Summing It Up
“They don’t come up to the club. They don’t do anything without charging for it. And they’re always putting something in their own pocket whenever they do anything with members’ kids or clinics,” one general manager griped about his club’s tennis pros.
“Most [tennis pros] make a lot of dollars and have zero accountability, and that creates an ‘us vs. them’ atmosphere,” said another at a tennis roundtable held at last month’s Club Managers Association of America 2006 World Conference in Hawaii.
In fact, many of the club GMs participating in the discussion indicated they have what at best can be described as a rocky relationship with their tennis pros—with an underlying resignation that “[The pro] is too entrenched, so I can’t do anything about the situation.”
This reflects a common—and unhealthy—status for the sport in too many club properties, especially with tennis now offering one of the best opportunities to expand beyond a core golf offer and appeal to a much broader base of existing and prospective members. But believe it or not, there are clubs where tennis pros have gone beyond a grudging coexistence to be seen as creating clear value—for their clubs as well as themselves.
Latest in a Long Line
Patrick Kearns, the head tennis pro at Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Va., certainly has a high, and much appreciated, profile at his club. He has created a reputation for Farmington as a “breeding ground” for up and coming tennis pros and, as a staff member rather than an independent contractor, has worked closely with club management, as well as the Board, to build the program that members want.
Kearns began his career as part of the first class in the Professional Tennis Management program at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich.After that he spent two years working at John’s Island Club in Vero Beach, Fla., five years at the Round Hill Club in Greenwich, Conn., and two years at the Country Club of Darien in Darien, Conn., before landing at Farmington, where he truly began to flourish.
That’s because tennis has been an integral part of Farmington, almost from its founding in 1929. And since 1941, when the club hired legendary tennis pro Mike Dolan, Farmington has been committed to providing solid instructional and junior programs. The club has 15 outdoor courts—two of which are cushioned while the rest are clay, including two HydroCourts—and three indoor courts that are available for play during the winter or inclement weather (lack of air conditioning lowers their summertime appeal). The indoor courts—in a permanent structure, not a bubble—as well as the three platform tennis courts on the property make for a solid yearround program.
The Westmoor Club currently has two grass courts that sit adjacent to a regulation croquet field. The club plans to add a third to help alleviate turf wear. If You Program It, They Will Come…
Kearns lives by these words of wisdom: “If you have good programs, people will want to use your facility.” And that’s exactly what he’s done to build the program at Farmington up from 5,000 reservations per year when he arrived, to the 14,000 per year that it now draws. Four full-time pros now handle the crowds, which include 150 kids in the summer junior programs and 125 members who play U. S. Tennis Association team tennis (about a quarter of the association’s local activity).
Two nights a week, Kearns holds a cardio tennis program on the indoor courts. Heart-rate monitors are available for members, but they’re not mandatory, so only about half the participants use them.With the original outlay for the stereo system and monitors, the program only cost $1,500 to get up and running. The 90-minute session is split evenly between drill-based and play-based activity. And Farmington maintains a 1:4 or 1:5 pro-to-player ratio. Kearns believes that the extra personal attention to members is a big part of what keeps them coming back for more.
The club also puts on singles championships, the largest of which is the member-guest. That starts on a Friday and ends on a Sunday, and draws about 100 people. Sure, Farmington sometimes struggles to find people who can commit to a three-day tournament, but they’re not ready to give up the tradition just yet.
In addition to the tournaments, the club puts on two exhibition events each year. This year, the “meet the staff ” exhibition is expected to draw 150 to 200 people.
“We’ve done it so many times that we had to change it up,” says Kearns about the decision to hire Luke Jensen—a professional player and ESPN color commentator nicknamed “dualhand Luke” for his ambidextrous talent—to help build up the event. “It’s going to be a full day of events,” Kearns says. In addition to the exhibitions by the four pros and Jensen, junior programs, cardio tennis and additional interactive events with Jensen are planned.
And as a final layer to the club’s tennis programming, Farmington also hosts “Supper Club” tennis. That program, which grew in size after a simple name change from “mixed doubles,” draws 30 to 36 people, four times a year.
Farmington CC has paddle tennis courts that are popular in the winter when the tennis season ends. Better On the Inside
After being in the club tennis business for more than 16 years now, Kearns has learned what does and doesn’t work from first-hand experience. At previous clubs, he worked as an independent contractor, but at Farmington, he and his assistant pros are all club employees. “It’s better for everybody,” he believes.
The lines of communication are much more open when everyone’s an employee, Kearns explains. He attends weekly employee meetings and participates in the club’s very active tennis committee, which meets six times per year. “There are no surprises,” he says, citing an example of when a tournament date needed to be changed. “We were able to discuss a possible new date, rather than me just choosing one.”
Kearns does own the club tennis shop himself, though, and is responsible for all the merchandising. “Most people will buy frames from me, but they’ll buy tennis balls through the Web,” he says, adding that it’s naïve to think people won’t shop online.
