The recession hasn’t sent everyone club scurrying for cover. In a special report, we present a sampling of the inspiring stories that surfaced throughout the year from properties that found ways to buck the trends.
Coming Back to Life
The Wall Street Journal headline and subtext caught Ian Altman’s attention last November, as it did for many other private club directors and managers:
Country Clubs Fight An Exodus
Economic woes are straining private clubs as members flee.
But while the headline, and article that followed, served to make some in the industry even more nervous about what might lie ahead for them and their properties as the recession deepened, it only prompted Altman, the Board President of Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, Md., to submit a response to the piece.
“To managers and Board members who see the current economy as a detriment, I say look again,” Altman wrote. “[The recession] has given us the rare opportunity to rethink our clubs and deliver unique environments [as] attractive alternatives to high travel and leisure and business expenses.”
The Journal didn’t publish Altman’s response. If it had, it might have served to help other clubs prepare to weather the storm by following the lead, as outlined in Altman’s reply, of how Lakewood CC, a 50-year-old club in the demanding greater Washington, D.C. market, has not only built its full-privilege membership ranks back to capacity (450) in the past five years, but also assembled a solid waiting list.
Not getting published in the Journal, however, certainly didn’t stop Lakewood’s momentum. In fact, the club has gone on this year to take more progressive steps that promise to keep it well-positioned to prosper through many economic cycles to come.
Most notable among these were the arrival in May of an accomplished and widely honored industry veteran, Eric Dietz, PGA, to be the club’s new Chief Executive Officer/General Manager, and the completion in late summer of a clubhouse renovation that included the opening of the instantly popular Rees Jones Grille (pictured on cover). Just how “instantly”? In the 10 weeks between the new grill’s opening in August and the close of Lakewood’s fiscal year, 1,200 more covers were served in it than in the club’s former grill in all of the previous year.
“The grill here used to be a place where you might get people to stop for a beer and a quick bite after coming off the golf course, but then they’d head home,” says Dietz. “Now we’ve made it a destination, for its decor and ambiance as much as its menu. It’s three and four deep in there on many nights.”
The new grill’s name recognizes the contributions of the well-known designer (now an honorary club member) who led the renovation of Lakewood’s golf course in 2004—an important step taken during Altman’s first turn as Board President, when the club, after finding itself at a membership crossroads, began what he describes as a “calculated process to undergo a personality and makeup change.”
Creating a championship-caliber golf course was the key first phase of that process, to set the proper stage for establishing Lakewood as what Altman describes as a “family resort destination within a private club setting.” Meeting that goal, he adds, means striving to have all members see the value of Lakewood membership in the same way one did after researching a one-week Caribbean vacation for his family of four and concluding that making full, year-round use of the club was a better and much more convenient, hassle-free deal.
Altman re-upped for a second term as President to direct a new membership initiative built around how the completed course renovation and coming clubhouse makeover, representing a collective investment of $14 million, would create a place where such value could be found—even with initiation fees north of $30,000. Lakewood did not deeply discount its full initiation price ($60,000) in the campaign, instead offering a limited, 60-day opportunity to get in for just over half that amount.
“It was still real money,” says Altman. “We wanted to avoid the gimmicks of no dues or waived initiations, and offer a product that would still be a real draw without being devalued. We didn’t advertise, it was all word-of-mouth. And we actually enhanced the vetting to make our application process more stringent; we weren’t just rubber-stamping applicants. The goal was to get 30 to 50 new members, and we had 25 after the first weekend. By the end of the two-month period, we had exceeded our initiation fee target by 100%.”
Delivering a resort-like family setting that is right around the block, but still valued over those that are halfway around the globe, requires the right operating philosophy in addition to the right facilities. That’s where Dietz, who grew up two miles from Lakewood before embarking on a distinguished club management career with several high-end properties throughout the country, has come in—and Altman and the rest of the Board have stepped away.
“We already had many top professionals on our management team, and when we were able to bring Eric in to help fill the remaining spots and then lead it all, I told the Board there was nothing more we needed to do but sit back and enjoy,” Altman says. In just half a year, Dietz has already brought the desired culture of “casual elegance” to life at Lakewood through touches like concierge-style front-desk assistance in the remodeled clubhouse’s entrance, which has been purposely designed to feel more like a boutique hotel than a typical private club lobby.
