Children’s activity programs are a far cry from kids’ play these days. Across the country, club and resort personnel are now offering everything from babysitting services to full-blown preschools, as well as movie nights and arcade rooms, with many on the lookout for the next creative breakthrough that can help their properties become family destinations.
Why? Face it: Little tykes can pack a big punch on the bottom line. For instance, country clubs in Palm Beach County, Fla., where Woodfield Country Club competes, typically boast an average age range of from 60 to 70. Yet Woodfield’s average age is 46, and those members’ families collectively have about 1,200 children under the age of 16. Catering to these youth ensures that membership numbers will stay steady, says Vance Ferrigno, the club’s Director of Fitness and Spa Services.
It’s all a matter of establishing habits, adds Lew Rosenbloom, General Manager of NorthStone Country Club in Huntersville, N.C. “If members find themselves coming to the club three times a week, it becomes part of their life and they’re more likely to rejoin,” he notes. Not to mention that the younger the member, the longer the shelf life of their annual dues. “A lot of members assume they have to take a leave of absence to raise their children,” Rosenbloom notes. “But if we’re a kid-friendly facility, they’re less likely to go that route.”
Best of all, kids’ programs can be cash cows themselves. Like every club, Lost Creek Country Club in Austin, Tex., is always under the gun to either increase revenues or cut programs and staff so it can bring in more gross operating profit, notes Tammy Schneider, Member Relations Director. Schneider meets her goals via an oldfashioned outdoor summer camp that shot from revenues of $20,000 eight years ago to $91,000 in 2005. And that doesn’t include the additional $6,000 the club’s foodservice department scored by offering the campers a lunch option.
Of course, clubs do need to price kids’ programs competitively, because for these offers especially, membership isn’t a captive market, reminds Kim Hedrick, Director of the Brookhaven Child Development Center at the Brookhaven Country Club in Farmers Branch, Tex. Hedrick’s licensed child care center actually charges less for infants and toddlers than the going market rate. “Remember, these families are paying dues on top of the child care fees,” she notes. At the same time, she adds, “We have had people join our club just to use the day care.”
Space and Face
When Woodfield CC opened its newly renovated, 36,000-sq.-ft. clubhouse in Boca Raton in October 2005, Ferrigno had just 1,500 square feet per room to house a babysitting service and an arcade. Yet it wasn’t the size that worried him—it was where to best locate these services. He eventually designed the babysitting room toward the back of the building, behind a front desk checkpoint that all visitors must pass. “This way, for the kids to get out of the building, they have to get past the front desk,” he explains.
Going through those same front doors, the first entryway leads to the recreation center that houses an arcade. The reasoning for this location was just the opposite. “For this age group, we didn’t want them to run through the whole building, because we don’t know what else they might get into,” says Ferrigno. To enter that hallway, arcadegoers must check in at the front desk, so they can be buzzed through the security doors.
Rosenbloom used similar logic when he planned NorthStone’s 22- by 12-foot babysitting room as an enclosed space within the club’s fitness facility. Parents are just a glance away at all times through glass windows, as their tots color, watch DVDs, or play with the toys in the tubs. Members aren’t allowed to leave the premises, so a round of golf is out of the question, but that hasn’t slowed the use of the service; Rosenbloom’s staff still sees anywhere from eight to 10 children a day. “Most of the time when someone wants to use a day care facility at a club, it’s a stay-at-home mother who wants to get a little exercise,” he notes. “This makes it easy for them to sign up for an aerobics class in the middle of the day.”
Susan Dickow, Human Resources Manager at LeBaron Hills Country Club in Lakeville, Mass., finds that her facility’s banquet hall offers sufficient space to host monthly movie and crafts nights for small fries. Of course, if you lean toward the daily day care end of the spectrum, codes will dictate that you must provide proper access to bathrooms and sinks, Hedrick reminds.
Costs That Aren't Child's Play
There’s no doubt Ferrigno belongs at the top of the totem pole when it comes to capital investment in a children’s program. He equipped the kids’ corner at Woodfield CC with computer stations, indoor climbing structures, and games and toys that run the age gamut, and ballparks the final bill for that room at $150,000.
The arcade at the club ended up costing nearly $80,000, primarily for foos ball, ping-pong and pool tables, an Xbox set-up, race car simulator, and arcade-game legends like PacMan and Space Invaders. (Ironically, more adults than kids gravitate toward the last two.) Ferrigno’s original list included five arcade games and a dance system that invited children to follow a light pattern on the floor. “I pulled that because I thought the noise of kids stomping to rap music would be too loud,” he says. But he says he still may consider adding the $8,000 gadget down the road.
