New management has revived the original owner’s dream for a special Indiana retreat at Victoria National GC.
When Terrance Friedman set out in the late 1990s to create Victoria National Golf Club (VNGC) in Newburgh, Ind., all the ingredients were in place to write the next chapter of a classic American-dream story. Friedman was a local-boy-made-good who amassed his fortune as an automotive supplier, and he now wanted to give back to his beloved southern Indiana by building an attraction that would draw more of the world to the region.
An avid golfer, Friedman acquired a mammoth, 400-plus-acre property in Newburgh, just outside of Evansville, Ind., that had been abandoned after years of strip mining. He commissioned Tom Fazio to transform it into an 18-hole championship golf course that immediately earned (and has since always retained) top-50 acclaim for its combination of links-style and rolling-hills layouts, plus a unique multiple-tee configuration that allows holes to be set up to be played much differently from day to day for each of four distance levels (the course has a total of 122 tee positions, with some holes, such as the par-3 No. 5, designed with nine spots around which the four tee-box designations can be rotated).
Friedman never hid from the start that he wasn’t building Victoria National to make money in the golf business, and that his primary focus was on having it attain a reputation that would eventually bring a U.S. Open to the property. “It was originally a private, members-only operating model—you remember those days,” says Steve Munch, PGA, a long-time veteran of the TPC club network who is now VNGC’s General Manager. Adds Director of Golf Tom Rose, the Head Professional when Victoria National opened in 1998: “It was a ‘Field of Dreams’ vision: Build it, and they will come.”
Unfortunately, Friedman was only able to live six years into the pursuit of his dream, passing away in 2004 at the age of 66. His family sought to keep his vision alive, but the recession then brought new threats to the club’s continued existence—not only by impeding potential membership growth and activity, but also by dampening the prospects for developing a community around the course, as a way to try to offset mounting operating losses.
With a trust fund that Friedman had set up for his family being drained to the tune of $2 million a year to keep the VNGC course in optimal shape and preserve its ranking, a search began for new ownership that might be able to devise a more viable long-term strategy for not only sustaining, but enhancing, the property’s stature and gaining the worldwide recognition envisioned by its founder.
More to Build…
In 2010, Victoria National was acquired by a group headed by The Suddath Companies, a Jacksonville, Fla.-based firm that reflected the influx of new players drawn into the golf and club business as a result of the recession. Originally a moving and storage company, Suddath had expanded into global logistics and other businesses. It now saw the opportunity to acquire a prime property like VNGC at a bargain price and add an impressive asset that could complement its other ventures.
Seeing the gem of a golf course it had acquired, Suddath’s plan for reviving VNGC under the leadership of Munch, who took his position in 2011, and the team he would assemble bought into the idea that Friedman’s original “build it and they will come” approach could still apply. The difference, under the new ownership, was understanding that there needed to be more building, both literally and figuratively, along with a broader definition of who would come, and how they would be attracted to do so.
To date, the actual building activity has mostly focused on expanding on-property lodging at VNGC. Friedman had allowed some members to build their own cottages along the course, which were then purchased and brought under the new management’s control. Plans were then set in motion to expand lodging with new cottages and suites that have come on stream in recent years; today, VNGC can provide 24 bedrooms and 32 beds to members and guests.
“You’re either in the lodging business or you’re not,” says Munch. “When we decided to do it, we wanted to make a statement—not in terms of being pretentious, but with the high level of comfortable hospitality that we can provide.”
That includes equipping accommodations with elaborate high-tech showers that Munch calls a “human car wash,” as well as plenty of “guy stuff” like ping-pong tables and cornhole equipment. VNGC is now well set up for groups from 4 to 28, Munch says, and its “wheelhouse” is the 8- to 12-person contingent. And more building may come, with lots staked out on the property for six more potential cottages.
Plans have also been drawn up to expand VNGC’s 25,000-sq. ft clubhouse, primarily to build on growth (with new outdoor patio and deck arrangements) that’s been driven by a renewed emphasis on the club’s food-and-beverage offer. After long being primarily focused on what Munch calls “pure golf club fare—burgers and sandwiches,” VNGC stepped up to a much more sophisticated F&B level last year, bringing in a new Director of Food and Beverage, James Sigler, and a new Executive Chef, Richard Nielsen, CEC, PCIII.
The move for Nielsen represented a return to his native Indiana after directing the culinary operations of prestigious clubs on the East Coast, including Sankaty Head GC on Massachusetts’ Nantucket Island and The Tuxedo Club in New York (see “All Dressed Up,” C&RB, August 2014). And while he has appreciation for his home state’s affinity for meat and potatoes, Nielsen has already demonstrated that being in the heartland doesn’t mean diners need to be deprived of anything but lake perch and walleye on the seafood side of the menu.
“The biggest change I’ve brought is lightening up the menu by using my connections to bring in fresh seafood daily,” Nielsen says. “We now have phenomenal halibut as well as sablefish, cod, striped bass, scallops, oysters and Maine lobster.”
Nielsen has further broadened VNGC’s culinary reach by injecting a “Mediterranean flair” into many dishes. At the same time, working with Director of Agronomy Kyle Callahan, he’s brought a new emphasis to homegrown fare, with a new chef’s garden established near the course maintenance building that now provides a wide variety of herbs and fresh produce, and a flourishing beekeeping operation yielding honey that’s used for a variety of purposes, including a signature “Vic Farms” honey butter.
“We want to have a culinary program to match such a beautiful place,” Nielsen says. “We’re already about three-quarters of the way there, and we’ll be all the way by the end of the golf season.”