“The focus is now on removing roadblocks to members’ enjoyment of what the club has become and creating a real sense of pride about it that will keep them coming through the gates,” says Dietz. His operating experience will also help Lakewood earn more expedient returns on the investments it has made, through inventive approaches such as setting up new bridal suites so they can be converted when not used for that purpose into a day spa, or even another ladies’ card room.
“We want to be the premier family-friendly—not ‘family-oriented’—private club in the mid-Atlantic region,” says Altman about Lakewood’s ultimate goal. “After we do that, then maybe we can set our sights even higher. And I think we’re very close to where we can start thinking about that next level.”
|The Brunswick CC team, led by (from left) PGA Director of Golf and Club Marketing Dan Hogan, Executive Chef Shaun Bruce and Head Golf Professional Thomas Brinson, has created new buzz around Donald Ross’ “buried treasure.”|
The Talk of the Town
While driving in the late 1930s from Pinehurst, N.C. to a project in Florida, the story goes, legendary golf course designer Donald Ross had car trouble and had to stop in Brunswick, Ga. for repairs.
While waiting for his car to be fixed, someone told Ross about the nine-hole course with sand greens at Brunswick Country Club that was right along the main highway he had been traveling. Ross checked it out and liked the Pinehurst-like similarities of the terrain. That led to discussions with the club for him to first design a back nine for the course, and then to come back and redesign the existing front-nine greens. By Labor Day 1939, Brunswick CC had a full Ross course to offer to its members.
The rest is history—but unfortunately, history that went into a deep sleep for most of the next 60-plus years. Brunswick CC remained “the” club in the area through the 1960s, says Dan Hogan, the club’s current PGA Director of Golf and Club Marketing. But then, as development of nearby Georgia island resorts began and the mainland lost its cachet, the club went into a strategic slumber that sent membership into a steep decline. And effective management practices for the club activity that did remain had become virtually non-existent.
By 2006, membership had fallen to 125. Hogan, who had been at Sea Island, Ga.’s Ocean Forest Golf Club for 11 years, was approached by Brunswick’s President, to see if he would have any interest in trying to help to restore the luster and appeal of the once-proud and bustling property.
One glimmer of hope intrigued Hogan enough to take on the challenge. The club was about to uncover what he says had literally become a “buried treasure”—the golf course’s original Ross design, which had become unrecognizable because of shrunken, slowed and indistinguishable greens, an overgrowth of trees, and other consequences from years of failing to properly tend to or preserve the club’s most valuable and distinctive asset.
But in 2005, over 100 of Brunswick’s remaining members had committed to spending $1.3 million for a complete restoration. The membership group included Davis Love III and his brother Mark, who had played their high school golf at the club and were now ready to help, through Love Golf Design, to put things back to how they were intended.
Using the actual Ross drawings that had been found, and following the black sand layers that were unearthed to show the greens’ original outlines, the course was not only closed, but killed, in 2006 for a faithful, year-long restoration.
“In some cases, the [restored] greens were doubled or tripled in size from what they had shrunk down to,” Hogan says. “Overall, probably 30 to 50% more green space was put back into the course. More importantly, no two [restored] greens were remotely similar. It went from a course where the greens were harder to hit but easier to putt, to just the opposite.”
News of the restoration started a buzz within the community among those who appreciated what Brunswick had been sitting on. “People had heard talk about [the club] redoing the greens for over 10 years,” Hogan says. “Now, everyone was saying, ‘Man, they’re really going to do it.’ ”
Seizing that opening, Hogan became a self-described “Johnny Appleseed,” spreading the word to anyone who would listen that Brunswick CC was finally catching up on 40 years of lost time. He sought out business leaders in the area and asked them to “tell me what will work to earn your support.” That led to the creation of a corporate program, through which bundles of from three to eight individual memberships would be owned by local firms and could be allocated and transferred among their executives as needed.
“The companies can use [the memberships] as they see fit, including paying dues [for the individuals] if they want,” Hogan explains. The program caught on as “a great way for firms to attract [executive talent],” he says, and was a “huge success” that quickly added 150 new members.
