Emerging from a $31 million capital project that includes a new clubhouse, beach club and racquet club, Seabrook Island Club has repositioned itself for expanded activity and significant growth.
Seabrook Island Club in South Carolina is kind of a Cinderella story of the club industry. It survived changing hands between developers in the early ‘70s, only to be boarded up in the late ‘80s when its owners declared bankruptcy in the wake of Hurricane Hugo. Resurrected in 1991 as member-owned, Seabrook still couldn’t seem to get a foothold, plagued by poor facilities, divisiveness between the club and the community’s Property Owners Association (POA), and a weak membership base (most of the 1,100 members only lived on the island part-time).
Seabrook Island Club
AT A GLANCE
• Location: Seabrook Island, S.C.
Then, in 2007, club members and island residents made history, collectively rescuing their limping property from what looked to be more uncertainty for the future when groundbreaking began for the much-anticipated three-year, island-wide, $31 million Horizon Plan.
With a new lease on life, members of Seabrook were determined to show that their club was worthy of a second chance.
And, boy, did they bring their A-game.
Doing the unthinkable in the world of coastal, commercial real estate, Seabrook voluntarily reduced its footprint along one of the most acclaimed stretches of beach on the Eastern seaboard. The plan called for deconstructing all club amenities and building them anew across the street from the beach and behind the hurricane setback line.
The showpieces of the plan would be a 5,000-sq. ft. Beach Club, a 52,000-sq. ft. Island Clubhouse, a top-to-bottom reconstruction of the racquet club complex, a remodeled 22-acre equestrian center, and a lakeside community center that would be owned and operated by the POA.
In 2010, with construction nearing completion and 1,711 members now on board, the glass slipper belongs to Seabrook Island Club.
From Drawing Board to Reality
Located 23 miles south of downtown Charleston, 2,200-acre Seabrook Island is tucked among the winding inlets, crooked oaks and marsh grass that separate rural Charleston from the Atlantic Ocean. While it looks and feels like a resort community, there are no hotels or high-rise condominiums here. Instead, this quiet island is made up mostly of second homeowners and retirees looking to enjoy the Lowcountry summers in a spot that is cooled by the perpetual sea breeze.
The club boasts two championship golf courses. Crooked Oaks Golf Course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr., is a 6,746-yard, par-72 course that winds through marsh, maritime forests and moss-hung, century-old live oaks. Its sister, Ocean Winds Golf Course, was designed by Willard Byrd and is a 6,761-yard, par-72 course that takes golfers to the Atlantic Ocean, where the swirling breezes provide a challenging test of ability.
|Open April through September, Seabrook’s Beach Club is the hub of warm-weather activity with outdoor dining, two pools (one heated), poolside snack bars, and private beach access.|
In 2003, Seabrook was the first facility in the state of South Carolina to become a certified member of the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for golf courses. Over 80 species, including many threatened and endangered birds, have been sighted on the island.
“We’ve come a long way,” says Caleb Elledge, who was named General Manager in March of 2008, after having worked at Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort, Boonsboro Country Club (Lynchburg, Va.), and Cleveland Country Club (Shelby, N.C.). “We’ve had our fair share of misfortune.”
Seabrook Island was first developed in the 1970s to maximize the natural beauty of the area, while minimizing human impact. One- to four-bedroom private homes, villas and cottages were built, and a country club was established. In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo decimated the Charleston area, the developer who owned the club declared bankruptcy. The bank-owned clubhouse and surrounding facilities were boarded up, and the two golf courses grew like pastures.
In 1991, Seabrook’s fortune turned. Five hundred members pulled their money together to buy the club from the bank, and set about bringing the courses and the club’s facilities back to life.
|Executive Chef Randy MacDonald provides a special “Members Night” menu every Tuesday in the more formal Palmetto Room (right)|
“Once everything had been resurrected, Seabrook began to operate under a conference center business model, to stay financially viable,” explains Elledge. “It worked for the better part of the decade.”
As the private club industry evolved, Seabrook shifted its focus from the conference model to its current mission of providing a true private club experience for members and guests. As part of this shift, Island One—a referendum that created the requirement of a community membership to the Seabrook Island Club for any purchase of real estate after January 1, 2005—was passed.
“The club ran a lot of membership specials and streamlined operations to make up for the revenue that was lost as it moved away from the conference business,” says Elledge, who had heard about the $31 million master growth plan and was eager to be a part of it. “The planning was in place and they were looking for a Director of Operations to work with the Executive Director.”
Elledge was hired for the position and after eight weeks on the job, the Board of Governors made the decision to promote him to General Manager/Chief Operating Officer.
Low country Cuisine Reigns Supreme
One of Elledge’s first tasks as GM/COO was to improve the club’s food and beverage operation.
“Members often judge a GM’s performance based on the caliber of the club’s F&B program,” says Elledge. “You can lose the greens to nematodes, but if F&B tanks, you’re going to hear about it.”
Not An Idle Summer
In June 2009, Seabrook’s golf course maintenance staff, led by Director Sean Hardwick, removed the putting green at the club’s Ocean Winds course, so the driving range tee surface could be expanded from 19,000 sq. ft. to 50,000 sq. ft. In addition, the team constructed a new 9,000-sq. ft. putting green (see photo, above), added a new championship tee on the first hole of its Crooked Oaks Course, renovated the chipping green and added new bunkers, and expanded the area around the green to practice longer pitch shots. “As redundant as it sounds, we were really busy this summer,” says Hardwick.Other completed course improvement projects included:
Having sustained its fair share of trauma over the years, Seabrook’s dining operation was in need of some serious TLC. “There was a lot of turnover and morale was low,” explains Elledge. “Dining had never been an important element to club life. It was poorly managed, and the facilities and equipment were failing.”
