The Thinking Man’s (and Woman’s) GM

By | July 12th, 2018

All club managers sign up for the job knowing that the constituency they serve will be made up of extremely bright and successful people.

But it’s safe to say that no club membership can match the collective brainpower and accomplishments of those who belong to the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. The private social club was founded in 1878 by men distinguished in science, literature and the arts. One hundred and ten years later, the club voted to also welcome women as members. But a degree of “discrimination” will always exist in the club’s member-election criteria, which adheres to a requirement for demonstrating “scholarship, creative genius or intellectual distinction.”

Not surprisingly, this stipulation has resulted in the Cosmos Club being able to count three U.S. Presidents, two Vice Presidents, a dozen Supreme Court justices, 36 Nobel Prize winners, 61 Pulitzer Prize winners and 45 recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom among its membership over the years.

The prospect of being closely watched and judged by a total of nearly 3,200 members from such an elite level of the best and the brightest could certainly intimidate many managers from even wanting to be considered for the General Manager position at the Cosmos Club. Even if they did, many might not be able to either gain the approval of such a discerning group to be hired for the role, or retain it if they were given a chance to carry out its duties and responsibilities.

Ideas & Achievements

Implemented at the Cosmos Club Under Mitchell Platt’s Leadership

• Three-phase, $8.2 million renovation was completed over three years that included restoration of main lobby, repaving and resurfacing of historic driveway, new Awards Hall, and complete renovation of Garden Dining Room, Garden Bar and kitchen, along with other new or restored areas.

After 137 years with no family programming beyond the holidays, the Cosmos Club took advantage of its outdoor garden setting to stage a petting zoo that has led to plans for similar activities.

• Total food-and-beverage revenue averaged 5% growth over first four years as GM, and net F&B revenue grew 79% since beginning of that period. Lodging showed average 7% growth during four-year period, and club’s bottom line grew from $118,000 to over $1 million.

• “On the Move” program was created to add a wellness component to member activities by exploring Washington, D.C. and surrounding areas with walking tours and interactive talks.

• New events and social programs included whiskey tasting, coffee roasting, first Independence Day concert with the Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, and a new annual event, Bluegrass, Beer and Barbecue.

• After 137 years of no family programming other than around the holidays, an outdoor petting zoo (see photo at left) was held at the beginning of the school year, and a holiday crafts event was held in the winter, both with strong attendance.

• “Members Week” promotion was established with special pricing for lunch ($18.78, the year the club was founded), dinner ($21.21, the club’s current address) and overnight rooms ($139, the number of years of the club’s existence)

 

The Cosmos Club is located on a prominent corner of Massachusetts Avenue as part of Washington, D.C.’s Embassy Row. The club’s property encompasses five buildings totaling over 100,000 sq. ft. on more than one acre, centered around the historic Townsend Mansion (above), which is flanked by gardens that the club utilizes for outdoor dining and other activities.

But Mitchell Platt, MCM, CCE, not only passed muster to get the job at the Cosmos Club in 2013, his performance in the five years since has earned glowing accolades from its members, along with a successful nomination from the club’s leadership for recognition as the 2017 recipient of the Mel Rex Award, as part of the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business (see box, pg. 51).

“After Mitchell joined the Cosmos Club in 2013, the changes were immediate and dramatic,” says Deanna Marcum, the club’s current President. “He sees himself as a supporter of the Cosmos Club’s ideals and values, and instinctively knows what will work and what will not. He has told me that he loves [club management] because it allows him to be in the happiness business—and no one is better at making his constituents happy.”

Happy Happenstance

Mitchell Platt’s path to career and professional happiness took an early, fortuitous turn when, after starting out as a busboy at a local seafood restaurant as a teenager, he decided he would prefer to be a waiter and found that he was more likely to get that job at a country club, where he wouldn’t have to be 18 to serve tables.

That led Platt to a waitstaff position at Woodholme Country Club in Pikesville, Md., where he would end up staying for 30 years, the last 20 as its General Manager. “While working through the ranks, I pursued my business education, as I never thought club management would be my career,” Platt says. “Like many of us, this business found me.”

Platt credits Woodholme with “providing the foundation for my career journey. I was treated like the son who took over the family business,” he says. “[The club] supported my professional education pursuits; it was a great first club for me.”

In turn, Platt’s tenure as Woodholme’s GM was marked by significant success in raising the club’s profile in the challenging Baltimore-Washington market and earning recognition for its operating excellence and a fun, progressive approach to providing amenities and arranging activities for Woodholme’s membership.

For example, after Platt and other members of his management team visited the then-newly opened Plaza Food Hall in the Plaza Hotel in New York in 2010, as part of their annual trip to the New York Restaurant Show, they were inspired to bring the concept back to Woodholme and apply it to the club’s annual season-opening event. Instead of the usual black-tie gala approach that would be confined to a ballroom, Woodholme became one of the first clubs to successfully execute the progressive-dinner concept on a grand scale, hosting over 400 members and guests for a “Food Hall at Woodholme” event that featured food stations built around different themes that were set up both within the clubhouse and throughout the property.

