Laura Layden Naples Daily News USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
The number of golf and country clubs is dropping nationwide, so Southwest Florida clubs are making some big changes.
Since 2010, private clubs across the region have spent tens of millions of dollars to up their game — and they continue to tee up capital improvements at a fast tempo.
The improvements go far beyond the greens, tees and holes of the golf courses and into restaurants, fitness and tennis centers, pools, spas and entertainment venues.
The spending spree follows state and national trends: Club members want more than golf. They want friends. They want health, comfort and happiness — for quality of life.
In 2017, an estimated 23.8 million people played golf on a traditional course in the United States — about the same number as in 2016, according to the National Golf Foundation’s annual report.
Meanwhile, new forms of golf engagement continue to emerge at indoor simulators and driving ranges and venues such as Top golf, increasing involvement in the game.
Participation still isn’t what it was before the Great Recession, but it “remains strong and interest in playing the game is at historic levels,” according to the report.
Participation — on and off the golf course — is now estimated at 32 million.
Clubs are looking for ways to stay competitive and attract buyers who are savvier and smarter than ever, thanks to the ease of research on the internet.
In most cases, members are paying for the improvements through special assessments, capital fees, dues and other charges.
Members see the projects as ways to improve their health and wellness and protect the value of their memberships, their clubs — and their homes in gated country club communities.
“Last year alone, there was $1 billion in capital renovations to Florida clubs. That shows you how much is going into the club facilities to posture for the future,” said Jason Becker, a founder and CEO of Golf Life Navigator in Naples, which helps golfers find their best matched clubs.
Big changes since the ’80s
The dynamics of large golf communities in Southwest Florida has changed so much since the 1980s, when they were first introduced by big developers like Bonita Bay and WCI Communities. At that time, 80 percent of homebuyers living inside those developments signed up to be golf members — now it’s closer to 15 to 20 percent, so clubs must do more to stand out to attract members outside their gates, Becker said.
Clubs are making improvements big and small.
“Pickleball is pretty hot. They all seem to be adding little things,” Becker said. Outdoor dining — a much bigger investment — is even hotter.
“Outdoor dining and sports bars are huge. Forty-two percent of consumers that we talk to are looking for that. So that is a big number, when you are talking about thousands of new people coming in,” Becker said.
While members want more than golf, that shouldn’t suggest golf is a dying sport, he said.
“I never argue that golf is dying,” Becker said.
“Golf in the state has a more than $8 billion economic impact and supports more than 132,000 jobs annually. Its economic impact is three times that of the theme parks.”
In Southwest Florida, the interest in golf and golf clubs remains strong, he said.
“We had 900 clients this winter looking at Fort Myers and Naples, which was pretty incredible,” Becker said.
A recent survey by Golf Life Navigators showed more than 54 percent of future golf members are interested in health and wellness offerings — and 79 percent of buyers want a cardio component to their future club, demonstrating the need for clubs to invest in more than just their golf courses. Nearly 3,800 were interviewed for the survey.
More women are joining clubs in Southwest Florida, as they have been nationally, for golf, tennis, fitness, dining and business networking. So capital improvements are more geared toward men, women and their families, including children and grandchildren.
Clubs are trying to keep up with the Joneses, or to get ahead of the competition with something bigger, better or just different.
“What we’ve found is that the competition is really driving a sense of urgency for these different clubs.
There are God knows how many,” said David Humphrey, founder and president of Humphrey Rosal Architects in Naples.
He estimates there are 250 clubs in Collier and Lee counties alone. His firm has done roughly 40 major renovation projects from Sarasota to Naples since 2010.
Members embrace casual trend
Clubs are getting more casual, looking nothing like the stodgy places of years ago, designed for men-only memberships and requiring coats and ties in their formal dining rooms.
“People started realizing resort-style isn’t a dirty word,” Humphrey said. “Who doesn’t like a resort, right?”
One of Humphrey’s most recent designs was for the Kensington Golf & Country Club in Naples. The project includes a 150-seat resort-style café as part of a $3.5 million
renovation and expansion that coincides with the club’s 25th anniversary.
The new 3,800-square-foot outdoor café will have an island feel, with a bar, fire pit and waterfall. The eatery will feature retractable sides, with portable heaters and misters, instead of air conditioning. It will serve food and drinks poolside, along with having its own casual seating.
“Our surveys showed that more than 70 percent of our members wanted more casual outdoor dining options,” said David Krzywonos, Kensington’s general manager. “This new amenity will enhance their member experience and enable them to stay on property to enjoy alfresco fine dining here rather than traveling to other popular dining areas, such as Fifth Avenue or Third Street South.”
With the new venue, the club hopes to host more groups and events, including weddings and receptions, bringing in new revenue, Krzywonos said.
