The Desert Mountain Approach
Interviews with Matt Ward
Few facilities globally have the comprehensive nature of programs and activities found at the Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, AZ. The golf side is clearly front and center with seven 18-hole courses, six designed by Jack Nicklaus and the new No. 7 at Desert Mountain, a USGA-rated, championship par-54 layout.
The global pandemic has clearly impacted a broad range of activities and the golf industry is clearly front and center with the myriad of challenges encountered. This is the first of a series of interviews showcasing how key golf facilities are dealing with the situations involved and how key personnel at those clubs are going about the efforts in doing so.
Damon J. DiOrio
Chief Executive Officer
Since 2017, Damon has served as CEO of Desert Mountain Club, one of the largest and most prestigious private clubs in the world with seven golf courses/clubhouses, full-service spa/fitness center, 3,000 acres of hiking, horseback riding, overnight camping and other amenities. Prior to joining Desert Mountain, he spent 26 years at Charlotte Country Club, including 14 as CEO. He’s been recognized with almost every honor accorded the very best in the profession including the National Honor Society of the Club Managers Association of America, Club Manager of the Year for North and South Carolina, and National Club Executive of the year. He served as National President of CMAA in 2014, representing 6,000 club executives in all 50 states and many countries of the world.
John Lyberger, PGA
Director of Golf
John joined Desert Mountain Club as its PGA Director of Golf in October 2018. One of the most highly regarded club professionals in America, John previously served three years as the Vice President of Club Operations at Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., and 20 years as the PGA Director of Golf at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., where one of his jobs was to arrange golf for the sitting President of the United States. He is a graduate of Ferris State’s acclaimed PGA Golf Management program, the first of its kind sanctioned by the PGA of America. John was recently named Golf Professional of the Year for 2020 by Callaway Golf.
The DiOrio Approach —
Our “new normal” takes shape in many forms, but what carries us forward through every COVID report, every government mandate and all the adjustments that follow, has been our ability to create stability and consistency to the best of our ability with programming and communication.
In the early weeks of the pandemic and every week since, we produce and present what we call “The Friday Jam.” Our communications team collaborates with members and staff to create a music video recap of events and/or people enjoying the club edited to a popular song.
It’s a demonstration of our will to enjoy what we have with positive energy, gratitude and joy, and our members and staff look forward to seeing the featured video hit their in-boxes. For two minutes every Friday afternoon, we share a moment of togetherness through music and images of our club in motion. It’s a great way to head into the weekend with reassurances of a solid week’s work and motivation to do it all again.
The Lyberger Approach —
In order to adjust to this new normal, I had to relook at every aspect of our golf operation. The first and most important goal is to keep Desert Mountain members and staff as safe and healthy as possible. In conjunction with the Desert Mountain Club leadership team I am able to provide the necessary tools to sanitize the golf cars daily as well as the staff work areas. I have also tailored the way the I communicate to the golf staff. All meetings are through Microsoft Teams in order to ensure each area of my responsibility is informed and armed with necessary information to effectively and successfully operate. Face coverings are mandatory in all member-facing areas and when staff are working near each other. This summer I have also changed all shotgun events to tee times.
The byproduct of this has allowed for more participation as all club tournaments have been completely full. Every member is currently provided with the option of a plastic divider in each golf car in order to socially separate driver from passenger. This practice has proved effective as members are grateful to be playing golf and enjoying the club. This has all become the “new normal” at Desert Mountain Club. I feel that all members and staff have adjusted well and look forward to the day when previous practices can be restored.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned since the start of the pandemic coming to the USA earlier this year?
Communication, communication, communication! Never underestimate the fact that members and staff want to know what is happening at the club whether the news is good or bad. We learned that there are always ways to run our business efficiently. We never took the easy way out nor did we throw up our hands and say we have to close our doors.
The team dug deep and was challenged to come up with new, safe and healthier ways to operate during this pandemic. We have created a 100+ page COVID-19 playbook that includes how we operate during a pandemic. Our membership is so thankful to call Desert Mountain Club home and feel extremely safe here.
The tragedy of this global pandemic emphasizes how precious and time sensitive life is, and how important the game of golf has been to providing safe and healthy outdoor recreation for our members’ physical and mental wellbeing.
Many golf clubs have seen a major spike in golf rounds played. Has that happened at Desert Mountain and what has been the approximate percentage increase?
We have seen a 25% to 30% increase in our golf rounds. These rounds have come from our members who elected to either stay at Desert Mountain and not travel, or to stay longer into the summer before traveling back to their summer homes.
How much of a communication effort have you implemented throughout this year given the impact of Covid-19?
