The Williamsville, N.Y., club has found unique ways to introduce special new features throughout its castle-like clubhouse—and to turn around a money-losing operation in the process.
There are certainly inherent benefits to having a classic, castle-like clubhouse with ties to a famous architect. Park Country Club in Williamsville, N.Y., has occupied its 50,000-plus-sq. ft., English Gothic, Tudor-tower edifice since it was designed in 1927 by Clifford Wendehack, the Frank Lloyd Wright of private clubs who also created iconic structures for Winged Foot Golf Club and other Northeastern U.S. properties.
To begin with, such a building is always guaranteed to get attention and multiple looks, no matter how many times someone may have already seen it. Williamsville was a rural town when Park CC was first founded in 1903, but it is now a nearby suburb of Buffalo, and the road in front of the clubhouse, Sheridan Drive, is a primary commuter route. But even during the height of rush hour, reports Head Golf Professional, Eddie Suchora, PGA, getting back out onto Sheridan from Park CC’s driveway is usually made easier because “every car that’s going by is slowing down to look at the building.”
AT A GLANCE
Park Country Club
Williamsville, N.Y.Founded: 1903
The interior of such a clubhouse can also offer special opportunities to provide particularly memorable settings for events, with its vast variety of uniquely appointed rooms. “There’s nothing like having an English manor house as your ‘banquet hall,'” says Jill Suchora, Eddie’s wife and Park CC’s Director of Membership and New Business.
And not surprisingly, Park CC uses its clubhouse to take Halloween festivities literally to new levels, with storage areas from top to bottom of the building now holding elaborate props and displays that have been used through the years to stage especially elaborate haunted-house excursions.
Of course, operating out of such a sprawling and historic building also comes with a special set of challenges. In addition to the never-ending task of dealing with infrastructure issues, there’s the dilemma of keeping in step with the changing profile of the club business and making changes needed to provide up-to-date amenities, while still maintaining the tradition and integrity embodied by such an exceptional structure.
That’s the situation that confronted Brad Pollak, CCM, CCE, when he became Park CC’s General Manager in 2009. Pollak, who already had nearly 30 years of club industry experience at the time, was well aware of the changes that were starting to sweep through the industry and only stood to become more pervasive as all properties—and especially the most traditional ones—sought to claw their way out of the recession and reestablish their relevance for a new wave of membership.
And the blueprint for what Park CC needed to do specifically was clearly drawn by the results of a membership survey conducted in the year Pollak arrived. That survey identified the most desired capital project as expansion of the existing Grille Room and Bar, to provide a much more inviting casual-dining and socializing atmosphere within the hallowed Wendehack walls.
Labeling it as an “expansion” was clearly an understatement. Pollak describes what Park CC had for a bar at the time as “six bar stools, old wood-faced cabinets and a reach-in cooler.” The Grille Room itself wasn’t much more exciting, with just a 44-seat dining capacity, poor acoustics, no air conditioning and difficult access to its outside terrace. “The congested space made family dining uncomfortable amid all the bar talk,” Pollak adds.
A New ‘Old-School’ Approach
But this was certainly not a situation where the walls could just come tumbling down to make space for a gleaming new pub or sports bar. Park CC’s mission statement mandates that while the club’s facilities must be “modern, updated and meet the members’ requirements,” they must also “reflect the original Wendehack architecture and standards.”
With that directive, Park CC engaged a Buffalo firm, HHL Architects, LLC, to help the club plan a move into “a second century of tradition” through a modernization initiative for the west end of its historic clubhouse.
To achieve the dual goals of creating “a pub-like, comfortable and casual atmosphere with a lively bar overlooking the golf course,” while also staying “contextual with the original clubhouse’s age-old detailing and design by Wendehack,” that initiative involved these concepts and details:
• Designing a “sweeping,” English Gothic-influenced curved gable form for the dining/bar addition, to maximize the available footprint (2,650 sq. ft.) while also providing panoramic views of the golf course.
• Creating a more family-friendly dining environment, while also increasing dining capacity, by removing the bar from the Grille area, and adding seating, including a mix of bistro and standard tables, comfortable high-backed leather booths and flexible banquettes, to provide a full variety of options for customer preference and comfort.
• Installing a serpentine-shaped bar that seats 21, to promote lively interaction among patrons.
• Including an oversized fireplace for casual gatherings.
