What began as a plan to merely upgrade the member bar grew into a complete transformation of the 114-year-old Canoe Brook Country Club.
From clubs’ earliest days, members and guests have gathered in bars and other socializing areas to develop valuable relationships and hatch groundbreaking ideas. But in the case of Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, N.J., an initial discussion of the need to have a better bar and grill where members could come together eventually led to valuable and groundbreaking change for the club itself.
Making Up for Lost Time
Talk of a new bar began when Canoe Brook, after celebrating its 100th anniversary, found itself to be long on tradition but coming up short where facilities that would help to ensure a successful second century were concerned.
|The Canoe Brook CC Project: An Inside Look
An on-site tour of the Canoe Brook CC property will be provided as part of the agenda for a one-day Club & Resort Business Design & Renovations Insights workshop, “Charting a Course for the Future: Inside Canoe Brook CC’s Clubhouse Makeover,” that will be held at the club in Summit, N.J. on Tuesday, November 3, 2015. Program details and registration information for the seminar, which will be presented in conjunction with the New Jersey Chapter of the Club Managers Association of America and sponsored by Jefferson Group Architects, Judd Brown Designs, Inc. and Donnelly Construction, can be found here.
The club boasts rich ties to history, dating to when its grounds were used to encamp American troops during the Revolutionary War. After becoming a popular summer resort spot that offered escape from New York City’s heat, golf was introduced when Canoe Brook was founded in 1901 as the first full-fledged country club in northern New Jersey. And even as the New York metropolitan area spread to surround its 133-acre property, the club, which grew to offer 36 holes of golf that were re-routed by Rees Jones in the 1990s, continued to offer recreational respite from the region’s 24/7 pace.
By the mid-2000s, however, any sense of welcome escape was quickly turning into stale air whenever golfers came off the courses and into Canoe Brook’s clubhouse. Like many older clubs in the Northeast, Canoe Brook had expanded its clubhouse building through a series of additions over the years that had been tacked onto and around the footprint and foundation of an original structure on the property—in this case, the mid-19th century Wallace Farmhouse. And after decades of such an approach, Canoe Brook found itself trying to serve a membership that had grown to well over 1,000 (in all classifications) with a disjointed, unappealing building that was now spread over 60,000 dysfunctional square feet.
“There had been four or five additions, the last of which dated to the 1970s,” Judd Brown, Principal of Judd Brown Designs/Jefferson Group Architects in Pawtucket, R.I., recalls about his first impressions of Canoe Brook’s clubhouse.
“Inside and out, it was a hodgepodge of old-fashioned materials,“ Brown adds. “Functionally, it had a circuitous layout that didn’t work. Nothing about it was in keeping with the price point and the culture of the club. The only thing it said was that this was another building that had been swallowed up by band-aids and bad additions.”
Call for Help
Brown had been asked to come and look at Canoe Brook’s clubhouse in 2011 by a group of Board members who were only interested, initially, in having him provide some conceptual sketches for a new member bar and grill. That type of casual venue was needed, they thought, to help Canoe Brook respond to the changing club scene and be in a better position to attract new members.
But as the discussion unfolded and Brown pointed out the clubhouse’s shortcomings—not only for locating the bar/grill so it could work effectively, but even more because of the outdated look and operating inefficiencies that the building presented overall—a much broader and more pressing issue arose. Canoe Brook, everyone involved soon realized, was fast approaching a facilities crisis that needed to be viewed holistically and addressed with a comprehensive plan, rather than another isolated attempt at a quick fix or add-on.
Once this became clear, things quickly fell into place so Canoe Brook could not only begin to make up for a lot of lost time, but also fast-track into the future. A full-blown facilities master plan was commissioned and long-range planning was formalized as a key, and permanent, strategic component. A new General Manager/COO, Albert Costantini, CCM, CCE, arrived from Metedeconk National Golf Club in April 2012 to support a 20-month, two-phase, $15 million plan for a complete makeover of the clubhouse and its surroundings that was presented to the membership through a series of town-hall meetings. Approval for Phases 1 and 2 was earned in October 2012, design began immediately, and construction for the first phase commenced in October 2013.
Canoe Brook remained open throughout construction, but it wasn’t long before a dramatic new look and feel to the club began to emerge. Fittingly, one of the first new areas to be unveiled, in June of 2014, was the new 1901 Tavern, designed to be the club’s primary bar and casual dining venue, with seating capacity for 96 at inside tables, 22 around the bar, and another 48 on an adjoining outside deck.
