An influx of new members and management talent has marked a pivotal period in PCC’s long history and injected new energy and activity levels throughout its storied grounds.
As it celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2004, The Philadelphia Cricket Club (PCC) had long since moved on from being associated primarily with the game from which it took its name. While it continued to proudly tout its history as “one of the oldest clubs in the U.S. devoted to the playing of games,” its two properties—St. Martins, in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, and Flourtown, outside the city—were now fully occupied with golf, tennis, squash, swimming and other sports and events. And PCC’s ties to cricket had become largely confined to the story of how a desire to have private grounds on which to play the game had prompted a group of Englishmen to form the club in 1854, after they graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.
But while the PCC of 2004 offered a much broader base of recreational and social activities for its members, in many ways it remained more connected to its earliest days than prepared for how the club world was changing in the new millennium. Its membership was aging and lacked diversity, its facilities were tired, and there was no cohesive culture to bring together the campuses and management staff, or to engage the members in all of the various activities that were offered.
In a few years, these deficiencies would put one of America’s most storied properties in real peril, as the recession accelerated the need for PCC to recognize that what had worked for over a century and a half needed to change dramatically, if the club was to even make it through the first decade of the 2000s. But fortunately, key steps were being taken that would help the club not only survive, but begin to thrive again, by finding the proper balance between its unique past and an effective plan for the future.
Reviving Past Glories
That balance had already begun to be struck in PCC’s golf operations, after the arrival of Jim Smith Jr. as the club’s PGA Director of Golf in 2006. A Philadelphia-area native who had attended school locally at Temple University and then held golf pro positions at three area clubs, including 10 years as Director of Golf & General Manager of Talamore Country Club in Ambler, Pa., Smith brought a deep appreciation for the rich golf history of both the region and PCC in particular (the club hosted U.S. Opens in 1907 and 1910).
Just as importantly, his experience at Talamore afforded him a broader, general-management view of how golf could serve traditional properties like PCC in the changing club environment.
“I was hired with the mandate that I should do whatever I could to raise the bar to the highest level from a service perspective,” Smith says. “It was really a case of the club just having lost sight of knowing how good it could be. And on the theory that a rising tide could lift all ships, we set out with the idea that if we improved the golf experience, everything else would follow.”
Momentum for that improvement quickly kicked into high gear with several new developments: the arrival of Dan Meersman as Director of Grounds in 2008; the approval of plans for major renovations on all three courses and 45 holes of the two PCC campuses; and the securing of major tournament events (the 2015 PGA Professional National Championship, the 2016 Constellation Senior Players Championship and the 2020 U.S. Amateur Four-Ball Championship), at which the club’s new profile could be showcased and its rich legacy could once again be revived.
Much of the focus surrounding these developments has been devoted to the full-scale, “sympathetic” restoration of PCC’s Wissahickon course, which opened in 1922 after being originally designed by A.W. Tillinghast, a Cricket Club member (the famed architect’s ashes were in fact scattered into a creek on the PCC property after he died, “to be near where he had loved life the most,” according to a commemorative plaque near that site).
The work to “bring Tilly home” from a course-design standpoint was completed in 2014 and drew much acclaim when the Wissahickon course was used for this year’s PGA tournament; it also helped that course’s ratings jump more than 100 spots in some rankings to regain top-echelon status, and Meersman says he has hosted countless groups from other clubs now hoping to use it as a model for their own restorations of classic designs.
But while the Tillinghast restoration is deservedly garnering much national acclaim, the PCC golf and grounds staff are equally gratified by the response they’ve seen from their own membership, not only for the work that’s been done at Wissahickon, but also at St. Martins, where the course that held U.S. Opens a century ago was restored in 2012 into a popular new nine-hole layout.
“When I came in 2006, 26,000 rounds were played at the club,” Smith reports. “In 2012—the last year we had all 45 holes open—we did 39,000 rounds. This year, we’re on pace for 47,000. Looking at it on a rounds-per-member basis, we’ve gone from 33 in 2006 to 50 this year.”
At St. Martins, Smith adds, there’s been a 400% increase, from 1,500 rounds in 2009 to 7,500 this year. Seventy-five percent of that play is by “casual, novice and junior” golfers, he reports, with the rest by families and more accomplished players who like the course’s combination of challenge and speed. “You can play 18 holes there in an hour, but with eight par-4s, even the better players have a hard time breaking par,” Smith says.
