As country clubs, gated communities and facilities close across the country due to the Corona Virus, we have a moment to pause, reflect, and learn. Let’s take this opportunity to do those things that we never have time to do. Although these are dark times, let’s throw light on our own business in the country club industry. Take this truly unfortunate and unpredictable crisis and make the best out of it in terms of using the opportunity and the time given at home to investigate, learn and make better our offerings at our country clubs and in the tennis and fitness departments.
The Corona Virus is hitting us in the country club industry hard – very hard. No part of the economy is truly immune. Coming at a time where we in the industry sometimes see thirty to forty percent of our annual revenue during Spring Break, this year will be marked by a lack of revenue and praying that we “flatten the curve”. The virus has certainly flattened the revenue curve.
Today at Windsor Club, in Vero Beach, we saw the true extent of the finality of the situation, and just how affected are country clubs. Courts were marked “Closed” and the tennis shop and clubhouses were locked tight as the sun shone brightly with no rain in the forecast. It’s not a pretty scene for any country club, tennis club or fitness facility. With fitness facilities under immense pressure to close due to germ transfer, we were hard pressed to find a light at the end of the tunnel. But there is a light in the tunnel.
We have been given an opportunity of time. Time where we are not servicing members and clients on a daily basis. Time where we are at home with our data. Time where we can work on those items that are always pushed to the back burner.
The Big Picture
Look at the big picture. This is your chance to rework that budget for 2020/2021. You’ll never have a better time to work on a new business plan for your department, business, or club. Now is the time as we are forced to hibernate in our homes.
Look at your systems. We are reworking our Intuit Quickbooks Desktop settings to make billing easier this summer at our managed clubs. Can you reword your point of sale system on Jonas, or Northstar, to make billing clinics and lessons faster and simpler? If you’d like some help, let us know. We have specialists on all point of sale systems ready to help.
You have time to create that report in your point of sale system that will break down your revenue streams just the way you have always wanted them. What is the true ratio between personal training and group classes in your fitness facility? Have revenues from the spa grown in comparison to personal training and group classes revenues? If so, how much and why? Did you teach more private tennis lessons in 2019 than in 2018? What was the ratio and revenue breakdown between your junior and adult programs?
These larger questions will bring us a new focus when we are able to resume at our clubs and facilities.
When I started in marketing and advertising at the tender age of 22 in London, England, I kept hearing the term “The Back End.” In the days which will be known as P.A. (Pre-Amazon), the “back end” referred to the fulfillment side of any direct marketing business. Taking or receiving the order, applying that order to the correct advertising outlet, picking and packing the order, slipping in additional up-sells, whether on the telephone or in the outgoing shipment, and then following up the order with great customer service… this was “the back end.” Seems simple, but I spent more than 50 percent of my time working on the back end. I’m a marketing guy – I love the print ads, the outgoing emails and catalogs, the creation of radio and television spots. I didn’t like the back end, but it took most of my time. It does for any excellent Director of Tennis or Fitness too.
How many times have I heard the expression: “You just chase fuzzy yellow balls around the court all day.” This is the viewpoint most have of tennis professionals. I wish it were that easy.
Slowly, the club world is getting smarter. They are realizing they are indeed a business that has to show profit in all divisions, whether it be tennis, fitness, golf or food and beverage. I advise all the clubs we work with to put in a limit to the number of hours a Director of Tennis or Fitness should be on the court or gym floor. Why? Because the back end takes more and more time as you produce a better and better product. Amazon changed the “Back End” to “Cascading Fulfillment” – which was that software would go through the closest warehouses to the customer and assign the pick and pack at the first warehouse that had inventory. Interesting to note that I now see Amazon with its own delivery trucks – they too are always enhancing the back end.
The back end starts with the order. Your marketing strategies have worked and you have a member that wants to book a clinic, a lesson, a personal training hour, or a yoga class. Great! Now make that as easy as possible. Members see different avenues to bookings. Older members like the paper signups on the wall or bulletin board. My age group (40s and 50s) seems to like computer-based software. The younger generation wants to simply text their order and let us deal with it. All are possible and offering many different ways to booking an hour or a group instruction session enhances the ordering experience. Think about this, you can still mail an order to Vineyard Vines, you can call with your order or you can email directly off the website. Three different ways to order. No one way is the best way in tennis or fitness either.
