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By Scott Kauffman


On a recent evening at Bella Collina, the private lakefront community’s 75,000 square-foot Italianate clubhouse was bustling with activity as a couple hundred visitors enjoyed a night of fun and food. On the surface, this busy weekday wasn’t out of the ordinary for this popular Orlando-area golf club, or any other private club that might be hosting a special member event. 

                  However, what made this Bella Collina evening different is the fact it was composed of -members celebrating one of the many destination weddings now being hosted by this picturesque private residential golf club. As General Manager Jerry Thompson describes it, it’s a great way to bring “golfers” back into the club when it’s dark outside.


Welcome to the new-age private golf club.


                  At a time when clubs need to seek alpha in more creative ways due to the changing and challenging demographics of the golf and country club business, Bella Collina’s recently expanded ballroom and banquet facility is a prime example of how clubs are successfully integrating non-golf amenities as a stimulus for future membership and real estate sales growth.

                  Indeed, ever since DCS Investment Holdings acquired Bella Collina four years ago and added a resort-style pool complex, new tennis courts, 3,000-square-foot health and fitness center and 7,000-square-foot ballroom addition to the award-winning Marsh & Associates Tuscan-inspired clubhouse village, the club has quadrupled its wedding business and attracted a whole new membership base.

                  For instance, thanks to the newly expanded ballroom, sales and marketing director Stacy Sewell is now attracting larger wedding parties and earning a reputation as one of America’s leading venues for destination weddings. Meanwhile, Bella Collina’s broader family-oriented amenities have helped the club sell more than 400 invitational and sports memberships for those not entirely interested in playing the Nick Faldo-designed golf course.

                  All of these fresh new ideas and attractions are ways DCS Investment Holdings is evolving with the private club business and turning this formerly distressed residential community into a dynamic 1,900-acre low-density development with more than 50 homes built and another 30 underway.

                  In fact, Bella Collina’s picturesque property and proximity to Orlando was so compelling for Randall Greene of DCS Investment Holdings that he had his own wedding at the club.

                  “When we got married a couple years, my wife wanted to get married at the Breakers (in Palm Beach) or Italy,” says Greene, whose private equity group is led by noted businessman Dwight Schar. “But once she came here it was a natural. The venue sells itself. We have a lot of family and friends who had to fly in so we knew it was going to be a destination wedding. Orlando’s easy to get to and once you throw in our setting, it was like having our wedding in Italy at a fraction of the cost.”

                  To be sure, Bella Collina’s clubhouse is a major attraction in itself, but it’s the totality of the other amenity pieces that make the private club more complete and successful in the eyes of today’s consumer. For instance, Bella Collina sees a greater number of women and families utilizing the highly appointed spa and salon, tennis courts and resort-style pool complex that rivals any five-star getaway.

                  “When we purchased Bella Collina the community was full of strategic defaults and the club was losing millions,” Greene adds. “So the question was how do you pull out a recovery? One of the huge advantages we have is our beautiful setting and clubhouse.

                  “For instance, we’re one of the few clubs in Florida with a private natural spring-fed lake, not to mention being next to one of Florida’s largest lakes in the state (Lake Apopka). So another thing we’re considering are fishing packages or amenities. … The reality is you have to have all of these amenities today to succeed. It has to be a full-blown package and the package has to be up-to-date.”

                   If the decade of the 1990s was golf’s big development boom, this is the decade when private golf and country clubs will be defined by major renovations and reimaginations. Indeed, From coast to coast, private clubs are building new amenities from health and wellness centers to more dining areas and pools – all with the new-age private club family or member in mind that in many cases spans generations.

                  Consultant Whitney Reid Pennell says the top two main amenities she is seeing in her travels are fitness and social spaces. As she puts it, successful clubs are “making the club the third place in people’s lives.”

Reid’s firm has helped recreate a number of clubs, including Rolling Hills Country Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., which is undergoing a large capital commitment that encompasses a complete redesign of the course and brand new clubhouse featuring new health and fitness elements and social spaces.

                  “People are very busy,” says Reid Pennell, whose namesake firm Reid Consulting Services Inc., sites Myers Park in Charlotte, N.C., Wellesley Country Club in Boston and the Valley Club in Sun Valley, Idaho as other examples of clubs growing their membership with fresh new amenities. “A club’s biggest competitor is time. Clubs need to be convenient for members to use, and they need to make members feel like they to go to the club or they will be missing out on something great.”

                  For the private golf club industry to remain relevant and continue to prosper, Reid Pennell says it is imperative to be as innovative as possible, stay ahead of the curve and “always be thinking of the future.”

                  “Know your competition,” she adds. “Ask members what want. Club employees and managers need to travel to other clubs and visit top fitness facilities, not just in clubs.

