Everyone on the management team was called on to help with the successful launch of the much-anticipated Family Fitness Center at Palo Alto Hills G&CC.
As has been the case with pretty much every new fitness and recreational facility that’s come on stream in today’s family- and health-oriented club business, the success of the new Family Fitness Center at California’s Palo Alto Hills (PAH) Golf & Country Club was really just a matter of time.
PAH’s gleaming new 30,000-sq. ft. building and related recreational facilities, including a new pool, kids playground and tennis courts, opened to immediate acclaim last fall. A year later, enthusiasm for, and use of, the new facilities is exceeding expectations in all aspects, including related operations such as a wildly popular new pool snack bar. The outlook for how the Family Fitness Center—and some especially energetic youth-oriented programming that has been built around it—will contribute to the club’s future growth is also especially bright.
But in this case, the time and effort needed to get the facility to where it is today, and where it promises to be for many years to come, involved as strenuous a workout for the club’s directors and management team as anything its members might be putting themselves through, now that it’s finally open.
Fitness Facility Opened: Fall 2010
Long Time Coming
The vision for the Family Fitness Center first began to form in 2006, as part of a $14.5 million Master Plan renovation devised by PAH’s Long-Range Planning Committee. The club had just completed a successful kitchen and ballroom makeover; the next step was to expand its clubhouse with a new bar and casual grill area, and also get serious about adding family-oriented fitness and recreational facilities that would match the club’s already well-established reputation for great golf.
The club’s membership approved the project in November 2006, and plans were submitted to the city of Palo Alto at the end of that year. In its February 2007 issue, Club & Resort Business included renderings, as part of a cover feature on PAH (“Turning Plans Into Action at Palo Alto Hills G&CC”), of what at the time truly stood as cutting-edge concepts for a private-club fitness facility, along with an equally revolutionary quote from then-General Manager, Christian Thon: “It will be a true fitness center—not just a room with equipment.”
Those same renderings were also included in the club’s 50-year anniversary book, which came out at the end of 2008, along with the written hope that construction “will have commenced by the time this book is published.” By that time, the club had a new General Manager, Dirk Zander, who came to PAH after Thon took an opportunity at the nearby Menlo Circus Club in Atherton, Calif.
Not long after Zander started to marshall the project, the economy collapsed into full-out bust. But PAH persevered with all aspects of an expansion that it felt was critical to its long-term success. After needed approvals were finally secured (which required compliance with midstream adjustments that included dropping the height of the entire planned pool deck by 3 1/2 feet), and construction could at last begin in earnest, Zander says the PAH project stood “as one of the largest in the Silicon Valley” at the time.
Hanging in through the height of the downturn, he notes, brought the benefit that “people were hungry;” many materials and services could be obtained “basically at cost.” This was no small consideration for an undertaking that involved efforts such as moving 41,000 cubic yards of dirt from where the new fitness facility was being built to PAH’s driving range, which was then rebuilt, lowered and extended 30 yards.
The effects of the recession, however, had also clearly become evident on PAH’s own membership and operations. “The number of memberships that were up for sale more than doubled, and the price dropped to an all-time low,” Zander reports. “Our banquet business took a huge hit, too—understandably, since for the better part of two years, it looked like a bomb went off here.”
All Parts of the Whole
But PAH stayed the full course and resisted any major cutbacks in the project’s scope, because of its strong belief in its overall value for the property. “Everything was part of a full rebranding of the club,” says Zander. “The new [fitness center] would certainly be the most noticeable addition, because it would double our physical footprint. But how the club was changing would also be seen in how we were renovating and upgrading the pool and adding a snack bar, building a new playground, adding tennis courts, expanding the driving range, creating a new bar and casual grill with an outside terrace, and even building a new underground parking garage. As part of the changes, we also introduced consistent new signage and fixtures everywhere, including throughout the golf course.”
This integrated approach also meant that every member of the PAH management team was fully engaged with the project. “All of my team was truly part of making the opening and operation [of the Family Fitness Center] a success,” Zander says. “For example, our Golf Course Superintendent, Andrew Morgan, built our new grass tennis court; his knowledge of USGA specs for greens proved to be very valuable.” To source laundry equipment for the new fitness center, Morgan also helped with a barter deal, through which some of PAH’s mowers were swapped for a neighboring club’s washers and dryers.
“You only shortchange yourself if you don’t get everyone involved,” Zander says. “You have to have the people who work throughout the club look at all of the changes you’re making, even if it may seem to be out of their area.”
