As it has seen one of Texas’ most vibrant cities grow up around it, the 111-year-old property has maintained a solid and stable position as a well-balanced community fixture.
San Antonio was the largest city in Texas in 1904, with an economy that centered around ranching, the railroads and military activity from Fort Sam Houston. With a population of over 50,000, the city was also big enough to support one of the first country clubs organized in the state. As the twentieth century began, many Texas families were first introduced to the sports of golf and tennis, which were both poised for explosive growth in popularity, on the grounds of the newly formed San Antonio Country Club (SACC).
|AT A GLANCE
San Antonio Country ClubMembers: 2,000
Clubhouse Size: 65,000 sq. ft.
Annual Golf Rounds: 21,000
General Manager: Marvin Jones, CCM
Clubhouse Manager: Sylvia Cevallos
Director of Golf: Jim Nittoli, PGA
Golf Course Superintendent: Daniel McCann
Executive Chef: Nelson Millan
Director of Tennis: Dennis Reblin
Director of Fitness: Gary Flores
Director of Catering: Wesley Dowdy
Director of Marketing: Tana Ketchner
Director of Maintenance: James Tolleson
Director of Membership: Wendy Barber
Controller: Margaret Jaeb
Banquet Manager: Jim DeHoyos
Restaurant Manager: Rhonda Berry
Men’s Locker Room/Grill Manager: Derek Satterfield
In its earliest years, SACC’s 130-acre property was a bucolic oasis far removed from any big-city bustle. And the club retained that character for many decades, as the city remained relatively small and Dallas and Houston far outpaced its growth and surpassed it in size.
World War II then bolstered San Antonio’s presence as a military center, with Air Force bases being added around the continued importance of Fort Sam Houston. And after a World’s Fair was held in 1968, followed by savvy marketing of the River Walk (originally a Depression-era project) as a new tourist attraction to complement the strong pull of the Alamo and the city’s rich history of Spanish missionary activity, San Antonio surged back to prominence, rising past Dallas to become the U.S.’s seventh-largest city.
As this happened, SACC saw the city surround its property. The club itself had grown to have 1,800 members as the twentieth century came to a close, and its location, which abuts Fort Sam Houston and is just minutes from downtown, proved to be ideally situated for many members who were living or working just a few miles from its gates.
By now the club had strongly entrenched traditions, with many member families having been part of SACC for multiple generations. It also had an enviable balance of activities, with its golf, tennis and social programs all attracting equally sizable participation. So when Marvin Jones, CCM, arrived in March 1999 to be SACC’s new General Manager, he inherited a solid and stable base that made the club especially well-equipped to handle the challenges that would confront the industry in the new millennium.
Warming to the Task
Jones, a New Jersey native who earned his degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Houston, was initially seen as the right fit to be SACC’s new GM because of his experience in helping other clubs he had managed secure municipal water rights, which had already emerged as a critical issue for San Antonio properties. (SACC has been using reclaimed water from the city’s water system since 2001, reports Golf Course Superintendent Dan McCann, and now relies on that source for 80% of its needs.)
Shortly into his new tenure at SACC, though, Jones and his staff were confronted with another, unforeseen crisis: the fallout from 9/11. Comparing what he saw at his club to what he was hearing from his peers around the country, Jones realized he was fortunate to be on some especially firm footing. “I was struck by how the membership viewed and used the club as a place of safety and comfort, and how entrenched it had become as an important part of so many families’ lives for several generations,” he says.
At the same time, as Jones took a closer look at the existing profile of the SACC membership, the facilities they were using and how the club’s staff was interacting with them, he realized that the foundation of SACC’s success during its first 100 years could soon give way to shakier ground, if new strategic directions weren’t taken.
“Our membership, and facilities, were aging—and while our service levels were strong, there wasn’t a great sense of engagement,” Jones explains. “If we were going to ensure the same kind of member loyalty in the future that we’d enjoyed throughout our past, we needed to evolve, physically and mentally, to create a new social climate.”
Off and Running
To bring about that climate change, Jones developed new governance and development initiatives designed to infuse the SACC membership, and Board, with a more youthful and all-inclusive character. These included creating young-member and technology committees; actively developing family activities to help convert more Junior members into new stockholders and bring down the average member age significantly (into the mid-50s); and having a succession of members in their 40s, including a woman, serve terms as Board President.
On the staff side, changing the climate was made easier because Jones already had many long-tenured managers in place—including Clubhouse Manager Sylvia Cevallos, Director of Tennis Dennis Reblin, and Director of Fitness Gary Flores—who were eager to embrace and implement programming and approaches that would promote the new direction.
Within the clubhouse, Cevallos, who has been with SACC for 20 years, also had a wealth of experienced support, including Restaurant Manager Rhonda Berry (22 years) and Banquet Manager Jim DeHoyos and Director of Catering Wesley Dowdy (both 15 years). “We just needed the right leadership and direction,” says Cevallos. “[The changes] created a positive energy that was seen right away, in both the membership and the staff.”
Another highly experienced resource who proved invaluable in helping the club advance in its new direction was Director of Maintenance James Tolleson, who in his 21 years at the club has learned to anticipate, and thwart, any challenge that SACC’s venerable clubhouse might try to pose. (The original building from 1906 burned and was rebuilt in 1917 as a 20,000-sq. ft. structure; a succession of “pop out” additions and renovations have since expanded it to its current 65,000 square feet) Tolleson’s resourceful and proactive solutions helped to eliminate any worries among the clubhouse staff about potential physical limitations that could stand in the way of providing new service approaches, not only for a well-loaded wedding calendar (30-plus a year), but also club events and functions that can be spread out over eight different indoor venues.