Even with this increase in play, PCC still emphasizes, and provides, a unique, tradition-based approach. Tee times at Wissahickon are still spaced at 15-minute intervals, and two late-morning slots are blocked out for a “maintenance gap” that allows the grounds crew to “freshen the course and give afternoon players the same experience,” Meersman notes.
Bringing It All Together
While golf took the early lead in setting the pace for PCC’s new, 21st-century-oriented direction, the rest of the club’s departments and facilities weren’t neglected or far behind. A strong surge of strategic focus and creative energy was injected as 2011 began with the arrival of Tim Muessle as the club’s new General Manager/COO, and it was sustained and strengthened by several other key managerial appointments that quickly followed.
Muessle, whose previous experience included management roles with other esteemed private clubs in the East (Wykagyl Country Club, Longue Vue Club and Philadelphia Country Club), as well as time with ClubCorp, turned his initial focus to addressing what he felt were the two biggest impediments to retaining PCC’s relevance amid the new realities of the club world.
“We had two campuses, one that was golf-centric and one that was not, and large groups of members that only used one or the other,” Muessle explains. “We also had a membership and dues structure that encouraged a la carte use of the many various activities that were offered. All of this made it very difficult to manage such a large operation efficiently or to plan for future growth, because the membership was so bifurcated and there was no cross-pollination that encouraged socialization.”
The structural issues were addressed by simplifying membership categories to institute an all-inclusive approach. “Basically, for new members, we went to offering a choice of golf and everything else, or everything but golf,” Muessle says. A new Director of Membership and Business Development, Jacob Smith, combined the straightforward attraction of the new structure with initiation-fee incentives, a streamlined proposal process and aggressive marketing of the capital improvements that were afoot (including family-friendly features such as new squash and pool facilities) to reverse a declining membership trend and bring a steady stream of more youthful applicants to the club.
“We were hemorrhaging members because there were too many barriers to entry and we were overpriced for what we were offering,” states Smith, who came to PCC from The Core Club, a high-end, for-profit New York City property. “But once we had all the right pieces in line, we gained over 40 new members in 2011, over 125 in 2012, and 75 to 85 in each of the next three years.
“Many of these came to us from other clubs because we repriced ourselves as the best value,” Smith adds. “But we also got a lot of first-time club members, especially by taking better advantage of our connections to local schools [PCC’s St. Martins campus is adjacent to Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, one of Philadelphia’s top-rated private schools] and emphasizing all that we could offer to younger families. That proved to be a great feeder system that helped us significantly lower our average member age.”
Two for One
Addressing the two-campus issue presented a more complicated dynamic, Muessle says. “There’s nothing wrong with having two distinct campuses, each with their own strong appeal,” he notes. “We just needed to embrace that operationally, while also doing a better job of leveraging their combined benefits as a unique advantage of membership.”
To institute more efficient and focused management of each property, separate Club Managers were put in charge of each campus. Michael Chase (recipient, while Club Manager of The Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla., of the Excellence in Club Management 2012 “Rising Star” Award that is co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business) came to PCC in 2014 to take the role of St. Martins Club Manager and direct operations within its 80,000-sq. ft., elongated clubhouse and surrounding property. John Magliocco, with PCC since 2012, now serves as Flourtown Golf Club Manager. But both work closely with each other and other PCC department heads and managers to maximize synergies and help plan and execute a creative slate of activities that encourages members to fully experience all that both properties have to offer.
Behind the scenes, other new members of PCC’s management team have made significant contributions to the storied club’s revival. Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Business Journal named Chief Financial Officer Linda Cozzi, who came to PCC in 2011 from Cherokee Town & Country Club, as the winner in the Small Companies category for its 2015 CFO Awards. The award recognized the efforts by Cozzi and her staff to generate significant savings by successfully appealing a property tax assessment and converting floating-rate debt to fixed rates through tiered bank-loan swaps—all of which was critical, the Journal noted, in helping PCC, since Cozzi’s arrival, to complete nearly $20 million in capital improvements, raise revenues by nearly 60% (from $11.5 million to $18.3 million), and elevate usage and membership numbers to their highest levels in its now 161-year history.
That kind of recognition, Muessle says, is also evidence of progress towards what he sees as the ultimate goal. “We’re well on our way to getting back to the level of recognition that Merion, Winged Foot and Baltusrol have,” he feels. “And that’s the company this club should be in, when it’s so rich in history and is Tillinghast’s home course. Some of that luster had been forgotten—but we’re getting the luster back.”