Five years ago, the situation at San Luis Obispo CC typified the crises facing properties throughout the country—but the club now stands as one of the industry’s best examples of an inspiring and instructional comeback story.
Paul Barr is taking a visitor to San Luis Obispo (Calif.) Country Club (SLOCC) on a golf-cart tour of the course, while answering questions about his duties as the club’s Golf Course Superintendent. After previously discussing bunker and turf issues, Barr is now sharing how he deals with irrigation and water-management challenges. Then he suddenly stops the cart in the middle of a fairway during the quiet, sun-splashed afternoon, and sweeps his arm to take in the mountains, farmland and vineyards that surround him on all sides.
“But hey—what problems do you really have, when you’re in the middle of paradise?” Barr asks with a smile.
|San Luis Obispo CC
AT A GLANCE
At the end of the last decade, however, there was trouble even in this paradise. “Very serious trouble,” in fact, as described by Mike Stanton, SLOCC’s General Manager/COO.
“Our membership was declining quickly, finances were in very poor condition, and service to the members was underwhelming—in short, things were bleak, and the remaining members were looking for a reason to stay,” recalls Stanton.
After going through college on a golf scholarship, Stanton eventually went into the restaurant/deli business with his wife in San Luis Obispo. And despite exposure to clubs through his golf experiences, he says, “I really didn’t have a grasp of what the whole profession of club management was all about.”
But after getting a call from an SLOCC member to see if he might be interested in applying his restaurant and business management skills to try to help steer the club out of its troubles, Stanton took the GM position in 2009—and developed that grasp in a hurry.
“Beginning in early 2009,” he says, “we put together a plan to raise our service levels to where they should be, and put together programs that the whole family would want to participate in.”
As implemented by a team that includes some key managers who have been at SLOCC for 25 years, and others who were brought in both from within and outside of the club business to provide new expertise and energy where needed, that plan has now taken firm enough hold that five years later, these forms of club-management paradise can be found again in San Luis Obispo:
• membership levels are at cap in all categories, and waiting lists have been renewed;
• a series of major improvement projects has been completed for the golf course, clubhouse and other parts of the property, including a new 5,000-sq. ft. fitness center;
• the capital fund has been rebuilt to unprecedented levels;
• operating profits have been registered for four straight years.
“By rededicating ourselves to the things that are important parts of being a forward-thinking country club, and being able to attract today’s families, we’ve gotten our feet solidly on the ground again,” says Dr. Luke Faber, a club member since 1993 who served as its President in 2012-2013. “Actually, we’re running at a pretty good pace again, and I think you could even say there are many areas where we’re now setting the bar, when we used to just be chasing it—and that’s kind of fun.”
Full Team Ahead
Momentum for SLOCC’s new service and programming strategies was first fueled by success from a trial-membership initiative in early 2010 that “worked perfectly and far exceeded” expectations, Stanton says.
“Ninety percent of those who signed up for the trial stayed—and many of them were younger families,” he says. “That showed us that if we gave people the proper experiences, we could be OK again.”
The success of the membership drive also provided an influx of dues and activities revenues that, along with prudent belt-tightening, would help produce a steady stream of funds for facilities and program improvements, while avoiding the need to assess the delicate membership mix that was now being rebuilt.
More momentum was gained as it was made clear that SLOCC would take a well-balanced, full-team approach to implementing needed change—all departments would have an equal stake in the future success of the club and be provided with opportunities to improve their facilities and programs, and none would be viewed as either rising stars or out-of-favor also-rans.
This was particularly noteworthy because golf has always enjoyed special prominence at SLOCC, highlighted each year by the “Straight Down Fall Classic” that is sponsored by a sportswear/apparel firm based in San Luis Obispo and owned by a club member. The event is unique in attracting many professional tour players, particularly from the Champions Tour, for a best-ball competition during which many of the pros choose to play with lifelong friends. Throughout the three-day event, the emphasis is on casual enjoyment of the game amid SLOCC’s serene surroundings, and spectators (the tournament is open to the public) are afforded unusually “up close and personal” access to the players.
