A timely strategic shift has helped the Bozeman, Mont., club rebrand and redefine its role as a facility focused on families.
An English proverb, often attributed to Plato in translations of “The Republic,” holds that “necessity is the mother of invention.” For Riverside Country Club, necessity came out of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, when the club saw membership numbers drop just a year after implementing a waiting list for golf, and shortly after a new clubhouse was erected.
Like most clubs during the Great Recession, the Bozeman, Mont., property rallied its management team to figure out ways to cut costs, while restructuring memberships (including the creation of junior membership classifications, with dues descending in step with member age).
But as any club knows, cutting costs may stanch a financial wound, but it won’t necessarily help it heal. To add value to current memberships, the club took Plato’s saying a step further and set out to make necessity the mother of reinvention, by forging a new identity.
AT A GLANCE
- Location: Bozeman, Mont.
- Website: www.riverside-country-club.com
- Founded: 1959
- Golf Course Design: Gary Panks
- Members: Golf, 341; Social/Athletic, 114; Social/Dining, 104
- Clubhouse Size: 26,905 sq. ft.
- Annual Golf Rounds: 17,000
- General Manager: Chuck Donch
- Head Golf Professional: Brandon Kahl
- Golf Course Superintendent: Kurt Klonsinski
- Events, Marketing & Activities Coordinator: Mandy Dredge
- Executive Chef: Stanford Isobe
- Food & Beverage Manager: Kate Burton
- Director of Racket Sports: Dave Luebbe
- Controller: Terri Lewis
A New Mission
Mandy Dredge, who studied elementary education in college, created her position at the club as Events, Marketing & Activities Coordinator, after starting out as pool manager. Her new role has been critical in cultivating the club’s re-imagined identity as a highly social, family-oriented spot that plays host to a myriad of events.
With Dredge serving as what she describes as “the glue that pulled all the departments together,” the club has developed a knack for creating multi-faceted member events. Under her direction, the number of participants allowed at events is frequently limited, to help create demand and make each one special.
The ideas for what events to hold come from all over: member suggestions, staff brainstorming meetings, and even social media. As a riff on the popular “Painting with a Twist” franchise, which combines wine with painting lessons, the club’s Corks & Canvas events invite members to display their creativity, fueled by Riverside CC’s own wine offerings.
The popularity of this event even spawned a version for teenage members, called “Painting on the Green,” that’s conducted on the golf course. Meanwhile, an art night for younger kids evolved to include a bouncy house that keeps kids entertained between painting and drawing sessions.
“If you can get kids in the 8-to-10 demographic to the club, the parents will stick around, too,” Dredge notes.
One of the club’s longest-held events, the New Year’s Eve party, has stayed in place but evolved over the years. In response to both member interests and a desire to keep things fresh, it’s been changed from a sit-down dinner to heavy appetizers.
A slew of other ideas have included kids’ parties, etiquette classes, and even tailgate events for Montana State University games, at no additional cost to members. Held in a warm pavilion tent, the tailgates offer hot dogs, chili and more.
“You have to give back to the members because ultimately, they’re the best recruiters for the club,” says Dredge, who notes that it’s also important to continue to develop events outside of golf season. To that end, winter-based activities on the property include a member-donated platform tennis court, a small kids’ ice rink on the patio of the grill room, and a cross-country skiing trail that is groomed on the golf course.
Riverside CC’s most well-attended new events are the signature Micro Nine, which include micro-brewery beer paired with meals and par-3 golf, and the always sold-out Nine & Wine, which combines a nine-hole golf tournament (with sixsomes, to keep it social) with four wine stations and a menu developed by Executive Chef Stanford Isobe. The chef develops the menu with the theme of each event in mind, including the region of the selected wine, and has learned to balance the culinary offerings with the logistics of keeping the food hot.
Nine & Wine is especially fruitful for Riverside’s 18-hole golf course, Head Golf Professional Brandon Kahl says, as it invites non-traditional golfers and non-members to experience all that the club has to offer. In fact, he notes, the club has signed on eight full golf members as a result of the event, which is held three times a year.
