Active Interest

“Ultra-Casual” dining in the new stand-alone Family Activity Center

Careful execution of a two-phase master plan to revamp dining venues and create a new stand-alone Family Activity Center at Cape Fear CC has boosted F&B sales, sparked a new membership wave, and brought the generations together at North Carolina’s oldest private club.

Like many clubs with rich traditions, Cape Fear Country Club in Wilmington, N.C., takes great pride in its history and long-standing connection with its community. The club includes its founding date, 1896, in its logo, and has a website page that touts its standing as North Carolina’s oldest private country club and its role in bringing golf and other social and recreational activity to the Wilmington area.

Managing a club with a history that dates back over 120 years and has nearly 900 members, however, also brings its special challenges, both in terms of facilities and in serving all members’ preferences. When Mary Geiss, CCM, became Cape Fear CC’s General Manager in 2010, she found her plate full with the need to undertake a serious, long-range assessment of how both of those areas should be addressed, if the club was to retain its prominence as its next century of existence unfolded.

Cape Fear Country ClubLocation: Wilmington, N.C.
Founded: 1896
Members: 880
Total Project Cost: $7.7 million
Construction Dates: Phase One (clubhouse dining), 2012-14; Phase Two (Family Activity Center), 2015-16
Architect/Designer: Chambers
Project Highlights:
• Phase One rebalanced clubhouse casual dining/bar spaces and created new dining terrace and Wine Room
• Phase Two created new stand-alone, 20,000-sq. ft. Family Activity Center with additional F&B venues, fitness/wellness space, youth room and child-watch service
Highlights of Project Results:
• Number of new member families joining club doubled in 2016 compared to each of previous four years; vast majority of adults in new families are under 45, bringing club’s overall average age down by more than 10 years
• Overall food-and-beverage sales have increased by 30%; “ultra-casual” dining space in new Family Activity Center generated 60% increase in F&B sales, compared to the previous pool snack bar
• Rentals from lockers in new Wine Room have brought in additional $9,000/year, and wine program participation has doubled

The last renovation of Cape Fear’s stately clubhouse, in 2002, had missed the mark in terms of providing adequate facilities for fitness and the variety of dining that club members now sought. And beyond the clubhouse, Geiss and her staff were disappointed to see how many members didn’t stay after tennis and pool events, because the club wasn’t providing appealing venues where they could have meals or drinks in a casual, family-oriented setting elsewhere on the property.

- Advertisement -

So in 2011, Cape Fear CC engaged Chambers, the Baltimore, Md.-based planning and design firm, to help develop a long-term Facilities Master Plan for the club. Knowing that major change is difficult for any club to absorb in large doses, and especially for clubs with long-established traditions, the plan was developed as a phased program that would first rebalance clubhouse dining spaces before then developing a new, stand-alone 20,000-sq. ft. Family Activity Center (FAC) that would further expand food-and-beverage capabilities while also bringing new fitness, social and member-service amenities to the property.

All of the master-planning efforts were shaped by the results of a comprehensive membership survey that was conducted to serve as a road map of existing member satisfaction with current facilities and to take the temperature of the membership’s overall desire for club improvements.
Those readings weren’t difficult to take, or interpret. Overall, 68% of survey respondents indicated a desire to have existing clubhouse square footage reallocated to create separate venues for distinct styles of dining: Adult Casual, Family Casual, and a Bar/Grill “Pub” style. Additionally, 76% expressed a desire to develop a terrace and patio for outdoor dining and socialization.

As plans to meet these objectives were developed, a decision was made to actually reduce existing casual dining space in the clubhouse, after determining that the current, 2,050-sq. ft. Grill Room that had been created for informal dining was literally cramping the style, and appeal, of an adjacent, 715-sq. ft. bar. To create a better pub-style atmosphere with proper elbow room for the members who wanted to congregate in that venue, Phase One’s renovation plans reduced the existing casual dining space by about 500 sq. ft. and used the remaining square footage to increase the size of what was now positioned as a Bar/Grille. The expanded pub area was also outfitted with a horseshoe-shaped, “cross-talk” bar, a greater diversity of seating options, and improved aesthetics.

Pictured: (back row, left to right) Laird Dunlop, Director of Tennis; Dan Royall, Clubhouse Manager; John Crandall, Maintenance Director; Justin Mooney, Executive Sous Chef; Gordon McLaughlin, Sous Chef; and Antoine Murray, Executive Chef; (front row, left to right) Susan Clayton, Health and Wellness Director; Sarah Matheny, Controller; Mary Geiss, General Manager; and Kathryn Jackson, Membership Director.

The renovated Bar/Grille quickly became the go-to place in the Cape Fear clubhouse for casual socialization among adult members. The casual dining venue, even with its reduced footprint, also gained immediate new popularity, thanks to upgraded décor that included floor-to-ceiling windows and an enhanced fireplace, along with a separate, 930-sq. ft. family dining area with both banquette and table seating.

The reduction of space for clubhouse casual dining was also alleviated by constructing a new 2,730-sq. ft. dining terrace with seating for up to 46. The trellis-covered terrace was also quickly embraced by members drawn to its outdoor kitchen/service bar, fire pit, and expansive golf course views. Along with portable heaters, the fire pits allow the terrace to be utilized well into the fall.

The Phase One clubhouse renovation also included conversion of an often-vacant “lounge” area that was adjacent to the original bar into a private, 400-sq. ft. Wine Room that seats 16. The room was also equipped with 60 lockers for members’ private wine inventories that quickly sold out (and created the need for a waiting list). In addition to creating new revenue streams from locker rentals and providing a significant boost to wine sales, the room spurred a doubling of participation in the club’s wine program, and helped to increase interest in wine dinners and tastings.

Riding the Wave
The popularity of the new clubhouse venues and features that were created through Phase One—not to mention the immediate positive impact of a 30% boost in F&B sales—paved the way for easier member acceptance and enthusiasm for setting Phase Two of the master plan in motion. That phase centered around designing the new FAC in a way that would incorporate the Southern architectural style of the existing clubhouse and capture natural synergies between the club’s existing pool and tennis programs, while also introducing new space to help Cape Fear CC properly expand its fitness and wellness program, create an “ultra-casual” dining component for all ages, and introduce family-oriented amenities such as a youth room and child-watch service.

Pickup window at the Family Activity Center

While the success of both phases can be seen in a variety of operating statistics, Geiss and her staff haven’t needed to just look at the numbers to know that the right moves have been made to properly position Cape Fear CC for many more years of relevance.

“This was really about taking a traditional club and getting out ahead of what was needed to not only keep all the age segments in our current membership engaged, but to make sure we wouldn’t fall behind in providing what the next generations of members will be looking for, too,” says Geiss.

“Like a lot of club managers who’ve gone through projects like this recently, it’s certainly fun to have members now come up to me to say, ‘I was against this, but man, was I wrong,’ ” she adds. “But what’s really great is when I walk into our new [FAC] cafe in the morning—a time of day when we never had anything going on before, anywhere on the property—and I now see four to five tables filled with seniors, along with four to five filled with kids 12 and under. They’re all now coming there on a regular basis, several days a week—and they not only don’t mind that the other group is there, they enjoy seeing each other, and interact all the time. That’s what the club business—today’s, and tomorrow’s—has to be all about.”