But even with all this spending, Ferrigno’s mission wasn’t complete. He sunk $120,000 into two outdoor playground structures, one for toddlers and a second for older children, each featuring fitness courses of monkey bars, towers and slides.
In contrast, at Lost Creek CC Schneider invests roughly $200 a year to buy hay that turns the tether ball court and picnic tables under the trees into a unified camp setting. The emphasis here is on physical activities like races, hiking and tree climbing. If rain forces the summer camp indoors, the 130 kids tramp into the cafeteria to play board games or Twister.
There’s no line-item budget at Le Baron Hills, either, although Dickow notes that movie nights aren’t without their cost. The club pays a local audio-visual company to lug in a big screen projector system, and pays upfront for popcorn/candy and craft project supplies. Those costs vary—in December the kids made trains out of big refrigerator boxes that they sat in as they watched “The Polar Express”—and the food items can be resold.
“You can find a lot of resources that are free or very inexpensive,” Dickow says. “We go online to scout out projects. It’s not a huge investment.”
Today’s toys hold up well under constant use, administrators agree. And when you buy commercial-grade children’s tables and chairs rather than the residential versions at a local department store, Hedrick adds, that outlay pays off in terms of durability.
But both she and Ferrigno, thanks to their clubs’ increased exposure to kids, ponied up for surveillance and security door systems—areas they weren’t inclined to skimp on.
Laying Down the Law
If there’s any fly in the ointment of kids’ programs, club managers confess, it’s the labor side. A majority of clubs have found they need to either hire dedicated staff for children’s programs, or assign existing employees to those areas. Either way, it’s a payroll issue, complete with taxes, social security withholdings and other perks those employees may be entitled to.
In fact, Hedrick finds she has t
o pay a higher wage than the other day care chains in her zip code, to ward off turnover problems.
But Dickow still wouldn’t have it any other way. She currently pulls in club lifeguards—who already know the kids from the summer pool program—to oversee crafts time. “It works out well,” she says. “The more familiarity parents and children have with staff members, the smoother an event will be.”
Members at Woodfield CC originally voted down the idea of paying to staff its new arcade area, thinking an adult presence would discourage kids from using it. But that changed, Ferrigno reports, after unsupervised children damaged equipment and stole some video games. “Kids are not going to be respectful enough,” he says.
And savvy clubs pay for background checks and fingerprinting of any employee who will come in contact with children. Child-care centers, however, don’t seem to impact other club-related business expenses; Ferrigno says his club’s chief finance officer hasn’t noted an increase in insurance premiums.
Schneider paid just $25 to register Lost Creek’s camp with the Texas health department. Her staff ’s efforts to meet the department’s guidelines led to a certificate she now uses in her marketing efforts. “While it sounds like a nuisance to deal with an agency like that, a lot of parents see it as a good thing,” she explains. “They feel comfortable knowing we have adequate facilities and will be able to follow protocol on what to do if their child is hurt.”
Brookhaven puts its day-care workers through formal training that includes first-aid and CPR instruction. That extra effort not only goes a long way in providing needed assurances, Hedrick feels, it also reinforces a valuable component of the club’s culture. “Day care drives home the message that we are for the entire family, starting with infants,” she says. “In fact, I’ve been here so long, my former charges are now starting to bring their children here. Isn’t that something?” C&RB
Summing It Up
• There is no one best location for a club day care center. Noise and security issues have to be properly balanced.
• When pricing child-related services, remember that members are already paying dues.
• Remember that commercial toys and furniture, although more costly up front, will last longer than their residential use look-alikes.
• It may be a hassle to deal with nonrequired certifications, but such things can make parents feel more secure and aid in marketing kid-related services.
Not Your Backyard Variety
While some country clubs still offer yesterday’s simple swing sets and sandboxes, and others are rolling out the $60,000 structures that offer multiple levels and activities, most facilities aim for that happy medium: a modular outdoor play structure in the $12,000 to $15,000 range. At that price point, administrators typically purchase a series of posts and decks ranging from three to six feet, with a variety of straight and spiral slides coming off of them. They also offer several climbing activities, such as a roped net and ladders, and overhead bars to work the upper body and grip strength.
But not all systems are built equally. For starters, inspect the welds at any steel juncture. Manufacturers trying to turn a profit at a low price point often opt for spot welds covered with paint, which look great but rust quickly. You want these welds to extend all the way around the connection point.
Next, ask how the plastic was rotomolded. Dry blending is the cheaper way, but this process causes the plastic to have less strength. It also goes lighter on the UV inhibitors, so this plastic fades in a short timeframe. The word you want to hear is “compounded.”
Finally, does the finished structure look exciting? Often modern playgrounds are designed square and appear exactly that way to the eye. More flowing lines—rounded ends on the slides, hoods and panels—subtly attract more users.