Combining always-sharp visions of how to get members engaged with consistent delivery of what keeps them coming back has kept this property at the forefront of the industry for over 100 years.
As in many top service organizations, the ongoing training and direction of the staff of The Country Club of Virginia (CCV), located in the state capital of Richmond, includes plenty of handy reminders designed to help everyone stay on point with what working for the club, and its members, is all about.
All employees are given pocket cards with the club’s mission and motto (“An evolution of excellence through continuous improvement”), as well as a letter-by-letter walk-through of “what it means to Be Platinum” (a distinction the club has held for over a dozen years). For example, the cards remind staff that the “U” in Platinum stands for “U see it, you own it!”
The club’s current President, Harley Duane, also likes to cite a suggestion made by Vice President Jerry Jenkins—that the club’s own initials, CCV, can be linked with “cordiality, consistency and value,” to further reinforce some of its most distinguishing attributes.
Should CCV’s training team ever want to expand into movie takeoffs to also help drive home the message of what’s kept the club on a steady path to growth and success since its founding in 1908, a redubbing of the famous scene from “Apollo 13” might do the trick. Because as CCV managers from any of the club’s 53 operating departments describe how they motivate themselves, and their staffs, to pursue the evolving excellence and continuous improvement embodied in the club’s motto, the image of Ed Harris portraying Flight Director Gene Kranz keeps coming to mind. If Harris/Kranz were a CCV manager, however, his rallying cry would be a little different—as in, “Been there, done that is not an option!”
Thinking Big from the Start
The cornerstones on which The Country Club of Virginia built its legacy of daring to be great, anticipating the next big thing and transforming its property into a perpetual idea factory were laid with the club founders’ initial plans. Already behind in the game, with several other clubs having gained an earlier foothold in Richmond, the strategy from the start was to make up lost ground, and more, through one bold step that would immediately put CCV on the map as a major player that others could now chase.
“The concept from the beginning was to be large, with vast amenities, so the cost could be spread out among many members,” says Anne Stryhn, CCV’s Executive Director of Marketing. Even more brashly, the club not only took on over 1,200 people in its initial membership, but over a third of them were women, through a single-privilege structure that bestowed membership rights on each family member—this 12 years before the passage of the 19th Amendment granting all women the right to vote, and in the heart of the conservative South.
“You just don’t start clubs like this in Richmond, Va.,” chuckles William (Skip) Harris, who retired last year after over 30 years with CCV, the last 19 as General Manager. “But the [founders] wanted to rival the big clubs of the Northeast. The problem was, to make it work and get it off the ground, they would need to get just about every able-bodied person in the area to join.”
Another fundamental and enduring hallmark of CCV’s development, though, has been how “problems” have been met head-on and viewed not only as challenges, but as opportunities for creative and progressive advancement.
This next evidenced itself in the 1920s, when the club decided that attracting the high percentage of member prospects from the area that would be needed to make its model work—while also keeping everyone already on its fast-swelling membership rolls engaged, but not feeling overcrowded—called for the acquisition of additional property. Long before other city-based clubs saw the need to move to, or add, more bucolic settings, CCV added nearly 1,000 acres of historic and scenic property abutting the James River. And in this case, the real beauty lay in the fact that the new land was only seven miles away from the original Westhampton campus. (As an added bonus, the original Westhampton property, despite the fact that it was originally selected because it was at the end of a trolley line, has never been overwhelmed by urban sprawl, and still provides a welcome escape with inviting vistas to members who can get to it in just minutes from downtown Richmond.)
The James River campus has long served the club well as a golf-focused venue, featuring two 18-hole layouts, one designed by William Flynn. A second course, Tuckahoe Creek, was renovated to its current format in 1988, and has blossomed recently, thanks to improvements designed to enhance its natural appeal (while also reducing expenses by converting 40 acres of previously maintained space, according to Director of Golf Course Maintenance Christian Sain). Tuckahoe Creek, in fact, recently became the first of CCV’s three courses to earn Audubon certification.
But the foresight exercised by CCV’s early leaders in acquiring the James River property may just now be coming to its greatest fruition, nearly 100 years later. The property, which includes a boat landing that can accommodate 85 vessels, is also coming into its own as a venue that provides perfect settings for new activities organized through the Outdoor Heritage program that CCV started five years ago, to give members the opportunity to try their hands (and feet, and mouths) at things like stand-up paddle boarding, flycasting or duck calling.
“Outdoor Heritage lets us respond in unique ways, while making full use of a unique property, to members in an urban market who have an affinity for things like hunting and fishing,” notes Phil Kiester, who came to CCV last March to succeed Harris as General Manager. “It’s all about staying relevant and adding activities with value.”
The Final Breakthroughs
For many years after acquiring the James River property, “relevance” for CCV still meant the same as it did for pretty much every other golf-oriented club in the country—providing good locker rooms, card rooms and grill rooms for the male members who wanted to use the club to play golf or swim or just hang out in predominantly male enclaves. While women and children did have their single-privilege status at CCV, they really didn’t have much else to call their own.