I’ve worked at clubs where all bookings had to go through the front desk. What a slow, sloggy and sloppy way to deal with members. A lot of times, the front desk is too busy to take 100 percent of the bookings in a meaningful way. They are not sure of the intent of the member given they probably only have a few seconds to deal with the booking. Lighten that front desk staff’s load and let members order online or by text. Let the professionals, either on the court or on the floor, have access to the books and use their phones right on the floor or court. When you go to an AT&T store, the advisor walks around with you and books your order right on an IPAD. We should be doing the same at country clubs whether it’s for a tennis lesson, a Pilates class, or even a food order in the restaurant.
Perhaps the best opportunity to upsell another session is right after that member has enjoyed the session and wants more. In fact, if your trainers or pros are independent contractors, they really have to control their own books 100 percent of the time. So they should have access to the booking software system at all times, from anywhere. Yes from anywhere, because a member may text that pro while the pro is at dinner asking for a lesson the next day. Don’t miss that revenue stream.
Software is only as good as the people using it. Ensure that all staff understand the club’s booking and billing software thoroughly. There is no longer a position known as just a “teaching pro”. All teaching pros and fitness instructors are actually club ambassadors, always looking to enhance the member experience. Most teaching pros are independent contractors, and under that status, have to indeed complete their own billing at all times. If the Club does the billing for the pro or fitness instructor, the classification of that worker just became an employee.
Software can be progressive. If the database in your tennis software is up to date with cell phones, why not download that member database to a google voice account and add texting as one of your communication streams. We advise to confirm every lesson, every clinic and every tournament via text. Great way to limit any questions later on about billing.
Reserving courts was often a rush to the phone at 7am the day before where a member of staff was taking the calls on one line. With software, 16 courts can be booked within 30 seconds and members can see the courts being populated as they put in their own reservation. How truly transparent is that? No one can complain they didn’t have an opportunity or were a victim of favoritism by the front desk staff. It is, in fact, “Cascading Fulfillment” which seeks the next available stock item – in this case, a tennis court. If you have your software right and you know which professionals are available, you can cascade fulfill your instructors as well! “Joe is not available for a lesson, but Joanne is if that would work for you…”
Upsells and Customer Service
In the marketing industry, this is when we have the customer on the phone line and say: Would you like a second item and receive free shipping and handling? Why don’t we do more of this in the tennis and fitness industry? Why not, after a clinic try this: “Did you like your clinic? Well book the next three clinics for 20% off right now on court.” Or, would you like to combine a healthy lunch at the Clubhouse with your personal training session today? The revenue streams and combinations are endless – but we seem content to sit back and let the members come to us. This isn’t helping the member and it isn’t helping the bottom line, either.
Excellent customer service comes with follow-ups. Follow up emails to the member perhaps outlining the exercises they completed during their personal training session that day, or reviewing the grip change you made halfway through the tennis lesson on their volley. Reinforcement creates progression and change, and it’s not an easy battle to get a western grip volley to a continental grip! But during this follow-up process, you’ll be amazed at how many bookings you might take during a follow up phone call or email.
Thank your member for taking the clinic or the lesson and then thank them again at the end of the year or season. Take the time to introduce them to the new staff and watch the bookings come in. It’s all about the back end. No matter how well you can hit a ball or how fast you can run a mile, you’ll find that the back end brings in more revenue than any other factor within a club’s department.
Ed Shanaphy is Director of Tennis at Sippican Tennis Club in Marion, MA and a USPTA teaching professional who constantly realizes that his marketing is better than his backhand. He is President of SBW Associates, a leading consulting service in the country club industry.
From Phone Books to Contacts and Club Chits. Communication Is Vital.
We’ve asked each and every club and home owner association with which we have worked what would be their number one criterion for a new Director of Tennis or Fitness. It wasn’t that they were once ranked top 500 on the ATP Tour or that they competed at Crossfit Nationals. It was simply: communication, communication, communication.
Not to sound like a real estate agent emphasizing location, but it’s so true. In this day and age where we spend more time looking at our phones than speaking to other humans, it’s essential that we communicate through each medium presented to us. This holds true in the world of tennis and fitness.
Tradition versus Modernity
As I continue to work in the industry after a career in marketing and advertising, I realize that the speed of communication changes really from generation to generation. In my grandparents’ day, we had to wait for the Telegram, the fastest mode of communication. Then along came my parents’ generation and the telephone. I can still vividly see the cream colored, wall-mounted, long spiral-cabled phone in my childhood home in the early 70s. And we used to call the exchanges by letters rather numbers – my grandmother lived in Scarsdale, NY so it was SC3 (723 in today’s world). I grew up in South Salem, SO3 (763) and so on. Along came my adulthood and email where we had our Blackberrys logged into our our AOL (remember how it was capitalized?) account. But today, it’s text or IM (we need instant in everything from our coffee to messaging). So quick that my daughter calls it snapchat – oh, that’s the application? Oh, ok.
