Craft family plays major role in success of Gulf Shores

GULF SHORES, Ala. - Gulf Shores golf courses hosted 460,000 rounds last year and expect to do roughly the same in 2003, making it a major contributor to the coastal Alabama economy, according to the Gulf Shores Golf Association (GSGA). But Robert Craft and his family, who helped turn Gulf Shores into a major golf destination, can remember when golf was no more than a blip on the areas radar screen.

"The GSGA has done a great job," says Robert Craft of the 9-year-old organization that promotes the area's 10 signature courses, world-class resort accommodations, 32 miles of sugar-sand beaches, and critically acclaimed restaurants. "But it wasn't always like this."

Robert's father, RC, managed a gladiola farm in Fort Myers, Fla., in the early 1950s when he first visited and realized the potential of the Gulf Shores area. He moved to Gulf Shores in 1953 and purchased 870 acres of farmland three miles from the beach in the mid-1960s. RC started growing gladiolas and eventually moved on to row crops such as corn, soybeans and snap beans. "But he realized the land would eventually have value beyond farming," Robert remembers.

After graduating from Auburn University in 1974, Robert returned to the family farm and began converting the property to turfgrass farming. "I wanted to do something similar to gladiolas, a product that required marketing, sales and a market where you could set your own pricing and quality," says the operator of Craft Farms. Robert, who played golf from age 9, soon became a major wholesale turfgrass supplier, with golf courses a major customer. His industry contacts and lifelong love for the game led him to realize his family controlled a prime piece of property that could help take care of a potentially vibrant Gulf Shores golf market.

A natural disaster led directly to the growth of golf on the southeast Alabama coast. Hurricane Frederick ravaged the area in 1979. The wind and waves dramatically changed the landscape, destroying many of the single-family cottages that were the foundation of Gulf Shores' tourist economy. High-rise condominiums and hotels replaced many of the single-family cottages. "Suddenly we had major new opportunities for tourism," Robert says. "As those high rises were completed in the early 1980s, tourists began coming to town in larger numbers and there was an increased need for golf."

With just two courses at the time - one private and one state park facility - Craft hired a Tampa, Fla., firm to conduct a market feasibility study. The study showed strong potential for a golf resort, particularly if the developer employed one of two marketing accelerators, i.e. a well-funded marketing program or a signature golf course architect.

"We had to hire an architect anyway," Craft remembers. "So we decided to find someone with a name who would give our marketing efforts instant credibility. Who better than Arnold Palmer?"

Palmer added a course management company to his expanding business portfolio in 1985 and was looking for an initial project that could combine the efforts of his design and management firms. Cotton Creek Golf Club at Craft Farms was the perfect design-through-management project. "There was no way two farmers could go to the bank and get enough money to build a golf course if they were going to manage it themselves,"Craft says with a chuckle. "Hiring Palmer to manage the course satisfied the bank."

Cotton Creek opened in 1988 as part of the 650-lot, master-planned Craft Farms community. Palmer managed the course for three years. The Craft family took over management in the early 1990s.

Cotton Creek was the area's first golf resort. Others followed. Craft added nine more Palmer holes in 1995 and another nine in 1998, which together became Cypress Creek, hailed by Golf Digest as the "No. 1 Most Playable New Course in the U.S." Craft also purchased an under-construction, Larry Nelson design across the street named The Woodlands that opened as strictly a daily-fee facility in 1996.

Meanwhile, single-unit, vacation-home owners had been largely replaced by consolidated condominium-management companies operating hundreds of units. The growth of golf and condominiums led to the development of golf packages, which Craft and other far-sighted local business operators saw as the future of Gulf Shores. With eight courses and 15 lodging partners offering golf packages in one form or another, "it became clear we needed to follow the blueprint of a Myrtle Beach and offer a product that the customer could easily access, understand and see the quality,"Craft says.

Craft and Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) President Herb Malone took off on a whirlwind tour of some of the countrys leading golf destination areas, including: Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, S.C.; Pinehurst, N.C.; and Jacksonville, Daytona Beach and Orlando, Fla. They returned with the idea for what became the GSGA. "We tried to borrow the best from what those destination areas did," Craft says.

The three key things they learned from that excursion, Craft says, were: the need to develop brochures and, later, a web site touting golf packages; the need for course operators and accommodation providers to work together for the good of the Gulf Shores area rather than their individual operations; and the need to train front-line staff, those who answered the phones, to actively sell golf packages to potential visitors.

"I sold the idea of the GSGA to the golf courses," Craft recalls. "The CVB was able to sell it to the lodging companies. The accommodation companies, golf courses and CVB formed a three-way agreement to work together to help make customers aware that Gulf Shores was a viable, golf-vacation alternative."

"My mother and father still live here," Craft says. "My dad has been the social ambassador of the club since we opened, drinking coffee in the morning with the guys and a threat to show back up at cocktail hour. I live on the property and am here every day, managing the property owners' association and golf courses. Our children have worked here summers. It's an opportunity for us to make our customers understand how important they are to us and to show our appreciation for their coming here. That's an attitude we've been able to foster among all the people at Craft Farms. These people are our guests. They are at our home and we want them taken care of. It's Southern hospitality.

For more information about stay-and-play programs in Gulf Shores, call 888-815-1902 or visit alabamagolfcoast.com.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment