2024 ECM Winners Featured on National Club Conference Panel

After being honored the previous night during the Excellence in Club Management (ECM) Awards Presentation and Dinner, three recipients of the 2024 ECM Awards participated in a panel discussion, moderated by Frank Vain,Chairman of McMahon Group, as part of the educational agenda for the National Club Conference held in Frisco, Texas from April 28-30. 

Here are selected highlights of the panelists’ responses to questions posed by Frank Vain; additional comments made during the panel discussion will be included in the profiles of the ECM winners and other articles in upcoming issues of Club Trends magazine later this year.

Q: It’s interesting that each of you started your careers in parts of the hospitality industry that were quite different from the clubs where you’ve earned Excellence in Club Management recognition. How did those different types of experiences transfer and prove influential in helping you achieve success at your current clubs? 

Steven Freund, ECM, The Landings Golf & Athletic Club, Savannah, Ga.: When you work for a corporate entity, you get rewarded by the degree to which you work the system. There’s a stated outcome and clear direction for the suppliers you use and the processes you have to engage in. It’s a system, because a brand like Ritz-Carlton or Marriott or Hyatt is seeking to replicate a core experience that they want their travelers and guests to be able to count on. So you have to think systemically, and consequently those were the things that were measured and what you got rewarded for. 

When I came to The Landings, however, I realized you were no longer working the system and that you had to shift into being the system architect. For example, because of our size, we have 10 dining venues and it takes my Director of Club Operations about 12 miles to go visit all of them. So effectively, he’s running a regional restaurant group that’s generating about $24 million in revenue. We started by thinking and looking at the systems as they related to people, because that’s where we had the biggest deficits. We thought about how we select our people, how we orient and certify them and make sure the basic skills training is there, and how we reinforce it all to create a values-based culture. We had to think about everything systematically, whether it was people, product, process or profit. I think that my background and time with Ritz-Carlton clearly gave me an education that I was able to adopt to the environment at The Landings.

Mark Snure, ECM, Riviera Country Club, Coral Gables, Fla.: With ClubCorp, you’re held completely responsible for the numbers and if they’re off, you take your inventory every week. So that helped a lot at Riviera, where we needed to get better control of what was going on. I went in and looked at everything to see what the numbers should be in percentages relative to how the departments were run, and then looked at where the problems were. It was like going deer hunting when the deer were tied to trees, but the bullets were hidden. Between all the personnel and people and relationships, it took a while, but it happened faster than I thought. And we haven’t varied more than 2 percent either way at the end of the year from what our budget was. 

Charles Johnson, MBA, CCM, ECM, Detroit Athletic Club, Detroit, Mich.: The biggest difference between the country and yacht clubs where I worked before coming to a city club like the DAC are the obvious ones, like boat slips and golf. But the perspective I got from working in so many various places was as different as they are, they’re the same. Private clubs is the business we work in, and while culture is perhaps the biggest variable, that spans beyond just the type of club. So when I talk to young people, particularly college students, I’m always telling them it’s really about who you’re going to work with and for, and the culture of the place, that becomes the most important.

Q: Now that we’ve had the COVID bump that’s helped most clubs enjoy a new period of prosperity, the question for most leaders in the industry today is, how do we maintain the momentum for our clubs and create opportunities for continued growth? What do you think will be some of the areas of concern and the biggest threats for clubs going ahead that might stand in the way of sustaining the jump-start COVID gave us?

Charles Johnson: Particularly in city clubs, this evolution of how work has changed for people and what that means is something we’ll have to watch. In Detroit, in just the last week or so, our main building in town is General Motors’, and they’ve said they’re going to leave it and go to a new building. 

There’s just been such a big transition since COVID in how people function at work and at clubs in general. So being attuned to that and monitoring how people are now using downtown, and being able to react and be prepared for the unknown is perhaps the most important thing.

There are some pros and cons to what these changes can mean for clubs. The “pro” is that it can be nice to come to the club, do a couple of Zoom calls, get a workout in, have some lunch, and do a few more Zoom calls or work on your computer. So we can leverage that and become this one place for every thing you could need. But when so much of your business was predicated on business functions, now it’s going to shift to social. For us, that’s going to change our business model. 

We are losing more in food and beverage than we used to and that impacts us somewhat significantly at the financial end. So what do you do financially to make sure you’re still modeling the way you want to model, and performing the way you want to perform? 

For me, there’s also some caution from dealing with inflation and other things, and we’ve had several years of significant dues increases. There’s a delicate balance there between what happens in the next few years to give us the financial ability to continue to do what we need to do and still be a value for membership. 

Steven Freund: I think it’s fair to say we’ve all experienced an influx of membership. Our club’s 50 years old, but one-third of our membership joined in the last five years; I think we’ve added 1,350 members in that time. There are some ins and outs to that. It’s a different generation of members; they’re younger and the expectations are different. 

We’ve adopted a model of creating free-standing restaurant concepts, with different concepts stratified by price point and their degree of formality—everything from sushi and noodles to steakhouse to fast-casual to seafood to Italian to sports bar. And we’ve really endeavored to make them as competitive as if they were a free-standing restaurant, because I think that’s how our members want to live their lives. They want to go to a quality place, not just “go to the club.” 

We’re also giving a lot of thought to what the future looks like and what this generation wants from their club. As Charles said, the “one place” idea. My house is where I sleep, but my club is where I do everything else. This helps us because we’re a residential club – while your house is your “crash pad,” your club is where the rest of your life happens. 

So that leads to many things that we need to give serious thought to now. While we have a couple of treatment rooms, it’s not a spa, and we believe we now need, because of the membership base we have, a proper spa and salon to service our members. 

We also believe we need new manifestations of golf – yes, we have six championship golf courses, but whether it’s a par-three or putting course, we think that’s a relevant amenity to that segment of our membership. We’re also going to add a Toptracer range with 10 hitting bays this year, because we think that’s a gateway into the game that will help keep our golf program robust. 

We’re also looking at having an adult pool—while we have two big pools, with the intergenerational  conflict, we think some of the adults would appreciate a sanctuary or refuge-type of experience. And we’re looking at further expansion of our wellness centers. We have 52,000 sq. ft under roof as it is, but the minute we built it, or expanded it the last time, we realized it’s not big enough; we need more functional training space and redundancy in all of our strength-training equipment. I hate to use it as an example, but at Planet Fitness, they have a ton of equipment and redundancy of all their most popular pieces of equipment. And we believe that we need that because of the patronage we now have. 

Just in general, we’re all dealing with space constraints to some degree, because we’ve seen this influx of membership. Luxury by definition has the quality of abundance and space.  It has this perception of ‘I can do what I want to do when I want to do it with my friends, and I’m not standing in line or competing for tee times.’ So we’re giving a lot of thought to those elements as we think about the future of the club.

Mark Snure: We’re trying to stick to what we are. We changed our banquet policy and we’re now doing $4 million more a year in member revenue because the club’s more accessible—it doesn’t have all the charities and banquets glomming it up, and members want to be there and use it.