Renovations began this summer, with plans to complete the project by January. Other improvements include the refurbishment of the tennis courts and the addition of four pickleball courts, plus two bocce ball courts with a viewing area.
Deciding on the upgrades involved touring other clubs, talking to focus groups and surveying members about their wants and needs, Kryzwonos said. It was ultimately voted on by the membership, with 70 percent in favor of it.
The renovation comes as the club’s membership has been growing — and getting younger. Now there are a little more than 300 golf members, with room for a few more.
Other clubs that have completed major renovations over the past few years are reaping the rewards.
In 2015 the Country Club of Naples, off Goodlette-Frank Road, undertook a $7.5 million renovation that included a new veranda for outside dining, new locker rooms, and a multiuse room for meetings and activities, along with other upgrades. Since the project was completed, membership has grown in the stand-alone private club, which sits on 160 acres with a golf course rebuilt and restored by Gordon Lewis in 2009.
Since its opening The Veranda outdoor dining spot has become the most sought-after place for lunch, afternoon cocktails and dinner.
“We joke now we wish it was bigger,” said Gregg Osborn, the club’s general manager and chief operating officer.
Food and beverage sales have increased 30 percent since The Veranda opened, he said. An expansion of the outside dining is “definitely something we will talk about in the future, and it’s already been tossed around,” Osborn said.
Overlooking the first hole of the golf course and the putting green, The Veranda, with 64 seats, serves the same food as The Tavern, a casual indoor restaurant with bar, pub and bistro menus, which was also greatly expanded as part of the last renovation About a year ago, the club hired a new chef to improve the overall dining experience.
“The members are ecstatic with the food quality, and the consistency of the food as well,” Osborn said. “The menu rotates more frequently, with fresh products and higher-end products.”
The club has 400 golf, social and dining members. There’s room for more, but it’s designed to be more intimate.
“We’re a smaller club, but our members like that. Our motto here is where members become friends. That’s truly the feeling here.”
Bonita Bay leads the way
When it comes to major renovations, Bonita Bay Club has been one of the leaders in Southwest Florida, teeing up for growth in 2010, following the Great Recession and a shift in club ownership to its members after its developer, the Bonita Bay Group, ran into financial problems.
In 2013 the clubhouse closed for eight months for an $11.5 million renovation that gave it a new look and a more functional layout. One of the biggest changes? A conversion of the golf shop into a 4,700-square-foot, open-air bar and casual grill called the 55th Hole.
Less than a year later the Bonita Bay Club invested in a 60,000-square-foot, three- story medical office building just outside the Bonita Bay residential community to build a new lifestyle center. The center includes an 18,000-squarefoot fitness center and a 9,000-squarefoot spa and salon.
The lifestyle center alone was a $17 million investment.
“So many clubs followed up on what we started,” said Dan Miles, Bonita Bay Club’s general manager.
Most recently the club opened a $6million, 15,000-square-foot sports center that includes a new racquet complex, resort-style saltwater pool with 75-foot lap lanes and an open-air casual dining spot with 130 seats.
The sports center, now one of the largest tennis complexes in Southwest Florida with 18 courts, will host a U.S. Tennis Association Pro Circuit tournament next May with a
$100,000 purse, which is expected to attract 1,000 fans a day.
“The sports center is an expansion on recreational sports beyond golf and tennis. We’ve added state-of-the-art pickleball courts. We’ve introduced croquet. We have plans to add bocce,” Miles said.
Bonita Bay is one of the largest private clubs in the region, with 1,250 golf members and another 35 on a waiting list. Before the club started planning its major capital improvements in 2010, “we weren’t sure where our next member was coming from,” Miles said.
Now, the club has a total of more than 2,000 members.
“Only 6 percent of clubs nationally have wait lists,” Miles said. “In Southwest Florida, I think that with the improvements in the economy and the attractiveness of the area, most clubs are doing very well right now.”
With its success, the Bonita Bay Club has been raising its initiation fee regularly. The fee is now at $85,000 and will grow to $95,000 in January, Miles said.
Marie Verschuuren, 63, and her husband, Gary Pottruff, 72, have both belonged to the club for 20 years.
“The amenities have blossomed,” she said. “The golf really sold us to start. But we’re big on fitness too. We had a good fitness center when we joined, but now we’ve gone to a totally new level at Bonita Bay Club.”
She and her husband, who are both retired, work with fitness trainers three days a week.
“We never cease to be amazed by the depth and breadth of equipment, class programming, specialty fitness and knowledge,” Verschuuren said.
Massages are a must at least once a week, and they like the new dining options.
“We have enjoyed more than our share of excellent wine dinner experiences,” Verschuuren said.
