Simplified membership structures, enhanced golf facilities, reinvigorated events and new food-and-beverage offerings have brightened the outlook for the Las Vegas property, after a group of members purchased the club to ensure its future.
Common wisdom dictates that going through adversity does one of two things: it either brings people together, or tears them apart. When Spanish Trail Country Club, a 27-hole facility in Las Vegas, filed for bankruptcy five years ago, what was initially challenging has ultimately been a transformative experience, resulting in increased solidarity among staff and the members who stayed on throughout the reorganization. A core group of 200 members remained with the club (which once had nearly 700 members), to see the property through its toughest hurdles (current membership is now back to 550). That same group is now working with the club in ownership and ambassador roles to restore Spanish Trail’s status as a fully private facility.
At a Glance: Spanish Trail Country Club
Location: Las Vegas
“Most members are more relaxed now, knowing that the club is not in the hands of an unknown entity,” says General Manager Bill Rowden. “Everything is handled by long-term residents and members who have been through the ups and downs, and now there’s more camaraderie and communication between members, staff and the Board.”
Back Up from the Bottom
Five years ago, Spanish Trail followed a post-recession path that was well-trodden by many private clubs within gated communities, when its ownership group, PPM America, filed for bankruptcy after defaulting on a $15 million loan it received in 2007.
Thirteen members loaned the club $750,000 to “get out from under the thumb” of lenders and creditors, says Bill Paulos, one of the club’s current member-owners and a Board member (Paulos is co-founder and principal of Cannery Casino Resorts, which operates gaming properties in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada). In April 2015, a group of four members, led by Cyrus Tang of Tang Industries, officially bought the club for $5 million, paying back the members who helped the club get through the previous two years.
The new ownership group renegotiated with purveyors across the board to lower costs, and reduced debt in a streamlining process that took about a year to complete, putting the club in a position to make a profit in 2015. Some of those savings have come through the club’s relationship with Par 4 Golf Management, which took over golf operations in August 2012 and all club management duties by the end of 2014, helping to introduce needed economies of scale. (The management firm’s sister company, Par 3 Landscape & Maintenance, began maintaining the golf course in 2011.)
Robb Rizor, now the head golf pro, joined Spanish Trail as its first assistant four years ago, at the tail-end of bankruptcy and before the management shift. He describes the morale of members and staff as low at the time, with many members participating in a “mass exodus” when bankruptcy was announced. But once Par 4 came on board, Rizor says, a sense of camaraderie took over
“For the first time in my four years here, the positive vibe here is tangible,” Rizor says.
After the club’s finances were stabilized, the new owners set out to enhance the property’s bread and butter: its 27-hole Robert Trent Jones, Jr. championship golf course. Comprised of three nine-hole layouts—the Lakes, Canyon, and Sunrise courses—the golf course is large enough to have the flexibility to be available for some public play, including events and tournaments, while ensuring that members always have the opportunity to play a round.
“Most of our rounds are member golf, so at first it was difficult to accept that we needed outside play,” Rizor says. “As membership increases, outside play is needed less. We block out tee times for members, so they can just walk in when they want to play, while non-member play is based on availability around the membership.”
A reciprocal relationship with six nearby golf courses that has been arranged through Par 4 now allows members to play different layouts for $25. Spanish Trail always has at least 18 holes open, closing one nine-hole course at a time to overseed and aerify as needed. The maintenance staff sets the rotation each day, with three different combinations.
The new owners invested $500,000 into the golf course, improving greenside bunkers in nine-hole increments, re-introducing tree growth, and enhancing 15 lakes. In 2010, the golf course underwent a turf conversion, removing 15 acres of turf that needed to be irrigated per nine-hole course, and adding native desert plants.
Keeping It Simple
Keeping the golf course pristine is important not only for current member satisfaction, but also for bringing in new members. “Everyone who plays here is a prospective member,” Rizor says, adding that more than 50% of new members have been referrals.
Spanish Trail’s “all for one” attitude means that members are its biggest advocates—and not just the members who bought the place. With its membership including executives from prominent Vegas properties such as The Venetian, Wynn Las Vegas and The Mirage, the club leverages its ties with the community to bring potential new members on-site for business meetings and events. Further incentives are provided through a referral package that rewards members who bring in a new member with a month of free dues.