On the tennis side, the vibrant junior program built by Reblin since he became Director in 1975 stood as not only a strong model, but also inspiration, for how SACC could reinvigorate its membership base by establishing similar priorities throughout its operation. “We’ve always emphasized how tennis is something everyone should be introduced to, as a lifetime game,” Reblin says.
Flores, who also oversees pool operations, adopted the same approach as he developed the club’s fitness center, which was created in 2005 and now draws as many as 3,000 visitors a month. Teens who complete orientation with a fitness staff member can gain access to the facility. A Fit Kids program for ages 8-12, combining tennis, swimming and nutrition/exercise instruction, is in its fifth year, and a Fit 4 U summer program, geared to teen athletes, is in its second year. Teens can also participate in the MyZone fitness monitoring program SACC has offered since 2012 (it now has over 250 member participants, Flores reports).
With much of the staff that he needed to help roll out SACC’s new initiatives for reenergizing and engaging its membership already on board, Jones turned to finding leadership that could ensure the same success in other key departments. On the golf side, McCann arrived as Superintendent in 2006, a year after a complete renovation had regrassed the SACC golf course and rebuilt all bunkers, tees and greens. This year, McCann has directed a complete irrigation overhaul that will replace a 30-year-old system, add 300 heads and install HDEP pipe for better protection against what he describes as the property’s “heavy black soil that’s prone to shifting.”
McCann and his staff have also taken steps to engage more of the large non-golfing population within the SACC membership. In conjunction with a local ornithologist, birding tours are conducted on the course during the spring and fall migration seasons (San Antonio is a popular spot on birds’ seasonal flight plans, with well over 100 species passing through the SACC property). And a club horticulturist helps the grounds crew maintain four acres of wildflowers that were planted five years ago and now save three million gallons of water a year, McCann reports.
In 2009, Jim Nittoli came to SACC as its new Director of Golf, after 12 years as the head pro at Longmeadow (Mass.) CC. “Jim had the vision of how we could become better mentors of younger players,” Jones says. That vision has been brought to life through a variety of successful initiatives, including the year-long Junior Team Golf program, which now has over 100 participants; Junior Golf Sports Camps; and a Long-Term Athletic Development Model for Juniors that includes age-appropriate exercises and skill-development lessons.
Other golfers at SACC aren’t being left out of the fun, either, with popular events including the “Greenskeeper Revenge” (where the course is set up in “weird ways,” Nittoli says), Night Golf in November, and “The Big Chill” in December.
The golf department also had strong response to its six-month “Bigger Loser” program, which attracted over 30 participants for a contest to see who could decrease their handicap by the greatest percentage, with the staff providing fitness assessments, workout programs, skill sessions and lessons. All of the department’s activities are well-communicated via everything from handy pocket schedules, to regular “Golf Shop News” e-newsletters that include videos, to information that is available on SACC’s new mobile app. The app was rolled out last year as another key step in advancing how the club can continue to engage today’s, and tomorrow’s, members (the staff also makes active use of other social-media channels).
The final piece in what Jones now calls SACC’s “strongest management team” was put in place in 2010, with the arrival of Nelson Millan as Executive Chef. With extensive experience at high-end properties including Sea Island (Ga.) Resort, Florida’s Ocean Reef Club and San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, Millan made an immediate impact in upgrading SACC’s culinary offerings—to the point where Jones convinced the club’s Board three years ago that it was time to do away with food minimums.
“We had a 20% increase in F&B revenues the second year [after minimums were eliminated],” Jones reports. Spurred further by a ballroom renovation in 2014 that included the creation of a new second-level patio, and by the continued popularity of SACC’s Poolhouse Grill, which now does as many as 700 covers a day in peak summer months, total annual F&B sales have swelled to $5.5 million, split evenly between a la carte and banquet service.
As 2015 began, Jones adds, SACC posted record volumes of activity, continuing the momentum that has been gained throughout the new millennium. Even the recession only brought a slight bump, he reports. “Our catering business was cut in half, but members weren’t traveling as much, so they came here more for a la carte,” he says. “We held our membership and our waiting list, and have been able to continue to have controlled growth, adding 12 new members a year.
“I’m convinced that what we’ve done with our Junior programs is the main reason we’ve kept a waiting list,” Jones adds. “And those aren’t just ‘programs’ related to sports—our Wednesday night pasta nights and Sunday fried-chicken nights, when families want someplace to go after they’ve been away for the weekend, are a big part of it, too. People are here because their kids can be here, and that’s always been a big part of this club’s success.”
Certainly, with a property and facilities now in their second century, a now-decidedly urban location, and such a large and still-growing membership, new challenges will always arise for SACC. But as those attending the Club Managers Association of America conference in San Antonio this March saw, when three large conference-related events were held at SACC on successive nights, the club’s energized staff doesn’t promise to be daunted by whatever may come its way.
“Yes, we’re growing, but we don’t look at getting bigger as a [potential] problem,” says Cevallos. “We have an amazing, passionate team, and as new challenges come to us, we’ll be ready to focus on what we need to do to meet them.”