|Media coverage about the restoration of revered and historic golf course Pinehurst No. 2—like this story by influential golf writer Jaime Diaz—led to a resurgence in bookings at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort. Images Courtesy of Conover Tuttle Pace|
Company: Pinehurst Resort
Agency: Conover Tuttle Pace
Timeframe: March 2010 - Present
Media coverage about the restoration of revered and historic golf course Pinehurst No. 2—like this story by influential golf writer Jaime Diaz—led to a resurgence in bookings at North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort. Images Courtesy of Conover Tuttle Pace
North Carolina’s Pinehurst Resort, and its signature Pinehurst No. 2 golf course, has been on the bucket list of most serious golfers since 1895, having served as the site for more major golf championships than any other course in the U.S. Over the last two decades, however, No. 2’s reputation has steadily diminished, and this slide has became evident in major golf course rankings. That’s why, in March 2010, Pinehurst hired PR agency Conover Tuttle Pace (CTP) and unveiled a project to reinvent the course and reshape the resort’s image as a lifetime’s destination for some, and a yearly staple for others.
BACK ON COURSE
Varying philosophies and updates over time had turned a course revered for uniqueness into one that Pinehurst officials said had come to look, feel and play like too many other courses. Once a staple in the top 10 of Golf Digest’s biannual rankings, the course fell from the top 10 in 2001 and plummeted to 32nd in 2009-2010, and Golfweek and Golf Magazine each followed suit. While rankings may boost or damage ego and pride, they can also correlate to the bottom line, as Pinehurst depends on No. 2’s image, success and revenue to fuel the resort.
In hiring renowned golf architects Ben Crenshaw (winner of the 1984 and 1995 Masters) and Bill Coore to restore No. 2, Pinehurst sought to recreate the unique experience that once inspired reverence. PR goals included:
Deliver third-party commentary and testimonials to create significant anticipation and excitement for the “new” No. 2.
Turn No. 2 back into a “bucket list” trip for golfers and increase bookings.
Influence golf magazine raters, drive traffic to Pinehurst.com and to Pinehurstnumber2.com.
Engage with golfers during and after the project through social and traditional media.
The return to the course’s original design, which incorporated natural aesthetics of sand, hardpan and native wiregrass that befit the area, was drastic, says Kerry Andrews, director of marketing communications at Pinehurst. “With such radical changes, our strategy was to tap key influencers and experts in golf course architecture that would recognize and respect the concept,” says Andrews. “If we could get influencers to experience the course firsthand, then even golfers who may be less appreciative of the architecture would read about its merits. That was the trickle-down effect we were looking for.”
Golfers may not understand what makes a great golf course—they rely on media, pro players and officials to tell them. To drive a significant repositioning of No. 2 through media coverage and course rankings, the combined four-person communications team would engage these influencers to wield their power to spread the story of No. 2’s revival.
REACHING GOLF DRIVERS
The team identified over two-dozen magazine writers, newspaper columnists, bloggers, freelance writers and TV personalities. While some worked for major publications, others had considerable, passionate followings on their blogs and social media accounts—but each had platforms to deliver impactful, educated commentary.
Todd Graff, a VP at CTP, says the team recognized that traditional media would be much more vested in a big-picture story of the restoration of No. 2 as part of a current trend story in golf, while bloggers and social media could help extend the conversation throughout the project. To build momentum, the team created a varied, tactical PR plan:
â–¶ On-Site Visits: Construction began in March 2010, and in June 2010 the team began inviting influencers to visit No. 2, tour the project and speak with designers Coore and Crenshaw. About 18 influencers visited independently, including Golfweek architecture editor Brad Klein and Golf Digest architecture editor Ron Whitten, among others.
â–¶ Content and Microsite: A dedicated microsite, pinehurstnumber2.com, was created to serve as both a media center and a consumer landing page. The site housed fact sheets and background information on the course’s history and compelling content, such as regularly updated photos, information, trivia and video—including commentary from the project’s designers Crenshaw and Coore, as well as reigning U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and USGA president Jim Hyler. Videos were also posted to Pinehurst’s YouTube and Facebook pages and pitched to bloggers.
Graff says that landing coverage in the traditional golf outlets required different strategies and timing windows for their deadlines—whether it was during construction or later during the launch (see sidebar on sustaining a PR campaign). “In the beginning we had mapped out a strategy of ‘who do we want to talk to, and when,’ and part of that mix was weighing traditional versus digital media to help a provide steady stream of coverage through the project,” says Graff.
While construction took place from fall 2010 through spring 2011, there were tractors and cranes on site, and not much news to pitch. To fill in the gaps, the team created content in the form of photo updates, videos and interviews to deliver to bloggers and place on Pinehurst’s digital channels to extend the conversation.
â–¶ Press Events: Two press conferences were held, the first in November 2010, before the course closed for construction, and the second in April 2011 upon its reopening. More than 20 targeted influencers covered the first event and more than 60 covered the second, including 10 TV networks, including the Golf Channel.
The press conferences played a significant role in validating the project, generating excitement and driving action from target audiences, says Graff. Influencers helped shape opinions that appeared in hundreds of feature stories and more than 400 total placements (delivering more than 150 million impressions) in national, regional and local media, including The Wall Street Journal, Departures, Forbes, Golf Channel, Links, Golf World, Golfweek, Golf Digest, Bloomberg, Associated Press and TV stations and newspapers across the Carolinas.
For Andrews, the most problematic aspect of the campaign was that PR wasn’t brought into the fold from the start. “We didn’t have an opportunity to seed it well with media and membership prior to the construction as we would have liked, and after scrambling to put a plan in place, we had to go back and do some damage control with them once the process started,” said Andrews. “But it made the PR work that much more critical, and more important than any amount of advertising.”
Graff says he would have started media outreach much earlier—to have possibly earned more advanced bookings in March and April of 2011 in addition to the bookings that flooded in during May and June. The campaign still provided a dramatic boost in business:
Bookings: A month before the reopening, Pinehurst booked more than 1,000 advance rooms in a single week—the first time that happened in more than three years. Leisure room nights increased by 6%, and group room nights by 8% while phone inquiry volume increased 20%.
Web site traffic: Pinehurst.com traffic was up more than 46% from 2010, and Pinehurstnumber2.com received more than 115,000 visits.
Course rankings: While rankings won’t be updated until spring 2012, Whitten, who runs Golf Digest’s rankings, said, “Post-changes, Pinehurst No. 2 will eventually make its way back into the top 10.”
Social media: 5,000+ tweets about the No. 2 restoration were received. Facebook “likes” increased by 28% and influencers also helped drive more than 125,000 views of No. 2 restoration videos.
Today, the team continuously seeks feedback about the course so they can continue to produce content and keep the buzz going. In 2012 the focus has shifted toward branching out into more lifestyle and travel publications that generally don’t cover golf or Pinehurst on a regular basis.
And, as No. 2 prepares to host both the men’s and women’s U.S. Opens in 2014, the team is preparing to answer the question of whether it’s ready to host events of that caliber. PRN
Follow Bill Miltenberg: @bmiltenberg