After a $6.8M clubhouse revitalization that added new fitness and dining amenities, and with golf rounds trending at their highest level in a decade, the Palm Coast, Fla. property is once again opening eyes to the special appeal of an “oceanfront state of mind.”
AFTER A CORPORATION WAS FORMED in 2005 so a member-backed group could buy the Hammock Dunes Club in Palm Coast, Fla. from developers, everything seemed on track to have the club move into a new phase of successful self-operation while continuing to benefit from the appeal of the Palm Coast community, located halfway between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach, that was originally conceived by the ITT Corporation as a retirement haven for its employees.
When the Great Recession began a few years later, however, the club was hit hard not only by the economic and real estate-related hardships that affected the entire industry, and especially club communities, but also encountered special challenges because of the timing of the ownership transition. As is often the case in the lead-up to such a sale, the developer had not made many investments or plans for the club’s long-range improvement.
“We weren’t left in great shape where some of the facilities were concerned,” says Kim Laxton, Hammock Dunes’ Membership Director, who has worked for the club for 18 years. “It all combined to create a tough hole to dig out of—one year, we had nearly 60 membership defections.”
The good news was that Hammock Dunes always had its two acclaimed golf courses—the oceanfront Links Course and the equally unique inland Creeks Course, a few miles away—to help retain a core membership and sustain a base level of activity. The courses had always remained under good care and gradually, the club’s Board and management began to take steps to complement their appeal with upgrades of other facilities and the creation and improvement of other member amenities. Long-range master planning for both properties began to coalesce with the arrival in 2012 of Jesse Thorpe, CCM, as the club’s Chief Operating Officer. (A 30-year industry veteran with previous GM experience at Brynwood CC, Spanish Trail CC and Skyline CC, Thorpe also served as President of the Club Management Association of America in 2004.)
The planning process drew guidance from member surveys and focus groups that led to an “aha” moment for Hammock Dunes’ Board and management. “While there were favorable reviews about how our members loved their fellow members and the staff and the golf courses, it clearly came through that they would like to see us do more to leverage the benefits of our oceanfront location,” says Thorpe.
That directive set into motion plans for Hammock Dunes’ recently completed $6.8 million redesign and expansion of its Links Clubhouse. The project included the addition of a 5,500-sq. ft. fitness center and the creation of a new casual bar-and-grille venue, the Dunes Tavern, that includes an open kitchen. Both the fitness center and outdoor seating capacity that was added to the dining venues take full advantage of the clubhouse’s ocean views and also overlook the Links Course and Hammock Dunes’ expansive croquet lawn, home to one of the largest croquet associations in Florida, with over 120 active players. (With several British expatriates among the club’s membership, the lawn is also the site of some spirited games of English lawn bowling.)
The renewed focus on featuring the ocean as part of anything Hammock Dunes members might want to do while at the club has also led to enhancements of its resort-style pool complex, with the addition of a new children’s splash pad and playground. Room is also being created to build two new bocce courts near the Links Clubhouse (bocce was already well-established elsewhere on the property, in an area that also includes tennis and pickleball courts).
And finally, to ensure that the full message for the key takeaway that now applies to all things Hammock Dunes is not lost on anyone, including prospective members, a new logo was designed for the club (see opposite page) that includes a new tag line: “Always an Oceanfront State of Mind.”
Positive Signs Across the Board
As 2019 was coming to a close, Thorpe reported that the changes that have been instituted at the property were already starting to generate impressive results, even before the grand opening of the renewed Links Clubhouse took place at the start of May.
Golf rounds were on pace to finish the year at around 42,000, which would mark the second straight year they exceeded 40,000. “That hasn’t been done for ten years,” says Thorpe. And as evidence that club members are doing more to take full advantage of the entire property, Director of Golf Brad Myers, PGA, CCM, adds that the trend has continued for members to now use both courses on an almost-equal basis, where previously the Links Course would see a much greater percentage (70 to 75%) of play.
