By Ed Shanaphy, USPTA, PTR
St. Patrick’s Day remains the key date in my mind. Schools closing, grocery store chains changing hours to clean and disinfect. The New York Subway closing at night. Covid was here and we knew it. We tuned in to the news morning and night for updates. It was like a New York State blizzard that I remember as a child just without the snow – a blizzard of information about an oncoming blizzard of illness.
Posts across social media asked genuine questions to our industry: Can we play tennis? Will clubs be able to operate? Personal friends of mine in the industry called wondering if they should order inventory and how to approach furloughing an assistant pro. How could we compete with these bigger companies and get noticed by the big banks for a PPP Loan to pay our pros?
They were, and still are, scary times. Times that we as a people, a sport, an industry, a nation, and as inhabitants of this earth have never experienced. The sky turned a different hue of blue without contrails. People stayed home and waited. I started planning.
Tennis, Communication and Covid
Tennis is a socially distant sport. If we could find a way to teach without really having close contact with other participants, the virus couldn’t travel 72 feet. Could it? As it turns out, tennis was mentioned as one of the safest activities, even in comparison to golf. But back in March, I was left scratching my head trying to figure out how I could convert a 6-person per court, profitable clinic to a “break-even” activity with three per court… or less. But, more importantly, service the members to the highest degree and keep them informed regarding activities and policies at the club.
Perhaps the most crucial decisions made by both staff and myself were over communications, both back in May and all the way through to today. My wife is a PR expert and has served global companies and conglomerates as their spokesperson, their lead communicator, their firefighter. I let her weigh in early in April as I started to plan and reach out to the membership. Constant and efficient, she said: “Communication has to be constant and efficient.”
I have a degree in economic history. Here in lock-downs and battles over reopening, we were creating it. In past economic crises, people panic. Runs on banks, foreclosures, the stuff of It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey. I kept thinking of George and how he fought to the last dollar of the Bailey Buildings and Loans.
I fought hard for a small PPP loan to assure my summer pros that they would at least have a portion of their income. I knew I had to keep them involved and intact, and asked them to prepare short videos to both the adult and junior members at the club with tennis tips and fun anecdotes about their quarantine. I kept releasing those videos, one by one, through the month of April.
Communication had to be constant. I explored various avenues and routes to communicate, with not only the 700 plus members, but also the thirty-two staff members: teaching instructors, members’ services personnel, front desk personnel, and maintenance staff. In looking back, my wife was right. I’ve never had more people say “Thank You” for all your communication. Communication was key – it marketed the programming and the staff in new ways the membership had never seen. And it reached out to members who never had participated in any programming but were stuck at home with few activities. With high occupancy, courts were hard to come by and many non-participants signed up for clinics as there were fewer courts to reserve.
The Need to be Able to Service Membership Needs Through Planning and Quick Pivoting
I worried that members would all be in residence at either the primary homes or their summer homes. I was fielding calls asking if I would have any programming at the Club in the summer, and if so, when would it start so they could set the dates for seasonal rentals. In March I didn’t have an answer to that member/renter question, but, by mid- April, I did.
Firstly, I knew if I were forced to teach fewer members per court, I would have to change some hourly rates with staff along with adding some additional professionals on hand. I had looked out for my returning staff and had paid them through the month of May a third of what they made last summer through the PPP loan. I made a few calls to inner-city professionals and directors of tennis who I thought might be out of work. I discussed with them how I could use their help if they weren’t working. I was able to find three part-time pros, all as qualified as I, willing to help in case we really did get the summer underway.
I was worried about getting balls delivered – the closing of warehouses through lock-downs and the over-stretched delivery services. You can’t teach tennis without tennis balls. I hedged my bets and ordered balls through two companies early in March in addition to my already ordered 40-cases of logo balls and 50 cases of practice balls. I put my clothing orders on hold and called three companies for accessories like string, overgrips, and wristbands and got those orders prepared. I heartily accepted my board’s recommendation to hand two cans of free balls to each member – another reason to communicate to the members, but also to help defray the abundance of balls I might have and their cost. We were working together to get the members out on the courts and, hopefully, have a somewhat normal summer given the circumstances.
Watching other clubs and how they were progressing, I recommended a no-guest policy as other clubs were restricting guests on club property. As we slowly opened the courts three weeks delayed from our usual date in mid- May, and then started to put our toes in the water in terms of adult programming, we found a pent-up demand for tennis and the outdoors, I kept insisting on no guests. No guests for clinics either. Lucky I did, because after the first week with limited spots for each clinic offering, there were waiting lists on every hour of our 27-hour clinic program across both juniors and adults. I called in my reinforcements and added courts. But as soon as I depleted the wait-list, there were another four members on it at the bottom of the electronic booking. I expanded again, and again. Four per court.
Family only junior clinics was my plan for the juniors. The first two weeks, we expanded up to 8 courts at times with an hour allocated to each family who had signed up. Through a scattered, but methodical schedule which didn’t allow the bike rack or driveway to become overburdened and dangerous, we ended up teaching across 4 courts for 3 hours and then up to 8 courts for 6 hours and met the demand of each and every family who had wanted to be a part of junior clinics. Basically, every day was a family private lesson – all at the lower junior clinic rate. There was absolutely no profit margin, but at least we were outside teaching, I kept thinking. It has to improve.
It did. And here’s the interesting part: I personally taught juniors whom I had never had on the court before. They got to know me and I got to know them…and their parents. The parents saw the programming adjustments and the additional high-level professionals I had brought in. They saw the staff communicating and attempting to make normal a very abnormal summer. By July, when the Massachusetts Governor reopened to a greater level, we were ready to pivot. Programming had provided an outlet for a quarantined family – across both adults and juniors – and we had had a wonderful opportunity to introduce it family by family, email by email. Constant and efficient. Just not profitable. But those two weeks were, in essence, a loss-leader as I had learned in economics. It was almost as if I were starting a whole new business, again.
It’s September now, and families are usually ready to head back to Boston, New York, or if they live in the community here, back to the local public and private schools. This year is different. Schools are delayed and some are internet-based only. We continue and will continue to serve the membership for a few more weeks through to mid-October. I’ve arranged additional housing to keep teaching professionals and membership services staff slightly longer.
I know we will never have another summer like this. There were no youth camps, no European family holidays, no weekend trips to visit the grandparents. Everyone was hunkered down in town and tennis was one of the few safe outlets. But, we were offered the chance to market programming to a very receptive membership under circumstances no one could have ever imagined. Now it’s trying to retain those levels. Time to start planning again.
Ed Shanaphy is President and CEO of BeyondTheBaselines.com, a national consultancy serving the country club industry. In summers, he serves as Director of Tennis at one of the largest summer programs in Massachusetts, Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, MA. Through the winter months he serves the membership at Orchid Island Golf and Beach Club, Vero Beach, FL.