A Management-Made Lake
Around the country—and particularly where growth is especially rapid and uncontrolled, such as in the Sun Belt, high-tech corridors, or metropolitan areas that are succumbing to suburban sprawl—more and more country clubs and golf courses are feeling the effects of America’s inability to curb overdevelopment. Creeks that used to barely trickle through a club property now spill their banks after any substantial rain. Watering restrictions are imposed by governing municipalities and utilities much more frequently, and severely. And when public water can be used by a club, it’s too often at a cost that makes what’s currently being paid for gas and oil look like pocket change.
As fast-paced growth and development—including 26 new golf courses—continued unabated throughout the ‘90s in the Charlotte, N.C. area, Charlotte CC GM/COO Damon DiOrio and Golf Course Superintendent Michael Pilo observed in alarm two disturbing trends. At the same time that the bills kept soaring for the public water they were using to irrigate their 18 hole, 6,860-yard Donald Ross course, water that they didn’twant kept pouring in after summer storms, and swamping large portions of the property.
“With all of the development in the area, there was more runoff into local tributaries, and in turn that often turned small creek beds on our course into running streams, requiring us to build a lot of new bridges and stone walls to try to hold them back,” says Pilo. “At the same time, we were seeing our water bill from the city of Charlotte grow by as much as 30 percent annually.”
Pilo and DiOrio began to study the costs of digging wells to create a reservoir somewhere on the club’s 240-acre property that could liberate them from the need to use public water. Originally, says Pilo, the project projected a 12- to 15-year payback. But as the pace of area development accelerated and water bills kept climbing, they kept revisiting the idea, and eventually the projected return on the $800,000 expenditure was down to less than five years. That was enough to convince club management it was time to literally take the plunge. Five 800-foot wells were drilled to feed a 12.5 million-gallon reservoir that was dug out of an isolated corner of the property. The project included a new pumping station and the running of pipe, not only to connect to the club’s existing irrigation system, but also to help control runoff when the streams on the property did overflow.
“It was a big project,” says Pilo. “There was a lot more involved with the wetlands aspects and environmental codes than I thought. Bringing in the big [drilling] rigs and other heavy equipment was also brutal on our cart paths.
“But it was just getting harder to justify using potable water on our grass, especially with all the growing restrictions and costs. Sure, you always hold your breath when you’re digging, because you never know for sure what you’re going to hit—or not hit. But this clearly ended up being the right thing to do.”
If you’re a recluse or a fugitive, you probably wouldn’t like going to Charlotte (N.C.) Country Club—where everyone not only knows your name, they greet you with it as soon as you’re on the property, even if you’ve never been there before.
The lengths to which the staff at Charlotte CC will go to engage each member and guest personally, in fact, can prompt some intelligence- gathering operations and high-tech communications that put the Secret Service to shame.
“When a member calls to schedule a dinner reservation or other use of the club, we make it a point to not just take down basic information about what time they’ll be coming, but to also have a conversation with them and find out what the occasion might be, and who else might be in their party,” says Damon DiOrio, the club’s General Manager and Chief Operating Officer. “If they say they’re bringing guests, we try to find out, without prying, the guests’ names as well.
“We keep notes of extra information like this and then try to have someone in the office or dining room communicate it, through earpieces, to whoever’s working as doormen and valets as people arrive,” DiOrio adds. “You can imagine the kind of ‘How did they know that?’ looks we get when we greet parties by saying, ‘Welcome, Mr. [Member]—and oh, is this Mr. [Guest]?’ “
“All of this goes a long way to immediately make people feel welcome and comfortable and special,” DiOrio says. “And we strive to have everyone keep using their names and convey those feelings through all that we provide, for the entire time—and every time—they’re here.”
