Courses & TravelAugust 11, 2008

The Story Behind the Changes at Sea Island

Bill Jones, Chairman and CEO of Sea Island, located off the coast of Georgia and rated the No. 1 golf resort in the country, according to Golf Digest, will assemble his employees in a ballroom this week to talk about the future.

Golf Digest

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The most recent past has been tough. Last week a memo went out to 2,100 employees that said: "As a result of several business factors, operational changes and job reductions will be taking place."

The job reductions are close to 300 employees, or 15 to 20 percent of the work force, from the CFO to the part-time seasonal staff who are only brought in to work for the summer.

The operational changes that will be most apparent to the guest or golfer are at two of the resort's restaurants and one of its three golf courses. The 100 Hudson restaurant at the Cloister will no longer be serving dinner. Big George's, also at the Cloister, will no longer be serving breakfast. And from the middle of December to the end of February, the Retreat course (redesigned by Davis Love and his brother, Mark in 2001), will shut down for the coldest months of the year. Don't worry, if that results in more rounds for your group at Seaside, you won't be missing anything.

The business factors that led to the changes aren't unlike what many companies and individuals are experiencing with the current economic storm. "We have less business at the hotel than we'd like, but our real-estate sales, that's what's down," says Merry Tipton, VP of Corporate Communications for Sea Island. "We were trying to equate this to something in our past. The only thing that comes close to this situation for us was the depression."

In the early 1930s, when Bill Jones' grandfather was in charge, Sea Island was forced to print its own money to pay its employees, which local businesses honored until the depression was over.

More than 75 years later, the resort charges $650 to $5,000 per night for a room during peak seasons. "The rates will stay the same," says Susan Kelly, VP of Sales and Marketing. "But we were overstaffed."

Between 1998 and 2008, Sea Island spent $500 million on new buildings, golf courses and renovations. In 2006, prior to the reopening of the Cloister, spa and beach club, there was a significant increase in employees.

Another change on July 7, was that Jones resigned from the board of Synovous, one of several financial partners of the resort. "He just felt like he needed to spend time on his business, and we could probably serve him better without his being an insider," said Richard Anthony, Synovous chairman and CEO, in an article on Ledger-Enquirer.com, a newspaper based in Columbus, Ga.

I Ambushed a buddies trip at the Lodge for the April issue of Golf Digest. I wrote an Away Game about Sea Island in the May issue. On the Golf Channel I called the Seaside course, redesigned by Tom Fazio in 1999, one of the top 10 public courses I've played so far as the travel editor. And, most recently on this blog, I named it the best place to take a buddies trip, especially if you cut costs by going during a shoulder season. In other words -- I'm a fan and was concerned that someone who goes to Sea Island now, or in the future that Bill Jones will be discussing with his staff, might have a much different experience than I did.

Sea Island insists the guest and golfer will be unaffected. "We needed to come to grips with what we should've done awhile ago," says Tipton. "We're going to be much better in the long run."

For the good of the game, I hope she's right.

--Matty G.

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