From early March, we immediately began new platforms to communicate with our members and staff. Videos were sent out frequently, along with daily and weekly email updates distributed to assure members of protective actions being taken for the health and safety of our members and staff. We retained full employment of our staff—the club’s greatest asset. I always want our senior team to get credit and visibility for our success — not me, but when crisis occurs, I knew our members and team would need to hear from me, and they did often. Providing a calm, caring and reassuring presence was vital to carefully navigate this evolving situation.
Desert Mountain provides an array of program / activities for its membership and guests. What’s been learned this year as we head into the end of ’20 and the beginning of ’21?
We challenged our team to develop new and innovative ideas to engage our members and bring joy to their lives. We delivered food ingredients to members’ homes and subsequently hosted web-based video cooking classes with our culinary team. We provided safe and socially distanced tutoring for school children to assist families when schools were not in session.
Our team constructed outdoor exercise areas and facilities for daily workouts, etc. We committed to provide as much normalcy and joy to our members’ lives, understanding the magnitude of external factors associated with the crisis.
How has guest play been handled this year and do you envision any changes taking place with the new year ahead?
For a period of time we had to restrict guest play excluding family guest play. We followed recommendations of the CDC to help guide us through all our protocols. As we entered our summer season, we were able to begin allowing family guests and then, a month later, we allowed member-accompanied guests. Members became better educated and began to understand what questions to ask their guests before inviting them to play at Desert Mountain Club. We are happy to report that not a single COVID-19 case has been traced to a guest.
Clearly, instruction is a major element at Desert Mountain — what impact has the pandemic caused?
With more members on the Mountain our lesson and club business has thrived. Members took advantage of our ability to safely teach outside while practicing safe social distancing techniques. Our instructors wore masks and members had the option. We are fortunate that members have trust in our Desert Mountain team.
Given the collegial nature of the immediate area — how much communication do you have with your colleagues from other facilities throughout the immediate area?
All of us golf professionals communicate locally in a group email to both help one another and to find out how their clubs are reacting to the pandemic. I also have a national group of PGA Professionals at like-minded clubs that communicate on a consistent basis. We share best practices with each other and learn about state and local laws from around the country.
The club industry is beautifully unique as it forges a national and international bond of caring and sharing with peers. Each week I had scheduled calls with all the private clubs in Scottsdale as our genuine desire was to assist each other for the collective good of our industry. I also had a weekly call with many of the top clubs in the United States to collaborate on best practices, sanitation products, procedures and programs. The club industry has innovation, but replication of processes that work from the best in the industry delivers the quickest results.
From a staffing perspective — how do you see things happening at Desert Mountain — both overall and from the golf side in the new year just ahead?
Within minutes of the President’s news conference in March, in a world of uncertainty and unknown ensued, but the decision to protect 100% of our staff’s jobs was the easiest and fastest to make. We never wavered on the decision to protect our staff. We run a $75M business focused on happiness and bringing joy to people’s lives, and this starts with our team and their families.
With complete support of our Board of Directors and membership, we not only made sure that all jobs were protected, but we provided family meals for our employee’s homes, sent thousands of meals to hospital workers and first responders. Members volunteered to provide nearly $400,000 to assist with this effort to emphasize that long after this pandemic ends, caring for people is a core value and what we do best.
From the golf side we are extremely blessed with being able to hire the best and the brightest. During this pandemic Desert Mountain never furloughed a single employee and continues to maintain an incredibly safe working environment. That message makes its way through the industry and has helped us recruit seasonal professionals and support staff. I am proud of the team that is assembled for this winter season.
What’s been the biggest concerns brought to your attention in your respective roles and what course of action did you follow?
My greatest concern and daily focus centers around what more we can do to protect the health of our members and staff from the virus, while operating safely. How the virus is transferred has evolved from the early focus on surface contact to a greater emphasis on respiratory transmission. No one has all the answers, but we can never do enough to alleviate the fear.
From the golf side we only allow two carts per foursome. With 800 to 1,000 rounds a day we simply would not have enough carts if every member was permitted to take a single cart. We provide a protective divider between the driver and passenger, a high level of golf cart sanitation, supported by electrostatic sprayer and consistent member communication. Yet, some members still question our policies.
Undoubtedly, you’ve both had conversations with a number of key people through this period. What’s the most salient and sage advice you’ve received?
Consistency with flexibility. Once the policy is set and established ensure that clear and consistent communication is put in place, so every person knows what to expect. With that said the pandemic forces great operators to be fluid in their daily decisions and management. If there is something that works better today than it did a month ago, we are not afraid to make an adjustment and pivot in the new direction. All decisions are made with the greater good of the membership and not based on personal or individual requests.
I learned that a calm, caring, empathetic, fully engaged and focused presence in a crisis is necessary. We need to make carefully educated and informed decisions that are measured and appropriate, realizing that we must avoid major or long-term decisions in a temporary storm.
For more info go to: