For his devoted caretaking of The Sanctuary GC’s special property and culture, Ken Kouril has been honored with the Excellence in Club Management Awards’ Mead Grady Award.
A “sanctuary” is defined as a place of refuge or safety. And certainly, once you’ve made your way off the mainland of Florida’s fast-growing southwest coast, gone over the Sanibel Causeway onto Sanibel Island, and wound your way back to the property that’s occupied by The Sanctuary Golf Club—and especially if you’ve done all of this at a peak travel time and have experienced one of the infamous conga-line traffic crawls on the island’s two-lane roads—taking refuge and being thankful for reaching a safe haven might be all you’ll want to do.
But “sanctuary” can also be defined in a spiritual context. And in the case of The Sanctuary GC, that meaning applies not only to how enjoying its special property, which borders the J. N. “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge and land held in a conservation trust, can bring a special sense of calm and peacefulness. It also applies to the special spirit and sense of community exuded by everyone associated with the club.
“When we say ‘we’ at The Sanctuary, we refer to how the membership and the staff, together, make the business of the club a kind of culture that people want to be a part of,” says Ken Kouril, CCM, CCE, CAM, who has been The Sanctuary GC’s Chief Operating Officer since 2007. “We don’t try to compete with or outdo others; we spend our energy on creating an experience that is uniquely ‘The Sanctuary.’”
Ideas & Achievements Implemented at The Sanctuary GC Under Ken Kouril’s Leadership
• After Hurricane Irma hit the area in September 2017, The Sanctuary Employee Hurricane Relief Fund was established and received over $100,000 in member contributions within five days. Checks for $1,500 were provided to each full-time employee and additional checks were issued to seasonal employees and independent contractors.
For his role in helping The Sanctuary GC create and sustain its special spirit and culture while also implementing innovative ideas and achieving notable financial and business success, Kouril was named the 2017 recipient of The Mead Grady Award, for management of a country/golf club with fewer than 600 full-privilege members, through the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards co-sponsored by the McMahon Group and Club & Resort Business.
Kouril notes that all of his 24 years as a top club manager have been with smaller clubs (The Sanctuary has 335 equity members and 110 social members; previously Kouril held General Manager and Club Manager positions with Loblolly Country Club in Hobe Sound, Fla., Greenwich (Conn.) Country Club, and Wykagyl Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y.). And he feels that being in small clubs can help to engender a close-knit environment that fosters the right atmosphere to provide a fulfilling club experience for all who are part of its membership and operation.
“Smaller clubs are a great business because you do get to know the people,” Kouril says. “From the members I see at the club to the presidents I have served with over the years, my experience in club management has been about leadership by building relationships. And parallel to this is the staff, who I call my team, because we are one.“
In all cases, Kouril adds, the basic formula is the same: “Treat people the way you want to be treated, and you will build great relationships.”
Reflecting his attention to detail and never-ending thirst for new insights into achieving success in his profession, Kouril also took it upon himself, after learning of his ECM Award, to contact Mead Grady, now retired after over 50 years in the club industry that included General Manager positions at the Woodstock Club, Milwaukee Country Club, Atlanta Commerce Club and the Peachtree Golf Club.
“Mead offered great advice about the club industry,” Kouril related in his acceptance speech at the ECM Awards Dinner. “He said it was important to get to know people and to be sincere, know the business, and always strive to exceed expectations. And he said he always enjoyed working at smaller clubs, because it was easier to stay focused on doing what was right for the members.”
One of the hallmarks of Kouril’s success and leadership at The Sanctuary GC, though, has been his consistent ability to envision a larger context while maintaining a smaller-club focus on member needs. “We still want to operate like a full-service country club and embrace the benchmarking principles of the best properties in the business, no matter what size they might be,” he says.
With the club’s Arthur Hills-designed golf course retaining its championship character under the devoted care of 20-plus-year Golf Course Superintendent Kyle Sweet, CGCS (“Peaceful Co-Existence,” C&RB, April 2014), and golf programming remaining vibrant under Director of Golf Operations Andy Phelan, PGA, who arrived in July 2017, much of the attention in recent years has been paid to “extending amenities and services to the non-golfer,” Kouril says. This has led to $10 million in clubhouse renovations, including the completion last year of a new outdoor dining space (see photo below, and also described in detail in “Patios with Pizzazz,” C&RB, April 2018), and a new 6,000-sq. ft. Wellness Center.
In all cases, projects were completed under budget and ahead of schedule, with club President James Pouliot citing Kouril’s “critical” role in successful management of the projects. “[Ken] carefully managed the contractors and vendors, held them accountable for their performance, and did not let any detail slip,” Pouliot said in nominating Kouril for ECM recognition. “I am certain that the various parties delivering on these projects were not used to the kind of careful attention that Ken demonstrated from beginning to end.”
The under-budget aspect of the end results, however, certainly did not involve any corner-cutting. With all of the projects, Kouril says, an emphasis was put on using designs and materials that could help The Sanctuary’s facilities continue to stand out as “not like your average Florida club, but more like a boutique hotel.” And a key to achieving that look and impression, he adds, is the support of the club’s membership in “giving us the tools to accomplish [those objectives].”
