The sport is bouncing back in popularity, as more members and guests see the value of the health, economic and family benefits offered by the game
SUMMING IT UP
Tennis is enjoying a comeback these days, particularly among the younger crowd. Several factors are in play behind this trend, not the least of which is the celebrity appeal of tennis stars like Venus and Serena Williams. There’s also been a boost from the success that the U.S. Tennis Association’s QuickStart Tennis program has had in helping to introduce the sport to kids, and from the appeal of using tennis to develop cardiovascular strength and discipline in youngsters, at a time when the nation’s youth obesity levels are staggeringly high.
The economy has also been a factor in driving more parents to sign up their kids both for group tennis classes and individual instruction, maintains Conan Lorenzo, Director of Tennis for the La Jolla (Calif.) Beach & Tennis Club. The rosters for these programs are filling up not only with children of members, but of resort guests, too, he reports.
“There are a lot of families who are looking at their budgets but are reluctant to skimp on extracurricular activities,” Lorenzo says. “So they might say, instead of taking a Bahamas vacation this year, let’s put our energy into what the kids are doing.”
Another driving factor comes from more club members seeking to get the most value for their initation fees and dues, and deciding that they, and their families, should be making better use of an amenity like a quality tennis program in addition to a property’s golf course, spa or dining rooms.
Sabena Robinson, Director of Sales and Marketing at Kingston Plantation, Myrtle Beach, S. C., notes that the success of her property’s kid-centric summer tennis camps has led to continuing instruction for the children of club members throughout the year, as parents seek to maximize their investment in the sport. Whenever possible, Robinson says, groups are split by age and skill level, so there’s no frustration about being under- or over-qualified for the lesson.
“We tend to host classes on weekends, when parents don’t work,” she adds. “For members, it’s a great way for Mom and Dad to get in a workout at the club, or some quiet time in the dining area, while the kids are otherwise engaged. And a lot of times, we have guests sign up just because let’s face it, when you’re a kid, after about a day you’re usually done with the beach and want to try something else.”
Joe Mesmer, Head Tennis Professional of Columbia Country Club, Chevy Chase, Md. (see “The Special Spirit of Columbia CC,”), says his club has benefitted from how the QuickStart program teaches tennis to kids under 10 by using shorter nets, smaller rackets, “fluffier” balls, and less court space. All of these innovations provide kids with the confidence they need to hone their skills and stay interested in the game, Mesmer says.
“It seems obvious that a kid of six or eight would be helped by this, and I believe our club has been in tune with this for a number of years,” he adds. “I mean, if the child is five, he or she’s not going to hit the ball 78 feet. But nationally, it’s almost shocking how many kids are still learning with their parent’s racquet.”
A consistent focus on the next generation has paid off for Columbia in member retention, Mesmer admits with a chuckle. “I’ve been here 20 years,” he notes. “Last week I played against a third-year law school student—and I remember teaching him tennis when he was five.”
Troy Robinson, Director of Tennis at Kinston (N.C.) Country Club, estimates that the tennis instruction program at his club is comprised of about 75% juniors, ages four to 18. “They’re the most consistent,” he says, adding that his club has done QuickStart “since day one” of when the USTA launched the program.
Making the Heart Sing
Cardio tennis-based clinics are popular at Kinston, Robinson adds, both for the junior segment as well as adults. “Cardio tennis is our most energetic program, and it’s a great springboard to get non-tennis folks interested in tennis,” he says. “It’s a great retention tool, because it can be picked up by beginners, but still enjoyed by experienced players.”
Kinston has four clay courts and one hard court, all lighted and outdoors, which see about 11 months of play. In January’s uncertain weather, members can rent a ball machine and practice their swing indoors.
“Fitness is a big attraction,” notes Robinson, who for the past four years has led a lunchtime workout that’s built around getting ready for tennis play. “There’s also the time factor. People have less time to squeeze in a round of golf, but they can get a tennis match in.”
