A revered entrance is a daily reminder of the special pride the staff of this South Carolina property takes in providing inspired services and amenities for members.
By Joe Barks, Editor
It all starts—literally and emotionally—with the “Avenue of Oaks.” The half-mile drive—which provides access to the community and club of Belfair from Highway 278, as it runs through Bluffton, S.C., on the way to Hilton Head Island—features a canopy of nearly 100-year-old trees that were planted by the second owner of the property. Originally founded as a country estate and working plantation in 1811, the 1,100 acres of Belfair have also been a cattle ranch and turkey farm before their development as a golf community began in 1994, with 730 home sites and two 18-hole Tom Fazio-designed golf courses.
Belfair’s managers say that coming to work through such a majestic entrance each day almost always prompts an uplifting thought about the property’s special nature. “I always tell people, Augusta National’s got nothing on us,” laughs Director of Landscaping Joe Bryant, sweeping out his arm while driving a golf car under the oaks.
At the same time, the drive can cast an imposing reminder about the responsibilities that come with running such a place. Bryant, whose position involves oversight of every part of the property except the golf courses, continually makes soil checks and conducts other tests to ensure that the trademark trees will continue to thrive. And Belfair’s General Manager/COO, David Porter, CCM, admits that unlike most of his peers in club management, his biggest fears don’t involve calls about events gone bad or clubhouse calamities, but rather something that would require his immediate presence on the Avenue.
While this sense of duty and ownership is understandably felt most strongly toward Belfair’s historic entrance, it certainly doesn’t stop a half-mile in. Belfair is unique as a golf community in that the management staff for the member-owned club also runs the Property Owners Association, creating special opportunities, and efficiencies, in how the property is developed and how services and amenities are provided.
“It’s a great Cinderella story,” says Porter, who came to Belfair six years ago after holding management positions at private clubs in the Philadelphia and Chicago areas. “The covenants [of the community] dedicate 10% of member dues to capital reserves, allowing us to pursue a regular capital plan with no debt and no assessments. We’ve done well even during the downturn, redoing both golf courses and renovating and expanding the clubhouse.”
The “Avenue of Oaks” (far left) creates an immediate impression of special features to be found at Belfair, both in its recently renovated and expanded clubhouse (below) and throughout the property.
AT A GLANCE
- Location: Bluffton, S.C.
- Opened for play: West Course, 1996; East Course and clubhouse, 1999
- Members: 770
- Annual rounds (two courses): 55,000
- General Manager/COO: David Porter, CCM
- Director of Golf: James Swift
- Director of Golf Course Maintenance: Ken Lee, CGCS
- Food & Beverage Director: Deanna Logan
- Executive Chef: Bruce Christensen, CEC
- Chief Financial Officer: Rick Leitman, CPA
- Director of Landscaping: Joe Bryant
- Director of Communications: Nicki Jacoby
- Fitness Director: Ali Weary
- Director of Community Management: Dan Duryea, CMCA
After a recent clubhouse expansion that added a new bar, grille and outdoor veranda space, Belfair members have an even greater variety of casual and more formal venues to choose from. More than 20 organized special-interest clubs also add to the active and ongoing social atmosphere.
“We strive to provide different experiences and unique programming for a membership that’s very active and engaged.”
—David Porter, General Manager/COO
The close connection with property owners (who account for all but 40 of the club’s members) has also led to the development of special services like home property landscaping and maintenance, which is now provided to 150 of the residents by Bryant’s department (a number that’s likely to grow quickly, judging by the number of member-residents who ask Bryant, as he drives a golf car around the property, to “stop back when he has a few minutes” to discuss planting and care strategies for their yards, which average 10,000 sq. ft.).
It has also made it easier to provide new features like the one-acre, fenced dog park, with separate areas for large and small dogs, that was opened last April in a previously under-utilized area in the shadow of the Avenue of Oaks, and that now sees 40 to 50 regular daily users, according to Bryant.
The property that’s easy to traverse from one end to another in a golf car also contains the Rookery, a nature conservancy populated with egret, stork, heron and other species, and (not-so) Hidden Lake, a 42-acre, natural freshwater lake that leads to marshes and the Colleton River, and is just one of 38 lakes and lagoons on the property that provide opportunities for kayaking, canoeing, fishing or other nature-related activities.
Nothing “Slow” About it
These attractions, along with many other amenities and features to be found throughout the property, give Belfair a vibrancy that belies the notion that community settings in the South Carolina “lowcountry” must have a “slowcountry” pace. In part, Porter says, that’s because while the average age of members is in the 60s, Belfair is “not a true retirement community,” with many member-residents still working full-time.
