After two years of cutting expenses, Fircrest Golf Club’s leadership decided enough is enough.
“We are actually reinvesting in the club, the facility and the people,” said general manager Jeff Hilen. “We are doing the right things. We have to take a stance and say we are moving forward.”
Many hope that the club sets an example for other businesses in the area that have debated about when they should begin reinvesting in their enterprises.
“Any type of activity that goes on with the golf course, and the more activity we have there, is good for all the businesses in Fircrest,” said Mike Weinman, a city council member and owner of Weinman Consulting LLC.
Hilen said the timing is right to take a chance. For example, he said the club saw its banquet and conference room reservations, along with its membership requests, increase this winter.
“I’m not saying it’s terrific,” he said. “It’s better than the last two and a half years.”
Hilen also said that part of the club’s mindset comes from the fact it is a nonprofit and the bottom line is not always the top priority.
“We are here to provide a service,” he said.
A big part of providing the best service comes from having the right people.
At its peak, the club employed 140, but typically during the summer it has 120 employees and during the off-season about 85 to 90.
However, Hilen said he has once again learned the “difference one person can make.”
He said part of the reinvesting process has involved taking a “fresh look at merchandise.” The club hired a new manager for its pro-shop and has seen an increase in sales.
He said the club also hired a new superintendent for the golf course and increased the budget by 10 percent this year.
Paul Ramsdell, executive director of the Western Washington Golf Course Superintendents Association and the Northwest Turfgrass Association, said the South Sound could see more clubs invest in their courses and facilities because of the competitive market.
“Some courses that have money and are aggressive are trying to step things up,” he said. “Others are just hoping for brighter days ahead.”
Ramsdell said the recession hit the golfing industry when it was already trying to work through other issues.
“In western Washington, for the past five to seven years there has been a supply and demand issue where the supply has been overbuilt for the demand,” he said, adding that there has been a slowdown in the number of courses being built. “Ten, 15, 20 years ago, there would be five or six courses opening up every year. We built too much.”
However, Ramsdell, a past-president of the Fircrest Golf Club, believes that some courses, like Fircrest, have responded well to the challenges of the last few years.
“When a lot of places were cutting staff, and by cutting staff they were cutting managers and mid-managers in high salaries, what they did at Fircrest was keep the managing team intact,” he said. “The great thing about private golf clubs and the main selling point is camaraderie between staff and members. It’s a home-away-from-home type thing. I think Fircrest did a good job making sure that is intact.”
About five years ago, Fircrest Golf Club’s average member was about 58 years old. Since that time, the average age has increased to about 62.
Hilen said one of the club’s weakest membership categories is young professionals.
“You want to grow that audience,” he said. “It’s your future.”
Golf clubs were hit hard by the recession and many have had their dues and initiation fees driven down. Prospective members also are shopping around more to see who has the best deal.
“Right now in the golf course/golf club industry it’s almost name your own deal,” Ramsdell said. “It’s real easy for someone to jump from one club to another.”
However, Hilen said members aren’t just looking for who is the cheapest, but who has the most to offer as far as extra amenities.
To attract younger members, the clubs often need to attract the whole family.
In response, the Fircrest Golf Club has doubled the size of its calendar. When there is an adult activity, there is frequently a children’s activity scheduled for the same time.
Hilen also said the social aspect of being part of the club has remained relevant. The club has 230 social members.
“Our membership is a cross-section of the community,” he said. “It’s real golf and real people.”
While having Chambers Bay Golf Course less than five miles away may seem like it would create a competitive atmosphere, Hilen said it’s actually been a nice addition that has benefited his club.
“It’s all about golf. More golf is better,” he said. “What an opportunity for Fircrest.”
Hilen said Fircrest Golf Club plans to continue its efforts to build a relationship with the public club that will host the U.S. Open in 2015.
A few years ago Fircrest Golf Club looked at the opportunities for two undeveloped parcels of land it owns.
The parcels a five-acre site along Regents and a 1.5-acre site along Alameda were considered for both residential and retail uses.
BCRA developed a “maximum density” residential site plans for the land and presented them to club officials. Those plans called for 10-unit duplexes on the Alameda site and 35 condo units on the Regents site.
However, club officials decided they were not interested in moving forward with development and that decision has held.
But while nothing is on the board at this time, Hilen said the club’s long-range plan does look at those “assets of the club” and it may entertain development concepts in the future.