The timing has all been good for the Crestview Hills, Ky. club this year, as new outdoor facilities, attractive incentives and an energized leadership have led to a 25 percent growth in membership and activity-filled participation through all parts of the property.
Major construction projects this Summer on the interstate-highway bridges that span the Ohio River between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky have caused serious wayfinding challenges, to the point where navigation apps have directed users to cross from one state to another, then back again to recross on a different road, before finally pointing them towards their final destinations.
But those convoluted routes haven’t stopped a steady stream of both existing and new members from finding their way to Summit Hills Country Club in Crestview Hills, Ky.
On February 1st of 2020, before anyone who wasn’t a medical historian knew anything about pandemics, Summit Hills had 400 members as it began to prepare for the club’s 91st year. Then those ugly red and gray balls with the triangular spikes began to make regular appearances on the nightly news, and Summit Hills’ leadership joined clubs around the country in hunkering down and starting to sketch out survival strategies. “We were thinking we would lose 25 to 50 members due to COVID,” reports General Manager Gary Behan, CCM.
Fast-forward five months, and on July 31st alone—the last day of a membership initiative the club had planned for the year and decided to still forge ahead with—18 new members joined Summit Hills. “That’s a good year for us in one day,” Behan says, shaking his head in amazement asas he reviewed the latest update on a surge that has totaled 125 new members for the year.
The July 31st deadline marked the end of Summit Hills’ status as a for-profit equity club and the introduction of an initiation fee that would be part of its renewed status as a 501 (c) (7) operation. While that certainly spurred some of the new membership interest and sped up commitments, it was only one part of a lot of good timing that has marked the year for Summit Hills, even if 2020 will still ultimately be remembered by most for much different reasons.
Another huge component of that timing was the convergence of all of the components involved with a $3.5 million renovation that produced a new outdoor bar and expanded seating and dining capacity on the patio outside Summit Hills’ clubhouse. The project also included a new snack bar that services both the club’s pool and golfers, and a new tennis/pickleball court and baby pool (see photos, pg. 20).
The outdoor bar opened in July 2019 and was busy until the weather turned in November, Behan reports, with popular new events including “tailgate” gatherings for Cincinnati Bengals games.
Summit Hills expected even more activity this year with the opening of the snack bar, baby pool and new court. But after the pandemic hit, all was put on hold until Kentucky finally issued a go-ahead for pool openings at the end of June. Once that finally occurred, existing members poured in to use the entire complex and join golfers who were already boosting rounds on the Summit Hills course by 25 percent.
“All of the additional outside space and facilities have been a godsend,” Behan says. “It really appealed to our [existing] members who had little else they could do and literally needed a place for their pent-up demand. And we think a lot of the new memberships we’ve gained are mainly because [prospects] were able to see such an active club when they came here to see what we now have.”
A LONG TIME COMING
The clock for the good timing that Summit Hills has benefited from this year was set several years ago, when the club’s leadership recognized a need to get more aggressive and proactive in touting Summit Hills’ inherent benefits and got serious about long-range planning that would be built around member input and a broader amenities scope.
“We’ve always had a great setting and location, and have always been a family club, but we needed to do more to sell our product and reestablish our brand,” says current President Doug Myers. “Now we have resort-like facilities that make us stand out, and the activity levels we’re seeing across the board for all of our operations is not only an overwhelmingly positive and ‘almost normal’ sign for this year, it’s volume we really haven’t seen since before [the market crash and Great Recession of 2007-09].”
The new focus on a long-range branding perspective and facility improvements was followed by the Board’s newfound emphasis on letting the Summit Hills management team direct operations and implement new programs, Myers adds. Behan arrived as GM in May 2019 and plunged in to complete and maximize the impact of the outdoor facility project, with the help of a team that includes the invaluable experience and expertise of Larry Miller, CEC, CCM, who has been at Summit Hills since 1972 and has been its Clubhouse Manager since 2005, after previously serving as Food & Beverage Director and Executive Chef.
