Adding value to dues dollars through inclusive modern amenities is paying off with an infusion of new members for the 120-year-old Tennessee club.
Peppered throughout the city of Chattanooga, Tenn., are numerous historic markers, indicating the locations where some of the most important events in America’s early days occurred—from the path of the “Trail of Tears” spurred by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the site of the Battles for Chattanooga during the Civil War in 1863.
Chattanooga Golf & Country Club (CGCC) played its own role in the city’s infancy. In 1896, 52 local residents familiar with the burgeoning sport of golf organized the Chattanooga Golf Club, using the grounds of an amusement park to build a nine-hole golf course, with the Riverview Theater acting as the original clubhouse.
CGCC has since endured both lean and fat years. And 2017—with 80 new members joining the club (four times its normal rate) on the heels of a $1.5 million clubhouse renovation and a new $6 million fitness and pool facility—would certainly qualify as a healthy one, as membership has once again approached the waitlist cap of 800.
Changing With the Times
Initial plans for the club’s renovation began to develop years before current General Manager Michael Murray came on board 18 months ago, as the Board observed trends in the club industry and sought to bring them to CGCC.
“We started working on the strategic plan six years ago, looking at what other successful clubs were doing,” says President Chris Curtis. “There are only so many household dollars, and we knew we needed to offer more to the entire family.
“Previously, we didn’t offer a fitness amenity,” Curtis continues. “And we had an old pool with a snack bar, but we needed more dining capacity.”
Having served as Assistant General Manager of Vestavia Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., where he worked his way up from a chef position, Murray was a perfect fit for CGCC’s recently vacated GM role. In addition to his food-and-beverage expertise, he also brought experience with a major amenity upgrade (Vestavia CC installed its own resort-style pool during his tenure).
Through the project, the 120-year-old “brass and burgundy” aesthetic of CGCC’s four-level, 60,000-sq. ft clubhouse was fully modernized, with updates from the carpeting to the woodwork. With the lowest level of the facility used for storage and the upper level for staff offices, the two main levels are available for member use. Featured venues now include The Living Room banquet and event space; The Tavern; The Overlook main dining room that includes deck access; and The Fairway Grille on the lower main level, which is open for families (the entire upper main level is adults-only in the evenings).
“We tend to get a lot of younger families and older members at The Fairway Grille,” Murray says. “It’s not uncommon to see a crowd [that has both] 80-year-olds and kids.”
Next year, CGCC is planning to renovate its 15-year-old kitchen facilities, during which The Overlook will likely be given a facelift as well. Plans to add French doors to The Living Room, to lead out to the deck, are also being discussed.
But the property’s pièce de résistance is its new stand-alone fitness and pool facility, which opened in May. To make room for the expanded pool, CGCC downsized from four tennis courts to two (“we never really had enough players for league play,” Murray notes). The area features a screened-in bistro with both a walk-up window for quick service and indoor and outdoor seating for full service; a fire pit with soft seating; and a changing area.
To “keep families together,” Murray notes, CGCC opted to add a zero-entry portion to the pool, rather than a separate baby pool, along with a slide, lap-swimming section, and basketball hoop. An adults-only pool was built adjacent to a pool bar, and a sound system allows different music to be streamed in different zones throughout the area.
“[The pool] has transformed from something you hide in the offseason to being a true focal point,” Murray says. “Now we light it up at night, and all throughout the winter.”
In addition to aesthetic and functional updates, the club revamped its lifeguard program to improve the level of service available to members, Murray adds.
The new 3,000-sq. ft. fitness center is adjacent to the pool, offering childcare for busy parents and a small locker room. The facility, which opened in June, is staffed from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., but members can use a key fob to access it from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. A group-fitness facility offers yoga, pilates and spin classes, with a total of 150 classes per month The main facility offers a climbing wall, weights, cardio equipment, and a high-intensity training rack.
The club allows “very limited” guest use of the pool and no guests in the fitness facilities, Murray says. “We wanted members to have exclusive use,” he explains. And while “our younger demographic demanded fitness,” Curtis adds, it’s turned out that “our older members probably use it more.”
To staff the new fitness facility, CGCC turned to a local company, Performance Training, Inc. (PTI). “We did a lot of research and decided to outsource our fitness operation,” Murray says. “Fitness is a unique industry, and our club was designed for golf.”
The PTI staff develops ideas for fitness events, such as the holiday-themed Jingle Bell Run, and contributes to the club’s monthly newsletter. Fitness apparel sold at the club is co-branded with PTI.
While member satisfaction with CGCC’s new fitness and pool amenities is now high, many were initially skeptical of the plan—the project gained 70% approval from the membership after it was proposed. “Those who were opposed have embraced it,” Murray says. “They’ve told me that if they could vote again, they’d vote yes.”
Since the facility’s completion, he adds, a “stream of GMs with their Boards” have come to CGCC to see the new amenity and learn how the club got the project approved and has managed to make it work “We’re lucky to have a very progressive Board, with a mix of ages,” Murray notes.
With the amenity proving its worth and leading to more active and satisfied members, Murray envisions continuing on the same path. “I’d like to see us go from fitness to wellness, offering nutrition programs, and be a productive part of members’ lives—not just a social outlet,” he says.