For core club services and activities, this means Porter and his staff don’t feel limited in what they can provide. “We strive to create different experiences and unique programming for a membership that’s very active and engaged,” he says. In addition to supporting over 20 organized special-interest clubs formed among the membership, the Belfair management team coordinates a full slate of speaker appearances and other events that are made available to members at no charge.
Belfair is still first and foremost a golf community, and for its most central activity, member engagement and enthusiasm are especially easy to come by, reports Director of Golf James Swift. “We have no shortage of active and willing participants—people here want to play,” says Swift.
Of Belfair’s two Tom Fazio-designed courses, the West Course (left) gained popularity by hosting The Players Amateur for many years, and the links-style East Course benefitted from a $1 million facelift in 2011. Director of Golf James Swift (right) also credits practice and instructional activity at the property’s 29-acre Learning Center (below) with helping to boost annual rounds from 46,000 to 55,000 over the last two years. “People here want to play,” Swift says.
Annual rounds have swelled from 46,000 to 55,000 in the past two years, Swift reports, partly because of the 2011 renovation of the East Course, which now sees almost as much activity as the West Course, site of The Players Amateur for many years. The East Course’s $1 million facelift, to enhance its links feel with deep-water views and open fairways, included a renovation of bunkers with the addition of white sand, re-grassing of greens (replacing bentgrass with Mini-Verde Bermuda) and the removal of shading trees.
The upsurge in golf activity has also stemmed from how Belfair members make the most of the property’s Golf Learning Center, a 29-acre practice and instructional facility with a full complement of hitting rooms, bays, and video and club-fitting equipment. “[The Learning Center] is the hub of our golf activity,” says Swift, who says it has also driven a significant increase in revenues from equipment sales and service.
Having a Blast
With golf in full swing, Belfair turned last fall to taking the steps needed to transform its clubhouse into another activity hub that could better accommodate the full scope of its member activities and preferences. The $2.5 million project added 5,000 sq. ft. to the building and created two new settings, a bar/grille and outdoor veranda, that quickly proved to be big hits with members seeking more casual options.
Just as significantly, a major portion ($500,000) of the project was devoted to kitchen improvements that created a separate banquet line and added new cooking and storage equipment for Executive Chef Bruce Christensen and his staff.
The exterior of the single-level clubhouse, first built in 1999 , also got an interesting “makeover” from the project—its walls were repainted white, then selectively blasted with baking soda to re-expose some of the red brick and evoke the property’s original plantation look.
“It’s like a brand new place,” Porter says of the clubhouse renovation. “It’s given us the right flexibility and has certainly increased dining activity across the board.” The extra capacity has allowed Belfair to be open for dinner more nights (six vs. four), but Porter says the 45% increase in diners during this year’s first two months vs. 2012 is because per-night averages are also up. “It’s clear we’re not just spreading the previous amount of business over more nights,” he says.
Equally important, the renovation and expansion—and in particular the kitchen upgrade—have greatly enhanced Belfair’s capacity for member events. “Where club functions [inside the clubhouse] used to max out at around 120 or 140 people, now we can have 200 to 220,” says Porter. Further value, he adds, comes from the fact that “we can still be fully open for a la carte” even during the biggest club functions (which can swell as high as 400 when outdoor settings are involved).
New sous vide equipment in the kitchen is already proving to be especially efficient for the larger functions, reports Christensen, who came to Belfair from Forest Hills CC in suburban St. Louis four years ago. “I can put in tenderloins for 250 people at three in the afternoon, even if I don’t need them until 8 p.m.,” he says. “When it’s time, I just give them a quick sear to everyone’s [doneness] preference, and they’re ready to go.” Christensen has also taken advantage of his new space to start chef’s table dinners for eight that quickly became “so popular, [the members] are calling us to arrange them,” he says.
The renovation/expansion is also already showing signs of paying off with increased activity for corporate events and weddings, which Belfair is well-positioned to accommodate, with 20 rental cottages on property. Wedding bookings that previously averaged four to six a year are already up to 10 for this year, with 12 to 15 already scheduled for 2014, Porter says.
With the golf courses and clubhouse now humming, Belfair plans to address its Fitness & Sports Center next. The issue here isn’t facilities—the Center already has a fully equipped gym, eight tennis courts, an indoor lap pool and an outdoor heated/cooled pool, along with a playground, basketball court, athletic field, sand volleyball court, areas for horseshoes and pickleball, picnic/cookout spaces, and a satellite kitchen with a popular spa menu. But the community already uses these facilities so much that the 9,200-sq. ft. space is feeling the squeeze.
“Expansion of the Fitness Center is out for bid and we expect that project to start this summer,” says Porter. “It’s another direction our members have given us, to continue to position ourselves to be the best in our market.”