PFOS: Takeaways from Nashville
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Private clubs are becoming increasingly dynamic as the industry continues to adapt to a changing and complex world—in part, thanks to the creativity and innovation enacted by individuals bringing a fresh yet respectful perspective to the private club experience. In our last installment of this series, we gathered insights from Jeff Hartigan about enhancing the overall culture and experiences at his club.
In this issue, we spoke with David Porter, CCM, GM/CEO of Greystone Golf and Country Club (GGCC) located in Birmingham, Alabama. Dave brings nearly 26 years of professional experience to his role and has had an incredible impact on each club he has been a part of—two of which went platinum within five years. Dave’s commitment to not only his club and its members, but also his staff, is a true inspiration—and his fresh perspective on club operations, programming and training is one to be admired.
DP: I’ve been in the industry since 1992—I actually started working part-time at the Philadelphia Cricket Club while I was in college. In school, they offered a co-op program where students were required to work in a leadership position for one semester. At the time, Kevin Keenan, the general manager at White Manor Country Club was kind enough to give me a shot, and for $400 a week, I got the chance to be clubhouse manager. During that semester, I immersed myself in the role wholeheartedly and helped out wherever I could—from plunging toilets to leading black tie affairs. White Manor is a smaller family club, so it was a great place to start out and gave me the opportunity to jump in and learn the ins and outs of what it takes to keep a club running. That semester ended, but my role as clubhouse manager didn’t.
A few years later, I was planning to move to a new club and had put my notice in at White Manor. Shortly after, Kevin called me into his office to break the news that he was leaving and said club leadership didn’t want me to leave—so they asked if I would take his place as General Manager. I was twenty-six years old. One of my first tasks was to conduct a Membership Survey, which was also my first time being involved with that sort of thing. That’s actually how I was first introduced to Chambers. I saw Rick Snellinger listed on the CMAA website and gave him a call, and he was kind enough to walk me through the entire process step by step.
A few years later, I was put in contact with Westmoreland Country Club in Chicago. I jumped at the opportunity when they offered me a position there as GM. Looking back, I remember sitting at my desk for the first time, looking out at the city skyline and thinking…what do I do now? Four years later WCC became a Platinum Club—so I guess I figured it out! Later, after the Midwest winters began to take their toll, I received a call from a search firm asking if I had any interest in moving to Hilton Head, South Carolina to work at Belfair. Ha—I was actually sitting in my car during a snowstorm when the phone rang, so my answer was definitely yes. I was at Belfair for eight years—during which time it became a Platinum Club and later an Emerald Club as well—before ultimately making the switch to where I am now, Greystone Golf and Country Club.
DP: Greystone is a gated community, but membership isn’t mandatory for homeowners, which keeps me on my toes. Currently, there are 1,400 residents in the community and only 500 of them are members at our club—not including 350 members who live outside of the gates. We also manage the HOA, which is an interesting dynamic. Our biggest challenge is trying to grow the membership. Birmingham is full of historic clubs and at twenty-seven years old, GGCC is fairly young in comparison and still somewhat trying to find its place. The area is certainly booming, but only so many people play golf. We’ve had to get creative!
DP: Most importantly, we have a Membership Director here at Greystone, which isn’t the case at all clubs. It is so helpful to have a team truly dedicated to these efforts—she has a staff of three who work to attend Chambers of Commerce events, make cold-calls, and really try to get ahead of attrition. On average, we were losing 10% of members each year while bringing in less than that. So, as mentioned, we got creative! Two of the most monumental events that come to mind include our car raffle and 25th anniversary referral incentive.
The car raffle went like this: each time a current member brought in a new member, their name was placed into a drawing. Recruiting a social membership would get you one raffle ticket and a golf membership would get you two. The best part? The prize was a Mercedes. We threw a huge party to announce the winner—300 people came! We parked three Mercedes on the lawn—all in the $40k range—and the raffle winner got to select which car they wanted. Greystone and Mercedes split the cost—it was a wonderful success.
The other event, in celebration of our anniversary, included providing all members a leatherette certificate holder to give to a friend or family member. That friend or family member would receive 50% off the initiation fee if they decided to join GGCC. We also provide additional referral incentives to our members, such as club gift cards for apparel or food.