“I love that I can never say we don’t have the right resources,” Kouril adds. “That allows us to create high-end elements that add to the special feeling of being on vacation in a resort-like setting. And the members always respond positively to what we’ve created.”
For the club’s new Wellness Center, confidence in having that kind of support led Kouril and his staff to boldly forge ahead and create what he calls “modern, fresh” decor that features large, column-less rooms and an abundance of natural lighting, to maximize a feeling of energy and community. And it’s all proving to have the proper appeal: Director of Wellness Barbara Gennity reported earlier this year that 70 percent of the membership had already spent time in the center during its first full season of operation (it was completed in January 2017), vs. the 40 percent norm for previous seasons.
Similarly, the new patio dining venue, along with other food-and-beverage enhancements implemented since the arrival in 2016 of Executive Chef Joe Albertelli, have added to the momentum for steady increases in annual F&B revenues that have been seen under Kouril’s leadership, and that have pushed total F&B sales close to the $2 million mark. The Sanctuary does have annual food minimums of $1,500 for its members (which can be applied anywhere, including for private parties). But as a mark of how the culinary program is now being received, Kouril says unspent minimums for the membership as a whole are two percent for the year.
“Our members expect to be able to have the club be their restaurant of choice whenever they’re here on the island, and especially for dinner,” Kouril says. “We’re driven to make sure they are always very proud to dine here and to bring their guests here.”
New Games to Play
The drive of The Sanctuary’s staff to continually improve what’s provided for the membership has also extended beyond facilities development and enhancement to include a wider variety of recreational opportunities. Most notable in this area is how pickleball has caught on at the club in recent years.
“We were pretty much tennis-only for a long time, and pickleball was pretty much viewed here as ‘not a real sport,’“ says Christie Bradley, USPTA, IPTPA, who has been at The Sanctuary for 24 years, most of them with the title of Director of Tennis & Fitness.
“Then three years ago, some members contacted us and asked if we could teach them the fundamentals of [pickleball],” Bradley relates. “We converted one of our tennis courts for that purpose and as soon as others saw pickleball being played there, it blew up, and everyone wanted to play.”
Now, Bradley—whose title has been changed to Director of Racquet Sports as a result—says there are already more members playing pickleball than tennis, a shift evidenced by the fact that The Sanctuary now devotes four Hydro-courts to each sport.
“[Pickleball] has been a game-changer,” says Kouril, “especially for how it’s caught on as something members can do with their grandkids, and as a family activity in general.
“It’s also helped to generate a lot of new social relationships,” he adds, “because of programs that Christie has put in where players get rotated into new pairings, and pairings get rotated into new matchups, so you’re not just playing with or against the same people all the time.”
The rapid growth of pickleball is just one example of how Kouril has encouraged his staff to think as broadly as possible in terms of how The Sanctuary’s special property and unique atmosphere can be presented and used to the fullest to enhance members’ enjoyment.
“We want to maximize every inch of what we have here,” Kouril says. “We continually encourage everyone on the staff to come up with ideas and not be afraid to be a trendsetter. Whatever we can do to continue to deliver high-end amenities and create value for the members and enhance their satisfaction will feed off itself.”
That member satisfaction is now at its highest levels ever, based on annual surveys conducted by the club, with the club staff’s overall service quality garnering a 4.94 rating (on a scale of 5) last season. Equally impressive, The Sanctuary staff itself hasn’t hesitated to express its own high appreciation for Kouril’s leadership and guidance, with all 11 direct reports collectively endorsing his ECM nomination through a letter submitted to the Selection Committee.
“Since 2007, Ken has led us through the worst of economic conditions without hurting the quality of customer service to the members,” the group wrote in its letter. The signees also cited their appreciation for the strong emphasis that Kouril has always placed on education “as the most important aspect of staff training. He encourages us to join and participate in our local and national organizations, fosters the ‘team’ relationship with educational retreats, and has an educational Benefit Fair for the entire club staff.”
For Kouril, that’s all just part of having a club operation that lives up to its name, in all of the ways that “sanctuary” can be defined, and for everyone involved. “Our staff sincerely cares about our membership, and our membership sincerely cares about our staff,” he says. “We all strive to exceed expectations, because we care.”
The Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards were established by the McMahon Group, Inc., the St. Louis-based consulting firm, in 1997 and have been co-sponsored by Club & Resort Business since 2006.
The annual awards are selected through nominations submitted on behalf of qualified candidates by other parties. Award recipients are selected solely on the basis of their achievements at the club they currently manage. A Selection Committee comprised of a peer group of leading club managers conducts the judging for the ECM Awards.
Awards in four categories are given each year:
A full listing of judges, in addition to information on past winners and on how to nominate candidates for future years’ awards, can be found at www.clubmanageraward.com
In addition to in-depth articles in C&RB detailing the achievements of each ECM winner, individual ceremonies are held at their clubs. All winners were also honored at the 2017 Awards Dinner, which was held March 3 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco and was sponsored by ClubCorp, Denehy Club Thinking Partners, ForeTees LLC, Preferred Club, and Yamaha Golf Car.