With ownership now in-house, Spanish Trail has managed to streamline all aspects of club operations, all the way down to membership requirements. Initiation fees have been removed, there is no longer a food-and-beverage minimum, and there are no long-term contracts, resulting in a simple product with no hidden fees or surprises, Rowden explains.
As soon as the new ownership group took over, all member categories converted to the same dues structure. Though different membership categories still exist at different costs (full golf, young executive golf, associate golf, corporate golf, and social), discounts were dropped to “put everyone on equal footing,” Rowden says.
In the summer, when activity is slow and many members travel, the club offers residents of the Spanish Trail community free access for two months through a trial membership, essentially allowing them to use the club while it’s empty. About 60 people have signed up for the promotion (spending, on average, $300 apiece during that time), and Rowden estimates that 20 have stayed on as social members.
Competition is fierce in the desert, not only for golf (Rizor estimates there are 60 courses to choose from in Las Vegas), but also in the events and food-and-beverage departments. Increasingly, club dining venues compete against restaurants as well as other clubs, and Spanish Trail is no different. With every casino offering multiple high-end dining outlets, in addition to the many stand-alone restaurants that line every Vegas street, Spanish Trail has had to up the ante.
Executive Chef Albert D. Washington, who earned his salt in high-volume casinos and has worked for Paulos since he was 15 years old, came to Spanish Trail in 2012. By comparison, Spanish Trail’s F&B operation is significantly smaller and less stressful than casino environments, and Washington says he enjoys the rapport he can develop with members.
“It’s a more personable atmosphere,” Washington says. “We’re trained to be transparent with our members, and they are vocal about what they like and don’t like.” When it comes to providing the types of food that the membership prefers, much like the club’s overall philosophy these days, it’s best to keep it simple, Washington says.
Vegan requests have had a boost in recent years, and the kitchen accommodates those members with vegetable spring rolls, kale salads, vegetable pastas and flatbreads. Generally, though, Washington says the members tend to like a bit of everything, with a special affinity for sushi, which, he estimates, appears on the menu for member events about 80% of the time.
Events that pair food favorites with libations (tacos with tequila, moonshine with BBQ) have gained traction among members looking for a fun and casual way to spend a weeknight. Thanks to live entertainment on Fridays, golfers can meet with friends in the bar after a round, increasing the bar’s cover count and lengthening member stays, with up to 100 people in regular attendance.
“Everyone’s open-minded, as far as what we can do,” says Kathy Baldieri, CPCE, Director of Food and Beverage/Catering, who has been with the club throughout changes in management and ownership. Baldieri has taken the freedom afforded by Par 4 and the new ownership group to grow the club’s event offerings; the Board is “encouraging and approachable,” she notes, offering “great suggestions, but at the end of the day, allowing us to make the decisions.”
“We work hard to make events memorable, to get that ‘wow’ factor,” Baldieri says. “We want to give people a reason to come in, and not just for dinner.” Last year’s holiday open house featured “living tables,” where models stood in the center of food displays, while previous events included tables suspended from the ceiling.
For members who live in the surrounding community but are unable to visit the club for dinner (or just don’t feel like using the stove), the club offers home delivery from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m.; members simply call to place a dinner order and have it delivered to their doorstep.
The club’s busy social seasons run from September to January, and again from March to June, with a handful of staff members on call during those periods (banquet and kitchen staff are shuffled around as needed). Front-of-house staffing has remained consistent, Baldieri notes, helping to foster stronger relationships between staff and members.
With the ages within its member families ranging from one year old to 98, Spanish Trail has many who were “brought up in country club culture,” Baldieri reports. But the club is working to appeal to younger members who are often seeking a different kind of social experience. On Fridays throughout the summer, the club offers a kid zone, supervising and entertaining kids while their parents can enjoy dinner uninterrupted, plus “drive-in movies” using golf carts, among a series of kid-oriented events.
“The one nice thing about club culture that hasn’t changed is the sense of family,” Baldieri says. “Economics and technology change all the time, but that core feeling of belonging, where you know my name and I know yours, that’s what I love.”