Similar spikes are being seen through all other parts of the club’s operation as well, Thorpe says, especially in food and beverage, even after the club’s food minimum was eliminated this year. “We saw jumps [in F&B revenues and cover counts] of as much as 55 percent after reopening [the clubhouse],” he says. “Ninety percent of it was driven by the new [Dunes Tavern] room and the expanded outside seating. We haven’t had a month since where we’re less than 35% ahead of the year prior.”
The boost in club dining is also attributable, Thorpe notes, to the membership’s response to the talents of the culinary staff led by Executive Chef Lance Cook, who was featured in a Club + Resort Chef cover story in January 2018 (“The Right Cook in the Kitchen”), after coming to the club from Eau Gallie Yacht Club. “[Lance] was the last big piece” that needed to be added to Hammock Dunes’ management team, says Thorpe. More distinction for the club’s culinary program may be on the horizon, with Cook now prepping to take the exam in 2020 to earn Certified Master Chef credentials.
Activity in Hammock Dunes’ new fitness facility, under the leadership of Fitness & Aquatics Director Walter Sam, also shot past expected levels as soon as the doors were opened. After 12 classes were originally offered in the space’s group fitness room, Sam reports, that schedule has already swelled to 40 different offerings. He’s also meeting the high response by preparing stretching videos, some made in conjunction with Myers for golf-specific exercises, that will be posted on the members-only section of the Hammock Dunes website. And Sam also has a vision for a 45-minute “travelers workout” video that he would provide to members to use away from the club, with a travel-friendly “kit” made up of a resistance band and other exercise devices that could be made available in the club’s pro shop.
Hammock Dunes’ new fitness center was also built with space reserved for individual physical and occupational therapy that is provided in conjunction with a local hospital, and billed through members’ insurance. “I was skeptical of how [the service] might be accepted and used, but it’s kicked off very well,” says Sam.
A New Comfort Zone
While Hammock Dunes’ current membership of 640 falls short, Thorpe says, of the pre-Recession “high-water mark” of over 800, he is already seeing signs of good progress toward where the club wants to be. “We’re more than busy where we are now,” he says. “We don’t need to get back to the [membership levels] that were seen here before, as long as we account for attrition and maybe have net increases of five or so a year beyond that.”
Hammock Dunes is not a mandatory-membership community—which Thorpe deems an unfortunate decision that was made with the 2005 sale—but because the club was incorporated with for-profit status, its staff has more flexibility to generate new revenue streams and promote membership and activity. Colleen Albrecht was hired in 2019 fill a new Director of Membership Sales position, and immediately had a successful year drawing interest through a variety of new membership categories and opportunities. And Hammock Dunes’ for-profit status has also expedited the launch of a highly successful wine-by-the-case service for members, by securing an extended package-goods license through the separate address of its Creek Course pro shop.
Flexibility and responsiveness also comes, Thorpe says, from a streamlined governance and operating system that puts the chief operating officer model into action throughout all of Hammock Dunes’ departments. “We changed our committee structure two years ago,” he says. “Our operating committees are chaired by our department heads and co-chaired by a designated Board member. In that way they can all operate as tactical units, with Board members in advisory roles, and there’s no micro-managing.
“That gives us consistent direction operationally; there’s no jumping around for the ‘flavor of the day’,” Thorpe adds. “It also helps department heads develop new leadership and communication skills. Most importantly, it keeps us extremely flexible and reactive, so we can always be ready to pursue initiatives that we think will make the member experience better.”
At A Glance: The Hammock Dunes Club
Location: Palm Coast, Fla.
Founded: 1989; became member-owned in 2005
Golf Course Design: Creek Course, Rees Jones; Links Course, Tom Fazio
Annual Golf Rounds: 42,000
Clubhouse Size (Links): 40,000 sq. ft.
Chief Operating Officer: Jesse Thorpe, CCM
Director of Golf: Brad Myers, PGA, CCM
Director of Agronomy: Matt Howes
Executive Chef: Lance Cook
Assistant General Manager: Hans Grover, CCM
Fitness & Aquatics Director: Walter Sam
Chief Financial Officer: Carol Dyke
Membership Director: Kim Laxton
Head Golf Professional: Gina Hull
Chief Engineer: David Camp
Director of Membership Sales: Colleen Albrecht
Catering Manager: Crystal Hill