So as a boy, I flipped through what was known as the White Pages. I don’t think my daughter, who turns 11 in a few weeks, has ever heard that expression. “Dad, were there yellow pages?” Yes there were for commercial phone listings and pink pages for government and official listings. Now we just have “Contacts” in the grasp of our hands. How clutch is that? No pun intended!
One of my board members asks at the annual budget meeting about the cost and need of the yearly “Club Handbook”. It’s a private club tradition. A printed, bound club handbook with each member’s address, phone, email, place of work and the club’s by-laws written in the early decades of the past century. Every club has one. Years ago, one of the clubs where I served as Head Pro disbanded this and put it all on the protected member-only accessed website. What a great idea. Print it out at home if you’d like, or just type in and search for the member. My grandmother would opt for the printout, my daughter for the search bar.
Long gone are the days where the pro would call a home and leave a message to play in a doubles game hoping to hear back by the end of the day. Now, by sharing a text database with membership, members themselves put out a text say to 8 players and get a court of 4 back in a matter of minutes. Long gone are the Men’s and Ladies Days – they just exist in a different world: textual rather than virtual. In fact, Duxbury Yacht Club simply disbanded their formal Men’s and Ladies’ Days and left it to the members to text each other and updated the “sub” list with a text database update! No more bulletin board substitute lists that never get read because by the time you are the club it’s too late to get a substitute.
We stress the importance of the front desk having a fully up-to-date text database on either Google Voice or some other platform in order to communicate with each and every member instantly. No worrying if the member received the voicemail – it’s a text! Breaking down that database by level of player, whether they participate in clinics, or if they have children to whom you can market junior events – this is all helpful. Does it matter if they take clinics? Sure, how are you going to fill that last minute spot in the 9am clinic? With a text banged out to 27 members who love that clinic at 8.34am that same morning! You can do this for Pilates and Yoga classes too, although those members might be doing deep-breathing exercises before they type in their now 6-digit security code on their iPhone.
You can post on Twitter and on Instagram openings in clinics, or new programming ideas and events. Maybe a few people will stop their scrolling to see what their best-friend did last night, look and sign up. On Twitter, you can actually link usually right to your signup software. Tougher to do on Instagram. But Facebook allows direct links too. Many private, elite, member-owned clubs frown on social media. I say, just control your viewership. Easy to do on most social media platforms. By the way, those old, printed club handbooks have a lot of information lying around people’s homes who may no longer be members if we are talking about viewership and confidential information.
The strength of your database is the foundation to your customer and member service. A weak database most likely means poor service. A wonderfully clean and efficient database means better billing, more on-court sales, filled yoga classes, and simply put, better member service. If you’re still using paper chits and not printing member receipts from a POS system, your behind the times in member services.
Don’t Forget To Dot your I’s and Cross Your T’s: Formal Writing
My copy of Strunk and White is never far from my desk. I know, those two names show my age. I just looked – first published in 1959. But, like a classic book, there is still the opportunity for formal writing. A thank you email or, even, a posted letter to thank a member for attending a special event or the summer’s signature event, like a member-guest is always welcomed. Or, a thank you for a gratuity card receipt from an employee or a thank you for a contribution to the staff Christmas fund. A welcome letter at the beginning of the season or a new year is always suggested. And how often does your Director reach out with a letter, either emailed or posted, to all the new members feeling a bit “out-in-the-cold” after the rosé of the initial cocktail party fades? These touches bring members to your facility and growth to club revenues.
However you communicate, keep it professional, informative, to the point and often. Only two times has someone told me I email too often. Countless are the times I’ve heard: “If I had only known…”
Ed Shanaphy once wrote for a well-known magazine with offices in Murray Hill on 35th Street in Manhattan at which he learned that criteria is the plural to criterion. He now muses on the country club industry while consulting for clubs and home-owner associations. His copy of The Elements of Style is so well-thumbed and brittle, MOMA is considering putting it in a glass case.
Tennis, once again, is a growing sport in the USA. With an All-American female final last month at the U.S. Open between Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys, American tennis is at an exciting, yet pivotal point. There are two distinct tracks taking place and it’s important to note each one and the statistical trends that are occurring.