The Shadow Wood Country Club at The Brooks in Estero has seen a steady schedule of improvements over the past three years. Most recently members approved a $5.2 million plan to build a new covered outdoor casual dining venue, with views of the golf practice range. The outdoor kitchen will include a pizza oven and window where members can see the club’s chefs in action.
The Club at Mediterra in North Naples underwent a major renovation in 2013 that included updates to its kitchen and Grille Room, as well as its gathering places. In 2017, it completed a $1.5 million expansion of its Sports Club and added new tennis and bocce courts. More recently it remodeled its beach club on Little Hickory Island, which now includes a wine bar. Up next is a $12 million renovation and expansion that includes doubling the size of the Tavern Terrace, an outdoor dining room and lounge built in 2008.
In February 2017, members at Grey Oaks Country Club celebrated the opening of a new 30,000-square-foot Wellness Center with a clinic inside that provides primary and emergency care. Medical professionals staff the clinic through an agreement with the NCH Healthcare System. Now members can do their rehabilitation after illness or injury, as well as get their daily workout, in their own backyard.
The club’s Wellness Center was the second phase of a $30 million-plus capital improvement project launched in 2015. Members also welcomed a new resort pool, a casual dining restaurant, new tennis center, eight Har-Tru courts, two pickleball courts, a children’s playground and a golf performance center.
On top of that, the Estuary clubhouse and two golf courses were renovated.
Jim Butler, the club’s former general manager who oversaw the project, said the goal at Grey Oaks was to be “best-inclass,” while meeting the wants and needs of current and future members.
“Naples is kind of the hub of the club world in general, and a result of having so many clubs in Collier, Lee, Sarasota (is) the club industry has been strong in those areas since 2010,” he said.
In the Naples market, many clubs are seeing more play than ever, with a record number of rounds, Butler said.
There’s no question clubs took a hit during the Great Recession not only here but across the country, Butler said, so they’ve had to play catch-up on deferred maintenance projects, while investing in projects for the future.
“The clubs in Naples are very progressive, compared to the other clubs across the country,” he said. “They are usually leading the club industry in all aspects of the club. In this particular case, they are certainly leading the country in the renovations and the capital investment in their clubs.”
Butler is now the CEO of Club Benchmarking, which helps club managers and clubs analyze, manage and predict performance. Clubs that aren’t making big capital improvements are putting themselves at a “severe competitive disadvantage,” he said.
“The value of the clubs are in the facilities,” Butler said. “In order to grow the club, you have to grow the assets in the facilities.
“Capital investments are permanent, so you are not only building the capital improvements for the members that are there today, but you are building it for your members of the future,” he said.
Among the many clubs in Southwest Florida that have recognized the value of investing in their future are Pelican Preserve of Fort Myers, whose upgrades have included a new 65,000-gallon outdoor lap pool complemented by a casual resort-style alfresco dining spot, and Pelican Marsh in North Naples, which recently launched the second phase of a major clubhouse renovation that will include improvements to the main dining room, private dining room, lobby entrance and locker rooms.
In 2014 Vanderbilt Country Club in Naples wrapped up a comprehensive remodel that included more seating in the main dining room, doubling the size of the kitchen, and expanding the bar and lounge.
A new covered terrace offers outside dining with a fireplace, along with a new fitness center. The decision to make the improvements came after other bundled- golf communities in the area upgraded their amenities, including Lexington, Worthington, Forest Glen and Foxfire.
Quail Creek plans one-stop shop for sports, fitness
Quail Creek Country Club in North Naples plans a $21 million capital project that will include a new integrated sports and fitness center designed to be a one-stop shop for members. Additional improvements will include a tennis exhibition court and pickleball courts.
Like many clubs, Quail Creek saw damage from Hurricane Irma last year, which has added to its costs but won’t take away from its lofty renovation plan, which is to be completed by 2020, said Don Hunter, the club’s general manager and CEO.
“Our new fitness facilities will be directly connected to the driving range, the tennis courts and the pro shop,” he said. “The area is one unit, instead of three separate units. We just see a more synergistic approach to player maintenance.”
The goal is to keep members healthier longer, which is better not only for members, but also for the club, Hunter said.
“When we’ve got older clientele, we need to recognize that the healthier we keep them the longer they will stay with the club,” he said. “So we are just trying to do our part to be a better support system for those members.”
The project is already drawing new members, who are enthused about the changes. The club has room for about 100 more members.
“It’s a significant enhancement,” Hunter said. “Two-thirds of the members voted for it.”
Nick Gray, the club’s membership director, said Quail Creek has only 292 homes inside its gates, but there are 660 memberships, so most members live outside the community. That means it faces more competition for new members, he said.
“Nobody feels like an outsider here,” Gray said. “That is a big selling point. The club becomes the community, as opposed to the community becoming the club.”