Before restructuring and downsizing became widespread practices, corporations customarily employed a variety of recruiting tools to impress prospective workers. It wasn’t unusual, for example, for a generous benefits package to include membership to a corporate tennis facility among its perks.
Yet today, only a handful of these facilities remain.
“As companies go public and look at [corporate tennis facilities] from a cost standpoint, the main concern becomes the bottom-line return on investment,” says Greg Mason, senior director of sales for HEAD Penn Racquet Sports. “It becomes tough to explain to shareholders why something that can be so costly is a priority.”
That is precisely the struggle facing Larry Hampton, tennis director at the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del. “There is extreme pressure to be profitable,” says Hampton, who has worked at the DuPont Country Club since 1985.
Built in 1952, the DuPont Country Club is a private facility offering membership exclusively to DuPont employees, spouses, dependents, and retirees. The club offers seven categories of membership for access to its 25 tennis courts, three golf courses, lawn bowling and croquet greens, fitness center, and social activities that include a variety of classes and trips.
Constructed just five years ago, DuPont Country Club’s indoor tennis center features six hard courts. Outside are 19 Har-Tru courts, 10 of which are lighted. In fact, the state-of-the-art facility has earned attention and accolades from the industry for years, with the World TeamTennis Delaware Smash again selecting the club as the site of its home matches this summer. An indoor/outdoor pro shop features about 50 racquet demos, Prince shoes, premium tennis balls not available at big-box stores, spring and fall apparel lines from major manufacturers, next-day stringing, and special ordering.
Despite steady fee increases, however, Hampton says the DuPont Country Club continues to fall short of its corporate mandate of operating at a break-even rate while remaining affordable. In fact, the club’s 10,000 members are looking at another 8 percent hike over the next year.
“Dues are still dirt cheap, but our older members just don’t understand” the financial constraints prompting the increases, Hampton says. New members, on the other hand, are more forgiving. “They flip when they see what we have to offer,” he added. “It’s like they’ve found the Promised Land.”
While PTR CEO and Executive Director Dan Santorum has never visited DuPont’s facility, he was impressed by his experience at Wal-Mart’s Walton Life Fitness Center in Bentonville, Ark., where he conducted a certification workshop in January.
“Wal-Mart is offering a convenience for its employees,” Santorum says, “but the company is also doing its part to promote fitness, prevent obesity, and keep its employees healthy.”
The Walton Life Fitness Center is located in the heart of Wal-Mart’s sprawling corporate headquarters complex. Amid warehouses, offices, and other nondescript buildings is the corporate fitness center offering cardio and strength training equipment, circuit training, free weights, and a variety of fitness classes, plus six racquetball, one squash, and two basketball courts, separate indoor tracks for running and walking, three swimming pools, massage therapy rooms, and healthy snack bar. It takes 12 pages to list the additional activities, ranging from nutrition to ballroom dance classes.
Built less than three years ago, the adjacent tennis facility offers a dozen hard courts — six of them indoors which members can use year-round at a comfortable, controlled 74 degrees. Tennis players have a choice of more than 50 classes plus lessons, USTA League Tennis, and tournaments. With such extensive programming, which keeps more than 500 juniors and adults on the courts each week, a toll-free telephone number has been established so members can register with a credit card.
“You name it, and we pretty much do it,” says Jake Shoemake, head tennis pro and facility manager of the Walton Life Fitness Center. While Shoemake and his assistant teaching pro are employees of Wal-Mart, the other five teaching pros are independent contractors.
“There are six or seven country clubs in the area, but very few indoor facilities,” he adds. “And when you see the array of classes we offer and throw in the price, it’s pretty hard to beat.”
Doubles players, for example, pay $2 per person for two hours of court time. A 10-week “ankle biters” tennis class for 5-year-olds costs $20, while a 10-week ladies’ 3.5 doubles clinic is just $33. However, even rock-bottom fees don’t spare Shoemake from competing for business.