Once an event is created, the club sends daily e-blasts to members to keep them up-to-date on the plethora of social options available to them. While one upcoming event is highlighted, the e-mails include a full calendar listing. And the staff is continually encouraged to keep new events in the pipeline, Dredge says.
Combining social events with food and beverage was a natural fit for General Manager Chuck Donch, who started out as the club’s Food & Beverage Manager—a role, he notes, that allowed him to get familiar with every member, because “everyone eats.”
“Being in food and beverage helps you to deal with people and to develop relationship skills,” says Donch. “People are vocal about food, which is so subjective, so you have to communicate.”
When Donch became Riverside’s General Manager after a two-year stint as Interim General Manager in 2010, he took a more hands-on approach to food and beverage. The Assistant Food & Beverage Manager position was eliminated and those duties were divided between Donch and Kate Burton, the club’s current Food & Beverage Manager.
With a significant age range among Riverside’s membership, Burton and Isobe work to maintain a balance between the classic cobb salads and cheeseburgers that some members prefer, and more exotic dishes like the kitchen’s specialty, chicken tikka masala.
“In Bozeman, dining tastes are conservative, but city transplants have more exposure,” Isobe says. “So we offer the standard meat and potatoes, but to entice members to choose the club as a dining option in competition with restaurants, we offer some variety as well.”
The club’s significant youth population has resulted in a surprising statistic, he adds—the club is the second-largest seller of chicken fingers in Gallatin County.
Changing With the Times
As Riverside has introduced more diverse, age-appropriate offerings, it has witnessed a shift in membership demographics. Over the past seven years, the average age of Riverside’s membership has dropped from 63 to 55, Dredge says.
The influx of 30-somethings and young families, Donch notes, has required more attention to how to balance their activities with those of older members who may appreciate more traditional events. But by constantly assessing the strengths and weaknesses of events and responding to attendance rates, the club has struck a comfortable balance among what Donch describes as a diverse membership, consisting mostly of retirees and families, with a handful of second-homeowners.
The blue-collar town of Bozeman has a population just shy of 40,000 and is home to three private golf clubs and two municipal golf courses, with Riverside situated comfortably in the middle. The town’s ample recreational opportunities (both a blessing and a curse, as they increase the club’s exposure but also compete with it), along with its proximity to Yellowstone National Park, has resulted in steady population growth.
“Bozeman’s growth bodes well for the club,” Kahl says. “Those are all potential members that are moving here.”
Riverside’s golf course is open from April to November, but during the extended daylight of summer, members can play golf until 10 p.m. Juniors and golfers under the age of 40 are the source of the biggest boost in membership numbers on the golf course, Kahl notes.
To build those numbers even more, the club developed the Junior Golf Medalist Passport, a program that creates incentives for playing golf, with prizes for participation as players move along a “Candyland”-like board. Once the board is completed, the final prize is $100 in pro shop credit.
The club also allows denim on the golf course—a policy that goes back as long as anyone can remember. “The original builders of the club were farmers and ranchers, and they didn’t want to change clothes to play a round,” Kahl notes.
When Riverside tore down and rebuilt its clubhouse before the downturn, members opted for a modest, 26,905-sq. ft. facility, after voting down an initial proposal for a larger building. Had the club known it would move in such a family-oriented direction, it probably would have wanted to add more space, Donch notes.
But as the club rebuilt its identity, and the staff realized it needed to expand fitness offerings for its recreation-loving members that simply wouldn’t fit into the clubhouse’s current footprint, Donch orchestrated a reciprocal relationship with The Ridge Athletic Club, a local operation with two facilities located less than 10 minutes from Riverside’s clubhouse.
About 300 Riverside members now participate in the partnership, which allows them to join The Ridge with initiation fees waived, and to pay dues at the corporate rate. The Ridge offers strength and cardiovascular equipment, fitness studios, a gymnasium, aquatics center and racquetball, handball and squash courts. Water aerobics instructors from The Ridge offer classes at Riverside’s pool, and Ridge staffers also come to Riverside to offer extras like massages.
“We are constantly trying to deliver a quality product and add value to the membership without adding cost,” Donch says. “That means better service, better hiring, assessing events, and determining our strengths and weaknesses.”