It also provided a much-needed injection of life—and cash—into the club, and fueled momentum for “more changes here in 42 months than in the previous 42 years,” Hogan says. With the help of a new Head Golf Professional, Thomas Brinson, who arrived in 2007 from Atlanta National Golf Club, Brunswick also made sizeable gains in building up its non-resident membership category, capitalizing on its location and the renewed appeal of its once-again true-to-Ross gem of a golf course.
“We’re not a resort destination, but we’re adjacent to one,” Hogan notes. “It’s natural for us to try to capitalize on that by being a ‘home away from home’ for people from Atlanta, Macon or other places who own second properties on the [Georgia] coast. Through the non-resident membership, we can position our club as an affordable way for them to play a few rounds on a great course while here for a long weekend.”
Brunswick also built up its full golf membership category by being generous with guest-fee credits for existing members, as an incentive to help with new-member recruitment. “Dues credits cost you money, but guest-fee credits can be just as effective to help with your membership marketing, especially if you have non-profit status and can only do limited advertising,” Brinson says. “If you give [members] a free day of golf, they will use it to play the networking game for their own advantage and at the same time, get new people out to test-drive our course, which is our best sales tool.”
The rapid infusion of new members also made it possible to move forward with the critical second phase of Brunswick CC’s revival—a new $4 million, 16,000-sq. ft. clubhouse that opened this past spring. The new facility, along with upgraded and expanded food and beverage and banquet offers now under the direction of a new Executive Chef, Shaun Bruce, who came this year from Orangeburg (S.C.) CC, have added even more appeal to all membership categories. There’s also been a significant boost in pro shop sales, largely from strong demand for “1920” logoed products that proudly tout the year the club was founded and now its fully restored legacy as well (a history also honored by the original Ross drawings, now framed for display in the clubhouse).
As the end of 2009 approached, the club’s membership had surpassed 540 and was well within reach of the new cap goals (400 full golf, 125 social and 125 non-resident). Plans to add a new pool house, perhaps as soon as next spring, represent the final piece to make Brunswick a true country club.
“Our average member age is now much lower, because of the appeal of all that we’ve added,” says Brinson. “But even for older members who’ve stayed with us through everything, it’s an entirely new club that’s come back to life in every way.”
Opening the Doors
Many gated communities go to great lengths (and security measures) to make it clear that if you’re inside you’re in, if you’re outside you’re out, and unless you want to sign on the (dotted) line to buy property, don’t think about trying to cross it.
For communities with clubs that don’t require residence for membership, this can be a tough perception to overcome—or maybe not. For Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers, Ark., all it required was an aggressive “You Don’t Have to Play Here to Live Here!” m
arketing campaign that included colorful, attention-getting banners draped on its fences and over the active road that runs past them.
Oh, and it also helps if, behind those fences, there’s a championship golf course that’s been newly renovated by one of today’s most innovative designers, and a club with great faciliies that offers solid tennis and acquatics programs and has an emerging, high-end food and beverage program.
Those are the components that were brought together to swell the membership ranks this year at Pinnacle, which traces its history to 1988, when it was originally formed as Champions Golf & Country Club. The golf course opened for play in 1990 after being built on farm land in the rolling hills of Rogers, which is tucked into the state’s northwest corner.
That same corner of Arkansas has also become the home of major firms like Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services, which has led to growth that soon spread right up to those rolling hills. “The area has been rated second in the nation in terms of resistance to economic downturns,” says Jennifer Pape, Pinnacle’s Director of Membership and Marketing.
In turn, that growth led to rapid buildup of membership at Pinnacle, which eventually became owned by the family of another major employer in the area, Hudson Foods (which was acquired by Tyson in the late 1990s).
And while the club was well-established as it approached its 20-year anniversary, President Mike Hudson decided that a major golf course redesign was needed to take Pinnacle to the next level, which would include hosting championship tour events (the LPGA brought the Northwest Arkansas Classic to Pinnacle in 2007).
