Staying at the Top of Their Game: Area Country Clubs Get Ready For The Season
Bonita Bay Club members enjoys its conversation pit on a perfect Florida evening
Dining and entertainment? Lee County has both in spades. Yet there is much more to that industry than restaurants, clubs and theaters that are in plain view and open to the public.
There is an array of venues, outnumbering those at any single downtown district, scattered among our area’s gated communities. Country clubs, usually complementing private golf courses, are big business and many are undergoing multi-million dollar upgrades.
Now they’re picking up where they left off at Easter—and season doesn’t open softly. It starts with a bang in November and hurtles through Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, with special banquets, buffets, parties and dancing.
Still, what might seem hectic to most of us is taken in stride by local professionals who accepted our invitation to share their clubs’ stories. The busy holiday period is only a warm-up, they say, for the full force of peak season with its bigger crowds at mealtime and countless special events such as wine dinners, dinner shows, trivia nights and golf contests.
Ask club managers to size up their combined business impact in Southwest Florida and you get interesting answers. Mark Neneman, chief operating officer of Palmira Golf & Country Club in Bonita Springs, estimates country clubs’ daily food and beverage service and special events account for 20 to 25 percent of the local dining and entertainment business in season.
At Spring Run Country Club, in The Brooks in Estero, general manager Mike Zigler says that market share may be even higher: “If I had to guess, it would be at least half—given the number of full-service clubs and communities from Charlotte County to Marco Island.”
Joseph Elwell, clubhouse manager for Bonita Bay Club, sums up the math this way: “I am not able to speak to market share specifics … but I’d venture to say that the 175-plus golf courses between Lee and Collier counties represent a sizable share of the local economy.”
On the other hand, Stacy Henson, general manager at The Club at Grandezza, observes that restaurants easily outnumber clubs and are open more hours. “Many public establishments have entertainment multiple times a week; clubs a few times a month,” she adds, estimating clubs’ market share at less than 10 percent.
While market share leaves room for guesswork, the club managers surveyed are all business about handling the ups and downs of seasonal workloads and getting ready for season—amid a workforce already showing rock-bottom unemployment.
Palmira’s Neneman says, “Most clubs retain a core group of staff. These staff members are year-round employees. Clubs from there add seasonal staff for about a six-month period of time. Many clubs also use J-1 Visa students and well as H2-B Visa employees to help supplement their staffing needs.
“With all the different restaurants as well as other food and beverage businesses expanding, the job market is very tight and very competitive. Finding good, qualified full- and part-time employees is getting tougher and tougher each year.”
Zigler offers a similar view—with a twist: “Spring Run has built a very high-performing team, and in order to keep it intact, management and core service staff work full-time year-round. We begin to hire seasonal service staff in mid-September so they are ready for the October rush. That mini-season of October and November provides experience for the new staff so they are ready for that first week in January.”
Bonita National's clubhouse is debuting at the rapidly developing golf subdivision on eastward Bonita Beach Road. Director of events Tracy Stein and food/ beverage director Jessica DiCarlo say, “We keep a close eye on what the members want to see while remaining as competitive as possible with the outside market. There is little time to ramp up gradually, and knowing this we are able to plan and staff accordingly. Planning ahead is the key to success.”
Bonita Bay Club’s Elwell notes, “While clubs do have a ‘relaunch’ period in the fall, we still do not experience the peak activity of season until January to April. This affords club operations a lead-in period for training and orientation of new staff while welcoming back returning seasonal employees.
“Additionally, clubs are reaching out with more international staffing to complement their teams as the labor market grows more challenging. We ourselves have had success with J-1 student externships and other clubs have relied heavily on H2-B staffing.”
How does Grandezza do it? “Intensive training in a short period of time,” Henson says, “with ongoing coaching and positive reinforcement.”
Keeping Good Employees
Concerning keeping good help, Neneman at Palmira outlines the big picture: “We offer competitive wages, benefits and a great environment. … It’s very competitive out there so you need to treat all of your employees like family. … We spend a good deal of time training staff and providing long-term training to improve their job knowledge and experience. Sometimes this hurts us as we lose a good employee to a competitor, but we feel strong about providing a good career path for all of our employees.”