These programs have done a wonderful job of boosting membership levels, and we’re now happy to be at a place where large “gimmicks” like this are no longer needed. We’re down to losing only 5% of members a year while bringing in a significant number of new members…so retention has drastically improved. Now more than ever, current and prospective members are drawn to the unique programs and services we provide…which is all we could ask for.
DP: Absolutely! Programming is huge here…and we make every effort to stay as innovative as possible. To do so, we divide programs into two ‘boxes’—daily programs and unique events. When it’s obvious that members respond well to a particular program, we make sure to keep it around so that there are certain activities they can always count on. And we make sure to try something for a few months before changing it up so that members don’t start to question what is happening around the club when.
A few that have really been successful are our Live Music Fridays, Wine Down Wednesdays, and Italian Nights. And here in the south, we love our southern food—so twice a month we host a buffet night including family bingo, which is really popular. We’ve also started hosting a Fall Lecture Series for an interesting and educational twist. Most recently, we brought in the daughter of a holocaust survivor—her words really moved all of us.
We know our members lead busy lifestyles, so we try to offer as many convenient options as possible. We set up a little store called “The Chef’s Corner” for members to pick up grab-n-go food like mac-n-cheese, pies, chicken salad, etc. We are also about to launch a pizza delivery service for members inside the gates—and recently, we’ve started a lawn chemical and irrigation repair program for homes in the community. In part, this is a recruitment strategy as much as a convenience benefit. We hope that neighbors who aren’t members of the club will see that there is a true value in a Greystone membership, which encourages them to at least inquire about what the club has to offer.
DP: We are a family-oriented club and daily programming that the whole family can enjoy is really important to us. We want the kids here at GGCC to have as much fun as their parents! To do so, we started implementing themed breakfasts where employees dress up in a variety of costumes—from princesses to super heroes. We’ve also brought in a zoo keeper before, who met with the kids and talked about different animals. We’ve created sports camps as well that cater to ages 5-18—involving tennis, swimming, golf, fitness and so on. And every Thursday, we have an ice-cream bar where children 12 and under eat for free. This past Easter we even hosted an Easter Egg Hunt and dropped the eggs out of a helicopter—the kids loved it!
One of the more exciting and inventive things we’ve incorporated is a specific youth membership category for children age 7-25 where the kids are actually the golf members—not their parents. They go through a certification program and are then able to go out on the course and play by themselves just like any other adult golf member. It’s an extremely vibrant program that not only caters to children in our community, but also develops them as the next generation of GGCC members. We want to provide people with as many options as possible to join our club—no matter what age!
DP: I think the most important thing to remember is that you have to hire for the needs of the club. For example, we’ve had really innovative chefs come in that have unique cooking styles and creative menu ideas—but if they aren’t okay with cooking burgers and southern food too, they aren’t the right fit. We’re big on building a quality, humble team. You have to be willing to leave your ego at the door—we focus on working together, not on status.
I’ll admit I also make a point to go to nice restaurants in the city and poach the best servers. For certain positions, I make a promise to my staff that they’ll make at least $40k a year. If, at the end of the year they only see $37k, then the club writes them a check for the rest. We also offer competitive benefits. It’s important for me to make my staff a priority just as I do our members.
DP: Actually, I recently implemented ‘Greystone University’ here—a mandatory training program that includes four courses and 36 hours of work. The courses are meant to teach club history and operations, financials, the importance of the member experience, and leadership skills. I personally teach the courses but I also bring in guest speakers—including esteemed general managers from respected clubs and even our own members who touch on what they look for out of a private club experience.
We’re currently in the third of four sessions with 75 employees enrolled. At the end of the training, those who receive an A get a $1,000 bonus, those with a B get a $750 bonus, and those who receive a C get a $500 bonus. If they don’t get at least a C in each session, they can’t advance to the next course. We’ve already seen a huge transformation in performance, morale, and employee culture as a result. Our staff is more connected to both their role and the club, which ultimately translates into a better club experience for the members!
Be on the lookout for more insights in future editions of our Meet the Manager series!
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