The new management’s building focus has not ignored golf, either. A new stand-alone TaylorMade Performance Fitting Center was opened near VNGC’s practice facility in 2015. The building also includes a launch monitor and is open to the public. Head Golf Professional Adam Lash, PGA, has also been reaching out to other club pros in the region, to encourage them to take advantage of the facility. “We don’t want to be that place in town where no one thinks they can come,” Lash says.
…and More People to Come
Expanding lodging capabilities was a critical step to breaking away from the exclusive private-club model that the new ownership felt was not sustainable for VNGC, Munch says. “It put us in the resort business, and that’s when the magic happened,” he says. “Paid rounds took off, and that triggered more activity in F&B, our pro shop, and other revenue streams.”
But the transition did not come at the expense of the club’s membership—in fact, having a more robust lodging offer has also served to enhance the appeal of membership and has even had the effect of engaging current members to help bring in outside business and prospective new members.
VNGC now offers Private Residence Club (PRC) memberships, offered in corporate, executive and seasonal packages. The PRCs are modeled after fractional jet-ownership programs, but offer a more straightforward exit strategy (100% refund of the initial purchase price based on a five-year hold period and a two-in, one-out basis).
Beyond its PRC programs, Victoria National also offers a variety of access to its cottages, to both members and guests, through a Corporate Lodging “Pathway to Membership” program, “Discovery” programs and other initiatives. In many cases, VNGC members are encouraged to take advantage of substantial rate incentives by inviting non-member guests that can help them make up larger groups and use more beds.
The expansion of VNGC’s on-site lodging offer has created more challenges for Director of Group Sales Ashley Owen and Director of Membership Sales and Cottage Services Dan Mosbey, especially because many different priorities and requirements for booking and use are tied to the various levels of access. But Owen has it down to a science after six seasons of coordinating the process, and has certainly seen evidence of how the effort is paying off.
“This place sells itself—you just have to get them here the first time,” she says. “Our busiest days are now Tuesday through Thursday and we’ve even booked quite a few Mondays, when we’re supposed to be closed. I think this will be a solid seven-day business in the near future.”
Even more notable, perhaps, is what types of groups are not using the VNGC accommodations to any great extent—namely, “buddy trips” and wedding-related parties. Victoria National does not actively solicit either type of business.
In the case of weddings, Munch says, that’s in part due to its clubhouse capacity, in addition to not wanting to see that business interfere with member and guest access to the cottages. “Ultimately, that’s not who we are,” he says. “You have to play to your strengths.”
And the greatest of those strengths is proving to be the appeal of using the property for corporate getaways, either internal or with clients. Members have spent as much as $100,000 to bring in customer groups for extended stays, Owen says. “Once they’re here, they never go off the property—not even to go to [a nearby] casino,” she says. “All [the member] has to do is say, ‘Come to Victoria,’ and [his guests] find their way here.”
Additional interest in playing, and/or staying, at VNGC has been generated by exposure through a web.com Tour event that has been held at the property since 2012 (and is now contracted through 2019), along with other events like the Big Ten Men’s Championship. While the new ownership and management of VNGC still holds out hope for bigger events down the road (and recently fell just short of landing a Senior Open), Munch says the events that have been on the property have more than proved worthwhile.
“We got here [in 2010] and wondered, ‘How do we tell people about what we have here?’ and getting events that are on national and worldwide TV are by far the best way to do that,” he says. “And our success with holding [the web.com and Big Ten events] has shown that this place is certainly conducive to tournament golf. There’s going to be a day when [a bigger event] happens.”
In the meantime, the VNGC team will continue to tote up the results of across-the-board victories it can show in all operating areas since the first full year under new ownership in 2011, compared to what is projected for 2017:
• Total rounds played, up 21.6%
• Total paid rounds played, up 68.4%. “The additional paid rounds are all ‘Discovery’ rounds or ‘Group Business’ rounds directly attributed to direct selling and packaging,” Munch says. “And nearly all of the rounds include guests fees, lodging, food and beverage, and merchandise, and average $400 per day per visit.”
• Dues revenue, up 13.8%
• Lodging revenue, up 223%
• Merchandise sales, up 16.3%
• Total golf revenue (non-merchandise), up 42%
• Total F&B, up 39.4%
Overall, Munch says, total revenues are projected to approach $5 million this year, up $1.25 million from 2011. Victoria National will show just a small loss, if any, from that total, and Munch thinks that significant profitability is a realistic expectation in future years.
Pursuing that profitability in conjunction with landing a major tournament is just one of the options now at hand for VNGC’s ownership; opportunities to resell the property, or further development of a related real estate community, may also be in the cards. But whatever path is now taken, the outlook for not only preserving, but sharpening, Terry Friedman’s original vision has become much brighter.
“This is a course and club that probably should have never been built to be self-sustaining in a market like this,” Munch says. “Evansville has a small [metropolitan statistical area] footprint and already had three established private clubs. And with a golf course that costs a lot more to maintain than most, that just wasn’t a workable model, especially with how the economy turned after it opened.
“We’re still primarily a private club, but we’ve figured out how to grow rounds 20% without affecting members, because most of them have come during the week and our slower times,” he adds. “And when those growth rounds add up to an even greater percentage of revenue gains, it’s a model that starts to work.
“It’s taken a lot of time and energy to build the right staff and culture here,” Munch says. “But if we hadn’t put so much effort into getting into more of a sales mode and rebranding the property as ‘America’s private retreat,’ I’m afraid it would still be losing millions—if it were even here at all. And that would really be a shame—for the property, and for the industry.”