At the grassroots level, the USTA is looking at bringing the game to the masses. With its new National Campus in Lake Nona holding national tournament finals at all levels and ages. The USTA’s work at the grass roots levels with L9 tournaments all the way to Tennis on Campus at the college age shows that the USTA is trying to bring tennis to new players at all ages and levels. That said, tennis participation is up just 1% in 2017, according to the Tennis Industry Association and the core number of players is contracting slightly as the median age is rising. The USTA is winning slowly with the junior participation levels but there are limitations. With tennis being restricted not only by the number of public courts, tennis is a sport that requires initial technical instruction early on. Growing participation is not an easy task for the USTA.
But, that leaves an opportunity for us at the Club level, where we can work individually with juniors and pass them along to the upper ranks and prepare them for tournaments and beyond. In order to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity at the club level to move juniors into a position to play in high school, college, and beyond – it’s imperative that we hire the right instructors and have a handle of the wonderful new programming that is out there. This can only happen if you understand the industry across the the club and public environments.
The position of tennis instructor has been for years a vague one. It’s oftentimes a stop-gap for a player who didn’t make the tour. This doesn’t mean he or she is a good instructor. We see more often than not, great players are not good instructors. We do see that instructors do not always have to be great players. And, what has been the bane of existence for our industry is that we push along a great coach and instructor into a Director’s role, which is a managerial role rather an on-court role at most clubs.
But with more stringent examinations and internships for certification and continuing education being offered by the USPTA and USPTR, the industry is slowly realizing that the key component of increasing the tennis industry and coddling great players to move them along the routes to success. We are slowly learning that a great coach or instructor should stay just that and not become a manager. Management is very different from being on-court and should be viewed as such.
As we consult with third-party institutions and clubs, we are able to collect data from numerous sources across our industry: from country clubs, tennis clubs to home owner and properety associations offering tennis amenities. Armed with this data, we have a singular and special viewpoint of the tennis industry based on data available only to us at Beyond The Baselines.
Consulting with and advising club boards and tennis committees, we bring a new dynamic to the table. Sharing the data that we have derived from our industry, we can help create not only a fantastic tennis department at the club level, but also enrich the programming and employment opportunities. Gleaning what we have learned from our experiences and bringing actual live data with us to the table, we can bring a whole new viewpoint to any board or committee discussion and move tennis programming in the right direction to the benefit of the club and facility as a whole.
Clubs are far and wide across our nation. Established country clubs in the Northeast with golf courses and old stone swimming pools are quite different from a yacht club in Florida which offers yachting, tennis and social amenities set in a gated community. Again, a tennis-only club is different from a golf club. Average ages of membership and length of memberships held vary widely from club to club.
How do each of these clubs fall into a general hiring process? They don’t. Plain and simple.
Having worked with so many clubs, the term “Director” or “Department Head” has various meanings – all defined by the particular club and its management structure. For demonstration purposes, and to keep it general and not even club specific, a Director of Sailing is quite different from a Director of Tennis. Sailing Directors are rarely seen instructing adults or offering much in the way of any adult programming. Programming and instruction for yacht clubs mainly focuses on juniors. The Sailing Director is asked to hire young, college-age instructors, find and organize those instructors’ housing for the summer, and run a program that aims at getting juniors age 8 to about 17 (they have to be over the age of 8 to be insured on the water) on the water and learning to sail.
With that in mind, many clubs place a major focus on their junior programs, sometimes with good motives, but oftentimes, with monetary gains in the mind of the present Director of Tennis or Golf. Junior programs, by far, outweigh adult programming in terms of revenue to most Directors of Tennis across our country. An industry standard that we have seen is something in the region of a 75/25 ration in favor of junior programming. Sometimes, this is how the club over years has structured itself. At other times, it is that the Director sees the junior program as his or her main revenue stream. Often, the adult program is left behind – ragged and uninspiring. We see it far too often.
That’s why the first item in any process of finding a new Director of Tennis (or Sailing or Golf for those clubs that offer those sports) is to create a Club Profile. This profiling is imperative in understanding the ethos of the club. Sometimes we call it the “vibe” of the club, but both words help to describe how we unearth the actual essence of the club.
Through meetings with the board, committees and active members, we can glean the strengths and weaknesses of the Club. Without a bias and a truly objective eye, we focus on where the club is failing, where it should be more even-handed, and where it should be in the next five to ten years.
The Club Profile is divided into two parts, one statistical and one part motivational.
Club Profile Part A: Statistical
These figures we glean easily enough from club management. Below are some of the statistics we look at – but we would also look quite intensely at usage and revenues which are clearly club specific.