Getting the Soldiers in Line
When Murray joined CGCC’s staff just under two years ago, he quickly implemented his managerial philosophy of “hiring the right people and letting them do their jobs,” through an approach built around support but not micromanagement. Murray also upgraded employee benefits and the overall pay scale. “If [the staff is] happy and well-rewarded, they’ll keep members happy,” he explains.
“Coming to the club during a big project took some focus, and it’s a little more challenging,” Murray says. “But it let me set the standard for service in the new facility, instead of having to make changes. There was an expectation that service needed to be on another level.”
Earlier this year, Murray hired Beth Wright as Membership & Marketing Director. In that role, she has worked to bring innovative events to the club while enhancing communication efforts through the monthly newsletter and by maintaining an active social-media presence.
“The club is invitation-only and it sells itself,” says Wright, who previously worked in communications for a startup in Knoxville, Tenn. “So I make sure to maintain consistent communication with members about events and policies, and let them know that they can always reach out to me.”
CGCC’s event calendar includes a new-member mixer that is offered twice a year and includes food, alcohol and childcare for those who have joined in the previous two years. Events such as florist workshops and tablescape design also keep members engaged.
Charting a New Course
Head Golf Professional Bruce Etter, who oversees operations on CGCC’s 18-hole Donald Ross golf course, has been on the club’s staff for 20 years—and during his tenure, he has seen extensive changes to its golf program.
“When I first got here, this was a very Southern club, with closed tee times,” Etter says. “Men would play golf, then cards for two to three hours. Those days are way gone. We’ve had to adapt to offer something at different times, so golfers always have something to do.”
The growing involvement of women as part of the club’s active membership has been one of the biggest changes that Etter and his staff have responded to. “Now, having a dual-income family is the standard, so we’ve had to create a program that works for both men and women,” he says.
To introduce new players, and particularly women, to the game, the club now offers more clinics, as well as a weekly “Grapes & Golf” program. “Ladies will be in groups of friends and we work on every facet of the game, with wine in-hand,” Etter says. “With more women sharing control of the house purse, we have to offer things that help them see how [club membership is] worthwhile.”
Another challenge is finding the right mode of communication for the various member segments. “We have tech-savvy Millennials as well as a more traditional, older demographic,” Etter says. “But time is the biggest challenge of all. People want instant gratification and golf isn’t that, so we have to address that.”
To provide more playing options, CGCC now offers a nine-hole layout and a four-hole loop, as well as family tees, so golfers can play the yardages and types of rounds that are most appropriate for their abilities and lifestyles.
“My philosophy is that golf needs to be open and fair,” Etter says. “We want people to never feel intimidated and to know that they’ll always have a game here.” Instruction is also promoted through CGCC’s high-tech teaching center, located between the golf course’s 10th and 3rd holes.
Another area showing clear signs of growth at CGCC is food and beverage, with dining up $500,000 for the year. After taking over the Executive Chef role about a year ago, Brad Trewhitt quickly got to work to understand member needs.
“Every club is different,” Trewhitt says. “Here, we have an even split: 50% of members are traditional and 50% are younger and more adventurous in regard to dining. You have to walk a tightrope between traditional fare and new-age stuff, because you’re bound to alienate someone if you lean too far in either direction.”
To address issues with consistency, Trewhitt scaled down the menu to focus on classic club fare, while still offering 15 specials each week to ensure that both members and staff remain engaged and curious. “I’m a menu factory,” he says, noting that his apprenticeship at Hallbrook Country Club in Leawood, Kan., gave him “the toolset to be innovative.” But while he personally develops five new specials weekly, he tasks his sous chefs with developing five each as well. “When you get your chefs to buy in, they’ve got a dog in the fight as well, and are eager to contribute,” he explains.
Trewhitt also makes a point of spending time in the dining room with members, so “they feel like they have a friend in the kitchen. If something goes wrong, we work together to fix it. because it’s a partnership, not adversarial,” he says,
A high-quality, Kansas City-style steak that he brought to the CGCC menu “went over well,” Trewhitt reports. The pool/fitness center’s bistro now features a ketogenic menu that emphasizes proteins over carbohydrates, while favorite dishes such as the club’s classic chili, pimiento cheese sandwich, and turnip greens salad have remained untouched.
“Restaurant chefs want to come in and change everything, but a club chef has to be more nuanced,” Trewhitt notes. “You don’t want to make changes just to make them.”
That same philosophy, especially with an ever-shrinking labor pool, influences what Trewhitt calls his “new-school management style,” which he describes as “more coaching/teacher than chef/boss.”
“[About 15 years ago], you could just swap out kitchen staff if things weren’t going well,” he says. “But now you have to be a better manager, trainer and teacher, and even work with chefs you might not have worked with in the past. You have to set up training systems to prevent staff error, and make dishes that are simple to execute.
Trewhitt and Murray have also made sure to make small, positive changes members could immediately see, such as updates to silverware, glasses, and centerpieces in the dining areas, as well as featuring the work of local artists on the walls. “It’s important for members to see that the changes are not just behind the scenes,” Murray notes.
As CGCC now approaches waitlist status, a shift is in the air. “When you’re full, the rules kind of change,” Murray says. “The club becomes more desirable and exclusive.”
The larger membership also brings new service challenges. “On a Friday night, we want to be busy, but not so full that people can’t get in,” Murray notes. “We have to be creative with things like parking, so we have an outside valet company that we now work with. But that’s a ‘problem’ I’m happy with.”