Like The Pacific-Union Club itself, what Tom Gaston has seen and experienced through the years prepared him well for putting the pandemic in proper perspective. His response to this latest challenge has also reaffirmed his selection as an Excellence in Club Management recipient.
Being on a bus on the Bay Bridge when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit the San Francisco area in 1989 can have a way of putting “challenging times” in perspective. And that experience (which required him to walk two miles to safety and then take shelter in the city for four days) is just one of many that Tom Gaston, CCM, General Manager of The Pacific-Union Club (PUC) in San Francisco, Calif. has been through both personally and professionally over the years—and that have helped him shape a response to this year’s pandemic in a characteristically measured and productive fashion.
Gaston certainly sees the pandemic, which has kept his club completely closed since mid-March, as “significant” and something that will leave a permanent impact on important aspects of club management. But he also notes that collectively, in his 43-year career and his club’s 168-year history, a host of other calamities have also arisen and been overcome, including not only another pandemic, but also wars, famine, fires, riots and personal medical emergencies (Gaston, who does admit he’s thankful he’s never had to cope with a hurricane, once had a maitre d’ in his employ suffer a heart attack on the job and die in his arms).
And in all cases, Gaston says, the most dire situations should be approached no differently than day-to-day considerations—an operating philosophy that, in his case, has put him in position, effective this fall, to become the longest-serving manager (28 years) in The Pacific-Union Club’s storied history, as well as the 2019 recipient of The Mel Rex Award through the Excellence in Club Management Awards.
“It’s all about always being prepared to take care of people, and not allowing any feeling of panic or crisis,” Gaston says. “In my case, I’ve also been very fortunate to have an extremely competent management team that recognizes how the most challenging situations are when the cream needs to rise to the top and everyone needs to stay focused on what needs to be done, and then on doing it.”
Preparation for the disruption caused by the pandemic began when The Pacific-Union Club staff and board “saw this coming” in late February, Gaston says. It then appeared the club was within days of reopening before the situation in California and San Francisco “went backwards” in early July, he says, and the end of July still saw things “sitting still.”
“But the good news is, we’re OK,” Gaston adds. And that’s because his preparation, and the club’s, really dates back to lessons learned from previous challenges encountered over the years.
“We have solid reserves, with a $7 million ‘calamity fund’ and a reserve fund that’s half as big,” says Gaston. “It’s all part of preparing the business to be ready to withstand any shock and be able to run for years, if needed, under whatever conditions might arise.
“We learned that lesson after [a major California earthquake] in 1994, when we started getting killed by earthquake insurance that had high premiums and deductibles,” Gaston explains. “And it was clear that we couldn’t count on getting bailed out by business-interruption insurance, either.”
By building up its own fund and reserves, The Pacific-Union Club has been able to keep its entire 75-person workforce on 100 percent pay and benefits during this year’s pandemic—and to find plenty of productive things for them to do.
“We’ve told everyone, if you’re willing and able to work, show up and we’ll guarantee your job will be here,” Gaston says. “We certainly haven’t been sitting still—we’ve being doing lots and lots of maintenance projects and painting, and even put a new $400,000 skylight in our rotunda [of the historic mansion that the club occupies].” As an added bonus, he adds, the club found that “many [specialized contractors and suppliers] that we had a hard time getting to do work for us before now really needed it and were available.”
A major focus of the improvement projects, Gaston reports, has revolved around “reimagining the club on a different platform.” When nominated for Excellence in Club Management recognition, Gaston was hailed by club leaders for transforming The Pacific-Union Club from largely a luncheon club when he arrived in 1992 to one that now has a fully developed events program and robust catering business, in addition to a greatly expanded, full-service dining operation. But with the pandemic, Gaston says, it’s become clear that “events are dead and won’t come back until next year, and we need to get them out-of-mind [for this year].”
Instead, he says, the focus has shifted to emphasizing how the club can be uniquely positioned as a “fancy boutique hotel,” with its elegant rooms and suites in the historic mansion, and on “amplifying our dining service even more, to widen the gap that’s made us the best restaurant in town.” For the first time in the club’s history, it’s even ventured into outdoor dining, with service started on six patio tables that can offer a spectacular experience from the top of Nob Hill, as long as San Francisco’s notorious fog and winds cooperate.
Noting that he’s never been able to find much about life at the club that’s been recorded in Board minutes or other documents during other calamitous times, Gaston has even used the downtime caused by the pandemic to start a “time capsule” that will include member-written remembrances of how this latest experience has affected them.
All of these steps reflect what Gaston describes as his primary prescription for sustained excellence in club management: “Be focused on what you’re supposed to be doing. If the club succeeds, you succeed.” It’s a simple formula that he learned from mentors and colleagues like Mel Rex, the former Executive Director/COO of the Duquesne Club in Pittsburgh, who Gaston has known for over 25 years and who he has always “identified as a model of professional style and grace, and as someone to emulate.”
And for Gaston, even in unchallenging times, there is always plenty that he is “supposed to be doing.”
“I still have a long ‘to do’ list, more goals than I can accomplish and a list of visionary ideas that I keep selling to [my club’s] Board,” he said in accepting his Mel Rex Award. “[That’s] because I still love my job and there has never been a single day when I wasn’t excited to arrive in the parking lot and start my morning rounds each day.
“After being around the hospitality and foodservice industry for nearly 50 years, I believe that the private club industry is the best part of the hospitality industry,” he added. “It is the only field where customer satisfaction is truly the first priority. And I am still there because of the unique character of the PUC—a club that values quality first in facility, products and services, that values its staff from bottom to top, and is the best truly private and purely social club in America.”
(Editor’s Note: Tom Gaston will participate along with other Excellence in Club Management Award winners in a special webinar on August 6th, 2020; more information on the webinar and how to register can be found at https://clubandresortbusiness.com/second-excellence-in-club-management-awards-webinar-set-for-august-6th/)