The Whys and Wherefores of Wireless

By | June 1st, 2008

•The growing ease of, and reliance on, wireless connections is making it harder to try to strictly separate work and social environments.

• Cell phone use in clubs is being reassessed because of its potential benefits for safety and family-based communications.

It wasn’t too long ago that cell phones, BlackBerries and wireless laptops were seen in some circles as the biggest threats to the sanctity of private clubs since the Internal Revenue Service began chipping away at individuals’ and corporations’ ability to deduct club dues. Boards of Directors and General Managers at private clubs across the country spent countless hours wrestling over what their policies should be regarding the when-and-where for wireless device use—if indeed they should be used at all.

But, as has been the case with many other developments in the technology realm, private clubs are now scrambling to catch up on the trend with their public and resort counterparts, which have been much quicker to embrace wireless’ many powerful attractions and possibilities, for both front- and back-of-the-house applications.

“I just don’t see how you can continue to ignore or try to prevent the need for wireless service as a required amenity in club settings,” says John Wright, General Manager/COO of Norwood Hills Country Club in St. Louis, where full wireless service was installed as part of a clubhouse renovation three years ago.

“For one thing, it’s become too essential to people’s ability to do their work,” Wright notes. “And my feeling is, if you know you’re not going to be able to work whenever you might need to, you’re probably not going to join a club.”

Having full wireless capabilities is also essential, Wright feels, to be able to attract business meetings and events that are becoming increasingly vital revenue streams for clubs.

“It’s made a big difference in our bookings for outings,” he reports. “We’re getting a lot more corporate groups in the 20- to 50-people range. They see the club as a good venue for effective offsite team meetings that are both relaxing and productive—and being able to use their computers, BlackBerries and other PDAs to get linked in for presentations is a big part of being productive.”

Safe and Sound
The momentum to get clubs wired is also being fueled by a few other factors that extend outside the working world:

• Public Safety and Assurance—Increasingly, properties are changing their views on cell phones from one of aversion, because of their intrusive nature, to one of acceptance, because of their inclusive and connective benefits. This is particularly true with regard to the golf course, where cellular connections can literally prove to be lifesaving, if medical or weather emergencies arise.

“We don’t enforce a cell phone policy on the golf course anymore, because we have such a large retired population, and we want them to be able to reach out to someone if special needs arise,” says Jack Hrad, General Manager of Troon Golf’s The Clubs at St. James Plantation, in Southport, N.C. “We’ve even put phones wired to call 911 and local emergency numbers in our golf carts, and encourage members to use them, if needed.”

St. James had its clubhouse and other parts of the property wired last year. Providing the capability has some “real-world benefits” for clubs like his that are built around real estate communities, Hrad notes. “You want the residents, especially those for whom these are second homes, to be able to use their PCs as they need to while here,” he says.

Wireless is also playing an increased role as clubs strive to position themselves in the scramble to be seen, and used, as family-friendly sanctuaries. “With the price of gas continuing to go up, it’s one-stop shopping now,” says Wright. “The days of Moms shuttling back and forth to the club three or four times a day are over. They want to be able to drop kids off once in a safe environment and then come back and pick them up when the day’s over.

“But to do that,” he adds, “they need to know the kids can use their computers and cell phones wherever they are on the property, so they can check in with calls or text messages, do their summer-school homework or get access to the Internet if needed.”

All of these shifts are prompting a concurrent relaxation of attitudes about cell phone use. It is certainly still easy to find properties where owners and managers remain ready to come down hard on cell-phone abusers by thrusting policy-reminder cards in their face, confiscating their devices, or even showing them the door and officially sanctioning them and threatening to revoke their memberships. But more and more, as one manager says, it’s boiling down to “a quiet thing—if you’re not obnoxious and are just texting or at least trying to step away and be out of earshot from others while you have your conversation, we’ll be more inclined to look the other way.”

• Putting You on the Map—If you’re a property with big-time aspirations for hosting major golf tournaments or other large-scale events, there’s no escaping the need to be wired, no matter how exclusive or ultra-private you may otherwise strive to be.

After hosting last year’s U.S. Open, Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club is now “all the way wireless,” reports General Manager Tom Wallace. Service upgrades were made to comply with the tournament-hosting requirements of the United States Golf Association, primarily because of the huge crush of media-related needs and the USGA’s own internal communications set-up.

While Oakmont still has a no-cell phone policy, Wallace is glad service is now readily available for other needs that have come up, such as business meetings held on site or the ability to provide service in the club’s lodging cottages.

All told, fully wiring the Oakmont campus, which encompasses two golf courses, required the installation of eight “hot spots,” at $1,000 each. When weighed against all the benefits that come with knowing full service is always available, Wallace says, “That’s definitely a good deal, and worth it.”

• Secret Service—Even properties that put up a strong front against out-in-the-open use of wireless devices are finding it difficult to avoid the temptation, when service is available, to hook up their behind-the-scenes operations. The positive impact that wireless devices can help to provide in the back of the house on service responsiveness and operating efficiencies is just too hard to resist, managers admit.

“I won’t deny it—we don’t discourage managers from [surreptitiously] using their laptops under the counter if they’re out on the floor and need to check inventory or get out e-mails,” says the GM of one now-wired property where member use of any wireless devices is still strictly forbidden. “It’s just a better use of their time, instead of letting everything build up until they get back to their office.”

Another GM adds: “We now have the ‘Secret Service’-type earphone devices for our valets and starters—it helps provide better service when they can give someone a low-key heads-up that Mr. Jones is on his way.”

• Getting the Words Out—As noted in C&RB’s recent article on global positioning systems (“X” Marks the Spot, May 2008), properties are continuing to learn that GPS technology—originally intended just to help keep wayward golfers on course—now can also send more instantaneous and impactful marketing-related messages about dining room or pro shop specials.

Similarly, as more clubs get fully wired and in turn relax their policies, some club managers envision a time, relatively soon, when members will walk around browsing the club’s Web site or reading digital versions of newsletters, menus, and event flyers on an almost real-time basis.

Plus, the percentage of members now opting out of getting any printed copies of club communications, and instead stating an exclusive preference for electronic versions, continues to climb, club managers report. So it’s not too far-fetched, some feel, to extrapolate this trend to a time when member/guest relations will become a totally virtual realm. C&RB

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