With three new kitchens and five dining venues about to come online, Seabrook needed a chef who could not only handle that kind of volume, but also position the operation to evolve with members’ wants and needs.
Enter Randy MacDonald, a Johnson and Wales University graduate with more than a decade of culinary experience who was working at nearby Kiawah Island (S.C.) Golf Resort as Executive Chef of its Ocean Course Clubhouse.
“I was ready for a bigger challenge,” says MacDonald whose upscale Lowcountry cuisine, defined by its fresh ingredients, bears strong parallels with New Orleans-style cooking.
Oysters, shrimp, and fish caught just offshore, each prepared using an interesting blend of seasonings, top MacDonald’s menus, which currently change weekly. Fresh produce such as okra, collards, Brussels sprouts, a number of different lettuces and a variety of herbs, most grown locally, are used in various forms in the club’s casual, upscale, beachfront and banquet venues.
“Our members tend toward Southern comfort food and Lowcountry favorites,” says MacDonald. “But I make sure they know we’re flexible. Ultimately, we’re here to serve the food they want to eat.”
Tasked with rebuilding a multi-unit operation piece by piece, MacDonald and Elledge built a team of sous chefs, banquet managers and a food and beverage director. MacDonald rewrote every menu, streamlined operations, and established structure.
“Before, the guys on the line would wear t-shirts,” he says. “Now, everyone is in uniform and there is a protocol that must be followed at each station. It hasn’t been an easy transition, but there is a new sense of pride about our dining from the staff and the members.”
|The casual Bohicket’s Lounge overlooks Seabrook’s two golf courses and offers light lunch and dinner fare.|
MacDonald’s regimen proved especially useful when the main clubhouse was under construction and the team ran F&B operations exclusively out of the Beach Club’s kitchen.
“The dining volume in 2008 was unbelievable,” says Elledge. “We served between 300 to 400 covers daily. A busy day in the past was 200 or so covers.”
Once the Island Clubhouse opened in September 2009, MacDonald and his team closed the Beach Club for the winter and focused on establishing operations in the Island Club’s Palmetto Room, an upscale eatery; Bohicket’s Lounge, a more casual grill; and the club’s banquet facility.
Much to the staff’s excitement, Seabrook reports similar numbers from these venues—and it’s the off-season.
“The construction timeline worked really well for us,” says Elledge. “We closed one kitchen and opened another, so we were never understaffed and our core team was able to execute the openings without too much trouble.”
For the first time ever, both the Beach Club and the Island Clubhouse will be open simultaneously come April.
“We’re ready,” says MacDonald.
|When completed this summer, Seabrook’s new Racquet Club will offer a balance of social, instructional and competitive programs for men and women, weekly round robins, daily stroke clinics, seasonal tennis camps and junior programs.|
Reins and Racquets
With its expanding membership base of 1,711 members, Seabrook has numerous amenities beyond golf and dining.
Fifteen composition clay courts offer the opportunity to participate in a range of lessons and clinics. And this summer, a brand new, 3,000-sq. ft. Racquet Club, with a full-service pro shop, will round out these impressive facilities.
“There will be member areas with refreshments and views of the courts,” says Head Tennis Professional Mike Kiser, who has been teaching at Seabrook for more than 20 years. In front of the building, an event lawn will be used for social events that coincide with matches and tournaments.
“When plans were being made to either repair or replace the previous Racquet Club, Seabrook evaluated its membership and decided that—because we have such an active tennis component—the facilities needed to be of the same caliber as the rest of the property,” says Elledge.
Offering the right amenities had been a challenge for Seabrook in the ‘90s. But looking forward, with active programs and solid leadership, what’s now in the mix is helping to distinguish the property from its competition.
|“We wanted to create spaces where members could hang out together,” says General Manager Caleb Elledge of areas like the new clubhouse’s living room.|
“You need to consider who your members are, how and why they use the club,” says Elledge. “At Seabrook, we have a largely part-time membership base, so when members are here, they’re on vacation. Our amenities are structured to be flexible enough to accommodate that type of membership and still fulfill the needs of our 550 resident members.”
Featuring one of the few beach rides on the East Coast, Seabrook’s full-service Equestrian Center, which will also undergo a facelift this spring, caters to riders of all skill levels with guided trail rides, pony rides and riding lessons.
“We have one of the best facilities in the greater Charleston area,” says Charles Hairfield, Equestrian Center Manager. “Not only does this help to set the club apart, it generates profit for the club. In 2009, we made about $20,000.”
In addition to rides and lessons, Seabrook also offers boarding for residents and nonresidents.
“Horses can be a challenge,” says Elledge. “It is vital to have a team in place that is trained to manage this amenity.”
|With 150 lockers—75 more than in the previous clubhouse— Seabrook sold out of available spaces weeks before opening.|
A Look Into the Crystal Ball
There is no question that Seabrook Island Club has invested in its future—and, so far, the forecast looks bright.
Financing for its portion of the Horizon Plan—of which $22 million belongs to the club and the balance belongs to the POA—came from surplus funds and construction financing. Seabrook plans to convert to longer-term loans repaid through initiation fees and increased revenues. Seabrook also has a current capital assessment of between $57 and $170 per month, depending on membership category, which will continue for the next few years.
“We have a limited amount of non-property-owning memberships,” says Elledge. “When the real estate market in other parts of the country turns, potential owners will be even more attracted to Seabrook. So far, we’ve added about 20 members since we started this project, and our banquet business has seen significant growth.”
Best of all, many other Cinderellas are now in line to keep adding to this story’s happy ending. “We have over 30 weddings on the calendar in 2010,” Elledge says.