Other departments don’t have to have their arms twisted to pitch in and help ensure maximum success for the Straight Down event, because they recognize the value of the overall exposure it provides for the club (as one example, see the last question-and-answer exchange in the “Chef to Chef” interview with SLOCC Executive Chef Troy Tolbert).
By the same token, Head Golf Professional Rick Ventura, PGA—who came to SLOCC four years ago to return to the private side after a successful tenure at high-end public courses—says he’s learned the value of having himself, and his staff, make their presence known at activities, and in areas, where golf is not the primary focus.
“The biggest benefit that can come from working at a private club is familiarity with the members,” says Ventura. “And that doesn’t just come from seeing them on the golf course or in the pro shop. In fact, some of the best ways for those of us from golf to make connections may come when we’re seen in the fitness center, or at the Halloween Haunted House.”
It’s certainly not hard to find opportunities to make those connections, no matter where you might be on the SLOCC property. The clubhouse alone is the site of over 300 events a year, with nearly a fifth of them coming in December. Catering/Events Coordinator Bill Mortimer relies on his musical and theatrical background, along with journal notes he has kept throughout his 25 years in the position, to ensure that even annual events always “have enough of a new twist to make people want to come back each year.”
The SLOCC pool and tennis facilities are also the site of frequent, and often frenzied, event activity, ranging from spirited cardboard boat races to a high-profile tennis exhibition that was held this past fall for the benefit of the Vijay Amritraj Foundation.
Maintaining a vibrant and diversified event schedule—and making sure all staff members continued to focus on how it could be enhanced and expanded within their areas, even during the most austere periods for the club—proved as critical as other measures that were taken to help pull SLOCC out of the quicksand brought by the downturn.
“We’ve certainly been through some very tough times here,” says Mortimer. “To make it through them, it would have been easy to do things like shut down the pool [which stays open year-round, with a full slate of instructional and activity programming under Myki Keffury, who has been the club’s popular Aquatics Director since 2000].”
“It also would have been easy to stop doing a lot of other fun things until things got better,” Mortimer adds. “But Mike [Stanton] and the Board were very forward-thinking; they saw those are the reasons many people come here in the first place. And actually, they saw that adding more events, along with new things like the fitness center, were important to make sure the club would be more family-friendly than ever.”
No “SLOing” Down
While profits and full rosters are now part of the fun again at SLOCC, the club doesn’t plan to ease up on its drive to continue to increase its value for existing and future members. Recovering from the recession also didn’t slow its plans to provide on-site child care; a Club Care service, staffed with care providers who are background-checked through the same process as the pool’s lifeguards (and also managed by Keffury), was opened two years ago. The service has gained further appeal with the opening of the new fitness center, to the point where plans are now being considered for its expansion, both in terms of hours and space.
All of this promises to help SLOCC continue to solidify its status as a preferred social and recreational option for families and retirees in the town of 46,000 that may be one of California’s best-kept secrets. San Luis Obispo’s laid-back, rural character often prompts others in the state to condescendingly refer to it as “SLOtown.” But that suits those who know it best just fine; they would prefer to remain largely undiscovered by those from Los Angeles (several hours to the south) or San Francisco (the same distance to the north), for fear of losing the charm of a college town (Cal Poly) of manageable size with absolutely no suburban sprawl—roads leading out of the center of town (and to SLOCC) quickly blend back into the surrounding hills, vineyards and farms.
San Luis Obispo, Ventura notes, has become more of a desirable retirement or second-home destination for many from Fresno, Bakersfield and other parts of California’s Central Valley (a couple of hours east) who are drawn to its milder climate and recreational appeal, which includes easy access to the Pacific Ocean. “We probably have more than 100 members now with some ties to the Valley,” Ventura says.
At the same time, more of those who have come to know the town through its connection to Cal Poly appear to be finding it desirable for post-school life as well. “Our average age has come down drastically [with the influx of new members gained in the past five years],” Stanton reports.
These and other groups that now make up the SLOCC membership appear to be enjoying their club life as well. Stanton has always encouraged members to submit suggestions for improving their club experience—and of late, he reports, feedback has been largely confined to benign requests to “bring back the Southwestern chicken salad” or “get the Pac-12 network” on the clubhouse TV.
Sounds like paradise may have been found again.