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January 2021

Carolina Country Club

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Shifts Focus To Fitness

By Steve Eubanks

The facility was second to none. When Roger Milliken, CEO of Milliken & Company, one of America’s leading textile manufacturers, built Carolina Country Club as a place for his executives to live and recreate in the company’s home base of Spartanburg, South Carolina, it was everything a country club was supposed to be. The golf course, situated in a valley surrounded by the southernmost bumps of Appalachia, is a tough but fair test, one of Tom Jackson’s best designs. The clubhouse is appointed with the amenities every early-1980s member expected – rich, thick wallpaper, a cloak room, one dining facility after another with lots of dark wood and Brunswick green leather. This was, after all, where the captains of industry would come for dinner on Saturday nights, where birthdays and anniversaries would be celebrated and where debutants debuted. It was where every company worth its Southern salt hosted its Christmas parties and where every well-heeled bride and groom wanted their reception held. 

The business of banquets grew so great that the club built 2,500 additional square feet with exposed beams, chandeliers and a hefty stone fireplace. Just like that the club could host a wedding, a bridge club, a business luncheon and a couple of golf groups at the same time.

What it couldn’t provide, at least until recently, was a gym.
 
Then the coat-and-tie 80s and open-collar 90s gave way to a new millennium of members, a group of people who went out on Saturday nights to downtown bistros, got married barefoot on the beach with a reception at the nearby brewpub; people who joined clubs, not to sip brandy with captains of industry but to enjoy the company of healthy and active friends. For those people, fitness was a prerequisite.

They wanted to walk the golf course with a carry bag on their shoulder or a pushcart leading the way. They wanted to utilize the pool for laps and not splashing around with the kids or sipping drinks on a gaudy float. The tennis courts were important, even if they only used them for pickleball or some other racquet sport. And, most of all, they wanted a place to work out. 

“There’s no doubt that gym membership is in the family budgets of the members we’re trying to attract,” said Tim Dunlap, who purchased Carolina Country Club in 2020. “That’s why it’s so important to include that amenity as part of the overall country club experience. It’s more than an up sell. It’s a necessity. Because you can rest assured that if your family is paying two sets of dues – one to the country club and one to the local gym – and something has to get cut, the gym membership is not going to get cut.” 

The folks at Carolina CC understood that. They also realized that while the new banquet space was nice for the 10 to 20 overflow weddings a year the club hosted, most of the business generated in that space came from outside the membership. “It wasn’t a value add,” Dunlap said. “You could sell that space to a local bride looking for a place to host a reception, but you couldn’t use it to sell memberships.” 

The club converted the beautiful, exposed-beam space into one of the most eye-popping gyms in the south. “I can’t think of many other gyms that have chandeliers,” said Jonathan Seymour, the wellness director at Carolina CC. “It’s a gem of a gym. When you walk in, you’re like, whoa, I didn’t expect that.”

It’s also a much more consistent and reliable profit center. “If you think about banquet space, you’re constantly having to sell it to new people,” Dunlap said. “And even if you do everything perfect, you’re making, what, 20% margins? That’s doing it all right and getting lucky… A gym provides a membership value, which is essential in membership retention, club usage, and building a consistent dues line. This space, and having Jonathan (Seymour) working with the members, accomplishes all of that.

“My No.1 goal is to engage the members, not just from a ‘hey, I can help you,’ standpoint, but also from a ‘hey, I want to get to know you,’ kind of relationship,” Seymour said. “I don’t want them to think that I want something out of them. I just want to get to know them. Out of that, trust is formed. If you trust somebody, you’re more likely to do what they ask you to do to help their body and get them back to full strength.”

Seymour or someone like him is a key element in the equation. “I have a doctorate in physical therapy and a bachelor’s in exercise physiology,” he said. “So I can see the member who is not hurting and help them stay active, get stronger and continue to play their preferred activity and hopefully improve performance, as well as help that person who hurt their back, their neck, their shoulder, or their hip and is having pain. They want to play but can’t seem to play without pain. I can help them get back to playing pain free. So I provide a service that they can maximize their enjoyment of the club.”

Because of the fitness center, which is adjacent to the swimming pool, Carolina Country Club now has three levels of membership, full, social, and athletic, the latter of which includes all activities except golf – tennis, pool, dining and fitness.

“On average 800 to 900 members a month come into the gym,” Seymour said. “That’s probably 60 of the same people over and over. But I see that the new members are engaging in the fitness center more than the long-term members. It’s never going to be Gold’s Gym where it’s packed shoulder to shoulder and you have to wait on your machine. That’s the perk of having it built into the membership. But we have a good stable of moms who are here in the late morning and early afternoon – right after they drop the kids off and right before they go pick them up. Then we have the seniors who come in early and the golfers who come in after their rounds. It’s a routine, just like the groups that play golf together every Saturday. The same people come in. That’s where the encouragement comes from and where the relationships are built.

“It’s amazing the bond that forms when you worry more about making people better than about taking people’s money,” he said. 

And it is amazing how that bond builds a base of revenue that sustains a club through up and down times.

 

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