Total Number of Present Members
Total Number of Members 5 Years ago, 10 Years Ago, and 20 Years Ago
Number of Member Categories and Change In Those Categories By Year Over Past 10 Years
Waitlist Numbers Growth and/or Decline
Ages of Members, Spouses and Children
Ages of New Members, Spouses and Children
Length of Membership Held
Projection of Membership Numbers and Age of Members: 5, 10, and 20 Years.
Tennis Court/Golf Course – Usage by Member Category, Age and Season
Tennis/Golf Revenues – Broken down between Instruction, Tournament Play, Guest Fees, Special Events, Socials, Fees, etc.
These questions and more will help to understand the type of Director of Professional that is required. The average age of a Director of Tennis in the United States is 48 – is that the right age for a club that is based in New York City and focuses on squash with a membership mainly of young people working on Wall Street? Probably not. But perhaps it is if that Director then hires two strong, younger professionals who are great players and teachers.
Club Profile Part B: Motivational, Change and Club Environment
Part Two of any Club Profile is a written survey and subsequent meetings with active members, the board and committee. Our “Club Profile Request” which we offer to all board and committee members helps to discover and uncover hidden ideas and agendas. Through this 25 to 50 question document created specifically for each club we work with, we discover the present programming and currently held ideas and opinions of members and the club’s governing bodies. We find where boards, committees and active members feel their club is failing and where it is strong and why they believe they require (or in some cases do not require) a new tennis or golf professional. And, more importantly, we uncover the various board and committee’s factions, so we better understand the entire situation prior to starting any recruitment process. This entire process aids us and allows us to better educate and work with the club’s governing bodies as we progress through any changes of employment or management structures.
Questions such as: Is there a teaching ethos at the club or do most members just use the club for their doubles games? Are tournaments catering to the same small group of members or do tournaments receive club-wide participation? Does the tennis committee represent all the various groups and demographics using the tennis courts? Does the Greens Committee overstep its job description and squash the Golf Committee? In this gated community, have house prices gone up or down and how has that affected the membership? These are simple enough questions, but we need to know the answers to these general questions before forging ahead.
The Club Profile is perhaps one of the most important documents and processes in any situation where a club believes it might be time for a new Director of Tennis or Golf… or Sailing. It is an investigation into the club itself, the board and the committees and why there is an apparent disconnect with present employee. Sometimes, communication and lack of oversight can create a hot-bed of resentment toward present employees. Sometimes, present employees are not fulfilling the clearly stated job description. Reasons for a disconnect are many.
However, the reasoning behind the disconnect, the apparent or non-apparent need to address issues, the desire for change, and ideas for the future all dictate why the present management structure may or may not be working. How to find a better-suited Director or professional in the future, if that is indeed required, is the responsibility of the governing bodies of the club. Understanding those bodies’ motivations and goals will help find and retain the right professional for the present and future.
Not more than a few years ago, the department head at a country club was the Head Tennis Professional. Terminology gives us a hint as to what has happened in the country club industry over the past two to three decades.
The Head Tennis Professional is a position, as guessed by its title, usually focused on teaching and on-court instruction. In the past, this position was the Department Head at the club management level. In today’s modern country club employment tree, Head Tennis Professionals exist usually in a role just under the Department Head.
These days, most clubs now have an extra layer of management within the tennis department – The Director of Tennis now serves as the Department Head. With the cost of club membership rising and the actual number of country club memberships declining over the past two decades, the need to service the elite memberships with a concierge level of service is more and more expected in line with higher membership costs Many clubs, which offer the growing sports of paddle tennis and pickleball along with the traditional racquet sport of squash, may indeed have a Director of Racquets above the Directors of Tennis, Squash and Paddle.
The Director of Tennis is a largely undefined role as we move into the next quarter of a century. What we are seeing as the industry changes is that the Director picks up the pieces across the department. Whereas the Head Tennis Pro was really just a glorified head instructor, the Director wears several different hats, all of which require training and competence in not only tennis, but tennis and social programming, marketing via email, email, texting and website, along with knowledge in insurance liability and payroll processing and employment law.
Perhaps the most notable statistic in any Director’s job description is that almost 100 percent of the job descriptions for Directors limit the amount of time the Director should be spending on court. This limitation in effect leaves time for the Director to be the “in-house” concierge, administrator and cross-marketer that is necessitated at any club, no matter size or location. The focus in hiring a good Director of Tennis should not only be on his or her tennis playing and teaching skills, but those skills the candidate possesses in relations to running a business – as the racquets department in any club is now seen more and more as a separate business within the club as a whole, with cross marketing between the various businesses (food and beverage, golf, and spa) as an integral ingredient to a successful club operation.