That led to the course being closed for 10 months for a $6.2 million project directed by acclaimed architect Randy Heckenkemper. During this period, momentum for growth slowed, leading to the marketing campaign that’s resulted in a “banner year” for adding new members, with over 50 joining in 2009. By this fall, Pinnacle’s membership categories totaled 430 for golf, nearly 100 for tennis and over for 300 dining/social. And new inquiries were continuing to flow in because of the buzz created by the changes not only on the golf course, but also within the clubhouse (a new Executive Chef, Ralph Edmonds, was brought on board in November).
In the process, the average age of Pinnacle’s membership has also dropped significantly in the past year, from 54 to 48, adding new energy to what Pape says was already the lively atmosphere of a “total family country club.”
But hanging banners to help attract more members is only where the job starts, of course. Once everyone has been brought inside the gates, Pinnacle’s management team is keenly focused on taking proactive steps to ensure that all members—new and charter, young and old—know about, and are encouraged to enjoy, all that the club has to offer.
Through an Ambassadors Club, existing members “adopt” new ones for a year and reach out to them with invitations to club events. The Pinnacle team also actively surveys members and data-mines its operations software to capture input about their preferences and club usage, and then recycles that information into customized communications that make sure members don’t miss out on any chances to do the things at the club they would most enjoy. The focus on service and member retention also emphasizes prompt and thorough follow-up to comments received on “Dazzle Cards” that are placed prominently and liberally throughout the property.
|In his second turn as Board President, Larry Stopol has teamed with GM Frank Benzakour and the entire club staff to help show both existing and prospective new members how everyone at Middle Bay “gets it” about today’s club operations.|
Meeting in the Middle
It’s been a challenging and tumultuous decade, to say the least, for clubs and resorts of all sizes, types and locations. But no segment of the industry has been put to the test from the beginning to the end of the 2000s more than private clubs in the metropolitan New York area.
From the aftermath of 9/11 to the stinging fallout from the financial scandals and failings of the past year, even the most well-established of New York-area properties have been confronted with economic and social change—and direct consequences to their membership makeups—that have required thorough reassessments of how their clubs must be structured and operated to have any hope of surviving to 2010, let alone for another 10 or 100 years.
That survival has also hinged on a heightened degree of in-synch thinking, and effective cooperation, between the Boards that set the structures and the management teams that operate the clubs. At Middle Bay Country Club, a 54-year-old property in Oceanside on western Long Island, that’s been the key to a new program designed to help the club retain existing members and appeal to prospective new ones—perhaps as many as 100 new ones, in fact, who are now considering membership at Middle Bay for next year.
The two-pronged program has set out to simultaneously lower Middle Bay’s annual dues structure by 30% as an incentive to join (and to stay), and at the same time find ways for the club to function more cost-effectively without sacrificing—and in many cases, enhancing—the quality of all that it offers through its picturesque waterfront golf course and full complement of club events and services.
“It’s a new business model that represents the new face of country clubs,” says Frank Benzakour, CCM, Middle Bay’s General Manager. “By charging less dues, we can make things more affordable to existing members to remain, and at the same time make the club more attractive to new ones.”
Most of the cost reductions made to offset the lowered dues will come through minimizing club operations during the offseason. But even for the prime period, Benzakour and his staff have conducted a thorough department-by-department assessment to find new efficiencies that will help all aspects of the operation run even more effectively. “We will still be a full-service club during the prime season, May 31 through October 1,” Benzakour assures. “Nothing will be held back.”
A key to getting everyone from the staff on board with the effort, Benazakour adds, is how Middle Bay’s Board President, Larry Stopol, has stressed that this is not a mandate to slash costs at the expense of service. “He truly gets it,” Benzakour says of Stopol, who signed on for a second term as President to help steer Middle Bay through the latest storm. “He leaves it to me and to my staff to decide where we can and can’t make changes, and always shows that he trusts our professional judgment and experience implicitly.
“[Stopol] has made it clear that the things that have made Middle Bay a great club for over 50 years must never be threatened, and that we must continue to look for exciting new ideas to add to what we’ve established,” Benzakour adds. “But the truth is, there aren’t enough members now to support all of the private clubs that have existed in the New York area. Only those that are truly run like a responsible business, with balanced operating budgets, will be able to continue to retain and attract members amid today’s economic realities.”