Marks of Distinction
These extra efforts to create special experiences are a big reason why Charlotte CC still stands out as distinctly as its plantation-style clubhouse, amidst what has become an intensely competitive club scene in the Carolinas. Tracing its roots to when the city had barely 30,000 people and there wasn’t a golf course within 50 miles, the club has been located on the same 240-plus-acre site within the city limits since 1910, and its stately signature building dates back to 1931.
But very little of what’s now outside the property bears any resemblance to what original club members saw in the days before Duke Power Co. began to harness the Catawba River, sparking Charlotte’s emergence as the New South’s leading business center. It now ranks as the largest city between Washington, D.C. and Atlanta and as the 21st largest U.S. city overall, with over 600,000 people in the city and over 1.5 million in its metro area. And anyone who tries to negotiate the construction-related detours that currently snarl its downtown streets will attest that the pace of growth shows no sign of abating anytime soon. Not surprisingly, all of this activity has already spurred plenty of new country club and golf course development. Twenty-six new courses (nine private) have opened in the Charlotte area in the past decade, with almost all of them reflecting the trend to higher-quality facilities, modern features, and expanded amenities.
Even a tradition-steeped, established institution like Charlotte CC isn’t immune to the implications of a boom of this magnitude. In addition to the property management challenges that the area’s rapid overdevelopment has brought into the club, DiOrio and his staff are acutely aware that they can’t repeat the mistake that doomed the Old South: standing among their stately columns and trees and ignoring what’s going on outside their gates.
We know that as many as 90 percent of our members now belong to more than one club,” notes Clubhouse Manager Tom Delozier. “Plus Charlotte has become more of a culinary center, and that only stands to increase, with Johnson & Wales opening a new campus in the city.
It all means we have to constantly benchmark ourselves against the other great clubs and restaurants in the area,” Delozier says, “And we can never stray from striving to create an impression of ‘Wow’
every time someone comes here.”
The most ‘Wow’-inducing proof that the club is more than holding its own in the face of so many new club and dining options comes from its own growth numbers for the past 10 years. On the membership side of the ledger, Charlotte CC is currently full at 720 resident members, and stands as “one of maybe 10 clubs in the Carolinas with a waiting list,” says DiOrio.
Additionally, the club continues to add to its current total of over 250 additional members who have qualified for reduced dues as honorary senior members (earned after 35 years of membership). DiOrio sees this group as vital to both the existing, and future, health of the club. “We don’t want members who join for five years and then leave,” he says. “We want to reward loyalty, and at the same time give newer members an incentive to stay with us for life.”
Holding on to members, of course, is only part of the equation; generating more revenue from them is an even bigger challenge. Here, too, Charlotte CC has more than answered the call. “Our revenues this year will be about $8.5 million— over twice what they were in the ‘90s,” says DiOrio. Much of the growth, he adds, is from “dramatic expansion” of food and beverage revenues, which have also doubled in step with overall growth, and could total over $4 million this year.
Interestingly, DiOrio reports the F&B growth has not come from expanded wedding business; in fact, the number of weddings at the club has actually declined, as the average age of brides increases and more become inclined to get married at sites other than their parents’ club.
But the void is more than being filled by brisk à la carte activity in the 80,000-sq. ft. clubhouse’s three main dining rooms. “It’s not unusual for all three to be sold out on any given weekend,” says Delozier.
This achievement is especially impressive given the wide-ranging demographics of Charlotte CC’s membership. The club now has members ranging from under 30 years of age to over 100 years old, and an extended-family count (of members’ children under 18) that now totals 820 and “goes up almost by the day,” according to DiOrio.
That means the F&B staff directed by Delozier and Executive Chef John Cornely are constantly assessing the club’s regular dining offers, both formal and casual, to ensure across-the- board appeal to such a diverse and still-expanding group.
“We certainly still get our share of demand for liver and onions,” says Cornely. “But we also have a lot of requests for new items; if we wanted to, we could have a menu as thick as the Bible.” To help keep things manageable, the club solicits feedback almost as often as it uses members’ names; opportunities to comment are made available in each dining room, as well as through many other forms of member communications.
