Facility management: Diagnosing Your Club
Whatever changes you may be considering, you need to consider your facility’s individual “personality.”
When you visit a doctor, he’ll diagnose you based on your individual characteristics and needs. Tennis clubs are much the same. Every club has its own personality and unique characteristics.
The three main factors that help determine a club’s “personality” are type of ownership, location, and the general membership. As a result of this individuality, almost every transition or change a club intends to pursue needs to take all three of these factors into consideration. What might work for a club in Wisconsin may not work for a club in Los Angeles. What might be a great new program or change for a facility in New Orleans might turn out to be a disaster for a similar facility in San Francisco. There is no standard that can be used as a guide, and when organizations and clubs try to implement this standard type of planning, the results are often disappointing.
To help avoid this disappointment, let’s analyze these factors to help determine how to undertake any change or implement a new program.
Type of Ownership
Ownership is where most decisions begin and end. There are four main types of facility ownership — privately owned, member owned, corporate owned and publicly owned. Although different in how they operate financially, they are very similar in how they are managed.
Privately owned facilities focus heavily on their profit and loss, as they must stand alone in how they financially survive. They put an emphasis on the overhead, the membership numbers and their attrition of members. Because of this, management will need to maintain a relationship with members based on a more personal and interactive relationship. Decisions concerning a change in the facility or the rules of the club need to be bounced off the membership so they feel they have input in shaping the club. A privately owned club that ignores the needs and desires of the membership can develop a disconnect with those members, which can result in a loss of loyalty from the membership.
Member-owned clubs behave much like privately owned clubs, except decisions usually evolve through a temporary committee. Management walks a tightrope knowing that the decision makers are transitional. The result is that any change takes time and patience. There is also a tremendous amount of pride involved with members. They often feel a sense of ownership and the responsibility that comes along with believing they are part owners. This sense of ownership can create a more political environment. Any change will require a manager to retrieve and hear everyone’s input; this all takes time and a great deal of work. It also requires a manager to be more intuitive in understanding the total membership’s intentions and goals. Because of these dynamics, membership-owned clubs can vary tremendously in their character and personality.
Corporate ownership is on the rise and the recent trend has developed into a new style of management. Corporations often are very capable of investing in change and upgrades via speculation. Because they usually have a greater source of funds, they can take greater risk. On the flip side, they can also devoid themselves of any investment without interaction with the staff or membership. Management focuses heavily on sales and membership growth to go hand-and-hand with the acquisition mode of the corporation. A strong focus on training and consistency is part of management’s goals. This consistency provides a gateway for members of one club to feel comfortable when using an affiliated club.
Publicly owned facilities often have many of the same politics mentioned about member-owned facilities; they are heavily influenced by funding and the local economic environment. Changes not only need to consider a wider range of members, but also a wider range of non-members that may have access to the facility. They need to be more responsive to every niche of their local population as they meet their tax-exempt status. To evolve, all changes need to go through a gauntlet of committees, government organizations and members.
The second factor that influences the makeup and character of a club is the location. Whether suburban, in a city, in an industrial area, etc., each location plays a role in the type of membership the facility will attract. Many clubs attract from a cross section of these communities. It’s this blend that makes for a more interesting evaluation of a club’s membership. Often these blends have evolved over time and clubs have either adjusted or morphed into a new facility that recognizes these changes. It’s this transition that makes for an interesting new evaluation of a club’s personality. Failure to make these proper adjustments can result in a failing or dysfunctional facility.
As an example, many clubs for economic reasons purchased property that was more affordable. After a time, that property may have appreciated in value and the square footage must now justify a higher return on investment. They will need to find better income-producing programs or activities. There may even be a need to terminate one sporting activity and replace it with a new form of recreation.
There is also the possibility that a facility that was once more remote when it first opened has become part of a growing community and is now exposed to a greater population. They may need to alter programs that cater to more local traffic or to new businesses or schools that have developed.
Another example is very common — many communities are aging and a club needs to see this change and adapt to having more programming that suits an older clientele. Many new programs may need to be scheduled at different times of the day, and as a result of this process, existing programs may need to be altered, not an easy task to take on. Men’s day will probably be more successful if scheduled in the early morning, say 8 a.m.; this could come in direct conflict with established women’s league play at 9. You will need to make scheduling changes that will try to accommodate both groups; this is a task that will require the re-education of many members.
