After John Warnack got an early first impression of how to make people feel special, he applied what he learned in his own career—and eventually earned the Excellence in Club Management Award named for the man who provided that initial lesson.
Long before he ever considered a career in hospitality, John Warnack got his first exposure to the private-club world as a high schooler, when he was invited to join a friend’s family for a function at The Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh. This was a step into rarified circles for Warnack, who says he “shined my shoes for two days,” to make sure he wouldn’t embarrass his hosts.
Upon arriving at the club, Warnack and his party were greeted at the door by Mel Rex, The Duquesne Club’s longtime (and legendary) General Manager. After enjoying his time at the club, Warnack was stunned when Rex came up to the group to bid everyone farewell as they left and not only remembered each person’s name, but then shook Warnack’s hand and warmly said, “Hey John—really nice job on the shoes.”
Decades later, John Warnack’s professional career came full circle, when he related that story while accepting The Mel Rex Award for Excellence in Club Management (see “A Celebration of Excellence,” below). Warnack was honored for his many impressive accomplishments as General Manager/Chief Operating Officer of The Army and Navy Club (ANC) on Farragut Square in Washington, D.C. (see “Ideas and Achievements,” below). His contributions since arriving at ANC in 2015 were summarized by a club President, Major General Daniel V. Wright, United States Army, Retired, as “bringing a new level of professionalism and pride to the management, [with] swift, decisive and creative solutions that have been key to moving the club in a positive direction.”
Service With a Soul
Warnack’s achievements at The Army and Navy Club came as part of forging his own distinguished career path that has also included positions with the Four Seasons and Ritz-Carlton organizations, as well as other top private and city clubs such as the Baltimore Country Club. At every stop along the way, he says, he’s drawn inspiration from that initial encounter with Mel Rex. “I had no idea at the time that I would end up in the hospitality business, but that did make a lasting impression on me,” he says.
Like many successful club managers, Warnack has also drawn inspiration from restaurateur and author Danny Meyer, as someone who has helped him to crystallize and continually pursue the key distinction between service and hospitality.
“There’s a big difference,” Warnack says. “Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes you feel. Service is a monologue—we decide how we want to do things, and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on the member’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious and authentic response.
“It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the member.”
That distinction became especially important for Warnack to infuse throughout the staff and culture of The Army and Navy Club, where three-quarters of the membership is comprised of current and retired military personnel. That often meant ensuring that the club could serve as a place of solace for Gold Star families that have lost a son or daughter, or members who have returned from visits to Arlington Cemetery or other solemn observances.
Such occasions call for being a true servant leader as a manager, to help ensure that everyone on a club’s staff has authentic concern for members’ health and welfare, Warnack says. And while those instances entail sadness, he adds, they can also yield “spiritual income” and a rewarding feeling, for helping to provide comfort that is appreciated during the most difficult times.
Serving a membership at ANC that includes so many whose service has taken them to adventures and places in all corners of the world also enhanced a more enjoyable side of club management, and one that’s equally important to providing hospitality, rather than just service, Warnack adds.
“Everyone has a story, and when you have so many with a military background, there are a lot of especially good stories,” he says. “So we put a premium on encouraging staff to find ways to get members to talk about their stories, and to build a bond over the unique aspects of each person that can be revealed by getting those stories to be told. In this day and age with so much of our information coming electronically and impersonally, that can be an especially powerful way to create a special connection.”
Warnack’s own story is also continuing to unfold, as he will be leaving his position at The Army and Navy Club in October to move on to the next chapter of his own career. But no matter what may be his next step, the lessons that Warnack learned through his initial and unintentional mentoring from the man who first introduced him to the difference between service and true hospitality will still be retained. And his shoes will still be well-shined.
Ideas + Achievements
Implemented at The Army and Navy Club
> Revived the Eagle Grill, a dark and dreary space, for just over $150,000, after the club had received renovation proposals ranging from $875,000 to $1.6 million. The Grill is now a popular spot for casual gatherings including promotion parties, alumni events, young-member happy hours, networking events, and wine and spirit tastings.
> First annual Military Heritage Mess Night was opened to all service members, spouses and civilians, giving all an opportunity to attend a traditional Mess Night, which is usually only available to officers.
> Negotiated with building next door to gain access for rooftop garden that now includes beehives for cross-pollination. Spices and vegetables from garden are paired with locally sourced proteins on the ANC menu and the garden is showcased in a Fall Kickoff Rooftop Happy Hour that is attended by over 150 members.
> Implemented new retail initiative at no cost by refinishing and repurposing existing cabinets, resulting in boost of club merchandise sales by 38%.
> New Afternoon Tea Service added to regular club calendar with multiple seating times; each time now sells out far in advance.
A Celebration of Excellence
The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club + Resort Business since 2006. The National Club Association became an additional sponsor in 2018.
The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage. A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards.
Awards in four categories are given each year:
• The James H. Brewer Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with 600 or more full-privilege members
• The Mead Grady Award, for a manager of a Country/Golf Club with fewer than 600 full-privilege members
• The Mel Rex Award, for a manager of a City, Athletic or Specialty (Non-Golf) Club
• The “Rising Star” Award for an assistant club manager
A full listing of judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at www.clubmanageraward.com
In addition to in-depth articles in C+RB detailing the achievements of each ECM winner, individual ceremonies are held at their clubs. All winners were also honored at the 2018 Awards Dinner, which was held February 25 at the Nashville (Tenn.) City Club and sponsored by Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, C. Mondavi & Family, Preferred Club, and Yamaha Golf Car.