With such a solid connection to the club and area, Miller has even helped Summit Hills retain hope that it can still keep some larger events on the books this year for local organizations and schools that have been longtime customers of the club. While some outings have been rescheduled into 2021, others have exhibited trust through their relationships with Miller and the club to remain interested in still trying to make theirs happen before this year is out.
“It’s a matter of being creative with menus and food stations while still being safe,” Miller says. “But after seeing all that we have here now, groups are still interested in trying to have their functions outside here, with the hope that the weather will cooperate as we get into the fall.”
In the meantime, Miller, Executive Chef Charles Myers and Dining Room Manager Christina Plappert will continue to meet surging demand for daily, and nightly, food-and-beverage service that’s shown no sign of subsiding and is often tilted heavily to the beverage side, thanks to the popularity of the new outside bar. “Our bar figures have been blowing the budget out of the water, even with wedding postponements,” says Plappert. “There have been many nights when we’ve had more bar revenue than food.”
WORKING IT OFF
Even with the new appeal of the outdoor bar and dining areas, Summit Hills’ members clearly aren’t spending all of their time sitting on the patio. On the golf course, which never had to close, the 25 percent rounds-increase pace has held steady from the first signs of the pandemic.
“I’ve seen husbands and wives playing together who I’ve never seen on the course before,” says Golf Course Superintendent John Cahill—and that’s saying a lot, because Cahill’s seen a lot, having worked himself at Summit Hills for over 40 years and being part of a family that has course-maintenance connections to the club that go back 90 years and have now been extended to a fourth generation (Cahill’s son Luke is now an Assistant Superintendent at the club).
Summit Hills’ golf operation was also infused with a jolt of new energy at the start of 2018 with the arrival of Tom Walters, PGA, as the club’s new Head Golf Professional. Bringing experience from clubs including Isleworth CC in Florida and Western Hills CC in Cincinnati, Walters also took over ownership of Summit Hills’ pro shop and has established a robust online presence for the shop (twpga.squarespace.com) in addition to reviving in-store sales by broadening the merchandise mix and enhancing the shopping experience.
“We’re trying to bring about a mindset change,” Walters says. “We want to move beyond just ‘We’re Summit Hills’ to have a first-class image for everything we do.”
Kids and non-golfers certainly aren’t sitting on the sidelines, either, as Summit Hills has so far continued to defy the dire predictions for pandemic-induced gloom. Membership & Marketing Director Molly Makin reports that she actually had to increase the size of the club’s monthly newsletter for July, adding another eight pages to be able to include all that members needed to know about upcoming events and activities.
Trying to get an update from Tennis Professional Kara Molony-Hussey about all that’s going on in her part of the property, which also includes a grassy play area between the courts and pool, means dodging ping-pong balls and cornhole bags and having kids frequently sidle up with a request while she’s talking.
“Our first clinic for pickleball sold out and we’re already up to 170 adults that now play,” says Molony-Hussey, who’s been at Summit Hills for 18 years. “For anything I put on the schedule, people come. And then there are plenty who have just seen what a fun atmosphere it is and come hang out, because they just like to be here. We’ve had nights with not one organized thing, and it’s still hopping.”
At a Glance:
Summit Hills Country Club
Location: Crestview Hills, Kentucky
Golf Course Design: William Jackson
Annual Golf Rounds: 18,000 Main Clubhouse Size: 25,000 sq. ft.
General Manager: Gary Behan, CCM
Head Golf Professional: Tom Walters, PGA
Golf Course Superintendent: John Cahill
Tennis Professional: Kara Molony- Hussey
Clubhouse Manager: Larry Miller, CEC, CCM Controller: Barb Pacella
Membership & Marketing Director: Molly Makin
Executive Chef: Charles Myers
Bar Manager: Chris Marsh
Dining Room Manager: Christina Plappert