Resort Management: Stepping Up Their Game
Sea Island hires high-profile pros to revamp its tennis and squash programs.
By Kent Oswald
In a high energy bid for attention to a previously softly-peddled vacation destination, Sea Island, a resort on the Georgia coast that prides itself on offering a massive, private residence sense-of-place, has stepped up the profile and scope of its tennis and squash programs.
In June it brought tennis star power by hiring 1993 Roland Garros doubles champions (and fanatically fan-friendly personalities) Murphy Jensen as tennis ambassador and director of tennis and brother Luke as the resort’s touring pro. It followed by three months the hiring of Steve Hall, former Dunlop director of marketing, as squash director to run the nation’s only five-star resort squash program.
The hires come as part of an aggressive marketing push for the haven of secluded opulence, since the late 1920s a getaway for Southern elites, politicians, celebrities and those they let in on “their secret” that came to the attention of the larger world as host of the 2004 G-8 Summit.
Situated on a Georgia barrier island amid marshlands, the facility caters to a membership that owns (and rents) residences, as well as to guests. After years in family hands, Sea Island was purchased by a group of partners first bidding against each other over the assets during 2010 bankruptcy proceedings.
The current vision is to expand visitorship and membership programming as part of a transition from what was prior to 1999 a real estate company, according to General Manager Rick Reiss, to a fully developed resort providing everything to its high-end clientele from three championship golf courses to a nature camp for kids, a 65,000-square-foot spa and fitness center, unique cuisine experiences and extraordinary racquet-enthusiast experiences.
Bringing aboard the Jensens and Hall are part of the process, Reiss explains, of “building a bridge that pays respect to the past and that tradition, but also makes it fun and attractive to a new clientele.”
Not completely coincidentally, Murphy Jensen claims that his personal brand is “fun.” A major attribute as a teacher is the enthusiasm he brings to the court every day, every lesson.
As for what he and older brother Luke (who will be spending about 120 days a year on site) receive from their new gig, he grows animated about the opportunity to create a learning facility with an emphasis on doubles that only they can bring. He has hopes of creating a legacy melding the traditions of the academies of Dennis Van der Meer, John Newcombe and even Harry Hopman, only in an even more incredible environment. “This place is different … [and] a chance to build something from a blank canvas.”
Learning the Business
Jensen, who also coaches current World TeamTennis champion Washington Kastles and continues to work with a few touring pros, has set himself the task of heading up the “tennis vertical,” handling budgets and payroll while leaving his imprint on everything from what is ordered in the pro shop, to how his doubles expertise infuses lessons, to how the courts get swept (even if he finds himself doing it). But he’s also learning the hospitality business from the inside. It turns out to be more complicated than he thought, despite all the time he has had on the road to study the business from the outside.
He acknowledges, ”When I checked into a hotel the past 20 years, I never knew how hard it is to run.” Off-court complications can be daunting when it is up to you to “know everything, from light fixtures to how to get the right [employees] in the right places. … I have a new respect for anyone working in the tennis business,” he admits.
“The dream is that people will think tennis when they think Sea Island,” says Jensen, and to that end he is hard at work planning to fill the 16 Har-Tru courts (eight lighted, including the showcase stadium court) split between the resort’s primary campus of guest and member residences and the separate golf facility and lodge. On tap is an expansion of the Murphy Jensen Tennis Academy Sea Island that has seen the junior program grow from two to 50 players during the first six months and the creation of specific adult-themed weeks through the spring and summer — as well as a regular seasoning of “Jensen Brothers Tennis Weekends.”
While planning to take advantage of the Davis Cup tie between the U.S. and Brazil to be played Feb. 1-3 in nearby Jacksonville, Fla., to create interest and buzz for the facility, he is also reaching out to friends from the professional tour as well as others he knows from his days as a Tennis Channel personality, hoping to have them participate in the Friday Night Lights exhibitions throughout the high season, or as featured visitors who take advantage of the facilities as part of their training.
“I didn’t realize I would enjoy teaching this much,” says Jensen. But there is no getting away from the current primacy of golf among the resorts’ attractions. Since it can’t all be about the one game, he is also considering the synergy to be found in marketing to corporate groups and others by introducing a “tennis for golfers” series. “Who knows where this leads?” he says.
Hall, master of two singles softball and one doubles hardball squash courts, echoes Jensen. While the tennis guru may announce that, “anything’s possible,” and, “the ultimate goal is to provide a service you can’t get anywhere else,” the squash maven claims that whatever it takes to satisfy and excite guests and members, “We’ll make it happen.”
Regular squash programs include adult clinics and junior programs. Hall, who after 12 years at Dunlop remains on the advisory board and offers only the one company’s racquets — soon to include a signature Sea Island model — in his pro shop, is looking to add two tournament events a year. The “Sea Island Classic,” an amateur event, is already set as part of the resort’s President’s Weekend celebration, Feb. 15-17. He also plans fantasy squash camps (the inaugural event features World No. 2, Nick Matthew, the resort’s touring professional and ambassador, March 28-31); a college recruiting weekend; skills-building summer camp sessions; guest mixers; and parent-child programs. Also being considered as a way to use squash as an outreach to new guests are “squash and spa” and “squash and golf” weekends.
Hall, a former board member of the U.S. Squash Racquets Association and before that a top Canadian player, sees this country’s emerging squash renaissance as helping to fit his program very neatly into marketing to the resorts present and goal demographic. Recently married to a former top Princeton squashite, the transition from corporate to courtside is going well for the former Dunlop exec who says it “is massively satisfying [to rediscover] through others’ eyes” what a great game he is teaching.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.