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March 2018

Innovate or Die


By Steve Eubanks

So says Cheval’s Larry King Jr., who doubled membership by hosting latch-key kids.

By the time the buses pull into the lot at Cheval Golf & Athletic Club in Tampa, Florida, the kids can’t wait—they pile out like eager recruits, leaping and running to their assigned stations a cacophony of joyous laughs and shouts. The club’s caravan, two full-sized buses and one van, makes daily pickups at the end of the class day at six local schools and transports as many as 150 young people to the golf course, tennis courts, and swimming and athletic facilities. Once there, programming includes golf clinics, tennis matches, swim meets and all manner of sports and fitness training under the supervision of screened and trained counselors who rotate the kids through various activities until their parents either pick them up or join them at the driving range or fitness center before dinner.

It is unlike anything seen in the club industry, and it’s the brainchild of Cheval’s owner, Larry King, Jr., son of the legendary radio and television interviewer, an entrepreneur who spent a decade in the software industry before becoming a club owner. “I realized that a lot of clubs want to cater to families but they do it by going after the parents,” King says. “That’s exactly the wrong approach. If you come at the parents first, the kids are going to see it as something the parents want them to do and they’re not going to do it. It won’t be cool. But if you get the kids first—you go out and get them, bring them to your facilities, provide the programming that they want, give them what they enjoy—the parents absolutely are going to follow.” King had never been in the club industry, but because he believed the adage “innovate or die” applies to every business, he saw an opportunity near his home. “I lived in a gated community that had an athletic club and a golf club that were separated by about 500 yards,” he says. “I had a business plan where I gutted [the athletic club] and created what, for lack of a better term, I would call a high-end YMCA, a concierge service club that caters to families.”

He bought the golf club in 2014, and the buses arrived soon after. “The thing I learned from a decade at Intuit [maker of TurboTax and QuickBooks] is that if you’re not leading edge, you’re bleeding edge. If you’re not providing the best and most innovative service, your customer or club member is going to go somewhere else. There are just too many entertainment and family-time options now. For us, the key was to solve a problem for the members—in our case, the residents of the community around this club.”

King not only answered the question, “How is my child getting home from school?” he eliminated the latch-key-kid crisis in his area and gave parents the peace of mind of knowing where their children were and what they were doing between the last bell and the end of the work day. As a result, Cheval’s membership more than doubled from 100 families to over 200.

King succeeded because he knew that innovation isn’t a cost-benefit question: it’s a survive-or-die equation. As he sees it, private clubs suffer from a malady you could call “innovation aversion,” an instinctive reflex to shun anything cutting edge. Whether it’s automated inventory control and online tee times (features of the golf industry that are now older than most assistant pros) or low-tech programming like buying a used school bus to get juniors to the course, many private club operators recoil from new ideas like vampires at a garlic farm.

A lot of that reticence is based on fear. How am I going to recoup this investment? What if I raise the dues but half the members resign? How many memberships can I realistically sell because of this or that new thing? And how do I know that those new members weren’t going to join anyway?

Valid questions. But the answers are as simple as your own experiences. Ten years ago, not only was Wi-Fi on an airplane something no one dreamed possible, simply plugging in your phone or computer was a luxury reserved for first class. Now, taking a long-haul flight without a
power outlet and Wi-Fi at your seat is akin to taking a stagecoach across the country.

“I draw an analogy to my dentist,” King says. “When I lived in Palo Alto, California, and then in Tucson, Arizona, I went to dentists who had all the records, x-rays and updates digitized. They operated off tablets and you got reminder notices via text. Then I came here to Tampa and the first place I went they were still using paper and notepads and marking charts with pens. I thought, ‘This isn’t going to cut it. I have to go
where they’re using state-of-the-art technology.’ ”

King’s impression had nothing to do with the quality of dental care. His past experience had set a standard for him and he could not see
going backward.

“Now, when I go to a club and I don’t see a similar investment in technology, I think, ‘Wow, where’s the experience here?’ ” he said. “When you look at entertainment venues like TopGolf and other clubs that have video, Bluetooth and all the other interactive things available, the customer only has to experience that once and it becomes the standard by which everything else is judged.

“I have GPSi and the Shark Experience [a GPS service owned by ClubCar and Greg Norman that incorporates video, music and interactive games into the monitor] in several of my golf carts but not all of them,” King says. “I had a member go out in one of those carts and from that point forward he said, ‘I don’t want any of the old carts. I want the Shark cart.’ How could that person ever go back to a cart with a plastic menu and a paper pin sheet in it? He’s not going to. He’s beyond that.”

It doesn’t have to be a high-tech innovation, but attracting and retaining members in today’s competitive market requires something
that pops, features or programs that make members feel special and make guests want to join.

ClubCorp is masterful at making high-impact capital improvements to its newly-acquired properties. When the company purchased the Sequoia Golf assets in late 2014, one of the first things the new owners did was double the size of many swimming pools (Braelinn Golf Club in Peachtree City, Georgia, being a noteworthy example), something that would have been low on most members’ priority lists. But ClubCorp executives understood what Larry King knew: kids bring parents. And swimming pools that look like waterparks bring kids.

In Montverde, Florida, the proverbial middle-of-nowhere between orange groves and the Florida Turnpike, a solid 45-minute drive from the Orlando airport, a club called Bella Collina separated itself by creating a clubhouse that members never want to leave.

“The clubhouse was inspired by a Tuscan village, very different from what you’d see in Orlando or anywhere in Central Florida,” says Jim Kroll, Bella Collina’s director of golf.

Kroll’s description undersells the experience. Bella Collina’s clubhouse, completed in 2016, is a series of structures interconnected by cobblestone walkways and vine canopies. Locker rooms look like Roman baths with hot tubs, saunas and dining areas overlooking perfectly kept courtyards. There’s a spa and a grill where you could spend an entire day and forget that you hadn’t hit a golf shot, and a dining room and banquet hall that hosts over 160 weddings a year. The least spectacular part of the facility is the golf shop, which Kroll doesn’t mind.

“There are so many options here that we have people stay and do a lot of things,” he says. “You hit balls, play golf, work out, get a spa treatment, have a drink and maybe meet the family here for dinner.”

Bella Collina’s innovation is its immersive experience, the Disney model on a more intimate, high-end scale. The club provides its membership an all-inclusive, fantasy-driven environment where they will spend far more time than they would at an average club. Almost no one at Bella Collina plays morning golf, has a burger and heads home by early afternoon.

“Most people who come here, their first impression is they don’t want to leave,” Kroll says. “That’s what we want. That’s why the club was built this way.” Similarly, says King, “At Cheval we had to add panache to the membership as well as make the value equation work. Restaurant discounts and other things were part of that. But the most important aspect was providing an experience that no one else had in the area. That’s always the key. Separate yourself. Innovate or die.”

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


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