Re-educating members into changing their agenda and habits is best accomplished when these changes are accompanied by enhanced programs, discounted programs, or programs that are altered in format to rationalize these changes. The women’s leagues may have to start at 10 a.m. instead of 9 and use more courts to play all the matches at the same time. You may need to adjust your childcare hours to accommodate this change. Possibly having a special brunch or food programs for the men to enjoy may help change their normal midday time or afternoon time to a late morning start. However you conduct this change, it will never go easy, but will be much easier if complemented with an enhancement of the programs.
Maybe your community has taken a turn in the direction of needing more family activities. This means that your post-school hours will become very busy. Older and more established members, who are used to a more tranquil setting around 2 to 5 p.m., will find this new environment uncomfortable. You will need more supervision, but also you will need alternatives for that longtime member. There may be nothing you can do about this new energetic young crowd after school, but rather than watch your old members get frustrated and leave, you will need to come up with ideas and programs that are run at different times and create a new interest for this group. Maybe it’s a bridge night, or special travel programs held after 6 p.m.
Another impact on the location of your club will be the local logistics. As a community grows and changes, so does the traffic and accessibility of your facility. Members, who could get to your facility in 10 minutes may now need 20 minutes. Possibly another facility has opened that is closer for many of your members and is becoming more convenient for many of your members to attend. Studies show that convenience in location plays a very big role in the fitness and health industry, but not so much in the tennis industry. Keep this in mind as you modify your facility to meet with new demands. Expanding or remodeling your fitness center may not result in growth, but the expansion or an aggressive tennis program may be more prosperous.
Will changing your operating hours make a difference? More and more of our population seem to be seeking clubs that provide earlier hours. Clubs that once operated from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. may reach a broader consumer base by moving to 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., and if your overhead for operating is minimal, you may just decide to open earlier and stay open as late as usual so as not to lose any members.
Lastly, you will find that your method of advertising varies dramatically because of your location. You may know the market you are trying to reach, but knowing the best method of reaching that audience may be tricky. Will the Internet work best? Will newspaper advertising work? One way to find out is to put yourself in the position of a potential customer. If you were in a residential area, maybe word-of-mouth is the best advertisement; it is for churches or a local hairdresser, why wouldn’t it be the same for your club?
Putting together a great website may be more fruitful for a club located in a large city, but for a small club in the suburbs it may not have much impact. Again, you need to discover what works best for you, not what you’ve heard works best from the information you got from a magazine article or a P.R. consultant that works with businesses in general.
The last factor that needs to be reviewed before making any change or upgrade is the personality of your membership. This is a fascinating trait to evaluate and understand. Although largely determined by the location of the facility, many clubs have history that contributes to their nature.
Often clubs will try to create or build an image based on their membership. One club may find it beneficial to appear active and vibrant; another may want to seem more relaxed and quiet. One club may cater to singles, while another focuses on being more family-friendly.
Whatever direction you may want to take your club, you will always find the best source of members through the community you are in. Take note of other activities or businesses that already have invested in a particular group of people and try to establish a relationship with that business or organization. If you want to attract single people, look for a business that is holding an event that will attract that crowd. If it is family memberships you are seeking, work with your local schools, your local organizations, or groups that are active in fundraisers.
It is also important to understand the flow of your membership. Do you want to make a change that will negatively impact the current flow of your usage, or find the trend and capitalize on that movement? If your club is seeing a big increase in early morning activity, do you want to add programs at that time which might result in a crowded facility? Or maybe scheduling a program at that time is the answer to having better attendance.
Place programs and activities at times when you know people might be more likely attend. Some classes can be very successful at 9 a.m., but flop at 1 p.m. If your goal is to integrate your membership, these factors are important to understand. If you think that having a big holiday party will work, you need to first consider if your membership is going to attend. Nothing is worse than funding and organizing an event and then having no one show. Find out what the personality of your membership wants then get behind them and enjoy the ride.
Recognize that you need to constantly diagnose and evaluate these three factors — ownership, location and membership — that impact how your club will respond to any transition. In this day and age, change is now normal, not the exception. The ownership, location and membership may be constant, but the factors that impact those three characteristics are fluid and more dynamic than ever.
Just like you need to go to the doctor about every three years to get a complete checkup, you need to do the same with your facility. In most cases, managers, tennis directors and even tennis pros know their club better than anyone else. Use their input to continually seek out solutions that work best for your business.
See all articles by Rod Heckelman
About the Author
Rod Heckelman is the general manager and tennis pro at the Mount Tam Racquet Club in Marin County, Calif. His career in the industry started in 1967 at the famed John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch. In 1970, when Gardiner opened his resort on Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz., Heckelman, at age 20, became one of the youngest head pros in the country. He created the “Facility Manager’s Manual” based on his years of experience in the tennis business.
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