Step Up Your Game: Resorts have new creative recreation offerings, giving groups new opportunities to connect and engage.

The Greenbrier offers activities like off-road driving, falconry, fly fishing, and others that are “part of West Virginia mountain life.”
The Greenbrier offers activities like off-road driving, falconry, fly fishing, and others that are “part of West Virginia mountain life.”

The trend of creative recreational choices at resorts continues to grow, giving business travelers plenty of reasons to go out and play. While golf remains the most popular activity at most destinations, the game is no longer limited to just standard 18-hole rounds dominated by seasoned players. Golf novices are now getting to tee off more as many resorts create new takes on the game, such as organizing playful rounds of “night golf,” or challenging players to use croquet mallets, old hickory clubs, and countless other variations. Off the greens, more adventurous activity options—ax throwing, virtual games with players around the world, and even interacting with manatees and dolphins—are transforming guest experiences like never before.

Not just par for the course

“Today’s groups and leisure guests are looking for a variety of activities to accommodate a broader range of interests, a something-for-everyone approach. It’s a way to personalize activities for specific interests,” said Karen DiCarlo, director of group sales at Pinehurst Golf Resort in North Carolina. “Our nine-hole par-3 short course is one way we are providing options for our guests. It’s a fun, laid-back approach to the game, and our guests love it.”

In the last decade, par-3 short courses have become more prevalent across the country. A fast and exciting approach to the game, par-3 play is a way for golf newbies to ease into the game without all the pressure and time spent playing 18 holes. Nationwide, there are more than 700 par-3 courses and approximately 1,000 “executive” courses, another variety of the short course.

Known as the “Cradle of American Golf,” Pinehurst has been welcoming golfers to its hallowed greens since 1895. Many of golf’s greatest have played here, including Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, and Tiger Woods. Pinehurst has hosted more single golf championships than any other site in the U.S., including the U.S. Open, PGA Championship, Ryder Cup Matches, PGA Tour’s TOUR Championship, and U.S. Women’s Open.

With 80,000 square feet of meeting space, Pinehurst is also a popular site for meetings and conferences. Because many attendees at these events may have never swung a golf club, DiCarlo said “The Cradle,” Pinehurst’s Gil Hanse-designed par-3 course, is the perfect place to begin.

“Our guests have so much fun there. We’ve designed challenges where they might play with unconventional items like tennis rackets or croquet mallets, helping to level the playing field. We also offer a ‘Glow Cradle Experience’ that we can do along with a group dinner. The entire course is lit up with colored LED lights, while guests play, create fun contests, and just have a good time,” she explained.

At JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort at Marco Island, Fla., guests can play a scramble golf format, relieving non-golfers of any pressure of hitting every shot. The resort is a popular meeting and event destination with 809 guest rooms, 140,347 square feet of meeting space, and 62 meeting rooms.

“Any guest can make a putt or a great chip to assist the team. There are so many creative ways to help non-golfers feel part
of the experience and have a great time,” said the resort’s senior marketing manager, Tracy Tirrell.

Pushing the envelope even more, the golf staff has organized ‘murder mystery’ versions of the game, where guests play detective to figure out challenges, like the game of Clue. Tirrell and her staff can also set up a mini-golf course on the resort’s practice putting green, creating a more relaxed alternative to playing on the championship course.

Many other resorts across the South are getting creative with their short courses. In the rolling foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, Boar’s Head Inn Resort in Charlottesville recently unveiled a new 18-hole championship course that Golf Magazine ranked seventh overall out of the commonwealth’s 350 golf courses.

But resort marketing and communications manager Joe Hanning said non-golfers should not feel intimidated by the prestige.

“Alongside the 18-hole championship course, we also offer Virginia’s largest putting green, ‘Ridges.’ The course spans nearly an acre and is a perfect option for group outings; participants don’t necessarily have to have any golf experience to join in,” he said. On most holiday weekends, the resort stages putting competitions for guests. For an added perk, it is conveniently located next to Birdwood Bar & Grill, allowing players to order and enjoy their favorite cocktails while putting.

Off the course and beyond

Georgia's Barnsley Resort used the lockdown era as a chance to expand its outdoor program to include ax throwing, archery, air rifles, utility terrain vehicle rides, and fire kettle cooking demonstrations.
Georgia’s Barnsley Resort used the lockdown era as a chance to expand its outdoor program to include ax throwing, archery, air rifles, utility terrain vehicle rides, and fire kettle cooking demonstrations.

Resorts have also found success in taking the game off the greens. Tirrell and her staff at JW Marriott Marco Beach can set up a miniature golf course on the Sunset Terrace. A favorite option is to play at night and turn it into a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ activity. The resort’s restaurant, 10K Alley, has indoor hitting bays to host virtual contests, including long drive contests and beginners’ clinics.

Some resorts are taking the game into the world of virtual reality. The Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort and Spa in San Antonio, Texas recently introduced an interactive golf simulator in the club’s Oak Tavern. Part of a growing trend of sophisticated virtual and simulated activities, the new feature provides real-time visual feedback and ball performance data on a screen, allowing golfers to track their swing impact and ball trajectory. Groups can also take part in friendly competitions with a “closest to the pin” contest or long drive competitions.