At Kingston Plantation, Sabena Robinson agrees that a lighter load of must-do activities can provide a welcome respite to overscheduled members and guests. “We are doing fewer tennis-only or golf-only packages,” she reports, “because guests today want the freedom of sampling everything the resort has to offer a la carte. They might not decide until that morning, ‘Do I feel like playing tennis today?’”
She is quick to add, though, that some packages are still in demand, but often only when a tangible item is thrown in—a gas card during a weekend stay, for example.
In some markets, the decision of “what to do today” is made by Mother Nature. Columbia’s Mesmer reports that tennis has become a popular choice of his club’s golf crowd during inclement weather, especially after Columbia started to encase three of its 11 clay courts in a protective bubble.
“Our bubble is used from around November 1 through March 31,” he explains. “It can be a job to put it up and down to ensure it’s free of moisture and mildew, but we’ve done a good job of maintaining it.”
A Day at the Beach
Beach tennis is an Italian import that has recently found its way to the U.S., and La Jolla (Calif.) Beach & Tennis Club is among the increasing number of resorts now offering it as an amenity.
“If someone’s interested, they call our beach services department, which can set up the poles and net,” notes Conan Lorenzo, La Jolla’s Director of Tennis. The sport has become a popular group activity for guests attending summertime meetings, he adds. “In the peak season, May to September, we probably get requests twice a week for it,” Lorenzo says.
The sport is played like regular tennis, but with a paddle or platform tennis racquet and a slightly depressurized ball, and on a regulation beach volleyball court. “Your team scores points each time your opponents hit the ball outside the lines, or let it hit the sand,” says Lorenzo.
While La Jolla’s program is strictly recreational, the sport is also being popularized through competitive play, such as The Sony Ericcson Open, which will take place March 24 at the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, Key Biscayne, Fla.
For information on how to sign up to become a beach tennis affiliate, visit www.BeachTennisUSA.net
Talking It Up
With online court reservation capabilities, smartphone check-ins and the abundance of eNewsletters for guests and members, a successful tennis program is one that makes every effort to stay in touch in every possible way.
At Columbia, Mesmer says the club is “training” members to seek more information about all aspects of club activities on its website. “Our newsletter might announce the mixed-doubles tennis event next Saturday, but we’ll also say ‘see site for information on the lobster dinner,’ ” he offers as an example.
And despite an increase in e-mail signups, a “fair amount” of people still walk in to register to play, he adds.
“Newer members tend to want information in an e-mail, text or online,” Mesmer says. “But for our old standbys, we still make phone calls—and that phone call can still go a long way.”
Troy Robinson has been e-mailing tennis-focused newsletters to members on a regular basis, but fears they are starting to lose their effect as recipients get deluged with too much e-mail. “We use Facebook, but not frequently—just for events, mostly,” he adds. “Where we’re starting to see a lot of response is in mass text messages.”
Filling the Need
The popularity of the tennis program at Kingston Plantation has endured in part because of a reduction in available tennis facilities in the Myrtle Beach area, Robinson says. With four clay and five hard courts, all with lights, Kingston’s free-standing tennis facility—complete with a Starbucks-serving eatery, Caffeinated Fish—attracts a large following locally. A rejuvenation of the clay courts is set for spring, to coincide with Kingston’s sports and health club renovations.
“We organize round-robins and have a matchmaking service where we have players give us their names and ratings,” she says. Members seeking a change of pace take advantage of the service, in addition to resort guests in need of a partner. “It can be hard to match skill levels sometimes, but it’s definitely a great amenity,” Robinson says.
Another trend that’s helping to drive tennis’ comeback to top clubs and resorts, La Jolla’s Lorenzo believes, is increased consumer savvy, with more members and potential guests now showing evidence of doing advance research of tennis programs, and their pros, online. “In Southern California, there are many talented pros coaching at a variety of facilities,” he says. “Parents in particular are looking for the best to teach their children.”
Because of all of these trends, Kinston’s Troy Robinson looks for more money to be put towards improving properties’ tennis programs, relative to golf. If nothing else, he feels, “It behooves traditional clubs to compare the numbers of their own programs.”