Getting to Know David Porter, CCM
General Manager/CEO at Greystone Golf & Country Club in Birmingham, ALRead More
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 Paul Spencer about enhancing member communications, catering to families, and enhancing levels of service throughout the club.
In this issue, we spoke with Traci Bichalski, CCM, CCE, general manager of Great Oaks Country Club in Michigan. Traci brings 23 years of professional experience to this role, having quickly risen to leadership positions early on in her career. Traci brings a thoughtful perspective, canny expertise and fresh ideas to Great Oaks while enhancing the overall experience, connectivity and sense of community within the club. We sat down with her to discuss her journey thus far, as well as some of the exciting changes she has made since her arrival at Great Oaks 4.5 years ago.
CR: How long have you been in the private club industry? What was your first role?
TB: I have been working in the industry since 1995 – so for about 23 years now. I actually started my journey as a Beverage Cart Girl in Jacksonville, Florida at the Champions Club at Julington Creek, which was a semi-private club at the time. I was living off the first fairway and looking for a part-time job that was close to home, so this seemed like the perfect fit. Within weeks, however…really, weeks!…I was offered the Food and Beverage Manager role—thanks, in part, to my superiors at that time who really took me under their wing. I then moved back to my hometown in Michigan and accepted a position at Tam O’Shanter Country Club in West Bloomfield, where I worked as their Dining Manager.
Next, I journeyed to Knollwood Country Club where I started as their Dining Manager, then became the Clubhouse Manager, and later transitioned into an Interim General Manager role. Forest Lake Country Club was my next adventure where I began as Clubhouse Manager and was later promoted to General Manager. In total, I spent 7.5 years at Forest Lake before making the move to Great Oaks, which is located in Rochester, Michigan, where I have happily worked as the General Manager for the last 4.5 years. Rochester is a very quaint and thoughtful community, and we are fortunate to have such kind and generous members here at Great Oaks. It has truly been a wonderful experience thus far.
CR: What is the biggest change that you have noticed during your time at Great Oaks?
TB: How busy we are—it’s wonderful! We have seen a steady increase in both membership growth and utilization in recent years. Our revenue has increased drastically as a result—$1.5MM in the last 4.5 years. In 2017, our Social membership category reached capacity and we now have a waitlist for the first time in Great Oaks’ history. And we are currently very close to filling up the Golf membership as well. We have really pushed the envelope with a variety of creative programs and services to create a warm and relaxing environment for our members. By doing so, we’ve enticed members to spend more time at the Club—they want to be here and have opportunities to spend time with their family and friends…and we enjoy giving them more reasons to do so!
CR: What specific programs or facilities has Great Oaks incorporated to create that relaxing environment the members are looking for?
TB: At the beginning of the 2017 season, we added an expanded patio on the lower level with an additional fire pit. With generous views of the 18th green, this is very popular with our members, especially families. Now, with two of these areas, children can enjoy s’mores around one fire pit, while parents mingle around the second.
We have tried to offer unusual (but fun!) activities as well, such as our Arctic Open. It is a golf event held in the winter that uses a tennis ball and two golf clubs, and we offer chili and hot toddies for all participants afterwards. It’s lots of fun and great for camaraderie. We have a men’s dart league on Wednesday nights during the off-season, as well, which has really taken off in recent years. Sixty teams participate and enjoy dinner and drinks afterward.
We also made recent updates to our pool area by removing fencing, updating the surrounding landscape, removing a few trees, and adding large flat screen TV’s and granite, high-top tables to embody more of a resort-styled club. This has changed the dynamic of the pool experience drastically and has been very well-received by our members. In fact, we are preparing to add an adult Cabana Bar to the pool area next year, which members are really excited about.
CR: How do you see the role of families changing in the private club industry?
TB: When I started at Great Oaks, the average age of the membership was in the 60’s. Today, the average age of the membership as a whole has dropped down into the 50’s—but the average age of a new member is in their 40’s. These members typically have young families and are very interested in joining a club that will be fun for the whole family. A huge goal here at Great Oaks is to develop programs that cater to both children and adults, making the club a true family-friendly environment.
