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Private clubs are becoming increasingly dynamic as the industry continues to adapt to a changing and complex world. In many ways, clubs that have been successful in this regard are managed by creative and innovative individuals bringing a fresh yet respectful perspective to the private club experience.
In this Meet the Manager series, we’ll highlight young, up-and-coming managers who are truly forging ahead in these times of change. In this issue, we met with Paul Spencer, General Manager of Birmingham Athletic Club (BAC) in Michigan. A certified sommelier with a background in the culinary arts, Spencer has a history of enhancing the food and service experiences, supporting membership growth and retention, and developing strategic capital campaigns. We sat down to discuss his club journey thus far, as well as some of the exciting changes he has made since his arrival at BAC eighteen months ago.
CR: How long have you been involved with the private club industry?
PS: I have been working in the industry for about 12 years now. I actually studied culinary arts in Scottsdale and was planning to be a Chef, but I was offered the Dining Room Manager position at Meadowbrook Country Club in Michigan. I worked there for 8 years and held a series of positions from Dining Room Manager to Director of Food and Beverage to Clubhouse Manager. Then, I transitioned to becoming the Club Manager at Point O’ Woods Golf & Country Club where I was later promoted to General Manager. I came to BAC as the General Manager in 2016. I grew up near BAC and it was a great opportunity to move back close to home, but I also saw such great opportunities to make a difference at the Club and bring new ideas.
CR: What is the biggest change you have noticed at BAC since you began?
PS: At BAC, we have three core values—quality, efficiency and consistency—which impact every aspect of the Club. When I started, I began focusing on service, first and foremost. We’ve created dedicated staff training programs where we teach a consistent approach so every member is given the same excellent service on a consistent basis. Our staff is vast—from age 16 to 65—and I want each one of them to be engaged and involved. Communication is key and we make sure to engage the front of house staff with back of house so we can create one cohesive team environment. This has made the biggest difference. One example—we have staff tastings every Friday night so the staff is not only knowledgeable of the menu, but can also offer insight into how the meals may need to be altered based on what they know about what the members like.
There are always ways to improve, but we’ve made great progress in the last year. We’ve also started to offer new programs and dining options that are simple, fast, and casual to cater to young members and their families. The Club is now open on days it was previously closed, too. It’s all working together to offer members a better experience, which is evident in the uptick we’ve seen in a la carte revenues.
CR: What changes have you seen in membership growth in the last year and a half?
PS: Absolutely. In the last year, we have added 47 new members, which is more than the last 2 fiscal years combined. Like most private clubs, we don’t market. About 95% of our members are referred by other members, so the key is to continually enhance the BAC experience, which encourages members to bring their friends. Specifically, BAC focuses on young families—our average member age is 40 years old, which is 5 years younger than in years past. We have a very young membership, which means most of our members have children, so we cater our approach toward them.
We’ve also modified the membership process, which has enabled us to approve member applications more quickly and more effectively onboard new members once they join. Communicating with new members is important, too. Recently, I held a meeting with several members who have joined in the last 5 years to get their feedback on their current Club experience. These are our newest members and also the best predictors of how we can appeal to new members who likely have similar interests.
CR: What are some ways of the ways you cater to young families?
PS: We have a variety of indoor and outdoor programs catered toward children of all ages. We offer swim, tennis, and squash, among other activities and we have very strong junior programs in each—about 65 children enrolled in Junior Squash, 150 on the Swim Team, and 200 in the Junior Tennis program. It’s a great way for children and their families to have fun at the Club, while building those skills at a young age.
During the summer, we have Camp BAC, which has a variety of supervised outdoor activities. We added tether ball this past summer in an open lawn area near the pool, and it was utilized all summer long. We also installed a putt-putt course for the kids to enjoy and even hosted a water balloon fight this summer, which they loved. We actually have a dedicated Kid’s Committee made up of 15 children, so it’s great to get their direct feedback as to what activities they’d like to see at the Club. Many of them have such minimal cost for the amount of use and enjoyment the kids gain from them.
We also have a dedicated Youth Room, which we recently updated with new tabletop games that have been a huge hit. We’ve created focused dining programs to cater to families, too. Tuesday nights are our themed nights—Tuscan Tuesday, for example. All items on the menu are under $10 and it marries up with our Squash events so it provides members with a quick and easy meal. We also encourage carry out. We are always trying to find ways to make BAC more valuable for our members.
CR: How would you say BAC stands out against other athletic clubs?
PS: The experience offered at BAC is a tremendous value. I’d say there are a few ways we stand out—our vast variety of both summer and winter offerings, our commitment to providing an exemplary member experience, and the members themselves. Our ultimate goal is to always find ways to enhance the membership experience. Good is not good enough. I have a friend who calls it the “E3 Service” method— “Exceeding Expectations Everyday.” I’ve wholeheartedly embraced this motto and do my best to instill this in BAC’s staff. This translates into more personal interactions between members and staff, which elevates the overall experience.
We have a significant social aspect to our Club, too. We have a friendly membership and they like to spend time with one another. We try to celebrate that with specifically targeted events and programs. We recently hosted a millennial mixer that really catered to our under 30 tennis crowd. We’ve also hosted events for members who have belonged to the club for over 25 years, which was the most successful of these events to date. It’s a great way for members to relax and unwind with their friends in a very fun environment.
CR: What steps have you taken to enhance communications with your members?
PS: Communication is critical and this has been an area of focus of mine since my arrival at BAC. First, personal connections are key, so I make it a point to get to know each and every member just by walking through the clubhouse and talking to the members. We have also strengthened our electronic communications with transparency and consistency. In today’s world, it is easy to understand effectiveness by studying open rates and click rates. We send out a monthly newsletter, as well as a weekly email from me and other emails to promote specific events at the club. We found that by keeping our communications very consistent, i.e. by sending my “From the General Manager” email every Thursday at the same time in the afternoon, open rates rose 10%.
We have also added a Club App which has been well worth the investment. We use the app for quick, one-click booking for courts, making reservations, and ordering food and drinks—from the comfort of their own couch at home, or while they are lounging by the pool. Members can stay connected to the Club anywhere at any time. It is also a way for members to alert our staff of maintenance issues. One of the bathroom soap dispensers wasn’t working recently and a member sent us an alert about it. It was fixed in a few hours. The app has contributed to a significant increase in revenue, but has also a dramatically improved member engagement. It is also another great way to brand the club. Members can upload and view photos of their fellow members which helps strengthen the sense of community at BAC.
CR: All private clubs are unique, but if you had to choose one thing that makes BAC truly special, what would it be?
PS: The members. Our membership is so special—we have a tremendous culture that has evolved over time. It is a warm and welcoming group that is very down to earth. We have such personal interactions between members themselves, between members and staff, and also equal interaction between children and adults. It’s like one big family here and that social connection is very evident as soon as you walk through the door. It’s great for potential members to see and this has played a large role in membership growth in recent years. If you asked our members this question, I think 100% of them would agree that the membership is the best part of BAC.
Be on the lookout for more insights in future editions of our Meet the Manager series!