Spring Run’s Zigler says, “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your membership. Then give them the resources to do their job, and stay out of their way.” Bonita National management concurs, noting, “The key to success is having the right people on your team. Staffing the right people in the proper role is the key to making sure food and service is top notch.” Grandezza’s Henson says, “Smart recruitment and hiring strategies; training and more training, and competitive compensation packages.”
Elwell at Bonita Bay emphasizes human resources: “The role of HR is so important in ensuring high-quality employee programs and enrichment opportunities are in place. Reducing turnover lessens the seasonal learning curve by having a greater number of tenured employees with increased operational and institutional knowledge.’’
Which brings us back to those busy holiday events. Palmira plans a Thanksgiving buffet, wine dinners on Nov. 6 and Dec. 18, its annual Dazzle dinner-dance Dec. 7, and a New Year’s Eve dinner. Spring Run looks forward to special dining on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and a holiday open house Dec. 3.
Bonita National will show off its new clubhouse with a formal Thanksgiving buffet, with lighter fare at poolside—and a similar format for New Year’s. Grandezza plans a “welcome back” dinner-dance in early November, followed by Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas buffets, and a New Year’s Eve gala.
Bonita Bay Club has ambitious plans, such as hosting nearly 1,000 members and family members for a Thanksgiving feast and casual family cookouts between Christmas and New Year’s. A candlelight dinner is set for Dec. 22 with carolers and a Clydesdale and carriage photo-op. Dec. 23 features a special brunch with Santa. Dec. 26 is “Family Italian Night” and a black-tie dinner dance spices New Year’s Eve.
Looking Back—and Ahead
What’s changed in the country club industry and what lies ahead? Palmira’s Neneman points to millions of dollars being spent by clubs to address competition from restaurants and other clubs. “ … I would say the average clubs have only 30 to 35 percent full-time resident members. [They return] and bring ideas back to their clubs. The boards then review and research and add different benefits to the clubs.
“Members are staying active longer; 70 is the new 50. More and more people are playing golf and other sports longer than they did 10 years ago. Bocce, pickleball and tennis are growing. … Social aspects of the clubs continue to grow. Some of this is driven by the investment in new facilities. An average remodel of a club and its dining rooms and grill areas will see a 30-plus percent increase in sales afterward.”
Zigler points to the menu and more at Spring Run. “Clubs have embraced organic produce and locally sourced meats, and become much more aware of people’s dietary concerns. We are always looking for ways to provide services to our members that they can’t get anywhere else. … We renovated the interior of the club to bring a fresh, modern design to it.”
Stein and DiCarlo at Bonita National offer more food for thought: “The biggest change we have seen is there are more health-conscious people who want beautiful food they can feel good about eating. … Gluten-free, heart-healthy and clean eating seem to be making it to the top of the list. The more traditional fare is still enjoyed by many but it is important to have options for those who are involved in this new lifestyle trend.”
Bonita Bay’s Elwell focuses on infrastructure. “I’d like to think we’ve been amidst a private club ‘renaissance’ in the area. Several clubs like ours are fortunate to have full memberships and are reinvesting in their facilities with significant capital renovations.
“This past season we launched our brand new Sports Center, which ties together our 18 Har-Tru tennis courts, five new LED-lit pickleball courts, new geothermal saltwater resort pool and a 132-seat, open-air Breezeway restaurant. Currently underway is the construction of a new championship full-court croquet lawn.”
Henson at Grandezza points to competition among clubs as the biggest change. “As the Southwest Florida market continues to grow, anticipating the needs and wants of our members to keep them engaged, happy and participating in club events is important to Grandezza.’’
Its renovations include improving the Wedding Garden with a new pergola, swirl instrument (like a giant wind chime with soothing tones) and waterfall; new fitness equipment; cabana, pool furniture and second-floor upgrades; a food delivery service called The Grande Express—and, she says—there’s more to come.
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He lives in Bonita Springs.