“I’m always looking for new ways to get people involved, maybe with more night classes for people who work during the day,” says Shoemake, noting that a presentation and tour of the facility is given to new employees during orientation. To date, more than one-third of Wal-Mart’s 24,000 employees in northwest Arkansas have joined the Walton Life Fitness Center, although the total number of members is about 21,000 when you include spouses and children. Membership fees are deducted from paychecks.
“You try to match as many people with programs as you can,” Shoemake adds, “and you try to take care of every person who walks in the door.”
That effort extends to the pro shop, which carries racquets, apparel, shoes, and grips. Last year, the shop strung 3,000 racquets with 24-hour turnaround available.
“I try to meet every need our members could have,” Shoemake says of the pro shop, which is also open to the general public. “Sometimes I do well ordering clothes, and sometimes I miss. You live and learn. Now I ask some members what they think about the clothes before I order them, so I don’t have to hear later how awful my taste is.”
The pro shop does not carry Wal-Mart clothes or merchandise, but rather “basic” apparel from K-Swiss, Prince, and Lejay; racquets from Prince, Head, and Wilson; and shoes from K-Swiss, Prince, Wilson, and Adidas. All prices, according to Shoemake, are competitive.
“Remember who I work for,” he says, reciting Wal-Mart’s “everyday low prices” motto. “Our members are smart shoppers who do their research.”
While both the DuPont Country Club and Walton Life Fitness Center are owned by corporate entities, business principles of fairness, respect, exceeding customer expectations, and providing a good product for a good price still apply.
“A big Wal-Mart philosophy is striving for excellence above all things,” Shoemake says. “If you do that, you can’t go wrong.”
It’s All About the Relationships
Regardless of the ownership nature of your tennis club or pro shop, building relationships is a key to growing your business. If you develop enough rapport with members, they’ll look to you first whenever a product or service need arises.
- Don’t fear the internet. Today’s customers are tech-savvy shoppers who know where to look online for rock-bottom prices. Match prices as closely as you can and be honest when you can’t. Good customer service is worth a price for which many people are willing to pay.
- Quality over quantity. Limit product lines to the volume for which you can comfortably remain an expert. Customers won’t be overwhelmed with choices, and there will be less of a chance that your products will compete against each other.
- When special orders are especially burdensome. Before you say no, think about options that both sides can agree on, such as a no-return policy on special orders. If you’re willing to invest a little more in relationship-building, however, you might accept the return and give the next buyer a deep discount just to move the merchandise.
- Turn a negative into a positive. When a special event takes up court time and parking spaces, give members priority seating or other perks. The University of Arkansas men’s and women’s tennis teams practiced and played home matches at the Walton Life Tennis Center while their own courts were rehabbed in the spring of 2006, while the DuPont Country Club will host the World TeamTennis Delaware Smash again this summer. An inconvenience for a few may actually be the chance of a lifetime for many more to learn from top college and pro players.
Know All Sides of Your Business
When the position of tennis director opened up at the Dupont Country Club in 1985, more than 300 applications were submitted nationwide. Larry Hampton believes he got the job simply because he was the most well-rounded candidate.
As an independent contractor, Hampton, runs the tennis programs, pro shop, front desk, and court maintenance for the DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., through his company, Larry Hampton Tennis Services Inc. In addition to keeping proceeds from lessons as well as the pro shop, he has the freedom to hire his own staff. From 1977 to 1996, he also ran the nearby indoor/outdoor Bellevue Tennis Center, which he founded, renovated, expanded, and served as head pro before the indoor facility was irreparably damaged in a blizzard.
“It’s cool because I have control and have been able to put together a great team that I’d match against any staff in the country,” he says. “Plus, we don’t get bogged down by corporate policies. If we need a new net on court 5, we go out and buy a new net.”
Large-scale expenses at the corporate tennis facility, on the other hand, are the responsibility of DuPont. New lighting, for example, would be considered a capital expense.
The lesson to be learned, he says, is diversification. “I know I’m a good teaching pro,” Hampton says, “but the fact I can handle all the other facets of the business has made all the difference.”
See all articles by Cynthia Cantrell
About the Author
Cynthia Cantrell is a contributing editor of Tennis Industry magazine.