Since the days before it first came on board 25 years ago and changed the south coast of Oregon from fishing and timber to a tourism economy, Bandon Dunes has never stopped growing. But its current growth spurt is relentless and shows no signs of abating. All it’s done is force Bandon Dunes Resort to keep doing what it does better to stay ahead of the wave.
Like the golf industry as a whole, golf travel has boomed since pandemic travel restrictions loosened. While that exponential tourism growth has been across the board at many golf destination resorts, it’s been especially acute at Bandon where the coinciding of COVID, the opening of Sheep Ranch and a quarantined U.S. Amateur sent the destination resort into hyperdrive since 2020.
“The Sheep Ranch opened in June, and then in August when the U.S. Amateur rolled around (at Bandon Dunes), it was one of only four USGA championships to happen that year,” said Jeff Simonds, the assistant general manager and senior director of operations at Bandon Resort. “We had five or six days of Golf Channel coverage, and essentially there was nothing else on TV. And we had terrific weather and it was a great, great championship where Tyler Strafaci ends up winning on the very last hole against Ollie Osborne. The phones just were ringing nonstop, and they really haven’t let down since.”
Ever since, Bandon has been booked out for 18 months to two years in advance. It’s not the worst problem for a resort to have, but it has required Bandon Dunes to adapt to an entirely new kind of travel landscape. Few places have proved to be as nimble and capable of still delivering the kind of experience Bandon guests have come to expect.
“You almost have this scarcity of demand where people hear how hard it is, and that pushes them to call and want it more,” Simonds said. “Which is a challenge, because so many of our guests that were coming back every year, they knew they could call in August or September for their April visit the following year, and suddenly they call and they couldn’t get in. So they booked the next available, and it just kept kind of pushing a window further and further out.
“All the demand and whatnot is great, with the exception of we didn’t know it was coming. You can’t get the word out to everyone that’s been coming in for so long, and then you’ve got new guests, which is all fantastic, but then they become guests that want to come back. And you just keep adding to this pool of golfers that really enjoy the Bandon Dunes experience, and it’s made it a challenge for us because we try to say ‘yes’ to things and be as hospitable as possible.”
Golf’s version of a run on the western bank of the U.S. forced the business of Bandon to adapt on the fly, eventually trying to settle on an 18-month model that tries to keep guests from piling up multiple deposits for future trips. It’s basically forced Bandon to get better at doing what it was already among the best at doing.
“It’s kind of changed the way we think about things, because we don’t want to change the way we do things,” Simonds said.
Few understand the business of how Bandon does things better than Simonds. In many ways, his career mimics the growth of Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, progressing from a seasonal employee in 2004 at Pacific Dunes to his current senior role overseeing operations for the entire expansive golf mecca on the south coast of Oregon.
A golf-addled graduate with a degree in politics and economics from The College of Idaho, Simonds married Marie Beasley, a golfer from Boise State.
“I wanted to become a professional, and it wasn’t gonna happen in Boise, so that’s when Marie and I kind of had the conversation,” Simonds said. “We just got married. It’s like, ‘Well, let’s go explore. There’s golf all over the place.’”
The first (and last) stop on that exploration, like the Lewis and Clark Trail, ended in Oregon. Simonds accepted a seasonal gig in April 2004 working in the double-wide trailer serving as the Pacific Dunes clubhouse. With a third course (Bandon Trails) being planned, he did the math and calculated the opportunity for career development. By the end of the season, Simonds got promoted to first assistant at Bandon Dunes and later head professional at Pacific Dunes by age 25. He moved into clubhouse/restaurant management when the Pacific Grill was built, and by late 2008 he became director of golf overseeing the first three courses and then Old Macdonald, the Preserve and Punch Bowl as each amenity was added. In 2018, he assumed the role of director of resort operations and, 3½ years later, assistant general manager.
“To fast forward 20 years, the same energy is still around and there’s new things happening all the time, and it’s crazy to think that you can grow and mature and the resort continues to grow and mature at the same time,” Simonds said. “We’re coming up on 25 years here soon, and it’s still a baby in the golf world.”
In all that growth and expansion, as Simonds can attest, the resort’s primary practice has been promoting from within.
“It’s easier to give the job to someone that wants to be here than trying to bring somebody in that might not recognize or understand what we’re trying to do and live in a rural destination,” he said. “Our team at Bandon Dunes, they’re here because they want to be here and they want to take care of our guests and help create their trip of a lifetime. It’s effort that goes into being a Bandon Dunes staff member, and if you’re not interested in that, you don’t hang around very long.”
When the original Bandon Dunes opened in 1999, the resort had just one golf course, one restaurant and only 69 rooms for guests. When the 25th anniversary comes around in May, it will offer five 18-hole championship courses, three short courses, two practice ranges and a putting course; 10 restaurants; and 210 rooms across six facilities ranging from four-bedroom suites or cottages to double- and single-occupancy rooms.
While the number of holes and places to eat has grown roughly 10 times from where it started, the room capacity has very intentionally only tripled. That’s in keeping with the “Dream Golf” experience that the Keiser family wants visitors to have when they come to Bandon.
