To bolster membership and get the community involved, Blue Ridge Country Club in Palmerton, Pa., was advised to do something many clubs consider a given—hire a head golf pro.
Blue Ridge Country Club’s announcement in April of this year that it had hired a new head golf pro wasn’t all that headline-worthy—until you took a closer look at the context. The Palmerton, Pa. property, which has had nine holes of golf since the club opened in 1915, and expanded to 18 holes in 1989, hasn’t had a full-time pro since the late 1940s.
To be fair, General Manager John Rehus says, the private, member-owned club did employ head golf pros for brief, two-year stints in both the 1960s and 1970s. Still, most of the club’s first century has been marked by having high school and college kids staff the pro shop, and a lack of members clamoring for golf lessons.
But like many clubs, Blue Ridge had to take a fresh look at how to bolster membership after the financial challenges of the past few years. The club hired a membership consultant who conducted town-hall meetings with members, to determine what they valued at the club. To not only help sell memberships, but also boost revenues through clinics and lessons and get women and children more involved with club activities, the consultant recommended that Blue Ridge hire a golf pro.
How do you go about finding a golf pro, and establishing a golf department, for a club that’s offered the game for nearly 100 years, has 210 golfing members and sees 20,000 annual rounds? Rehus looked for two things in his search through the PGA CareerLink system: previous head golf pro experience, and ideas to increase membership and rounds.
Enter Rich Conwell, who had previously worked at the Uniontown (Pa.) Country Club, the Country Club of Culpeper (Va.) and Quicksilver Country Club in Midway, Pa.—and who Rehus says emerged as the “hands-down” best choice.
THE GOAL: To bolster membership, boost revenues and increase rounds by engaging the community surrounding Blue Ridge Country Club in Palmerton, Pa.
Now that Conwell is on board, Rehus says the enthusiasm among members—as well as the Blue Ridge staff—about his arrival is palpable. “I wouldn’t expect overnight success, but we have seen overnight positivity and a new attitude,” Rehus says.
Inquiries about golf lesson, he notes, are already buzzing.
Conwell admits there can be both positive and negative aspects to wading through the uncharted territory.
“It’s almost like I’m Lewis and Clark,” Conwell says. “If I make a wrong turn, I’ll know before anyone else does. The downside is there’s an amount of expectation when you’re setting the precedent. We have to be cognizant of what we do.
“It seems to me that if you work pretty hard, they forgive you quickly,” Conwell adds.
Conwell’s plan is to be “Mr. Golf” not only at Blue Ridge, but in Palmerton, which is in the east-central part of the state, with access to the greater Allentown area. By expanding the club’s golf program to include junior golf, golf lessons and update the current tournament program, Conwell hopes to grow membership and offer programs that are attractive, rather than where members are expected to participate.
“Twenty-five years ago, [golfers] had no choice. You could play here or in a private club or suffer through less-than-stellar conditions at a public facility,” Conwell says. “But those [public] facilities are so well-managed and well-groomed, we have to basically catch up—and our goal is to surpass them.”
Rehus credits Conwell with already reorganizing the club’s retail offerings by moving older inventory out and bringing new inventory in. Conwell has taken over golf tournaments and is even creating a deal to entice local businesses to join.
“You don’t want to change too much too fast, because people could become disenchanted, but I have a lot of leeway,” Conwell notes. “I can try programs here that I couldn’t do somewhere else, because they haven’t seen it before.”
Part of joining a well-established team in a new position is learning to be diplomatic and work within the structure that already exists. A month into the job, Conwell has tried to become as knowledgeable as he can about other departments, particularly food and beverage.
“Food is a huge part of golf outings,” he notes. “It’s hard for me to admit this professionally, but it may be even bigger than golf. So I’ve spent a lot of time with the food and beverage manager, because you have to maintain a status of equal departments. I wouldn’t exist as well without food and beverage or without the social committee. We have to make sure we’re on the same page.”
Despite his newfound local celebrity, Conwell acknowledges that where the club is concerned, he’s still the “new guy,” and approaches his role with humility.
“I treat it like I’m the least intelligent person in every conversation about Blue Ridge,” he says.