How private clubs are reinventing themselves?
New programming, enhanced facilities and other activities now in play.
Frank Merkel has more than 15 years of experience in golf and club operations for daily fee, semi-private and full-service private country clubs. Frank began his golf industry career in 2004 with American Golf Corporation as the East Regional Vice President based in Atlanta, Georgia. At American Golf Corporation, Frank was responsible for overseeing the operations of 26 courses located from Hartford, Connecticut to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, including the New York City municipal portfolio. In 2007, Frank joined Sequoia as COO for the Atlanta private club market and Management Services Division. He has been a member of KemperSports for the past three years as Senior Vice President overseeing operations for the East region.
THE MERKEL STORY —
I began my career in the golf industry more than 15 years ago – a path that has enabled me to combine my hospitality background with my passion for the game of golf. For the past 3 years, I have worked at KemperSports and shared my passion for the game with others at the company. I have played a role in the continued efforts to promote the game of golf and foster a healthy and entertaining lifestyle, both of which have helped me propel in the industry. I have responsibility for the oversight of 25 properties in the Chicagoland area and northeast region within the KemperSports portfolio.
You wake up in the morning — what’s the driving passion?
Having been in the hospitality and golf industry for over 25 years, it’s the people that make me look forward to my job each morning. I have played a role in helping staffers in their careers and lifestyle decisions as well as coaching and mentoring our members and guests. I have had the good fortune of playing a major role in each of their lives.
What main lessons did private clubs learn after going through The Great Recession of ’07-’09?
Golf is not enough. After the recession of 2007-2009, lifestyles changed and the days of dad going to the club on Saturday for eight hours was a thing of the past. Clubs needed to adjust and become more family oriented. Programming for the entire family became paramount to the success of the club. Members wanted a social hub for the community and programs that promote family fun, such as kids camps, kids zones, free golf clinics for the non-golfers in the family, and clubs within the club i.e. wine clubs, book clubs, and cycling clubs to mention a few.
The growing ascendancy of Millennials in the golf market is obvious. Less obvious is whether they see the relevance in joining a private club. What research have you unearthed on this?
We need to be cognizant that Millennials are playing golf at non-traditional golf venues such as Top Golf. The traditional clubs needs to create an environment for the Millennials that show that golf has the ‘cool factor.’ The club needs to cater to the lifestyle of the Millennials by having a selection of craft beers, good food options, music, time sensitive golf options — 3 and 6 hole games — and a fun culture. Millennials are very important to the future of golf and the industry needs to start catering to them so that we can strengthen the game for the future.
Time is the most important commodity for many people today. How are private clubs dealing with this new reality?
Time is very precious in today’s fast-paced world. Clubs have become more creative on the traditional 18-hole rounds and are creating short loops — 3, 6, and 9-hole loops. These shorter loops allow the casual golfer an opportunity to get out and play golf in a timelier manner.
Customer service is regularly touted by many clubs. Define the term and how clubs must up their ante to maintain relevance?
Customer service is paramount in the club business. People join clubs because they want to be part of a social settling with their family and friends and be treated as such. It is our responsibility to make the club an extension of our members and guests homes. Each of our staffers must have a complete understanding of the members and guests expectations and needs. KemperSports has a proprietary service training program called “True Service” that teaches each staffer the importance of being genuine, friendly and happy to each and every member with each and every interaction.
What role is KemperSports playing in the operation/management side especially for the portfolio of clients you’re dealing with in the Midwest and East?
KemperSports provides support for the entire day-to-day operations as well as the sales and marketing efforts of the club. We have a regional team that interact closely with our clients, the General Manager at the club and their teams. We are responsible for helping to drive revenues, efficient operations, genuine and friendly service, long and short term strategic plans, and to create a culture that fosters a lifestyle to our members and guests.
When you visit one of the clubs you’re involved with and you make a site visit what are the aspects you notice right away — the good and the less than good?
The first impression at the club is the one of aspects that I focus on most. For example, are the staff members all smiling, energetic, and servicing our member and guests with enthusiasm and passion? We are in the “fun” business and our staffers need to be projecting that vibe to our members and guests from the moment that they arrive at the club.
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally — what would it be?
Golf is great the way it is; however, we need to continue to make it fun for more people that are interested in learning the game. Golf teaches many life lessons and there have been many great business transitions conducted on the course. We need to continue to encourage Millennials, kids and those that have not played before to play golf through school program and free clinics.
The major golf organizations — USGA, R&A, PGA of America, PGA Tour, LPGA — are all seeking ways to attract new players to the game especially Millennials, women and minorities. If you were counseling them what would you suggest they do?
The governing bodies need to keep making the game more player friendly and not so intimidating for the novice golfer. The game is more than golf and needs to be promoted as a lifestyle to the entire family. Golf needs to continue to relax and change the rules to cater to Millennials and the novice golfers.
Golf is fun and should be promoted as such as a social event rather than a serious game that has all these rules and regulations.
Best advice received — what was it and who from?
I have had a mentor for my entire career that introduced me to the golf industry because of my business acumen, my passion for making a difference in people’s lives and love for golf. He told me that every interaction has an impact on other lives. Golf promotes a healthy, fun and value driven lifestyle. He told me to keep it simple and conduct myself by one simple phrase…”do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
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