To stand out in a crowded field, this Scottsdale club has found the right spots to offer a little bit more—and a little bit less.
By Joe Barks, Editor
For an 11-year-old, Mirabel has seen a lot of the club world—and already has a pretty mature attitude about what it wants to be.
After coming on the scene in 2001 as a Discovery Land Company community at the northernmost edge of Scottsdale, Ariz., Mirabel had to grow up in a hurry. Its original Greg Norman-designed golf course took a $15 million mulligan before it was ever played. (It had been built as a resort course, Stonehaven, that Discovery bought to create Mirabel; Discovery then bulldozed the course, deciding that its design, with just 42 acres of fairway, would be far too difficult for the golfers it wanted to attract to its new development.)
Mirabel recovered from that rocky start to soon put its own stamp on the crowded Phoenix/Scottsdale golf and club map, with an acclaimed course (with double the fairway acreage) designed by Tom Fazio over the same terrain, along with a distinctive, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Desert Lodge Clubhouse (with 12 fireplaces) and a full complement of pool, tennis, spa and dining facilities.
It wasn’t too long, however, before the club felt it was ready to raise itself. A transition to member ownership was completed in October 2009—not the easiest time to set out on your own, especially in a market where demand for high-end real estate and golf club memberships wasn’t exactly percolating. (Members do not have to own property at Mirabel, but those looking for homes in the Scottsdale area represent a key target segment for the club.)
|“[Limiting our size] puts a premium on retaining the members we have with a level of service that’s second to none.”
—Mike O’Donnell, President.
|“The choice was a major overhaul and expansion, versus preserving the intimacy of the member experience.”|
As Mirabel’s management team buckled down to ensure the club’s short-term operating survival, the staff, and newly formed Board, also needed to confront some major life choices that came with its newfound independence.
AT A GLANCE
- Location: Scottsdale, Ariz.
- Opened for play: 2001
- Members: 256 golf; 50 social
- Annual rounds: 17,000
- Clubhouse size: 34,000 sq. ft.
- General Manager: Michael Ryan
- Head Golf Professional: David Engram, PGA
- Director of Golf Course Operations: Jeff Goren, CGCS
- Executive Chef: Joshua Fuehr
- Membership Marketing Director: Gary Ireton
- Fitness Manager: Jenny Hall
- Member Services/Spa Manager: Shannon Mikan
- Communications Manager: Sally Brown
|In addition to ensuring premium course conditions, Director of Golf Course Operations Jeff Goren and his department created a unique “tennis garden” near Mirabel’s clay courts, complete with a babbling brook, that has become a popular event venue.|
“When members took the club over, the caps were for 350 golf members and 125 social members,” says Michael Ryan, Mirabel’s General Manager. “For those levels, and certainly if we wanted to grow beyond them, we were looking at a situation where our facilities would be undersized.
“We faced a choice of a major overhaul and expansion of our clubhouse that could change the character of the club, versus having manageable numbers that would allow us to preserve the intimacy and member experiences we wanted to provide,” Ryan adds.
The price tag for clubhouse improvements that would be needed to properly accommodate a larger membership was put at $6.5 million. But rather than ask the membership to consider taking that route, the Mirabel Board proposed a bold alternative:
As the head of what’s now a member-owned club, President Mike O’Donnell (front row, right) is proud to stand with the Mirabel management team—but he and other Board members also know when it’s time to step aside for the professionals. “We leave the tactical aspects of how to make it all happen to [the managers],” O’Donnell says.
reduce the club’s caps to 275 for golf and 50 for social. Those numbers, President Mike O’Donnell told the membership as the vote approached, “represent the level of dues that keeps Mirabel competitive with other North Scottsdale clubs, [while reducing] capital requirements for the clubhouse to about $500,000, which is within our cash available.”
The cap reduction was approved and today, Mirabel is full at the social level and about 20 shy of its golf cap, which it expects to reach within two years. Committing to those levels, O’Donnell says, has now put a spotlight on two key directives for the Board and the Mirabel management team.
“Our two main responsibilities, now that we’ve made the decision [on the size of the cap], are serving the membership and being fiscally sound,” says O’Donnell, a member since 2002.
“[Limiting our size] puts a premium on retaining the members we have, by providing a level of service that’s second to none,” O’Donnell explains. “But we have to also make sure we provide that service in a cost-effective manner, to create the reserves that will ensure adequate cash flow so we can maintain our infrastructure at the proper levels, without future assessments.
“It’s a pretty delicate balance, especially when members are accustomed to such a high level of service,” O’Donnell admits. “But that’s what can make us attractive and distinguish us from a lot of other clubs in the valley and downtown.”
O’Donnell also makes it clear that while Mirabel is now member-owned, it is not member-run, and that he and other Board members clearly understand the need to confine their roles to strategic and advisory capacities. “We’ve run a lot of businesses, but we haven’t run clubs,” he notes. “We’ve made a very conscious effort to bring in a strong team of leaders and then leave the tactical aspects of how to make it all happen to them.”
Working Both Sides
Even before the cap reduction sharpened the focus on the “delicate balance” between high-end service and tightly run operations, Ryan and his team got plenty of practice in those areas while the recession was at its deepest.