“We focus on the positive responses and don’t get caught up in the negative,” says Delozier. “That helps us know which are truly favorites that can’t be taken off.We try to turn over the rest of our menus regularly— maybe about half of the formal menus each month, and a third of the casual menus each quarter.”
Attending so well to members’ dining-related wants and needs is just part of how Charlotte CC is determined to maintain a leadership position amid the crush to provide club-related services for the fast-growing Charlotte populace. In addition to the ongoing care and feeding of its Donald Ross golf course, site of the 2000 Men’s Senior Amateur and host to the Women’s Amateur in 2010, the club’s newest master site improvement plan, now in the planning stages, will focus on possibly adding features such as a fitness center, golf practice and instruction facility, and new course maintenance building.
And Charlotte CC’s swimming and tennis operations continue to stand out as not only among the best in the area, but the entire Southeast. Its five pools and 19 tennis courts (three indoor) have greatly enhanced Charlotte CC’s overall appeal to—and use by—younger families in the membership, DiOrio says.
“Since 9/11, I’ve sensed much more emphasis [among members] on family activities they can all do together, closer to home,” he says. “Finding four and a half hours for everyone to play golf isn’t very easy—but swimming and tennis can fill that need pretty well.”
Ambitious swim and tennis team programs for all ages, plus instructional and certification programs and special events like “Junior Tennis Lock-Ins” that emphasize informal fun, help make the club a regular destination and provide significant additional revenues from food, beverage and tennis shop sales. “We get over 500 people at many of our swim meets,” notes DiOrio.
Tending equally to all aspects of a well-rounded club life is critical to keeping Charlotte CC positioned as a special place of escape, DiOrio feels. “We’re only four miles from downtown, but we’re still like a country retreat,” he says.
Paying Back in Full
There’s one final and powerful source of what’s keeping Charlotte CC ahead of the pack in such a demanding market: The passion for impeccable service and buttoned-down operations that DiOrio brings to his position and with which he imbues his staff through guidelines such as his “20 Golden Rules for the Success of All Assistant Managers”.
A transplanted New Englander, DiOrio formed strong loyalties to Charlotte CC after starting to work there while in college, and these loyalties grew stronger as he moved up through eight different positions before being named GM/COO in 2003. His attachment became an obsession after club members and staff came together to form the core support group that helped him survive two serious battles with leukemia.
“People vacated their homes so my family members could come down from Rhode Island and stay near me during my recoveries,” he says quietly. “How can I not now do everything I can, every day that I’m here, to try to return that type of kindness?”
The depth of DiOrio’s devotion clearly has an influence on the entire Charlotte CC staff. “Damon is a fantastic inspiration to us all,” says Tennis Director Bill Francis, who has been with the club for over 20 years. “You would never know about all that he has been through, because of how upbeat he is and how he leads and encourages us in our duties.”
The club staff, in fact, is just as enthusiastic about expressing their own affections for the club as they are in trying to make members and guests feel special. In a “Team Management Book” distributed to members that includes full-page profiles and photos of over 20 different department heads and supervisors, each manager goes on the record with individual responses under the headings “Team Member Philosophy” and “Why I Work at the Charlotte Country Club.”
The answers from one of the newest additions to the team—Controller Steve Argo, brought in two years ago to direct a major software and accounting upgrade—succinctly captures what’s kept Charlotte CC at the forefront of the club business in its area, even as formidable new competition has emerged. “I had always heard of the [club’s] reputation for the quality of [its] environment, members, and staff,&r
dquo; Argo wrote. “I was impressed by the professionalism upon meeting [management], and am privileged to [now] be part of such an organization.”
Rules to Serve By
The passion and devotion of Charlotte CC GM/COO Damon DiOrio not only to his club, but also to the hospitality and service business in general, is captured in the “20 Golden Rules for the Success of All Assistant Managers” that he distributes to his staff.
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