The Tavern is only for those 16 and over, Costantini reports, with lunch and dinner served six days a week and a Sunday brunch with combined buffet and a la carte service. Regardless of the day-part or day of the week, it has been a smash hit from day one. “We created a midday/late-night bar menu, and now we’re busy from 11:30 in the morning until 11 p.m.,” Costantini says. “In season on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, we’re regularly doing a couple of turns and well over 200 covers.
“I used to hear members who’d come to get their cars in our parking lot talk about where else they’d want to go for a drink or to eat,” Costantini adds. “But now they’re coming here. The most rewarding thing was when I heard that two 15-year members who had never met before discovered while sitting at the bar that they’d joined in the same year. New friendships like that are now being forged all the time.”
Building a Better Ballroom
Phase 1 also delivered a new grand ballroom to the club with not only increased capacity, but greater versatility and improved accessibility (a multi-level entry was eliminated, a grand staircase was installed, and restrooms were relocated to the same level).
Features of the new Bassett Ballroom (named for club founder Carroll Bassett) include a higher ceiling (now ranging from 14 to 16 feet), improved acoustics, glass partitions that can be used to separate pre-function areas or create space for smaller groups, a bigger bar area with three full working stations, and a more efficient overall floor plan. An unexpected bonus feature came as a result of new outdoor deck space built outside the ballroom’s windows, which overlook the pool complex. Canoe Brook took advantage of the space under the deck to create seven shade cabanas that have been “very well-received,” Costantini reports.
The ballroom hosted its first wedding in June 2014, just days after construction was completed, Costantini says, and it hasn’t seen much of a slowdown since. “The last full year that our old ballroom was operational, we had one wedding,” he reports. “After reopening, we had five for the last half of 2014, and in all of 2015, we’ll have 16.
“The best part is that only two this year will be referrals, and the rest will be because members decided they wanted to have their own families’ weddings here,” he adds. “That’s the way we want it; we don’t want to be a catering hall.”
The new ballroom’s enhanced functionality, which also includes full audio/visual capabilities and 80-inch, drop-down TVs, has also made it a popular choice for corporate meetings; one member who rarely used the club for business now has his firm use the new space exclusively, Costantini says.
To support all of the added activity that the renovated space was expected to bring, Canoe Brook also made sure that the back of the house was not ignored. A major kitchen improvement that added 20% more space was also part of Phase 1, along with a completely reworked member entrance that is separate from the ballroom entrance.
No Stopping Now
Getting Canoe Brook’s membership on board for the renovation’s next steps was made much easier by the momentum and positive reaction from Phase 1, reports Paul “Woody” Garavente, co-chair of the Long-Range Planning Committee that spearheaded the project’s planning and execution (other key advocates and contributors were Ken Margherini, the committee’s other co-chair, and Joe McCabe, Jr. and Greg Russo, who each served as President as the project unfolded).
“For the first phase, it was difficult [for members] to visualize what [the project] would be all about, so a lot of explanation and salesmanship had to be done,” Garavente says. “For Phase 2, it was relatively quiet, because they had already started to see how things would get better. By the time the vote for Phase 3 came around, there was a trust that the people involved knew what they were doing.”
Phase 2, which began just months after the first phase was completed and was finished this year, focused on redesigning and reallocating the remaining clubhouse space to complement the new ballroom and Tavern. Areas for family dining, formal dining and private dining were created, along with a new golf shop (see photo above) and a central greeting station as part of a new lobby treatment. An extensive expansion and makeover of outdoor dining/social space that overlooks the club’s North Course was also undertaken, and a new boardroom, staff offices and eight new guest rooms were built in space that was added to the clubhouse’s second floor.
Phase 3, approved this year and scheduled for completion by Memorial Day 2016, will rebuild the club’s poolhouse, adding a new quick-casual dining venue with seating, member bar, changing rooms, and a second-story, multi-sport fitness center.
As the project’s final steps speed toward completion, the Canoe Brook staff is focusing on serving a reenergized membership that’s generating significantly increased activity levels across a wider range of club facilities. “People have never been so happy and spent so much time at the club,” says Garavente. “It’s become a cool place to go.”
Already, Costantini reports, “The dining rooms are selling out, and banquet revenues are up 50 percent. We’re increasing our F&B budget from $2.2 million to $3.5 million and at full capacity, I think we could go close to $4 million.
“Over the years, proprietary members were downgrading and we haven’t had a waiting list since the early 2000s,” Costantini adds. “Now, we’ve had a tremendous migration back up [among existing members] as well as a boom in new memberships, all because of the renovations.”
The good news is, the Canoe Brook staff now stands to have plenty of time to gain a full comfort level in the new building as they serve all the added activity. “I think we have a clubhouse for another 50 years, at least,” says Russo, the club’s current President. “And it’s because we decided to do it all, do it once, and do it right.”