• Expanding an existing outdoor bluestone terrace with additional seating and a stone fire pit for after-dark or cooler-weather gatherings (the paving can be heated for quick snow melting, to help ward off the results of Buffalo’s famous “Lake Effect” storms).
• Using construction materials of heavy timber with matching brick and stone, heavy slate roofs, metal doors and windows. And for the interior and its furnishings, staying consistent with the “arts and craft” style of the main clubhouse’s formal spaces, which feature bluestone and colorfully patterned carpet floors, coarse plaster walls and ceilings, hand-hewn wood timber roof trusses, and upholstered oak furnishings.
• Relocating the club’s main office to create direct access from the members’ informal entry (which was also restored, along with the original 800-sq. ft. Grille Room) to the new bar and dining space and terrace, and fully air conditioning the new interior areas.
As an added bonus, the renovation would create a new basement area, also 2,650 sq. ft., that could be used for storage and potentially to expand Park CC’s pro shop and bag-keeping operation.
After securing Board approval for the $3.5 million project, construction for the West End Modernization project was completed in 2013, and the new bar and Runyan Room (named for Paul Runyan, who won the 1934 PGA Championship when it was held at Park CC) opened to immediate acclaim.
“It’s been a game changer,” says Pollak about the project. “The bar and the Runyan Room have single-handedly changed the way club is used. Now people eat lunch at the bar instead of in the locker room or somewhere outside of the club, and they also come in after work to see who’s at the bar. It’s created true camaraderie among the membership.”
It’s also created a significantly stronger food-and-beverage revenue stream, especially for a la carte dining at night and on weekends, and Park CC has since seen F&B grow by more than $1 million, to now approach a $3.25 million annual level. Not surprisingly, given the appeal of the many unique event venues within the clubhouse and throughout the property, that figure, which is achieved without imposing F&B minimums, is split evenly among a la carte and banquet business.
In addition to the added appeal of the new F&B facilities, the boost has also come from a revamping and redirection of the front-of-house and culinary teams. Assistant General Manager Tom Schoenle came from another area club three years ago, around the same time that Marina Stapleton, formerly a banquet chef, was put in the newly created position of Banquet Manager, and Mark Tiedt became Executive Chef after eight years in the Park CC kitchen, first as a sous chef under James Roberts, who left to open a successful Buffalo restaurant, and then as Chef de Cuisine under Dan Lawrence.
Together with staff veterans like Catering Sales Manager Alisa Lattuca, who first started as a server at the club 20 years ago, Park CC’s F&B team has fed off the newfound momentum generated by the clubhouse modernization and eagerly devoted its collective energy to creating, and executing, memorable dining experiences for both daily and special-event occasions.
“We’ve worked hard to gain the members’ confidence,” says Schoenle. “And they’ve showed it, not only in how a la carte covers have grown, but also in how they’re using the club for events and recommending it to others.” All weekend event slots at the club for 2018 were already booked by the end of last year, and the list of special dining opportunities offered to members around book club meetings, wine dinners, fish fries, chef’s tables and other promotions and activities continues to grow.
One especially popular annual event, which has been held in April since 2015 and drew attendance of 225 last year, is Park CC’s internal “Top Chef” competition among teams formed from the culinary staff.
“Each two-person team serves their food to members from a different buffet station,” says Tiedt, who as Executive Chef does not participate in the cooking. “The teams each have a $500 balance with which they must create their food for the event, and they each draw a country to determine what cuisine they should feature at their station.
“In addition to being a very popular party for members, it also helps us teach budgeting, menu planning and execution to the staff,” Tiedt notes. The competition is made even more spirited with the incentive of $500 Southwest Airlines vouchers for the team that is judged to have the best overall execution.
Completing the Transformation
Building on the momentum sparked by the success of the West End Modernization, Park CC next moved to undertake a complete renovation of its men’s and women’s locker rooms and surrounding areas, which had last been touched in 1991 and were more than showing their age. Again using an approach designed to complement the original clubhouse spaces, along with the new bar and Runyan Room, the men’s card room was expanded while a women’s card room/lounge area was created out of a modest footprint.
The more than 600 existing lockers in the two rooms were refinished with a new stain color, with new shoe lockers added above the men’s to reduce visible clutter. Wet areas in both locker rooms were completely gutted, and new patterned carpet, stone tile floor/wall finishes, millwork cabinets with stone counters, and plumbing fixtures were installed in each. New acoustic ceilings and decorative lighting completed the transformation.