When tennis pros are going to be club employees, Kearns notes, that makes it even more important to “put an emphasis on high quality tennis instructors, and hiring staff that the membership connects with.” Within his staff, he has three assistant pros who handle the bulk of the lessons load. Each specializes in a particular audience, so Kearns makes an effort to hire pros with the particular personality types that he needs. One will handle juniors, one will focus more on adults, and another will devote a significant amount of time towards events.
As part of the hiring process, Kearns makes each candidate teach a lesson or two, and have lunch with a tennis committee member. He also diligently checks their references. “By then, I have a good feel for their potential at Farmington,” Kearns says. He looks not only for personality, but also for experience both a
s a club employee and user.
Wayne Davies, head pro, The Westmoor Club, Nantucket, Mass.
Kearns also has a reputation for helping his assistants find their next job after Farmington; he’s placed five of his assistant pros as head pros elsewhere. “When it’s time, I’ll help them move on to their next job,” he explains. “I look for people who want to be here for three to five years.”
Farmington’s members don’t mind the turnover, though. They take pride in knowing that they’re helping people in their careers. And the club’s tennis players have always appreciated the staff members’ ambition.
The Seasonal Shuffle
Wayne Davies, the head pro at The Westmoor Club in Nantucket, Mass., has a completely different situation. His club is very seasonal and he has to capture interest from members who will only be using the club for a few weeks out of the year.On top of that, the club—a field club that General Manager Brent Tartamella describes as “a country club minus golf ”—is new. It only opened last year.
So far, the developer-owned club has 425 members, with a goal of 480 memberships. Most only visit seasonally, though. There are 40 resident members and another 200 winter members who use the spa and fitness center after everything else closes down at the end of August. As Tartamella describes it, it allows the community to benefit from their presence.
Westmoor has nine clay courts and two grass courts—a novelty for the island. Play begins at 8:00 AM and continues on through 6:00 PM, to conform with local noise control regulations. During that time, 75 percent of members actively use the courts, which are booked solid. The demand is so great that the club has a five-year plan to add five more clay courts and another grass court. The grass court, though, will only be open in rotation with the others.
“If you have two grass courts, you might as well have ten,” says Tartamella, noting that grass courts require much more maintenance than the clay courts. “With a clay court, you sweep and water them daily, and have year-end maintenance, but with grass you have to worry about the growing conditions and factor in the amount of play.” So, when the club’s playing field—currently portioned out to accommodate two grass courts and a regulation size croquet field—is reorganized, it will have three grass courts, with only two in play at any given time.
But with grass courts as such a novelty, do people really want to play them? Tartamella thinks the club’s older members will learn to love them, since they’re easier on the knees. And Davies, the head pro, does a good job getting people to try them out.
“Members are scared because they’ve never played on grass and are afraid of looking bad,” says Davies. But he gets them on the courts by rotating teams onto them for the club’s frequent round-robins. With time, certainly members will start to appreciate the luxury.
With such a seasonal setting,Davies needed to find ways to keep The Westmoor front-of-mind, even after the club closed down its tennis operations. That’s where he’s drawn on his varied past for ideas. Davies started out playing “Real Tennis” (also known as Court Tennis, Royal Tennis or Jeu de Paume, depending on your geography) and was an eight-time world champion in the indoor paddle sport that gave rise to lawn tennis (or just plain tennis, as it’s known to most Americans). After that, he spent time at the New York Racquet Club before returning to his native Australia to work as a Web designer.
Demonstrating how tennis pros can be team players, Wayne Davies learned croquet, so he could give lessons to members interested in learning it on a more serious level than the backyard variety.
Ironically, this experience has come in quite handy at The Westmoor, where he’s both the tennis professional and the de facto Web designer. In fact, the Web site that Davies designed for the club is partly responsible for the success of its tennis program. The clinics were already two-thirds full during pre-registration, something Davies credits to “forcing” the members to register online.
“Only one or two members have declined [to register online], but several members have vocally praised it,” he says.And to prevent clerical errors and ensure that members take the sign-up process seriously, he doesn’t enter their sign-up requests until they print the form and fax or mail it in with a signature. So far, it’s worked “fantastically,” he says—noting that the club, being newer, has younger members than the other Nantucket clubs.
Davies also puts his skills to use through video lessons. He sets up a tripod with a digital video camera focused on the member student. Then, after the lesson, he uploads the video to his computer, and edits it down to a few key segments that demonstrate the specific things the member needs to work on. For one player, it may be a reminder to keep an elbow straight. So he will digitally circle the elbow and write up notes to accompany the video, which will then be posted on a password secured Web page. Each member who purchases a video lesson then has his or her own private section of the Web site to access 24/7.
In the future, those images might be available for members to access on their mobile phones, but for now Davies, Tartamella and the rest of The Westmoor staff are taking things one step at a time. “The whole philosophy of the club is to start small, deliver the ‘A’ product, and then take it from there,” says Tartamella. C&RB
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