Operating with a carefully implemented, safety-first approach in the state with the second-highest number of coronavirus cases hasn’t curbed the momentum for the Deal, N.J. club, which still expects to start the new decade by adding to its recent run of successful years.
BY 10 A.M. ON A LATE-JUNE morning, the parking lot at Hollywood Golf Club was already close to full. Tennis players were spread throughout the club’s courts and receiving loud and enthusiastic instruction as group drills were conducted. Touring the golf course required frequent stops, to let players who could be seen on pretty much every hole hit their shots. And as lunchtime approached, tables on the club’s outdoor pavilion began to fill up.
And yes, this was a June morning in 2020. And it wasn’t in California, but rather in New Jersey—the state that has registered the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the United States. In Deal, N.J., in fact, which is less than an hour from New York City, the pandemic’s epicenter.
But by this time in June, both New York and New Jersey had emerged as states that had been the most effective in turning back the tide—so much so, in fact, that they were now imposing quarantine orders on visitors from more-infected states. And Hollywood Golf Club (which took its name from its original location on Hollywood Avenue when it was founded in 1898) stood as an example of a club that was farther ahead on the recovery curve than pretty much any property in the country—with staff and members expressing confidence as the first half came to a close that 2020 could still end up being a successful, and perhaps even profitable, year.
“We’re still optimistic that it could be a great year,” said Salil S. Bokil, CCM, Hollywood GC’s General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, as one of the most volatile and challenging first halves that his 122-year-old club—or any other club— has ever seen was coming to a close.
“The response from our membership for what we’ve been able to provide for them so far [while operations have been restricted] has been great, with usage of our golf course through the roof and strong response to our takeout food service,” Bokil added. “We have 100 well-spaced seats for outdoor dining that we can use until indoor dining is reopened, and that’s been very busy, too, since we’ve been able to start serving out there.
“And through all of this, we’ve been able to continue to add new members and new people to our waiting list,” Bokil said. “So we’ve been ready to get going at whatever pace is allowed, and my gut tells me we’re going to be extremely busy if and when this all gets back to something representing a new normal.”
MAKING THEIR LUCK
Members of the Hollywood GC management team sometimes cite a feeling that the club was “lucky” with regard to the timing of how it was confronted by the pandemic, because it has always normally stayed closed through March, so it did not encounter a need to scramble and adjust an active operation—or lay off or furlough any employees.
But luck is the residue of design, and being closed didn’t make anyone from the club’s Board or management feel they had the luxury of time in preparing for how to respond to the outbreak.
Rather, as featured recently in a segment of C+RB’s “The Road Back” video series, Hollywood GC was one of the first clubs to quickly embrace how it could continue to operate virtually through Zoom and other technology, not only to maintain momentum for membership applications and interviewing (it has brought in 10 new members in the first half of this year), but also to coordinate Board and staff communication for setting its response strategy.
That strategy, says Stephen Lowy, a 38-year member who has been Hollywood GC’s Board President for the past six years, began with establishing that the primary focus would always be on the health of the membership and the staff. Secondly, in keeping with what Lowy says has been the key to turning around the club after the stock-market crash of 2008 and subsequent Great Recession, Hollywood’s decisions for how it would proceed would be driven by careful monitoring of data, both for the club’s operation and for the club industry as a whole.
“It certainly helped that we were able to take our time, but our approach was always going to be measured, cautious and not overly ambitious, with decisions based on learning all we could about what was going on at our club, in our area, and in the club market,” says Lowy, who has found as Hollywood GC’s President that even a tradition-rich operation can benefit from what he’s successfully applied in his own business career, which has included involvement with 12 startup companies.
It also certainly helped that Hollywood GC has a management team with extensive tenure at the property. “Our core staff averages seven years here, and most of our department heads have been here 10 years or more—some over 20 or 30,” says Bokil, who has been at the club 12 years himself, starting as Clubhouse Manager and then advancing through the Director of Food & Beverage and Assistant General Manager positions before taking his current role in 2015.
“The internal camaraderie we have really helps us have consistency in how we operate,” Bokil says. “There’s no tension, because we all respect how we can work with and help each other deliver personalized service for our members.”
