Ed Nickelson – Pinehurst Resort
Among the bucket-list destinations for the avid golfer is the legendary Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina. The Cradle of American golf, Pinehurst has nine meticulously maintained, 18-hole courses as well as The Cradle itself, a nine-hole par-3. The most famous of the long courses, the Pinehurst No. 2, hosts the U.S. Open every five or six years, its next being in 2024.
But U.S. Golf Association tournaments and world-class players aren’t all that Pinehurst is about. It welcomes golfers of all skill levels, and the more often they return, the better. Only there’s an arms race of sorts among North America’s courses for the premium golfing guest, with the Greenbrier, Cabot Links and Pebble Beach being just a few of Pinehurst’s competitors.
“Seventy percent of our guests are first-timers,” Ed Nickelson says. “We want them to get such a satisfying experience that they’ll be back. We don’t just want them checking the Pinehurst box off their list and moving on.”
A member of the information technology team for over 11 years and its director since April 2014, Nickelson works to make repeat customers and attract a younger generation to Pinehurst. Infotech essential to the cause, he has projects underway to further simplify the process for package deals, payment solutions, tee times and more.
Acing a portal
“Our modernization effort is geared toward the millennials and Gens Y and Z,” Nickelson says. “They expect a much different experience than the traditional golfer, and this is where we see the most potential for growth. First, they can dream digitally and then realize the experience in person.”
While many resorts, Pinehurst included, offer online booking, Nickelson says the complete experience has yet to be perfected due to the complexities of a golf package. But he expects Pinehurst to set the standard later this year by, among other means, optimizing Agilysys software, which is a mainstay in the hospitality business.
While Agilysys has been Pinehurst’s property management system, Nickelson is applying it toward a membership portal.
For example, if a golfer is staying at one of the four onsite hotels and wants to play Pinehurst No. 2 on the first day and No. 6 on the second, it can coordinate through the portal. The guest can also use it to schedule a massage. Everything from check-in to check-out can be arranged in the portal and a two-way texting service can be used to request towels or other items.
If a guest arrives early, the system notifies the custodial staff to prioritize the accommodation and a key can be sent to the guest’s smartphone. SALTO locks, with their hard-wired online wall readers, allow Pinehurst access control and security for a fraction of the cost. And should a guest become thirsty while on the links, the driver of the beverage cart can arrive furnished with a tablet linked to Beachy’s point-of-sale software.
As Nickelson and his 10-member team collaborate with Agilysys and another digital marketing specialist, The Zimmerman Group, in fine-tuning the website for rollout during the busy autumn season, he acknowledges it’s a significant IT investment but one that’ll redeem itself in better guest experience and resort maintenance.
Splendor in this grass
It takes some doing to maintain all that Pinehurst property, each of the long courses having 30 to 40 acres of playable space. Then, of course, there are the hotels, restaurants, function rooms, pro shop, swimming pools and more.
Pinehurst has long used John Deere tractors and equipment for mowing and groundskeeping and recently implemented John Deere’s OnLink platform for course maintenance. Cloud-based, it enables Pinehurst’s golf course maintenance professionals to collect data and better manage equipment, personnel, water, chemicals and overall playing conditions for a very discerning clientele.
“We are following the platinum rule here,” Nickelson says. “Treat people how they want to be treated. We’re meeting our members and guests where they are in terms of expected experience and facilitating that through use of technology.”
A spry 45-year-old, Nickelson thinks he’s in the sweet spot for intergenerational empathy. His fellow Gen Xers having reached middle age, many have the means to play at premium resorts. The millennials not too many years behind, they’re the demographic of an upcoming tomorrow—and, of course, the most wired of any.
“I look back on my career and put myself in their shoes,” Nickelson says. “I ask, ‘how would they want to consume Pinehurst?’”
In many ways, the answer is the same as that of the demanding golfer who makes up Pinehurst’s core clientele and expects the best. Tradition does matter on these hallowed grounds where a little white ball has been whacked since the late 1800s.
But while Pinehurst takes pride in its heritage, it can’t get lost in the past. The new ways of maintaining the courses and ensuring customer satisfaction are here to harness, with Nickelson looking ahead to see what might be next on the IT front.
Soaking in the Pinehurst charm
Nickelson did the same in his previous role as network specialist at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania from 1998 to 2011. His last couple years there were difficult with a triple-whammy of sparse snow, the Great Recession and new ownership, which reduced the workforce from 850 to 300 full-time employees.
“I came home very frustrated one evening and looked for options,” he says. “I saw an IT position at Pinehurst and in four hours they got such heavy response that they took it down.”
But not before Nickelson had made his pitch. Then during a phone interview, he thought he was out of the running when the voice at the other end went silent. Turns out a VIP had made an impromptu visit to the CFO who happened to be an Indiana University grad.
“I’m sorry for the interruption,” Nickelson was told. “Bobby just stepped in to say hello.”
That was Bobby as in Knight, the legendary Hoosiers basketball coach who’s played Pinehurst on occasion and, in 2015, was feted there on the 50th anniversary of his first victory. One never knows who they’ll see at Pinehurst, but rare might be the day when some dignitary isn’t teeing it up. Let that person soak in the Pinehurst charm, Nickelson says, a process made easier by transparent technology.
“It’s an ongoing process for the senior leadership,” he says. “We’re recognizing the core customer of yesterday and welcoming the one of tomorrow. Even if it isn’t a U.S. Open year, it is someone’s U.S. Open every day at Pinehurst.”
Photo Credit: John Gessner/Pinehurst Resort
View this feature in the Summer I 2022 Edition here.
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