With a 27-hole championship golf course and an already robust menu of golf experiences, the Texas resort promotes the golf swing simulator as another option for guests occupying its 500 rooms.

“This new virtual golf activity provides a great way to reconnect with friends, family, and colleagues this year; is a fun addition to any celebration, networking function, or cocktail reception; and provides several teambuilding opportunities,” said Ashley Skidmore, the resort’s director of golf.

In a similar vein, Boar’s Head’s has its own state-of-the-art “Swing Studio” indoor golf experience allowing guests to tee it up to play realistic on-screen courses from around the world. The system’s built-in technology allows friendly competition for the longest drive and plays a selection of short par-3 courses.

Exotic adventures and experiences

Boar’s Head Inn Resort in Charlottesville , Va. recently unveiled a new 18-hole championship course but also offers many other activities including paddleboarding.
Boar’s Head Inn Resort in Charlottesville , Va. recently unveiled a new 18-hole championship course but also offers many other activities including paddleboarding.

An hour north of Atlanta, on 3,000 acres of pristine wilderness, Barnsley Resort offers visitors a great selection of activities and adventures, giving “the freedom of a true north Georgia experience.” This is not an exaggeration, said Andy Ippensen, Barnsley’s director of sales, but simply the resort’s response to what more guest are requesting.

“With the early part of the pandemic forcing so many people out of office environments and apart from one another, we have had many requests for more group activities that can take place in a safe, outdoor setting,” he said.

Barnsley used the lockdown era as a chance to expand its outdoor program. It now includes ax throwing, archery, air rifles, utility terrain vehicle rides, and fire kettle cooking demonstrations. “The feedback we have gotten from our guests confirms these activities have been perfect solutions for those who want to experience something new together. Add in a little competitive spirit, and you instantly see groups bond and have a great experience,” he said.

West Virginia’s historic Greenbrier Resort (est. 1778) seems to offer a pastime for every taste. With a guest registry including presidents, dignitaries, and Hollywood stars, the 11,000-acre resort offers 55 indoor/outdoor activities, including croquet, bowling, canopy tours, fishing, ice skating, paintball, equestrian sports, and more.

“I think resorts realize if they could provide activities for every interest, they will be more likely to get the business,” noted Greenbrier public relations director Cam Huffman. “Competition is stiff when it comes to tennis, golf, spas, and pools because, when it comes to those options, most resorts have an excellent product. It has become a situation where what you have on top of that is what can set you apart.”

To accommodate the occupants of its 710 guest rooms, The Greenbrier boasts three picturesque golf courses, a private course—rated among America’s best by Golf Digest and Golf Aficionado—and a nine-hole par-3 walking course. Staying on trend with creative golf packages, The Greenbrier has Bourbon and Birdies, which combines spirits samplings and a putting competition. Greenbrier’s long list of sporting activities, including gun club, skeet shooting, archery, and fishing, provide great alternatives for networking events.

“Our activities take advantage of both the culture and terrain of the area,” Huffman said, noting activities like off-road driving, falconry, fly fishing, and others are “part of West Virginia mountain life.”

But there’s one element at Greenbrier that will not be found anywhere else: a declassified, once top-secret Cold War-era bunker. Carved 720 feet into the mountainside beneath the resort, the 112,544-square-foot bunker was built during the Eisenhower administration as a fallout shelter and relocation facility for Congress. Decommissioned in the early 1990s, the bunker is now open for group tours, giving The Greenbrier a one-of-a-kind adventure no other resort can claim.

Capitalizing on its own unique surroundings on the Florida Coast, the JW Marriott Marco Beach has found many ways for guests to experience the Ten Thousand Islands, a chain of undeveloped islands and mangrove islets popular with nature lovers.

A favorite activity for resort guests is the shelling and sailing tours of the archipelago on one of the resort’s six-passenger catamarans. For two-and-a-half hours, guests take a journey, bringing them face-to-face with the islands’ natural wonders, including visits from dolphins and manatees. Once the cruise pauses at one of the estuary’s uninhabited beaches, passengers can explore or search for seashells and sand dollars. Another popular activity is guided island wave runner tours, taking visitors through mysterious mangrove forests inhabited by native birds.

There are options for more relaxed adventures, too. “We like to say even basket weaving is fun when you put your toes in the sand, so we offer a variety of activities: Sip and paint, aromatherapy creations, personalized scrub bars, and several culinary challenges without ever leaving the beach,” Tirrell said.

In the meantime, as resorts slowly begin to see a return of pre-COVID levels of bookings, the assortment of recreational activities offered should continue to grow. “People are ready to get together,” explained Ippensen. “Togetherness allows our clients to instill their culture and encourage innovation. Our activities and experiences are created to do just that, and that’s something which can’t be replicated on Zoom.”

Nicole Dufour is a New Orleans-based writer. After graduating from LSU, she launched her writing career as a cub reporter for New Orleans CityBusiness newspaper. More than 25 years later, Nicole continues to follow her passion for writing as a freelancer. Her by-line has appeared in numerous publications, on stories covering tourism, the arts, historic preservation, architecture, and the construction industry. A 12th generation Louisianan, Nicole lives in Uptown New Orleans with her husband and son.


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