But in the late ’80s, the club, under General Manager John Hightower, started serious discussions about becoming truly family-oriented and providing a wider range of facilities and activities that would appeal to all of those who held membership privileges. The discussion was not without controversy among the CCV membership—but eventually, a strategic shift was set and real change was made, most notably with the opening of a fitness center in 1990 that was then expanded in 1998.
“If it weren’t for the shift to become a family club in the 1990s, [CCV] would not be in the strong position we are in today,” says Stryhn. “Other clubs that have fought it continue to struggle with relevance and value.”
Looking back at the timeline of changes made at CCV, compared to how long it took most of the rest of the club industry to get with the same programs, Kiester adds, “It’s amazing how foresightful [CCV’s leaders] were—anyone talking about fitness and family in 1990 was really out in the wilderness.”
After Hightower provided the leadership needed to help break through the long-standing barriers, his successor, Skip Harris, created a culture to help CCV continue to blaze new trails in family-oriented concepts, primarily through constant innovation churned out by newly built idea machines.
As described in a look that C&RB took in its April 2007 issue at club operations that had become known for how they promote, encourage and reward staff-generated inventiveness as part of their day-to-day management routines, CCV, under Harris, was described as a place where “innovation is not just a buzzword, it’s a job requirement.”
Harris engrained idea creation into CCV’s fiber not just by making participation by all departments in the annual Club Managers Association of America (CMAA) Idea Fair a core management principle (there have been years, says Executive Director of Clubhouse Operations Tommy Janney, when the club has shipped over 100 idea posters to the CMAA competition). The idea machine was also turned on full-blast by holding intra-club Idea Fairs; creating a host of Special Interest Committees, through which staff could knock around new concepts; setting up daily employee-idea “suggestion box” mechanisms; and even forming a permanent Imagination & Creativity committee.
Harris—originally a CPA who first grew to know CCV as its outside auditor, before then becoming its controller, assistant GM and eventually GM—says much of the motivation to establish an idea-driven culture came from recognizing that managing an operation as big and diverse as CCV was something he “couldn’t do alone.” Plus as an outside auditor, he adds, he got a first-hand look at the flaws—and costs— of “organizations that didn’t care what their people thought.”
“My whole time as GM was about finding good people, giving them opportunities, and standing back and watching things grow,” Harris says.
Creating such a fertile atmosphere spawned other pace-setting developments at CCV, including turning its fine dining room into the popular Ollie’s bar/bistro concept in 2006, and unveiling a new $13 million pool complex in 2008. An important by-product of the idea culture has been seamless, ongoing cross-departmental cooperation and innovation, with the club showing the benefits of golf working with F&B, or fitness working with tennis, in mutually beneficial ways.
“The cruise ship industry figured it out pretty well,” says Harris. “Charge one fee, and give people a lot for it. That’s especially critical when you’re dealing with something that people, as club members, don’t have to do, but have to want to do.
“So we’ve always encouraged the whole team to be geared around making everything in the club important to members’ lives—and that once people are here, to make it hard for them to leave, by keeping things affordable and recognizing that people want to use clubs for more reasons than you think.”
Settling In for the Long Haul
After a year as only the fifth General Manager in The Country Club of Virginia’s history, Kiester has new appreciation for what distinguishes the operation from most clubs. Kiester was GM at Farmington CC in nearby Charlottesville, Va., which is also well-known as an idea-driven organization (and was also featured in C&RB’s April 2007 report)—but CCV’s scale and stability provides what Kiester calls the “luxury of time” when creating concepts to sustain future growth.
The most looming current need, both Kiester and Harley Duane acknowledge, is to revisit the club’s fitness facilities. What was launched so progressively over 20 years ago has proved to be an unqualified success, with “one in every two members” now visiting some kind of fitness area at least once a week, according to Duane, and many months now registering over 10,000 total visits. But that has put strain on how, and where, all of CCV’s fitness and wellness programs are now offered.
“The latest member survey showed fitness is the highest priority,” says Kiester. “The advantage we have here is that we can be planful and think five years out to do it right, because our operation is stable, with predictable cash flow and money in the bank [CCV has never assessed members for capital improvements]. Fitness helps to add value between October and May, so there’s little doubt it can be money well spent.”
New facilities and activities will only further enhance value measured in a “vitality index” tracking total units of club usage by club members—a benchmark Kiester has emphasized at his previous operations. “In today’s club business, you need to look at the sum total of what each member uses in golf rounds, court reservations, fitness center visits, pool visits, and cover counts they contribute both through regular F&B as well as banquets,” he notes. “Even for a club like ours that has a waiting list and stands to have yearly gains in membership, the aggregate trends of activity are becoming more critical. That’s what confirms you’re continuing to be relevant—the places that people want to be are the places with other people.”