Golf packagers hit a rough patch
Golf packagers — the outfits that negotiate stay-and-play deals that combine a hotel room with tee times at championship golf courses in the Reno-Tahoe area — encountered rocky times with the recession.
Several small operators went out of business, and even the dominant player tightened its belt and looked for new opportunities.
Most area casino resorts offer stay-and-play packages on their websites, and http://www.golfthehighsierra.com offers stay-and-play deals at smaller hotels.
What people most don’t realize: In the Reno-Tahoe market, no matter where a package is booked, one behind-the-scenes company makes all the arrangements and manages the details. SierraVoyages.com uses proprietary software that lets customers book rooms and tee-times from live inventory. The company specializes in seamless, back-of-house package booking functions for hotels, transportation companies, golf associations, golf courses and ski resorts.
Packagers typically serve individuals and small groups booking up to 10 rooms.
“When you go to the Eldorado or the Atlantis Web site to book a golf package, you’re actually dealing with us,” says Sean Shaeffer, who founded SilverVoyages.com in Reno in 1999. “We handle everything for the customer. We take their payment. When they check in at the hotel, they get this nice envelope with directions, golf vouchers and all the little goodies the hotels throw in.”
Shaeffer has invested more than $1 million over 12 years to develop the technology behind the online booking system.
“Reno-Tahoe is the most organized packaging market in the country because of the infrastructure we have in place. There’s nowhere else you can go where you can talk to one team of people who knows all the answers no matter (what property) you call,” Shaeffer says.
He negotiates room and golf rounds at wholesale and makes profit selling them at retail to his customers, wherever they book their trip.
From 2001 through 2013, Shaeffer estimates that his company booked 400,000 hotel room nights and 300,000 rounds of golf, and sold more than 300,000 ski lift tickets in the Reno-Tahoe area.
“For the last 12 years, we’ve been in the background, we’ve been quiet. Now I feel like we need to constantly remind people that we’re a really important part (of the tourism ecosystem),” Shaeffer says.
Area golf professionals see the benefit of offering discounts. It makes it easier for tourists to book with them.
“When we’re working together, it helps us all. They get customers and we get customers. It’s a healthy relationship,” says Drew Yardley, general manager of ArrowCreek Country Club.
SilverVoyages.com staffers work as partners with its clients. When customers click on the “Book a Golf Package” option online, a link takes them to a specially built page that has the look and feel of that property’s home page – but is operated by SilverVoyages.com.
Proprietary online booking technology allows customers to select hotel rooms and live tee times up to 180 days in advance — then gives them a package price. Customers can select from nearly two dozen 18-hole courses in Reno, Genoa, Dayton, Lake Tahoe, Graeagle and Truckee. A resort-specific phone number allows them to customize further with ground transportation, spa services or other add-ons. Calls go directly to SilverVoyages.com staffers who quote prices on behalf of the resort.
“Our average golf package is three nights and two days of golf. They’re interested in a couple of things — golf and the casino. They want to have some cocktails, have some fun, and just blow off a little steam,” Shaeffer says. No matter where they stay, they’re looking for specific trophies. Many, for instance, will stay in Reno and play at Edgewood. That involves transportation.
Traditional resort reservation agents are not trained to customize to this extent.
“That’s where we excel. You can throw any scenario comes at us and we’re going to price it for you,” he says.
The recession nearly destroyed the vacation packaging business. Discounted hotel prices in Reno make it tough to create competitively-priced packages. Fewer flights coupled with higher airfares make it tougher to get here. At least two competing Web sites no longer function.
SilverVoyages.com has felt the pinch and had to cut his staff from 18 to 10. “We’ve been fighting a really big fight these last three years just to stay open,” Shaeffer says. That has led to a change in business strategy.
“We make money by getting the customer a better deal than they could get on their own. They save and we make money. That’s what has made it so tough in the last few years. The casinos are practically giving rooms away, that makes it harder to offer savings to our customers,” Shaeffer says.
The company also has extended its reach and developed package deals with the Reno Aces, the National Championship Air Races and special Nevada Museum of Art shows.
Shaeffer is investing money and manpower in homegrown promotions and e-newsletters that target the Northern California Golf Association and the 50,000 http://www.golfthehighsierra.com visitors. Leasing the online booking technology also is in play. The Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif., is using it.
A deal with http://www.GetaRoom.com will open up 35,000 hotels nationwide. Shaeffer will negotiate discounts on golf in other markets.
From a national standpoint, research shows the embrace of digital commerce is a whole decade ahead of schedule thanks to the pandemic. We spoke with the Retail Association of Nevada, Downtown Reno Partnership and the Reno+Sparks Chamber of Commerce to give local context to the growth of online retail.