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March 2017

A Sturdy Foundation

By Steve Eubanks

Groundswell support for renovation has Canoe Brook Country Club poised for a robust future

Some golf operators constantly reinvent themselves in an attempt to stay ahead of the latest trends. That strategy brings varying degrees of success. Remember the 18-inch holes from a few years ago?

Other operators refuse to consider reinvention. They remain confident in their business models, even as revenues tank and they enter the all-too-familiar death spiral. Those operators remain stuck in their ways until the clubhouse is boarded shut and the course returns to seed.

The problem is ubiquitous but the answer is simple. It’s just not easy. A private club with tons of history sees membership and participation slipping. Rounds are down. Banquet sales sag. Waiting lists have given way to membership drives. Legacies have become a thing of the past. Sons and daughters aren’t following in their father’s footsteps as members, in part because many of them don’t live and work in the same town, but also because belonging to the club doesn’t mean as much these days. Three-hour business lunches haven’t been part of the business plan for decades, and the course—with its storied, hickory-shaft-and-knickers history—has the look and feel of the abandoned textile mill downriver.

Everyone can name a club like this. And anyone who has worked in the golf industry knows at least part of the solution. It’s not a managerial mystery. Renovation, usually a big one, must be part of any workable answer. Sure, you can change the dinner menus, hire a new chef, put Bluetooth speakers in your golf carts, add a Bingo night and lower the mowing heights on your greens–worthwhile considerations, all—but those changes alone are like putting a Band-Aid on a severed artery. The patient requires surgery: sometimes minor, but sometimes life-altering.

The trick, especially when a club is member-owned, is making the right renovations and doing it in a way that doesn’t alienate your base.

“Engagement is key,” says Albert Costantini, general manager at Canoe Brook Country Club in Summit, New Jersey, a private club which opened in 1901 and recently concluded a $15 million clubhouse and golf course renovation that started out as a desire to upgrade a bar.

Canoe Brook was the perfect example of an old club in need of a facelift. The gently rolling terrain had once been an encampment for General George Washington’s Continental Army and the original clubhouse was a farmhouse that dated back to the mid-19th century. Like many clubs, expansion had come piecemeal, with an addition here and a modification there until, by Canoe Brook’s centennial, the clubhouse had become a 60,000-square-foot dysfunctional mess.

“The building had lost any consistent look or feel,” Costantini recalls. “The interior was dated. There was lack of functionality.”

Everyone saw the problem. You only had to get lost in the labyrinth once, moving from Early American Colonial in one room to 1970s-dark-wood-and-stone in another, to know what had to be done. The trick was getting the membership to buy into a process that would be expensive, inconvenient and time consuming.

“The story begins with a survey the club did back in 2011,” Costantini explains. “Part of the survey asked members to list their top two or three wants or needs for the club. From there, the company that created the survey compiled a top-10 list. That gave the long-range planning committee a starting point. The first two items involved the golf course, specifically bunkers and drainage. The third (item on the list) was a new member bar.”

To build momentum and enthusiasm, the committee answered the first two needs almost immediately, repairing bunkers and adding some additional drainage to make the course more playable. But they attacked the third item differently. The club brought in Judd Brown Designs/Jefferson Group Architects from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to look at the bar. Brown saw almost immediately that the bar was a small symptom of a much larger problem.

“Functionally, it had a circuitous layout that didn’t work,” the architect notes of the entire clubhouse. “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.”

Brown submitted two designs focusing solely on the bar with the caveat that he wouldn’t recommend either of them. The clubhouse needed an overhaul, not a one-room touchup. The committee agreed.

That’s when the challenge began. In large-scale private club projects, member expectations vary and few people think a job should cost as much as it does.

“We spent quite a bit of money getting plans [for an entire clubhouse renovation],” Costantini says. “There was concern about costs. [The architects] came back to us with a firm budget and we almost immediately started doing town halls with the members. That was crucial. We knew this was going to require an assessment.”

No one likes to be dictated to, especially not club members who are often told: “Here are the renovations. You’ll have to suffer through construction and pay exorbitant extra fees to cover the costs, but you’re going to love it.”

“Members have to drive the bus,” posits Bruce Etter, the director of golf at Chattanooga Golf and Country Club, an original Donald Ross-design from the early 20th century, which underwent a complete course renovation.

“We’d had a [course] redesign in the early 1980s where the architect took out all of the original Ross features and made it his own,” Etter says. “There were elephants buried in the greens and the bunkers had a lot of flash and slope so that if you had a quarter-inch of rain, they would all wash out. The golf course didn’t have much pizzazz at all. So, there was a lot of support for re-doing the course. But [the members] weren’t sure what to do.”

Rather than rush into a redesign, the club convened a special committee consisting of a broad cross-section of members. When they decided to hire Bill Bergin, an Atlanta-based architect and former PGA Tour player, they took things slow, bringing Bergin in to build a short-game practice area near the range as a kind of audition.

“That allowed us to form a relationship with Bill,” Etter explains. “We could see how he was to work with, see if he stayed on budget and see what the finished product was like. That all went very well, so we thought Bill would be the guy as long as we liked the plan.”

Bergin crafted plans based on aerial photos of the original Ross design. The committee loved it. But rather than go to the general membership right away, they devised a campaign strategy.

“We took out the entire membership roster and divided it up between the committee,” Etter says. “They were to talk to their assigned members, individually and in small groups, about the importance of the redesign. They showed off the plans, talked about Bill and built momentum before we had the first general membership meeting. So, when the vote went down, we had over 80 percent approval.

“If you can’t sell this to the membership before the first full meeting, you never know what’s going to happen,” he continues. “We wanted to make sure we had it in the bag before all the members ever got together.”

Costantini took the same approach at Canoe Brook. “We incorporated a good many ideas that came from the member meetings and we withstood a barrage of negativity,” he admits. “But when we finally had consensus, we put out some hard financing numbers, which passed overwhelmingly.”

Making members the grass-roots sales force proved to be not just the difference in getting these projects approved, but also the catalyst for the success that followed.

“We went from 530 members to 580, which was our cap, with a waiting list,” Etter says of Chattanooga G&CC, which is now ranked in the top-five courses in the state of Tennessee. “It couldn’t have been more positive for us.”

That increase in membership has led the club to build a new pool and fitness center, a multi-million-dollar project that never would have happened without the earlier commitment to the course.

As for Canoe Brook, according to Costantini: “We saw positive change almost immediately. Two questions that we asked [new members] were: Why are you joining Canoe Brook? And, why are you joining now? The answers, almost universally, were we’re joining because of all the positive changes you’re making and we’re joining now because we don’t want to end up on a waiting list. Once the project started we had well over a year of historically low attrition rates.

“Since we’ve finished, we’ve had rave enthusiasm for the club,” he adds. “Food and beverage sales [since the renovation] have doubled, going from $2.2 million to $4.1 million. It’s been incredibly positive. And it’s all because members got other members on board.”

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author.

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