Rebel with a Cause
At the same time, the opening of the Family Fitness Center created a whole new area of management at PAH. While the new facility would now match up with any club in what it offered for fitness-related purposes, it was also intended to serve as home base for a full line of family-oriented activities and programming—and as such, needed a different type of manager than someone who just knew how to run a fitness operation.
That led to the finding and hiring (via a Craigslist posting and Skype interview) of Courtney Rebel, who arrived last September to fill the new position of Youth Director/Building Supervisor. As her title suggests, Rebel’s duties are focused as much on the “who” and the “what” of PAH’s new Family Fitness Center as on the “where.” With a background of directing a variety of athletic activities at a Colorado ski resort and also as a swim coach at Horseshoe Bend Country Club in her native Georgia, Rebel sees her mission as helping to make PAH “the most family-friendly club in Northern California.” One key to achieving that, she adds, will be to find ways to “take youth fitness and activities to the next level.”
After her first year, Rebel feels, the foundation for reaching those goals has been set through two key areas: 1) hiring a versatile staff who serve as activity instructors while also handling day-to-day operational duties for the facility, and 2) launching an ambitious schedule of new programs and events.
The introduction to the club’s Family Guide 2011 captures how these initiatives have come together. “We have turned a new page at [PAH],” it reads. “Our new renovations, including the spa and fitness center, the fun youth room and awesome pool, are just some of the exciting features we now offer. We have all been thinking creatively to provide new and exciting programs here at the club. This year, kids, teens and family can participate in unique summer camps, fun teen events, dive-in movies, family yoga, Kool Kidz events and more.”
Every age group and member profile gets ample brainstorming consideration from Rebel’s team (which will be expanded in the coming year to add a fitness director, personal trainers, class instructors, massage therapists, and an esthetician). There are classes for adults who have never learned to swim (kept purposely small and intentionally underpriced, to provide the proper level of sensitivity and encourage participation). There are special activities like laser tag, paintball or baseball-game trips for “teen-dults.” For younger kids, parent-free privileges can be earned through a Kool Kidz orientation about the new facility; nearly 90 youngsters have already qualified.
“If we think we have a good idea for a new program, we’ll always go through with it, even if the first round of signups might not meet expectations,” Rebel says. “Usually, once the word gets out, the second time around gets good response.”
Winning the Numbers Game
“Good response” is very much the rule now for all aspects of post-renovation life at PAH. The club’s swim team has enjoyed a year-round resurgence, taking advantage of the new heated pool and a full-time injection of energy and expertise from Rebel’s staff. “We’re up to 150 participants, from 60,” she reports. “Excitement has built up significantly. On swim meet days, we can now have 300 people on the property.”
Overall, Rebel says, the new facilities are now routinely used by well over 100 members and guests in a given day. These numbers have also spawned a tremendous spillover effect throughout the club at places like the pool snack bar, which has become a go-to spot for pizza and smoothies.
The effect on membership numbers and inquiries has been equally significant, adds Membership Director Kathy Sanders. “There’s been quite a buzz created, most of it by word-of-mouth,” Sanders says. “Members are proud of what we’ve accomplished, and proud to bring people to the pool and fitness center.”
In addition to its 416 proprietary members, PAH is now fast approaching the cap (175) for its social membership category. “We’ve exceeded our goal [for adding social memberships in the past year] and expect to [reach the cap] by the end of next summer,” Sanders says.
“The family-oriented aspect is really attracting younger families with children,” she adds. “They see how all of the new facilities, plus the youth programs that assure them their kids will be properly supervised and engaged, adds up to an incredible value. Having an experienced staff like Courtney’s team and the great, youth-oriented programs they’re building has really changed the dynamic of the club.”
For his part, Dirk Zander can now finally breathe a bit easier, after all the heavy lifting that led up to the Family Fitness Center’s opening. “We heard a lot of ‘this is not the right time’ [about the project], especially after the economy went bad,” he says.”But after people saw what was coming, we went from a large [membership] for-sale list to almost zero, and the price of our stock has doubled.”
Operationally, he adds, things have quickly gone from an “uptick” to a “rolling wave.”
“The pool’s a madhouse; the new bar is packed on Wednesday and Friday nights,” he says. “Weddings, golf outings and banquets are back strong; overall, food-and-beverage numbers have far exceeded expectations. Everything’s blending well.
“Soon, we expect to have wait room-only, for both full membership and social,” Zander affirms. “So yes, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Even a tunnel that takes four years to get through, and runs through some very dark stretches.