While the project came in at less than a third ($950,000) of the cost of the first clubhouse modernization, Eddie Suchora feels the new locker rooms “changed the culture as much as the Runyan Room.” And it certainly contributed, Suchora adds, to how ladies’ golf has “exploded” at Park CC in recent years, along with popular new initiatives like Get Golf Ready and a Wednesday night “Fun Holers” program that have been designed to help women get more comfortable with the game while also introducing more fun and social aspects to the activity.
Suchora, who has been at Park CC for 12 years after previously working at the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia, also cites the growth of the junior program as another positive sign that has helped to generate a resurgence in annual rounds. The program includes a Junior PGA League, and of the 300 children from member families who are under 18, about a third now have some involvement with golf.
“We were in the 18,000-19,000 range for rounds when I started here, and have it up now to 23,000,” Suchora says. “And I think we could get to 25,000 or 26,000, with all of the new players we see coming out now.”
Bringing Them In
Many of those new players are also new members, reflecting the success of initiatives implemented after Jill Suchora took her position in 2009. At that time, she reports, Park CC was seeing the same “flashing red light” as many clubs that were blindsided by the recession, and in her first three months on the job, Suchora saw 45 members either downgrade their memberships or leave the club entirely.
But Suchora, who like Pollak had experience managing ClubCorp properties, plunged in to create more attractive membership incentives and ways to introduce new prospects to what the club could offer (membership at Park CC is invitation-only). She also helped the staff develop a variety of new programs and activities, such as a ladies book club and movie nights, that would expand membership appeal to younger families.
Combined with the physical changes that could now be shown off as guests and prospective members toured the property, Park CC soon built its membership ranks back up to cap and started a waiting list. The influx of new members, Suchora reports, has brought the club’s average age down five years, to 57, and that number only promises to drop further, she says, given that “of the 16 people on the wait list last year, all but three were under 40.”
“There’s been a huge spike in development in downtown Buffalo, and a lot of people who left for New York or other places are coming back home,” Suchora says. “People who are from Buffalo have a tremendous amount of pride, and it’s infectious for the new people who come to the area, too. All of the things we’ve done here, both with the building and in programming and service, have helped us evolve a culture that’s much more appealing to what new club members are looking for. ”
Those efforts have also added to the appeal of working at Park CC, which has seen its employment ranks grow in step with the recovering membership numbers and stronger revenue growth, particularly in food and beverage. That department, Schoenle reports, has seen its full-time staff grow by nearly one-third in the five years since the new bar and Runyan Room opened, with the bartender team alone growing from three to twelve.
All of the departments are managed through an elaborate “pay for performance” approach devised and directed by Pollak. “I’m not a fan of subjective [performance] reviews,” he says. “We create measurable objectives and incentivize staff with bonus potential that’s based not only on reaching the goals that are set, but on ratings that show how much they’ve been beaten by, to earn even greater rewards.”
While Park CC is chartered to be “operationally neutral,” Pollak adds, the emphasis on performance has actually led to generation of a significant annual surplus in recent years, after a long period of sizeable losses. “Of course, we also do all we can to find ways to reduce costs without sacrificing service,” he notes. “But the main driving force is to generate cash revenues that can be spun off of operations, to fund improvements and be applied to any needed debt service.”
As might be expected with such a time-honored clubhouse, there’s still a healthy list of desired capital improvement projects that will keep Pollak and his team focused on continuing to contribute to that cause for many years to come. And outside the main building, there’s also much that Park would like to do to upgrade and expand its areas for the pool, tennis and other racquet sports, and to create a new fitness facility.
As these plans are pursued, there will also be a focus on ensuring that the new spirit that’s been infused into Park’s classic building and the surrounding property is not only retained, but enhanced, for both members and staff.
“The club’s old mission statement and the way it was operated lent itself to an image of a pompous place where there was a real divide between members and staff,” says Pollak. “And that couldn’t be further from the truth now. The new vision that led to the bar and Runyan Room and other projects was that this would not only be a place for everyone among the membership, but also where the members and staff could take more of an interest in, and relate better to, each other.
“We clearly have a much healthier culture now where everyone works to eliminate any trace of stuffiness or ostentation or pretension,” Pollak adds. “After all, who wants to be part of a club that’s no fun?”