By Heather Gooch, Contributing Editor
In October 2010, Palo Alto Hills (Calif.) Golf & Country Club (PAH) took a chance on Courtney Rebel and placed her in the newly created position of Youth Director. Fast-forward 20 months, and it’s a “gamble” that has paid off in many ways for the club.
“The long-term goal of the club at the time was to add more social memberships, as a bridge to proprietary golf memberships,” Rebel recalls. And because the club’s brand-new Fitness Center was opening (“Active Duty,” C&RB, September 2011), it made sense to push forward with ways to appeal to more families to join.
Rebel’s background includes being a certified personal trainer; she holds a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, the
study of human movement. With experience at several other clubs to help make their skiing and aquatic programs more family-friendly, she was uniquely qualified to help Palo Alto Hills achieve its goal.
The first thing Rebel did in her new post was to create a Family Guide for the club—a booklet full of programs and events that literally had something for everyone every month of the year. Because she was in charge of hiring for the Fitness Center staff, she made sure everyone she brought in had experience working with—and just as importantly, liked to work with—children.
Next, as youth events were starting to take place, Rebel and her new team made sure to survey not just the parents, but the kids themselves, about what they liked, and didn’t like, about each event.
“We had started with ‘ages 6-and-up’ events, but we soon found that 12-yearolds didn’t want to go where there would be 6-year-olds,” she says. In response, the club created events geared to different age brackets: Tiny Tots (ages 2-5), Kool Kidz (6-10), Tweens (9-12) and Teens (12-16). There are also Family events to appeal to members of all ages — and summer camps, too.
This approach has led to some finetuning of days and times for events geared to the various segments, Rebel notes. “We do a lot of Friday-night events from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. for Tweens, while the Kool Kidz might start and end an hour earlier,” she says. “Tiny Tots are even earlier, or on a Sunday afternoon.
“Teens, on the other hand, want to feel they’re college-aged,” she notes, “so we use a 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. timeframe for that group.”
To help avoid conflicts for all events, Rebel made sure to get on the local school district’s mailing list, so nothing would be scheduled, for example, at the same time as a high school dance or junior high band concert.
Rebel also formed a Youth Committee comprised primarily of parents from the membership. For each Teen event, there is also an Event Team of interested teenagers. It’s Rebel’s secret weapon for keeping the “cool” factor.
“The kids on the team know that if they bring, say, 20 kids to this event, they’ll get a pizza party,” she says. “They also get buy-in to the event—they choose the menu from a list of options, for example. So they’re into it, and they’re making it go viral on Facebook and Twitter. They’re basically selling it for us.”
To introduce the Teen segment back in January, Rebel invited five other local country clubs to participate. “We made it easy for them to sell tickets to their members — we gave them a spreadsheet and kept in touch via e-mail and phone,” she says. The result? “We had 140 teens come to the first event.
Having teens that weren’t from the club only upped the coolness factor,”Rebel adds. “It’s a huge incentive to allow them to bring friends who aren’t always at the club,” she notes.
At $24.95 a ticket for an event like the Fire & Ice Lounge, where the ballroom was transformed into a teen club replete with a “bouncer” at the door, a DJ, a photo booth, poker games, food and mocktails, Palo Alto is basically breaking even on its youth events. But the return on investment is both short-term (for every youth event, an adult event is going on as well—and attendance for those is up, thanks to the peace of mind parents have knowing exactly where their kids are) and long-term (non-member kids who attend an event bring enthusiasm about the property back to their parents, who then look into membership).
In fact, in the last 18 months, 85% of the club’s new membership was comprised of families—and the youth programming
is frequently cited as a major factor in their decision. “Our staff jokes that if someone is on the fence, they need to go talk to the youth director,” Rebel says.
While Palo Alto Hills is now up to about four family-oriented events a month, Rebel advises starting off with two events a month, so your team is not overwhelmed by commitment. A good staff-to-child ratio is essential for safety
at each event, she adds.
“Tiny Tots are 1:5, while Kool Kids is usually 1:8,” she says. “Tweens and Teens are 1:20, but they are in an enclosed area with people at every door. We check all their bags, too.”
The true key to success with familyfriendly programming, Rebel notes, is to think of what kids can’t do at home or school. “Here, they can smash pumpkins, bowl with watermelons, or throw paper airplanes into the pool,” she says.
Without missing a beat, she sums it up perfectly: “I wish I were a kid at the club.”
In addition, Rebel has taken the first Friday of the month, which historically has been the dining room’s slowest day, and turned it into a Parents Night Out event.
“It now tends to be sold out most of the time,” she reports. “Kids have developed relationships with staff and friends at these events, so it gives parents a way to let their kids socialize, and for them to have a nice dinner in the process.”
Rebel, who is also the operations manager for the club’s fitness center, says that starting a youth program doesn’t require a lot of overhead — just some creativity.
“Look at your staff and see how they’re interacting with kids,” she advises. “Maybe one of your lifeguards is studying to be a teacher. The swim coach is great with children. Just utilize them in another realm, especially because parents are already feeling comfortable with these staffers because they know them from other programs.”
It’s also important to not repeat event activities exactly, she advises. “Last year, a Kool Kidz event was to ‘Shake Your Way to Ice Cream,’ “ she notes. “This year, that’s a family event, and it’s poolside.”
As additional safety precautions, Rebel has certified all staff in CPR, and the staff also performs emergency evacuation drills several times a year.
What about the segment of the membership that likes to use the club as a place where they don’t have to be exposed to families? At Palo Alto Hills, Rebel notes, that it hasn’t been much of an issue because the family events are kept mainly to the Fitness Center — and out of the clubhouse. She advises clubs to establish a “home base” for the youth program, even if it’s just a conference room, so that kids know where to at least meet for an event. Also, she says, “you always need food, even for a two-hour event”—and having a place where you can spread out the snacks is important.