                  “Boutique fitness is here to stay. Find a way to stay competitive in that space by offering group classes, or social opportunities to work out. Create challenges that keep members interested, track their results and give personalized service.”

                  That’s exactly what member-owned Ironwood Country Club is doing in Palm Desert, Calif. One of the club’s more successful additions was a new Fascia Stretch Therapy program offered at the club’s fitness center.

                  According to Ironwood General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Joshua Tanner, this new cutting age treatment focuses on stretching the fascia around the muscle, and is often described as being “more than a massage but less physical than physical therapy.”

                   “It is literally changing lives in the members who suffer from back pain, stiffness and low mobility,” Tanner adds. “We started with one certified trainer and now have four certified trainers on staff.  We converted two office spaces to therapy rooms and the program has increased revenues by $45,000 annually.”

                  Further spurred by the success of the Fascia Stretch Therapy program, Ironwood is thinking about other ways to make fitness and wellness an even greater part of the private club’s future and members’ lifestyle. To some, that might even mean an expansion to the club’s not-so-old 7,000-square-foot fitness center.

                   “We have seen year-over-year revenue growth in that area over the last six years,” Tanner says. “Almost $200,000 in revenue growth in six years. Increased member usage and changing demographics and priorities are driving the decision to increase and improve our wellness program.”

                  Global Golf Advisors partner Henry DeLozier is not surprised one bit, saying health and wellness facilities are paramount in the minds of his private club clients these days.

                  “It’s all about wellness facilities, which are far more than the fitness facilities of 10 years ago,” DeLozier says. “Wellness these days speaks to physical, emotional, nutritional, spiritual and experiential fitness. The second most attractive non-golf amenity is casual dining, by far. In some clubs seasonality makes casual dining an outdoor experience and in other clubs, the casual dining experience has become locus of socialization.”

                  Another commonplace element in many clubs’ future strategic plans are family-oriented water amenities.

                  “Club members nowadays, regardless of the status and standing of the club, have experienced terrific and innovative resort pool and water-sport amenities,” DeLozier says. “These amenities are family-friendly and, again, a focal point for summertime socialization and junior activities.”

                  Most importantly, DeLozier advises all clubs to keep those moms in mind

                  “It is women who influence the lifestyle at most successful clubs in today’s market,” DeLozier points out. “When re-imagining, clubs do well to provide women-friendly facilities and programs.”

                  Ultimately, however, it’s critical to truly understand the level of satisfaction, demographics and motivations of the entire membership, according to Private Club Associates partner Steve Paris.

                  “Clubs should not ‘guess’ what their members want or nor should a Board impose their ideas on the membership,” says Paris, pointing out that Lakewood Ranch in Sarasota, Fla., and Horseshoe Bend Country Club in Roswell, Ga., are great examples of thriving clubs. “Many times the makeup of the board does not represent all of the age groups or member categories offered at the club. For instance, if all the board members are golfers, they might not be in touch with the other needs. Clubs should do very specific surveys of the members before moving towards spending capital on amenities.”

                  Paris says new and improved fitness amenities are front and center these days. Other popular trends: pool complexes incorporating “splash” pools for kids and updated or renovated dining areas that become more casual in nature, and in many cases, flat out eliminate formal dining.

                  The Oaks Club in Osprey, Fla., is another perfect representation of where member-owned clubs are going. After working with DeLozier’s Global Golf Advisors firm on a strategic plan for the future, the Oaks Club’s 535 resident owners and 900-plus members were surveyed and fitness was first on their “wish list” in part because the club didn’t have one.

                  “When I first came here, my jaw almost dropped when I learned the club didn’t have a fitness club,” says General Manager/Chief Operating Officer Jeff Hartigan. “But remember, this was a 30-year-old club and the trend back then was most resident dedicated one of their bedrooms as their fitness room.”

                  Not anymore. After further planning and a majority vote of the membership, the Oaks Club is now building a new $2.5 million, 8,000-square-foot fitness center above the club’s cart barn. And part of the more personalized services will be Titleist Performance Institute (TPI) golf-oriented training when the new facility opens in March 2017.

                  Next up for the Oaks will be more casual dining and something that is more experiential in nature.

                  “As society transitions and our membership rolls over, the fine dining days of jackets and ties are slowly being phased out,” says Hartigan, who previously worked at the prestigious Interlachen Country Club in Orlando. “Baby boomers want to be more casual and enjoy outdoor facilities. They want things like dining pits and interactive kitchens.

                  “We’re fortunate at the Oaks because we have a very interactive culinary team. But our goal for the future is further enhancing our club’s dining experience so residents and members stop leaving the gates to go out to eat.”

                  By getting the food and beverage part right, along with other family-oriented and health-related amenities/programs, the Oaks Club and others are finding out this doesn’t only keep members and guests inside the gates, but it also winds up attracting more members their clubs.

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