“We lowered the operating budget $1.5 million over three years, in a way that was invisible to members, by targeting a couple hundred individual charge-line items distributed throughout the operation,” says Ryan. At the same time, the team maximized opportunities for providing popular and cost-effective member services, such as inexpensive taco and spaghetti buffets it introduced for nights when dining room activity was at its slowest.
“We went from having just 25 or 30 covers on Wednesday and Sunday nights to averaging over 100 [for the buffets],” Ryan reports. “We found these were a great way to increase socialization among the members, so they could commiserate [about the challenges of the recession], or share and celebrate victories. Plus, any time you get a lot of people together during tougher times, you always have pretty good bar bills.”
Thankfully, the pressure to take those steps has now eased—and the management team’s success in steering the club through the recession has made it possible for cash-funded capital expenditures to continue. A kitchen expansion that added a new bake shop was completed this fall, and a planned upgrade of the golf course irrigation system is set for 2013.
Ryan has also made it clear to the Board that the operation has now become about as lean as it can get without starting to compromise service levels. And even in the most challenging period, he was able to meet fiscal goals without cutting into amenities that have become a hallmark of Mirabel service.
“We provide a complimentary breakfast in the morning and complimentary soup in the afternoon,” Ryan notes. On the golf course, the club’s legendary (and also complimentary) comfort stations include self-serve items that go well beyond the usual crackers and waters, with popular items such as house-made ice cream sandwiches and beef jerky. And during the season, Alberto Lopez sets up a portable grill at the eighth tee and cooks up hot, golfer-friendly wraps and sandwiches (see cover photo).
All told, Mirabel spends nearly $200,000 annually for these complimentary services, Ryan says. “It can raise some eyebrows” when those numbers show up on the budget, he admits, but he has succeeded in making the case for the immeasurable value of the good will created by the added touches. That case was further bolstered by the actual measure of a recent member survey, which showed twice the satisfaction levels as the national averages for private clubs.
|Executive Chef Joshua Fuehr wants Mirabel’s
“signature” to lookdifferent each time
diners see it.
“It’s all about maintaining the service that goes with the expectations we’ve created, and continuing to differentiate ourselves in the market,” Ryan says. “If you make members happy about the social amenities you provide, you increase their utilization of the club. Plus, while we’ve set a limit for our membership size, we will still always need to have new members join to maintain that level, and when they hear about these things, that will help attract them, too.”
At each department level, plenty of additional initiatives to provide distinctive services can also be found. Director of Golf David Engram, a football fanatic who displays helmets in Mirabel’s golf shop and finds them to be great “conversation pieces” for members and guests from around the country, seized on the opportunity to include attending the Navy-Notre Dame game in Dublin as part of a member golf trip to Irish courses this fall. Engram also put a new twist on the member-trip concept by scheduling a limited number of courses to be played multiple times, rather than an itinerary that would involve more courses, and more travel.
Fitness Manager Jenny Hall (left) and Shannon Mikan, Member Services/Spa Manager, work together to help Mirabel members “change their lives” by creating personalized wellness and lifestyle regimens selected from a menu of available services.
The trip turned out to be a home run—or rather, a 100-yard kickoff return—in all respects, Engram reports. “We sold out in two weeks,” he says. “Getting 17 tickets to the game wasn’t easy, but thanks to help from a member connection, it was definitely worth the effort and added a special dimension to the trip. Playing courses more than once was also well-received.”
On the golf maintenance side, Director of Golf Course Operations Jeff Goren has been proactive in ensuring premium course conditions, taking a leadership role in a consortium of area courses formed to finance construction of an advanced treatment facility for reclaimed water (the effluent made available by the city had a high sodium content that was causing turf loss).
Inside the clubhouse, Executive Chef Joshua Fuehr doesn’t buy in to the idea that club menus need to be limited, even when there might need to be a heightened focus on controlling food costs. “Especially with the new equipment we now have [from the kitchen upgrade], I want to be 25 restaurants in one,” says Fuehr. “The more I can offer, the more members will want to keep making this their first choice for dining out. I don’t see why the dinner menu shouldn’t be able to change significantly every week.”
Fuehr even resists the notion of establishing “signature dishes” for Mirabel. “I think that limits your scope,” he says. “I prefer to think in terms of having great standards and doing a lot of things well.”
For Mirabel’s fitness and spa departments, the emphasis is on going beyond just providing a la carte workout and beauty services. Fitness Manager Jenny Hall and Member Services/Spa Manager Shannon Mikan work together to help members “change their lives” by creating personalized wellness and lifestyle regimens selected from an expansive menu of services.
Mirabel also taps into relationships it maintains with other Discovery Land properties to work out seasonal sharing arrangements for high-end equipment such as the Eurowave muscle stimulator and HydraFacial skincare system that are rarely available in club settings.
This club-wide emphasis on unique and extra services, Ryan reports, has clearly led to more Mirabel members making more frequent and extensive use of the club. “It’s really just a matter of staying creative about what you can provide,” he says.
Out of the mouths of babes…