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Case Study: Traditions Reinvented

Relevance and Creativity Steered River Oaks Country Club through 2020

Words like reimagined, modified, adapted and reinvented pepper a recent lively conversation with COO and General Manager Joe Bendy, CCM, CCE, and Club Manager Casey Newman, CCM, of Houston’s River Oaks Country Club (ROCC) about what life at the club looks like today. In the face of the pandemic, River Oaks has remained a staple in its approximately 1,650 members’ lives and provided the much-needed outlet for activities, social events and, for lack of a better word, normalcy. Like so many other clubs, March 2020 marked the beginning of the new normal at River Oaks, but its members, leadership and 375 employees have remained committed to safely maintaining the vibrancy of this dynamic community.

At nearly a century old, River Oaks Country Club caters to an active membership with traditions that run deep. Amenities such as a 19-hole golf course, a seven-hole, par-3 short course, a four-bay state-of-the-art golf teaching center, 16 tennis courts where the club proudly hosts the U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship Tennis Tournament, as well as an active aquatics program, keep the members busy. Additionally, an active Women’s Association, Women’s and Men’s Golf and Tennis Association tournaments, and an array of club- and member-sponsored social events round out a robust activity calendar.

Early in the pandemic, as regulations and mandates were emerging and changing frequently, the club leadership brainstormed how to best keep members and employees safe while providing the outstanding country club experience that defines ROCC’s culture. With an early outbreak at the club, Bendy says transparent and frequent communication was imperative to quell any fears and instill confidence in the club’s commitment to safety. They suspended production of the monthly Oakleaf newsletter and began emailing a semi-weekly River Oaks Review Home Edition to keep members aware of new protocols and inventive ways to interact at the club. While Oakleaf has resumed production, the club will continue to communicate via the Home Editions.

“At times, it felt as if we were opening a new club every single day. Government guidelines, caseload within our city and community, demands—and lack of demand—for certain club amenities and offerings … it all changed every day, at times, even over just a few hours,” said Bendy. “All of this required constant and consistent communication between management teams, up to board level, across departments and down to staff level. We had to work together to cover more ground with less than ever before. The resilience and flexibility required challenged each of us, but in the end, has made us a stronger, more cohesive and efficient teams.”

ROCC’s more than 100,000-quare-foot main clubhouse has three dining rooms, a bar, two large banquet spaces for more than 1,000 people, four private dining rooms, and the “Wine Cellar,” a members-only event space. These indoor venues experienced significant impacts with COVID-19 restrictions, and ROCC’s banquet business, which comprised more than 40% of the club’s revenue in recent years, shrank dramatically. Utilizing the fast-casual dining at “The Turn,” expanding and extending the seasonal poolside dining at “The East End,” and making more regular use of the spacious member lawn off the back of the clubhouse were instrumental in enabling members to enjoy the club’s culinary offerings.

Bendy suggested that taking control during a time when so much is out of your control is empowering, and he is proud that “ROCC’s board and management were able to look at our financial dashboard to make decisions actively, not reactively. Having a healthy understanding of the club’s financial strategy gave us the confidence to make strategic decisions based on accurate, useful and timely information.”

ROCC took advantage of the initial shutdown to do some disruptive maintenance, such as refinishing their floors and freshening some of the club’s textiles. The shutdown was short-lived, and the team turned their focus on getting the members safely enjoying the club’s amenities. The golf and tennis programs enjoyed record years, the modified youth camps were wildly popular, and the utilization of outdoor event spaces for both recreation and social events has become a part of the club culture that won’t soon disappear. A newly created Summer Family Event Series brought members together for drive-in movies on the range, live music nights, glow golf and a course-wide scavenger hunt. These events will be incorporated into the club’s annual calendar.

Casey Newman explained, “ROCC’s history and club traditions are very important to our members. We felt we owed it to them to continue these traditions in the safest way possible. This required re-imagining almost every aspect of every event … from where it was located, to how food was served and how vendors and entertainment were incorporated. While it took a ton of time and creativity, what we were really posed with was an opportunity to breathe new life, to shift our focus towards the member experience, and to make things better than ever before. We’ve had an amazing six months of focusing on the reason we all love this business—providing exceptional experiences and curating special memories for the club’s community, which is 5,000 strong.”

The old adage, “Necessity is the mother invention” rings true at River Oaks Country Club: By using the opportunity the pandemic presented to become a more nimble staff, to cultivate creative and inventive ways to engage with their beloved membership, to fully utilize the club’s campus, and to remain an integral facet of their members’ lives, ROCC is poised to emerge with an arsenal of ideas and that can be integrated into the club’s treasured culture for years to come.

Club Trends Winter 2021.