THE RIGHT COURSE
As it became apparent that golf stood to be the first activity that would be allowed to resume (even though all clubs in New Jersey experienced growing frustration, as the state was one of the last to allow play), the Hollywood GC staff knew that another major advantage it would have in planning a successful restart would be the allure of its golf course.
The connection to a legendary name like Walter Travis, an early member of the club who designed the course that has since been consistently included in “classic” U.S. course rankings, has always provided Hollywood GC with a good opening statement. Renovation and restoration projects by Rees Jones and Brian Schneider of Tom Doak’s Renaissance Golf Design have further enhanced the course’s appeal over the years. Then, with another stroke of “luck,” being able to delay this year’s opening gave Golf Course Superintendent Michael Broome, who lives on the property along with two of his assistants and other staff members, ample time to get it in prime condition before the word came that play would finally be allowed.
Once the ban was lifted, Broome says, “we were packed from day one.” And the pace hasn’t slowed, with the month of May bringing 1,000 rounds just from member play, topping the same month a year earlier when guest rounds were also included in the count. June was on a similar pace, again with only members playing, and Head Golf Professional Kevin Weyeneth, PGA, also reported being pleasantly surprised by how his staff has been “booked solid” for lessons, reflecting increased interest by some Hollywood members who had not been playing as much golf previously.
Weyeneth also saw that members found new enjoyment from the walking-only restrictions that were originally imposed when the course was opened. “Many of them enjoyed it more than they thought they would,” he says. “Once you start to do it, you realize it’s one of the easiest walking courses you’ll find. And when we had 15-minute tee times [to ensure proper social distancing], it felt like it was your own golf course.”
The Hollywood GC property is situated just a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, and that has also always provided another special feature for the golf course, Broome says, because of how the wind can frequently change to not only provide welcome breezes, but also add new variety to how the course can be played.
The proximity to the ocean and the smaller-town appeal of Deal has also provided another unexpected, pandemic-prompted stroke of “luck” for Hollywood GC, as the outbreak set off a mass exodus of residents from the crowded cities to the north.
“The real estate market here right now is insane,” says Bokil. “So many people, especially those with children, couldn’t stand being cooped up in New York City or Jersey City or Hoboken [during stay-at-home orders] and now want to get out.” That’s added to the pipeline of interested new members, and promises to continue the trend for younger families joining the club (the average age has dropped into the mid-50s over the last decade).
And while the region has many other options, Hollywood GC thinks its smaller size (“We have 100 fewer members than any other club in the area,” says Lowy) will add to its appeal as an especially safe haven as pandemic-related concerns linger.
“There are tons of other restaurants that [area residents] can usually choose from,” Bokil notes. “But as long as they’re all confined to sidewalk service or even limited indoor seating, we’re going to look very attractive by comparison.”
Longer-term, as Lowy assesses how the Hollywood GC management team and membership have worked together so far to take on the challenges that rose up as they prepared to start the 2020 season, it also reaffirms his confidence that “Hollywood’s best is yet to be.”
“When I got involved [with the club’s governance] after the crash in 2008 and we saw a crisis developing for the club,” Lowy says. “it became clear to me that our job [as Board members] was to put very good professionals in the right roles and to let them do their jobs, with us not micromanaging, but instead providing guidance and encouragement and helping them find and analyze the right data to help them make the right decisions.
“It’s made it so much easier for me to stay on as President for as long as I have, because of how Salil and his team have stayed together and performed so well as a group for so long,” he adds. “With consistency comes quality, and that has certainly proved to be the case in how we’ve seen our staff step up and respond this year.”
At A Glance: HOLLYWOOD GOLF CLUB
Location: Deal, N.J.
Golf Course Design: Walter J. Travis
Annual Golf Rounds: 19,000
Main Clubhouse Size: 20,000 sq. ft.
Winter Clubhouse: 15,000 sq. ft.
General Manager/Chief Operating Officer: Salil S. Bokil, CCM
Head Golf Professional: Kevin J. Weyeneth, PGA
Golf Course Superintendent: Michael E. Broome
Executive Chef: Martin Bradley
Dining Room Manager: Robert Egan
Director of Tennis: Brij Menon
Membership Coordinator: Lisa D’Amato
Events and Marketing Coordinator: Sharon LoPresti
Controller: Mary Bryk
Assistant Controller: Valerie Riehlman