A Course by Any Other Name
Wildwood Country Club has a rich history that stretches back over a century, hosting not only a professional tour stop back in the 1930’s but also a young Arnold Palmer on a regular basis during his stint in the Coast Guard at the New Jersey shore.
While the private club relished the past, its focus was on a healthier future. That’s why Wildwood CC this year was renamed The Shore Club. The name change was just a part of the aging facility’s $1.5 million facelift, which started with an overhaul of the clubhouse’s exterior and is moving in phases to the irrigation, equipment, bunkers and clubhouse interior. The club’s return on its initial investment was almost immediate, as the club exceeded its 2018 membership target less than halfway into the year.
The former Wildwood CC is among a number of older private facilities that have undergone a full re-brand — and related investment — in order to appeal to wider pool of golfers and entice the next generation of members.
“From an industry experience, we see clubs realize they have to do something,” says Matt Galvin, the President and CEO of Morningstar Golf and Hospitality, an outside management company brought in to oversee The Shore Club’s operations. “It’s a new generation of golfers, so what do clubs have to do differently?”
When it came to the name change, though, there were different schools of thought among the existing membership, ranging from locals and retirees on a budget to those who live on Philadelphia’s thriving Main Line and have a $5 million shore house along with several other private club affiliations.
“There were people of strong opinions,”says Galvin. “Some wanted to keep the traditions of a 100-year old club and the Wildwood name, and then there was the argument that we believed in – that we wanted to convey the relaxed elegance that this is your shore club. And we didn’t want one specific town name – it didn’t matter if it was Wildwood, Cape May or Avalon – because that pigeon-holes you. We draw from a wide area and wanted to emphasize that.”
“We’re literally 5 minutes off the causeway,” Galvin adds, alluding to the road that leads to the nearby shore towns. “But you wouldn’t believe the number of people getting off one or two exits away, going to the island to Avalon or Stone Harbor all summer, who never even gave us a thought. Part of that is not only the re-brand but the effort behind it – we’re spending money on marketing that wasn’t spent before in order to build that identity.”
Greenacres Country Club in Central Jersey reopened this year with a new name, Cobblestone Creek, as well as a new look. A 14-acre underutilized parcel of the Lawrenceville property was sold for a condominium project and money brought in from the development paid off the club’s debt while also funding a redesign of the golf course and changes to the clubhouse.
“It’s a great story because so many of these private clubs are carrying debt that they can’t get out from under. That’s the anchor and it’s just mounting,” says architect Bobby Weed, who oversaw the renovation and repurposing project. “The clubs start losing revenue and members. The facilities aren’t kept to the highest level and the course slips. You fall out of the competitive marketplace and fall into a spiral. That’s what was happening at Greenacres.”
Weed sold members on the concept to rezone a parcel within the property, entitle it to a higher and better use, and sell it to a national homebuilder. It would then be developed with 97 townhome units, with each homeowner becoming, at minimum, a social member of Cobblestone Creek, thereby creating an ongoing revenue stream for the club. For the township, it has created an entirely new tax base, opened some green space for recreational usage and helped enhance nearby property values.
Like a lot of mid-level private clubs, Greenacres took a hit after the Great Recession and membership numbers declined in a crowded market.
“We knew we had to become more competitive in the market, we needed to modernize and improve our golf course and facilities, and in a lot of ways rethink how we were going to appeal to those who are buying into country clubs these days,” said Howard Deutsch, a 20-year member who has spent the past six as the club’s president. “So we approached that in an aggressive and orderly fashion.”
Weed’s major work on the golf course included seven new holes and a relocation of the practice area, but fairways, bunkers and greens on all 18 holes were overhauled. In addition, the upper level of the clubhouse was totally refurbished to give it a more contemporary look and feel, a new outdoor dining area was added, and a new pool complex created. Almost 70 new members have already joined, and that’s before sales have even begun on the townhomes.
“They took a leap of courage for sure, but they saw the vision we presented and they bought into that,” says Weed. “Then they took it to another level, re-branding, renaming and really starting anew.”
In Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, Meadowlands Country Club became Bluestone Country Club after the owners of a nearby inn purchased the financially-strapped private club and made investments that included a multimillion dollar renovation of the country house that’s now the social hub of the facility.
The club’s name was changed in 2017 and over the past two seasons Bluestone has added 135 golf members and another 25 social memberships. The annual number of rounds-played has increased by more than 3,000 and revenue from cart and guest fees has also jumped “significantly,” said head pro Chris Gardner. Additionally, merchandise sales in the golf shop have doubled since the new name and logo were unveiled.
At the Jersey Shore, the transformation at Wildwood started when a group of members stepped up to purchase the club after hearing that a sale was being considered.
“We said we can’t let it go to anybody,” said Bob Noel, who’s in his third year as club president and shepherded the purchase process. “If you put it on the open market and sell the course, you have no control over what happens. These were members who loved the course for what it is and wanted to preserve it as best we could. We had three major objectives: recapitalize, rebrand and revitalize.”
The club put $150,000 into new equipment, removed trees, paved the cart paths and brought in a new fleet of carts. The masterplan also includes irrigation improvements around the greens and the re-do of about 45 bunkers at about $4,000 apiece.
But the very first step was to change the outside façade of the dated clubhouse and improve its curb appeal. The new name was a part of that facelift.
“If people can’t get past the front door, they don’t care what your 18th green looks like,” said Morningstar’s Galvin, who previously spent 17 years operating golf properties with RDC Golf Group. “But the course is the most important thing, so we’re making sure that gets the right money allocated to it. The property is now debt free and all members had bonds repaid. It’s in very healthy financial position.”
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