“We talk about the Dream Golf kind of brand commitment, and a big chunk of that is golfers being able to play 36 holes and not feel like it’s a factory,” Simonds said. “We’ll have conversations where we talk about expansion and, through an iteration of it with [the new 19-hole par-3] Shorty’s, if we do this do we need to add rooms? Not yet. Shorty’s is something that will kind of move and create more space to where we can get more people to play 36 or a second golf course.
“And we know that rooms are tough to get into right now, but we don’t want to add ‘X amount’ of rooms that makes it to where there’s more guests coming in and playing their first round that blocks other guests from being able to play 36. So essentially, from April through October we want to make sure that people have the opportunity to play 36 holes. We watch that and use that for making decisions, and then that also feeds into restaurants and other areas.”
Dining is a major area where Bandon has been nimble in order to alleviate the extra stress on guests having to make dinner reservations when they arrive on property. When golfers book trips 18 months in advance, they’re still sorting out all the unknown details of who might go along with myriad other travel itineraries and arrangements. So Bandon staff will reach out 30, 60 or 90 days in advance – for some larger parties even sooner – to try to help set up dining reservations so there’ll be no issues when guests arrive.
“To some degree, dining is a little bit of a puzzle as well, because your eating times are going to be dictated by your tee times and dictated by any other kind of Punch Bowls or short courses and things like that,” Simonds said. “We try to get a feel for what the experience is and then go from there.”
Even before the COVID boom, the Bandon model had become the template for the modern proliferation of destination golf resorts.
While Bandon Dunes has reached the stage where Simonds says “there’s some semblance of certain things that are in the right spot and you kind of let it be,” 25 years is a lifetime in the cycle of a resort that requires updates and renovations “to keep that nice curb appeal.” Over the last couple of years and the next few, Bandon is renovating rooms that have seen a lot of guests come and go, dragging golf bags that “go off like a bomb” filled with gear to handle any weather the Pacific Northwest might offer on any given day.
“So the rooms just kind of take a little bit more wear and tear than I think what you would see in a normal spot, and you’ve got to keep maintaining those and you want to keep them fresh and styles change and things like that,” Simonds said. Keeping it fresh means equipping rooms with shoe dryers or suites with Therabody JetBoots to help golfers recover after walking 36 holes.
Those touches are byproducts of the constant feedback Bandon collates from its guests, which Simonds calls “the best teacher.”
“We take a lot of time asking questions, and the surveys that get sent out reviewing someone’s stay is valuable information to us – just over time, kind of learning what helps make someone’s trip or experience better and easier,” he said.
Even before the COVID boom, the Bandon model had become the template for the modern proliferation of destination golf resorts. Established resorts such as Pinehurst have scrambled to catch up and replicate some of the enhancements the Keisers brought to the golf-trip industry, while modern destinations such as Cabot Links in Canada, Streamsong in Florida, Barnbougle in Tasmania or newer Keiser resorts at Sand Valley in Wisconsin or the in-progress Rodeo Dunes in Colorado all aim to deliver variations on the same theme Bandon started.
“It’s certainly proven that there is a different formula for success and that you don’t have to follow the same thing,” said Simonds of what started in Oregon in the boom building days of the late ’90s and kept going through economic downturns when golf construction waned.
“If you look at all the golf courses that are on top-100 lists or getting recognition, it’s certainly more on the scale of what does Bandon Dunes do versus how do we build homes around it and have grass everywhere and car paths. I think Bandon helped change the formula of what makes a great golf course great.”
More than just the great golf – which of course is the central attraction – it’s the competence with which the experience is delivered that helps keep Bandon relevant for those who keep coming back. Much of that can be attributed to the Bandon model of staff retention, as it’s grown from a little more than 200 full-time employees in 2004 to more than 700 now – not including peak-season totals of 500 caddies who are independent contractors – and will soon push past 800 once the Ghost Tree Grill and Shorty’s are fully online in 2024.
“That’s pretty amazing to see what that does for the community, as well,” Simonds said of Bandon’s switch from a once seasonal to now year-round operation that provides nearly 300 beds for employee housing. “One of the great things that that’s done for caddies is they don’t have to live this nomad-style way of life where you’re chasing the North and South. You can stay in Bandon Dunes and put some roots down and get your kids in the school system and kind of keep doing your trade.”
Even as it celebrates its first 25 years, Bandon won’t just rest on its laurels. The quest to perfect Mike Keiser’s “Dream Golf” vision is never over, and Simonds believes it eventually will include a long-discussed sixth course off-site near the town of Bandon and likely another hotel there to create a new kind of Bandon experience.
“There’s so many different irons that are in the fire, and some of them turn into something special and others were just good tries and good efforts,” Simonds said. “And not every project or idea we talked about makes it to the finish line. But we’re always looking at ways to improve the experience and improve the community, and it’ll be exciting to see what happens in the next 25 years.”
Don’t wait too long to make reservations, because the next available openings in the summer of 2025 will be here before you know it.
Photo: The lodge at Bandon Dunes with the 13th hole of the Preserve par-3 course in the foreground. Photo: David Cannon, Getty Images
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