Hotel. There’s a little putting green; but most recently we’ve added an 18-hole putting course and a par 3 course. People are going out there with one club, they’re playing barefoot, we play music on our little par 3 course, and so Pinehurst has become much more welcoming to families.

What is your tipping policy?
We have a 10% service charge, a resort fee. And if you go into one of our dining outlets and you have a meal, we have an automatic 18% gratuity that’s added. The server will often be asked how much of that do you get? The majority goes to the server. What we don’t want is for people to be stressed about it. It needs to be enough that we feel good about our 18%.

Is the guy who buys 3 expensive bottles of wine charged 18%?
We do. We love him.

What’s next for Pinehurst?
We have the U.S. Open returning in June of ’24. The USGA named Pinehurst an anchor site for the U.S. Open, so it’s coming all the way through 2047. Four future U.S. Opens. And the USGA is building its secondary headquarters, Golf House Pinehurst, right there in Pinehurst. It will open in December.  

So there’s a tremendous amount of innovation and change coming to Pinehurst. We’re not changing all the things that people love, the rocking chairs, the piano music. But we’re adding a lot. If you haven’t been to Pinehurst in the last five years, you’d be amazed at how much it’s changed.

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