Platt also displayed the creative side of his business acumen when planning that event, as he worked out an arrangement with party coordinators and vendors who were invited to participate—many of whom had not previously worked club functions—to have them hold off invoicing until they saw how the exposure could lead to bookings from the Woodholme membership for bar and bat mitzvahs, company parties and other social and business gatherings. The incentive for the new vendors to showcase their skills and abilities to potential new sources of business ensured that they brought their “A” games to the Food Hall gala, creating a win-win (and eventually no-charge) deal for both them and the club.

Moving to the City

While it was clear from examples like this that Mitchell
Platt’s creative juices, and business savvy, were still fl owing freely as he approached the 20-year mark for his tenure as Woodholme’s GM, he did begin to feel the call to take his career in a new direction. Platt did not want to relocate his family, however, and that self-imposed geographic restriction led him to look at a move into a different club-industry segment he might not have otherwise considered..

Platt says. “But I quickly felt a connection to my new club.”

But the city-club world is clearly a diff erent place, Platt acknowledges, especially when it involves immersion into the history and culture of a place like the Cosmos Club, which, he describes, is “widely known for its intellectual purpose and high membership standards—wits, not wallets, one might say.”

And while Platt admits he soon grew relieved to have left behind some of the areas and issues involved with the management of a full country-club property, which he says could lead to a feeling of “misery loves company” when gathering with fellow country-club managers, he also soon learned that moving to a city club—and especially one with the stimulus level that pervades the Cosmos Club—would require every bit as much energy and creativity, if not more.

A three-phase renovation of the Cosmos Club’s interior space was completed in four years under Mitchell Platt’s leadership. The project included modernization and expansion of the club’s dining venues, including the new 1878 Grille (left). In addition, a makeover of the Warne Ballroom (right) was completed that earned awards for stewardship and restoration of historic space.

In a recognition ceremony held by the club in Washington in April to honor him for his ECM Award, Platt captured the full extent of what that requirement involved when he described what would be going on at the Cosmos Club “just this week.” The list that he then rattled off included: seven committee meetings, eight group meetings, three conversation tables, Prime Rib night, concert night, Theater group lunch and play, backgammon, chess, bridge, Cosmos dancers, Oyster & Brew Social, Wine Appreciation tasting, Book and Author Dinner, and 30 private events. “Not to mention daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, and Sunday Brunch,” Platt added. “And again, that’s ‘just this week.’

“Our club calendar is full, and the partnership with the members who help develop our programming and the staff that executes it is simply amazing,” Platt added. He then took the time to bring a full complement of managers, supervisors and other employees out in front of the large gathering of members who had come to the club for the occasion, so they could also be recognized “as the ones who make all of this possible.”

Platt then noted how working at a club like the Cosmos Club has put a special focus on professional development for him and his staff as well. “We have stressed continuous improvement and education throughout all levels of the [employee] organization,” he noted. “We even have our own book club that meets bi-weekly, to discuss a chapter at a time from selected business and hospitality books.”

As just one of its many appealing visual qualities and historic aspects, the Billiards Room at the Cosmos Club includes a photo on the wall of Mark Twain playing pool at the club.

Mastering the Message

As one of a select group in the industry who has achieved the Master Club Manager designation, Mitchell Platt has certainly put into practice for himself what he’s also encouraged others to pursue. But at the same time, even in the midst of such an intellectually charged atmosphere and with such impressive credentials of his own, Platt has maintained a practical, hands-on and people-oriented management style, for both membership and staff, that avoids any hint of a stuffy or academic, out-of-touch approach to the business.

In addition to the major accomplishments that this has helped him bring about at the Cosmos Club (see Ideas and Achievements box, pg. 48), this style has also displayed itself through inventive and especially effective employee-training techniques that have included “menu charades” and scavenger hunts to help the staff learn about the club’s history. It’s also revealed through a refreshing and thoughtful approach to member communications that goes well beyond simply commenting about the weather and upcoming events.

The “From the General Manager” columns written by Platt for the Cosmos Club Bulletin have included insightful explorations of topics such as branding and how it relates to the club’s operation and strategic direction.

“Branding has become a popular marketing term in traditional business circles, but in private clubs, it has different connotations,” Platt wrote. “We do not advertise or have a marketing department or budget. Building a ‘brand’ in private clubs is subtle and develops over time.

“At the Cosmos Club, our brand is represented by the distinguished and accomplished members who belong,” Platt continued. “Our admissions standards, plus the quality of our programs, activities and facilities, are central to the brand. Every moment of service contributes to how our brand is created and judged.

“The private-club industry recognizes distinction and brand identity by issuing ratings and rankings, and the Cosmos Club has achieved acclaim from major organizations,” Platt continued. “As General Manager, I am committed to strengthening the Cosmos Club brand for the benefit of current and future members.” That brand, and those benefits, can now also draw added strength from a General Manager whose Excellence in Club Management recognition shows he can match wits with the very best in the business.

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