On a Steady Course
Crestview’s Owners Say the Turnaround Effort Is on ScheduleWhen Dave Fleury and several partners acquired Crestview Country Club in Agawam in early 2012, they did so with the expectation that it would probably take at least five years to complete a full turnaround of the once-proud, but at that time troubled, operation.
And as he talked about season three for the new ownership group, Fleury, whose title is managing partner, believes things are progressing right on schedule.
By that, he meant that there has been considerable progress made with the assignment to convert this historically and seriously private course into a semi-private operation with limited public play, but there’s still much work to be done.
For exhibit A, Fleury, the golf-course designer turned owner (although he still does design work) recalled some experiences at the recent Connecticut Golf Show, where he staffed the Crestview booth for the better part of two days.
“We were there to get the message out — ‘you can come and play Crestview,’” he recalled. “But probably eight out of 10 people didn’t know about Crestview, so we have to work harder to tell our story and make people aware.”
Meanwhile, membership has been slowly rising past the 200 mark, but is still a ways from the stated goal of 280, he said, noting that Crestview, like most other private clubs, has been challenged in this realm by a still-shaky economy and younger generations that are not as enamored with country club life as those that came before them.
But with these and other aspects of the multi-faceted challenge facing the new leadership group, Fleury is nothing if not optimistic. That’s because he believes he has the course, the setting, the quality of service, value, and, perhaps most importantly, the business model to meet and probably exceed those five-year expectations.
That model, of course, is the ‘semi-private’ configuration that blends a solid core of members with daily-fee play at specific times, especially weekdays.
“I believe that a well-run semi-private model, especially in this market, can work extremely well, and I think we’ve proven that here,” he said, adding that daily fee play increased last year after that inaugural season under the new structure, and the expectation is that it will continue to rise as more people understand that they can now play the course.
Overall, he said the needle is moving in the right direction due to a focus on the customer experience that is helping membership numbers increase, making Crestview the destination course that the ownership group envisioned.
“We’re quite happy with where we are — we’re basically where we thought we would be at this point,” said Fleury. “And in some ways, that’s amazing, because the market really hasn’t improved.”
For this issue and its broad look at the start of the new golf season, BusinessWest talked at length with Fleury about what’s been accomplished at Crestview and the work that remains.
Like many area golf pros and course owners, Fleury is sensing a significant amount of pent-up demand, for lack of a better term, when it comes to the golfing public.
He said the brutal winter coupled with a longer-than-normal off-season — few people have played since well before Thanksgiving — have many left champing at the bit to get back on the first tee. “People have cabin fever … they’re ready,” he said.
Fleury believes that strong attendance at both the Connecticut and Western Mass. golf shows (Crestview exhibited at both) provides evidence of this sentiment, as does the large number of people who have driven to Crestview’s hilltop parking lot over the past few weeks for status reports on snow meltage and signs that the course would soon be opening.
If these unscientific measures are indicative of a solid start to the year — and if Mother Nature cooperates, something she hasn’t done lately or much at all for the past three years — then Fleury believes Crestview can take some larger strides when it comes to the numbers set out in the business plan just over two years ago.
Looking back over the past 25 months or so, Fleury said his group’s work to reposition and reinvigorate Crestview has been a labor of love — one defined by conservative projections and large doses of realism.
“If you know golf, you don’t get into something like this thinking there’s a million dollars to be made tomorrow — that’s certainly not the case,” he told BusinessWest. “To own a golf course and to run a golf course is a daunting task, and in this economy, it’s even more so.
“But for us, it still comes back to the fact that this property is effectively home,” he went on. “To be able to take it, resurrect it in a sense, and reposition it, and see the response from the community, has been great. It’s a lot of work, but the rewards are right in front of you when you see people come out and enjoy themselves.”
By ‘home,’ Fleury meant that Crestview has long had a place in his life. He grew up behind the second green, caddied there as teenager, and had his wedding reception there in 2000. When he found out the course was for sale, he led a determined effort to acquire it, despite the shaky financial ground it was on.
The blueprint for the turnaround was fairly simple: convert the club to a semi-private facility, and then fully leverage the facility’s many amenities and strong track record — it hosted an LPGA event, the Friendly’s Classic, for three years — to achieve growth with both membership and daily-fee play.
And, as he said at the top, progress has been achieved, but it’s been a slow, steady climb, with much of the hill still ahead. That’s because this turnaround is taking place during a challenging time for all golf operations.
The battle plan has been — and will continue to be — to market Crestview as a facility with a private feel that the public can play, and then deliver on that promise.
Fleury isn’t worried about the second part of the equation, and to explain why, he made early and frequent use of the word ‘value,’ as it pertains to members and daily-fee players who make their way past the gate just off Shoemaker Lane.
With the latter, a key part of the equation is price, said Fleury, adding that the $49 greens fee for weekdays and $59 for weekends (carts are extra) positions the club above most other public courses, but well below many other semi-private facilities.
But value comes in other forms, including access — whenever members don’t reserve times, those slots are made available to the public — as well as what is generally considered one of the best-conditioned courses in the region and one of the largest practice facilities.
“Our business model from day one has been to offer a high-end product for a great value,” he said. “Crestview has always been a high-end product — there’s a reason the LPGA was here for three years; the facilities here are grand.”
And with members, value comes in the form of customizing packages so that those using them — be it an individual focused only on golf or a family using the pool, tennis courts, and fitness facility — say they get their money’s worth, which is often an a elusive phrase when it comes to club membership.
“We want to make it so that, when the year is over, people are not saying, ‘I paid all this money, and I never used it,” Fleury explained. “That’s why we design our membership packages to what we called tailored programs, so people can design their own membership and personalize it to their needs. This allows them to feel in control.”
That’s a sensation that those in the industry rarely, if ever, get to experience, he went on, adding that there are so many things that are simply out of the control of club owners and pros.
That list includes everything from the weather to the economy to simple geography.
“Crestview has always struggled with its location,” Fleury explained. “It’s only 10 minutes from Longmeadow, but with that river, it seems like East and West Berlin. And it’s only three minutes from Connecticut, but you have that boundary, which some people don’t cross.”
Fleury can’t move the course, but he can, and will, continue his work to make the river and the state line less-formidable psychological barriers.
And he’ll continue to put his energies toward those things he can control, such as building awareness concerning Crestview and its new model, and that hard focus on value that he mentioned repeatedly.
Looking ahead, Fleury says he’s optimistic but also realistic about 2014 and beyond. The golf industry hasn’t fully recovered from the recession, and ‘flat’ is the word almost everyone in this business uses to describe its current state.
But overall, he believes the club is on the right course and on schedule with its turnaround efforts.
“You had to figure that it would take at least five years to know what its true potential was and to work the problem,” he said. “You had to be able to come in here with enough knowledge to change what needed to be changed, reduce costs without sacrificing quality, set a course, and stay on that course. And we’ve done all that.”
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]