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November 2019

Winter Activities Keep Families Engaged Year-Round

Winter-Activities.jpg

By Sally J. Sportsman

Expectations once were that golf courses and clubs in colder climates would be shuttered during the winter, with no reason for players and members to be on property.

In recent years, though, some facilities have been offering an abundance of off-season activities in order to retain the interest of families and preserve revenue streams.

he feeling here is that if members want to come for lunch or dinner, they should be able to, any time of year,” says Ron Ireland, PGA general manager of Saratoga Golf & Polo Club, in Saratoga Springs, New York. “We encourage them.”

Contrary to its name, Saratoga Golf & Polo Club, founded in 1896, doesn’t offer polo and never did. Before the Great Depression, according to Ireland, plans were to build a new clubhouse and two polo fields. While the polo fields never materialized, many other activities have been introduced through the years at this private club, including during those months when the snow flies.

“We do a lot of events in the winter, including trivia nights,” Ireland says. “We started them a couple of years ago, and I’ve been surprised at their success.”
A disc jockey is hired to run the trivia games, which are held in the dining room on Friday nights and usually are attended by 50 or 60 members. Questions are posted on the big-screen television and prizes are awarded. No entry fee is charged, but attendees often dine before, during or after the games, producing food and beverage revenue for the club.

Other winter activities for Saratoga Springs families include ice skating on an 80- x 30-foot rink located between the 9th green and the clubhouse, with a patio and outdoor fireplace; tailgate parties during football season; gingerbread houses for children to decorate in November; breakfast with Santa in December; a family New Year’s Eve party; a winter fest in January; and a St. Patrick’s Day golf tournament, no matter the weather.

“Our goal is to keep members coming all year long, and to break even during the winter months,” Ireland says.

This approach is beneficial for retaining membership, according to Ireland, as there are multiple other private clubs in the vicinity, some of which have limited winter events.

At Pelham Country Club, a private club in Pelham Manor, New York, four bowling lanes in the pub are popular with families, especially for children’s parties. Available only on weekends, bowling is complimentary but restricted to certain times during pub hours.

“Our club never really closes,” says Timothy W. Cole, general manager and COO of Pelham Country Club.

The fitness center is open all year long, and except during December, when the greens are out of commission, members and their guests can play golf any time. Tennis and paddle programs run year-round, with two indoor-bubbled tennis courts.
Another New York club, Siwanoy Country Club in Bronxville, is known for its “Siwanoy Snobirds.” Founded in 1901, the club has the oldest continual winter golf in the country, according to David Cecil, general manager and COO.

“The Siwanoy Snobirds are a casual group of golfers who play in all weather conditions, wrapping up their competitive play before Christmas,” Cecil says.
Qualifying rounds are in November, and about 30 players qualify for competitive play – usually in the snow. A steak-or-lobster dinner concluding the season is held in January. Temporary greens are prepared in front of the regulation greens in the winter months. The one-time fee to be a Siwanoy Snobird is $35, whether or not a player qualifies for competitive play. There’s an entry fee for each event, “but we give it all back in prizes,” says Cecil. “It’s not a revenue source.”
Two of the club’s four tennis courts are placed “under a bubble” from October through April, providing year-round tennis. An indoor court fee is charged to offset the cost of the construction of the bubble and to allow the club to keep high-quality tennis instructor talent on staff year-round. About 100 members participate in winter tennis, according to Cecil. Clinics and lessons account for a significant portion of the tennis revenue. The club takes a percentage of lesson revenue to offset expenses. Four paddle courts are always open for play; a warming hut with a fireplace creates a social gathering area.

Sled riding is another activity at Siwanoy Country Club. It’s informal and provides no dedicated revenue, but constitutes another reason for families to frequent the club in the winter. And duplicate bridge is a popular activity year-round. All these off-season amenities bring in extra food and beverage revenue, Cecil says.

While private clubs may provide winter activities as reasons for members to spend time at their clubs throughout the year, many public facilities and resorts have more of a profit motive for their winter enticements. White Eagle Golf Club, a semiprivate course in Hudson, Wisconsin, does a brisk business in banquets, company parties and wedding receptions, especially since the clubhouse was renovated last year.

“We sold out every single chef’s dinner,” says Scott Landin, PGA general manager at White Eagle. Held once a month, October through March, each dinner is a five-course meal, limited to 60 people. At $40 per person, the chef’s dinners provide steady revenue.

“Our dinners and other activities get us through the winter months,” says Landin, “allowing us to keep paid staff on board throughout the year. We believe that next winter definitely will be a money maker.”

When the clubhouse was renovated, the goal was that within two years, revenue would increase by $500,000. In the first year, White Eagle is on pace to be $400,000 ahead of last year, “so we are close to our goal,” Landin says. Before the clubhouse renovation, the facility closed down every winter. Now eight full-time employees and some hourly staff are kept on throughout the year.

Some golf clubs feature cross-country skiing as a specialized winter amenity. Teton Pines and Country Club in Wilson, Wyoming, in Jackson Hole Valley, is one of a few courses that has evolved with snow recreation in mind from the beginning, according to Jonathan Wiesel, president of Nordic Group, International.

“This very successful public golf course was designed from the get-go for skiing, which helped sell property and make the facility self-sustaining,” Wiesel said. “Most courses which offer snow activities retro-fit them.”

In addition to skiing, Wiesel says, fat-tire biking, snow play, ice fishing, ice skating and snow sledding are popular. The snow is groomed, packed, reworked and compressed with grooming machinery. Some courses use their fairways for skiing; others rope off the fairways as protected areas. Cart paths are not a good area for skiing, according to Wiesel, because snow melts off them quickly. A few facilities have snow making, ensuring uninterrupted availability of winter activities.

Mike Kitchen, general manager and golf course superintendent at Teton Pines, says that skiing is an amenity that attracts not only members who stay around all year, but also resort guests and the public. The ski trails are on the perimeter of the golf course. Everything is staked out, and the golf course has experienced only minimal damage.

“It only takes a few days to transfer from golf to skiing,” Kitchen says. “We get close to 100 people per day wanting to ski.”

Word has gotten out that Teton Pines is one of the few area cross-country centers open to the public. Members don’t pay to ski, but a season trail pass costs $250 for non-members. About 200 trail passes are sold each year, says Kitchen, along with about 30 daily passes each day at $12 each. The club has a rental agreement with a concessionairel, which realizes revenue of about $100,000 annually from Teton Pines.  

“We charge them to rent our space,” says Kitchen. “We wouldn’t do much more, profit-wise, if we took it on ourselves, with more headaches.”

A ski rental and retail shop, converted in the winter from the golf shop, provides additional revenue. The investment in the program is significant, according to Kitchen, with a capital investment for the club of over $100,000 for the snow groomer machine, not to mention repairs, fuel and labor. But it’s all worth it, according to Kitchen.

“We incentivize resort guests, whose average stay is one week, to ski,” Kitchen says. “They can get a taste of what Jackson Hole has to offer without it being too expensive.”

The ancillary spending of the skiers amounts to about $250 a day, Kitchen estimates. Telling their friends about their experience results in more skiers each year.

“Last year we had so many skiers that the groomer machine broke because we were pushing so much snow around,” says Kitchen. “The repair cost $35,000.

“We are at the mercy of Mother Nature. But we are providing a very popular activity in the winter.

“Many skiers say they didn’t even know we have a golf course, so they plan to come back in the spring.”

Sally J. Sportsman is an Orlando, Florida-based freelance golf writer.

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