As the Hilton Head Island, S.C., property works to highlight the island’s private side, its “welcome back” recreation initiatives invite members to make wellness and active living a priority.
Few destinations so distinctly personify family vacations than Hilton Head Island, S.C. With its 12 miles of beaches, well-connected bike trails, and abundance of family-friendly options, the island attracts visitors from all over the country. And not surprisingly, resorts that offer a wide variety of activities for every member of the family often get the spotlight—particularly The Sea Pines Resort, a facility whose golf courses frequently earn industry accolades.
But as visitors to Hilton Head have grown into adulthood, built up their own disposable incomes, and become able to purchase second homes or even retire there, a push is also being made to emphasize the benefits of the private side of the island, away from the bustling crowds of vacationers.
|AT A GLANCE
Sea Pines Country Club
Hilton Head Island, S.C.
That effort is being led by Sea Pines Country Club (SPCC) and its General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, Robbie Ames. “The resort gets a lot of press, so we’re saying to prospective members, you come to visit and you love it—now come here and live,” Ames says.
Ames joined SPCC about 16 months ago, coming from Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he started working on the golf side (a well-known area for him, after taking up golf at age four and serving as a caddy for his brother, professional golfer Stephen Ames). While he was at Desert Mountain, General Manager Bob Jones (“Perfect Balance,” C&RB, October 2013) mentored Ames in financials and the business side of clubs, and he rose in that club’s ranks to Director of Member Relations.
Ames then sought SPCC’s top position, in large part because of the club’s plan for a $2.7 million clubhouse renovation that would update its casual-dining venue, the Blue Heron Pub & Grille, add the Palmer Patio with a Tidal marsh view, widen hallways and brighten interior spaces.
“I was drawn to the club because it was putting away money for capital improvements, so it already had financial discipline as well as a plan—they just needed someone to execute it,” Ames says. “Now we’re working to bring the club to the next level. All clubs do the big things well, but it’s the little things, the attention to detail, that make the difference.”
Many Happy Returns
Many of SPCC’s members visited the island as children and developed memories that were fond enough to warrant repeat visits as adults. “Few of our members are actually from here; rather, people move here and look for community and their tribe,” Ames says, noting that one member visited the island as a child and then encouraged her two brothers to move and join the club as well.
In addition to literally welcoming back members to their childhood vacation spot, SPCC offers “welcome back” initiatives throughout its golf, tennis and fitness programs. The programs are intended for those who once exercised regularly, played frequent rounds of golf or back-to-back tennis matches, but then had to give up those activities due to time constraints, and would now like to start them up again. Each “welcome back” program is designed to provide gentle reintroductions, going over the basics at a pace that suits each member’s needs.
For golf, SPCC offers its 18-hole Club Course, the sole members-only golf course in the Sea Pines development, and gives members preferred admission at The Sea Pines Resort, for total access to 72 holes of golf. In addition to the “welcome back” programming, the golf department offers a nine-hole ladies group, nine-and-wine event, weekly clinics, twilight golf, social couples events, and junior summer programs.
“Social events are the best way to get people into the golf program,” says Director of Golf Ray Bragg. “Our social events are very well-attended, so the more social things we can do, the better.”
SPCC’s tennis program includes about 190 members, 120 of whom play competitively in United States Tennis Association leagues on the property’s eight lighted Har-Tru courts. “We have players between the ages of 50 and 70; it’s amazing how active and competitive they are,” says Director of Tennis Matt Wuller. “People come down here not to retire, but to live and have the freedom to enjoy themselves.”
The “welcome back” programming for tennis generates about three new players each year, Wuller estimates. “When you’re unsure about something, it can take a while to get over the hump and get back into rallies and playing points,” he notes.
As with golf, the tennis program benefits from social programming, from round robins to carnival days to pro-ams and pro-pro events, and even a recent cornhole tournament that had 74 members in attendance.
“Our events are not so much about tennis itself,” Wuller says. “By adding food and beverage and the social elements, we break down the department walls. We’re one club, and anyone can participate in any event.”
With an estimated 300 to 400 tennis courts on the island and minimal usage fees, Wuller notes that “anybody can find a court,” so SPCC offers extras, such as social events, to stand out.
The club’s fitness program also offers a “welcome back” initiative, to help members maintain (and potentially enhance) their current levels of fitness so they can stay active without aches and pains. The fitness center offers 26 classes per week, ranging from yoga to HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and myofascial release, as well as workshops that focus on wellness, such as nourishment in the kitchen and a “spring cleaning” detox program.
“As fitness becomes more of a way of life, rather than just about working out, people want to know more about nutrition and healthier lifestyle choices,” says Director of Fitness & Wellness Wendy Kelly. “We are all about meeting the members’ needs where they are.”
Name Your Price
When welcoming new members, SPCC does not give members a dues schedule; instead, a membership package is tailored around a person’s or family’s specific needs and preferences.
Memberships are divided into two overall categories—golf and non-golf—and Director of Membership Development Karen Fleming lets prospective members “set the tone for pricing.” Members commit to their dues selection annually, and can easily upgrade elements of their membership status.