In fact, we actually created a Junior Program Director position. This person is tasked specifically with keeping kids active and involved with fun activities to help cater to this shift in private clubs. Some of these include family dining events like “Taco Tuesday” and weekly “Family Nights”, as well as youth-oriented programming like junior golf clinics in addition to our swim and tennis programs. We actually had to create additional junior golf clinics because there were so many kids interested in our junior golf program. We’ve also held youth-oriented cooking classes, nature walks, and arts and crafts events, just to name a few. I believe that when you keep the kids happy, the moms are happy… and when the women are happy, then the men are happy! [We chuckled.] You laugh, but this philosophy has proven to be true time and time again!
CR: How has Great Oaks taken steps to become more inclusive of women?
TB: We try our best to cater to all age groups here at Great Oaks by providing a wide variety of activities for our female members as well. We have a themed “Ladies Night Out” every Thursday during the off-season, and typically hire someone to host this event – ranging from magicians to comedians to wine sommeliers and even psychic nights. We enjoy mixing it up! There have even been nights where we treat our female senior members with a limo ride to bingo or the casino.
We’ve offered cooking classes, fashion shows and yoga in the winter months, too, when the club is technically closed to offer year-round appeal. I also have the pleasure of facilitating our book club, which I really enjoy. It gives me a chance to connect with the lady members even more. In general, I attend all events because it gives me the chance to build relationships with our members and better understand what kind of activities they would like to be involved with in the future.
CR: How has your experience been as a female General Manager over the years?
TB: It has been very gratifying, quite honestly. As a female, I feel very satisfied in my role and do not feel that I was faced with more obstacles on the road to General Manager for simply being a woman. I do think that my success is attributed to being honest and speaking up if ever there was a time where I felt I may have been treated unfairly. Nonetheless, I do feel that I have been given a fair shot during the entire trajectory of my career. Currently, I am the only woman in the Boardroom and I have not experienced any setbacks because of this. It has been a pleasant experience overall.
CS: What efforts has Great Oaks taken to increase member recruitment?
TB: One approach that we’ve found to be very successful is our “Pass or Preview” program. This allows prospective members the chance to temporarily bypass the initiation fee and only pay dues for the first 30 days as a trial period. Once the month is over, they can then decide if they would like to become a member of the club. This program has been in place since I have been at Great Oaks and we’ve continuously received positive feedback. And fortunately for us, we have a very genuine and loyal membership – many of our new members are family or friends of current members that came in as a referral.
We have also worked hard to connect with the millennial generation in many ways. As we’ve learned through many studies done by CMAA, millennials communicate differently. They’d rather receive messages via text rather than by phone or email, so our Marketing Director has responded to this need and communicates with many members directly via text message. Our younger members have responded well to this approach.
We’ve also seen that new technologies can have a great impact in unexpected ways. For instance, member-use of Geofilters at large events has been surprisingly effective for Great Oaks. Members take pictures on Snapchat with the Club’s Geofilter, which then allows their friends to see where they are and how much fun they are having—in turn, this makes them want to come join in on the fun as well! We recently added a Great Oaks smartphone app, too, in addition to transitioning to a Golf Genius Program for our golfers. Keeping current with technology is very important!
CS: How do you celebrate Great Oaks’ history while continuing to evolve and move forward to the future?
TB: Well, our 50th anniversary is coming up which is very exciting! To prepare, we created a Heritage Committee to help plan for the future to ensure we are prepared for the next 50 years as well. We actually created the committee 2 years ago, knowing that it would take time to prepare for 2021. Our members are pleased to see that we are being proactive and looking ahead, and they’re just as excited for the future of Great Oaks as we are.
We have also created a program called “Great Oaks Gives,” which involves a committee of people who work on charitable efforts. Because of this committee, we have fed the homeless, raised funds for the Yellow Ribbon Fund, held various blood drives and hosted food drives for Gleaners Food Bank. Twice a month for the last few years, we’ve also had the privilege to donate dinners to the local hospital for people who frequent their health education workshops. One event in particular that we were especially humbled to host was a charity ball in an effort to raise funds for local charities in our community. We are pleased to say that we had an exceptional turn out for this event and raised a large sum of money to help families in need of financial assistance following the loss of a loved one due to cancer. This group of members is truly the most generous and thoughtful group of people that I’ve ever had the privilege to work for!
Be on the lookout for more insights in future editions of our Meet the Manager series!