“We have so many membership tiers, it’s like a dining menu, and members like the fact that it’s customized to their needs,” Fleming says. “It’s a little more complicated on my end, but it’s worth it.”
Fleming characterizes SPCC’s membership as “fairly diverse,” hailing primarily from the Midwest and the Northeast, with the island itself serving as the common ground. “Our members love the outdoors and the island’s favorable climate, and they’re looking to take care of themselves, mentally and physically,” she says.
Joining the club is a long-term effort, Fleming says, not only among those members who visited the island as children, but also for those who buy real estate. “Because we are a vacation destination, we have prospective members looking at buying property and joining the club 10 years in advance,” she notes. “So I touch base with them and let things develop in their natural course.”
One way prospective members can get a full taste of what SPCC has to offer is through the club’s 30-Day Trial, which offers trial golf rounds, tennis matches, fitness classes, swimming opportunities and, of course, dining.
While SPCC offers substantive golf, tennis and fitness programs, it is also a vibrant social club for members whose average joining age is 62. “Our members are living longer and living younger,” Ames notes. “60 is the new 40,” Fleming adds. With 70% of new members coming from current member referrals, SPCC thrives on its ability to offer a valuable social product.
One massively popular event is the club’s monthly trivia night, which in March saw 334 members attend. Simple in concept, the event includes a cocktail hour, plated dinner with five menu options, and a team-based trivia game consisting of true-or-false or multiple-choice questions. The competitive sides of members come out in full force for the events, Ames says, which sell out two months in advance and have become so popular that the club has created a waitlist for attendance.
Another social event, “Art on the Marsh,” allows members to show off their artistic skills and even sell their creations at the club. Another series, “The Odyssey,” is offered eight times a year and includes cocktails, dinner and a speaker or lecturer.
The trivia nights, which offer a buffet and a la carte dining, and the renovation of the Blue Heron dining venue have both become important steps for reaching the club’s goal of $2 million in food-and-beverage sales this year, under a program led by Executive Chef Brian Coseo. Since November, SPCC has averaged 250 covers on Friday nights, Ames notes. And shortly after he became the club’s new GM/COO, he worked with staff to create a small terrace for herb and vegetable gardens alongside the pool. (Small landscaping projects, such as the gardening build, were brought in-house as part of an effort to reduce costs and get more buy-in from staff, Ames adds.)
Coseo, whose son is a nutritionist, has embraced the club’s focus on wellness and is now working to find innovative ways to incorporate the garden’s crops into menus (he writes a new menu every two weeks). “I want to keep exploring more healthy foods and the physical and mental benefits they have,” he says.
SPCC’s food-and-beverage department offers six to eight wine dinners each year, which range in focus from fun and interactive to formal and high-end, says Director of Food & Beverage Mike Lozan. One particularly popular wine dinner was “The Smackdown,” for which sommeliers created wine pairings that members then tasted, to vote for their favorites.
“We compete against local restaurants, but our members love the club so much, they always come back,” Ames says. “You can get fine dining in our clubhouse, or be comfortable at the Blue Heron.”
Onward and Upward
With the completion of Phase I—the Blue Heron renovation that also updated the indoor and outdoor pools and added a new kids splash pool—Ames is looking forward to Phase II, an expansion of SPCC’s fitness center. The current facility, which measures about 2,500 sq. ft., barely meets the club’s needs, Ames says. The total expansion will result in a 7,300-sq. ft. facility with an enlarged fitness floor, locker rooms that have doubled in size, second-floor group fitness, and a new café-style outlet that will serve healthy items for the fitness crowd and summer fare for the pool-goers.
The updated fitness facility will also feature treatment areas and infrared saunas to help quickly rehabilitate members who get injuries but want to get back into the game. “As a club, an aging membership is always going to be an issue, so we need to work to keep all of our programs active,” says Wuller.
Beyond Phase II, Ames says the club is developing an ongoing strategic plan that envisions “infinitely more phases, [because] there is always more work to be done.
“If you’re standing still, you’re going to get run over,” he says. “We’re always looking to the next phase and figuring out where we want to be and how to make it happen.”
And as a self-described proponent of continuing education, Ames makes sure to extend his philosophy of perpetual professional improvement to SPCC’s staff as well.
The club’s appeal to prospective employees, he notes, is enhanced because it operates nearly year-round, unlike many of the island’s resorts. And with many workers commuting from Bluffton, S.C., on the mainland, the club works to make its jobs as appealing as possible by providing employee meals, covering toll costs and offering other attractive employee benefits. Once a year, an employee fun day is held at the club, during which the staff takes over the golf course, tennis courts and pools and is encouraged to enjoy the property like members for a day (the event is catered by an outside company as well).
And as it is for the membership, recruiting for staff is by word of mouth—the club does not advertise on job websites.
“SPCC is just a happy place,” Fleming says. “There is very little distinction between working for the members and being a member. I would retire here if they let me.”