Tee to green: Making flagging country club profitable is about more than golf, Woodmont CEO says

By Brett Johnson
River Vale | Jun 6, 2019 at 5:15 am
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The dust of country club cardrooms — it’s what tells you how long these facilities have existed, and how much they struggle to continue existing.

Because it’s not just New Jersey’s decades-old country club facilities — and the members themselves — that are aging, their appeal is as well.

Eric Witmondt, CEO of Woodmont Properties, said a recent reminder of that was the closure of three different country clubs near the developer’s own North Jersey country club facilities.

But he doesn’t act too surprised. The country club component of the hospitality sector hasn’t completely wilted away, but the idea that it needs to “bring in only the father who wants to play golf and cards on the weekend,” as Witmondt put it, has grown old.

“To create a club environment that’s successful, we need to instead focus on the entire family unit,” he said. “We need to provide amenities that appeal to mom and the kids, so they feel like they’re at a resort — so that it’s somewhere they would like to be.”

It’s a difference in philosophy. And it could lead country clubs, with all the cigar smoke and stuffy stereotypes surrounding them, to become something else entirely. 

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The new concept stems from developers such as Witmondt realizing that members of today’s older generation are much more engaged with their children than previous generations’ were. Family activities take precedence over individual golf trips — and Witmondt wants people to find those activities at the country club.

Outside of that, country clubs aren’t in good shape. Organizations such as the National Club Association have been reporting steep membership and overall country club facility declines over the past decade.

“The country club market is unfortunately having a tough time throughout the country, and even in New Jersey,” Witmondt said. “There are the premier clubs without a declining membership because they might have a golf course that is a great golf course that everyone wants to play at. Then you have others that are less costly, where you’re going to play golf and go home, that are doing fine. It’s the clubs in the middle that are facing a lot of competition and struggling.”

Edgewood Country Club, one of several of these types of properties in the Woodmont Properties portfolio, was among those failing facilities. It was on the brink of bankruptcy and facing its own inclusion on the list of facilities being totally repurposed as housing communities across the Garden State. 

The member-owned club, which was founded in the 1960s, was rife with problems.

“What was happening was the cost of the club to maintain was increasing, so a member would have to pay more money in dues every year to support its operation,” Witmondt said. “Even as the cost went up, it became less appealing, because membership was declining and less of their friends were there.”

In short, the biggest issue for this country club — though it’s certainly not the only club to encounter it — was that the payroll at the facility was disproportionate to the use.

“In general, member-owned clubs are owned by a generation of people in their 60s, 70s and 80s,” he said. “But those members often aren’t the active users of the clubs themselves. So, what happens is those people move to either warmer climates or you get in a loop where people just utilize it less and, in so doing, make it more expensive to operate and attract new members.”

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Edgewood was purchased by Woodmont Properties — even with its mounting concerns.

Witmondt saw a great deal of potential in the property. The developer reoriented it to fit with a more family-friendly vision; that meant activating the facility’s tennis program, investing in a pool and cabanas and modernizing other aspects of the golf course and country club property.

The club, located in the heart of Bergen County, is also having nine of its 27 golf course holes converted into 225 on-site townhouses. Witmondt expects this turnkey living option will build a community around the country club and keep people in the state that would’ve otherwise moved to a place such as Florida.

In Witmondt’s eyes, the project is one that other country clubs around the nation will be looking at as not only an innovative way to preserve a failing country club in an already declining industry, but to have a facility that can thrive into the future.

“As people start to leave clubs, they go en masse,” he said. “But, when people start seeing their friends joining clubs that are offering something, the same thing happens in reverse. It’s a herd mentality.”

When the company bought the facility, it had about 155 members. It’s now at 330 members.

“So, we built enormous momentum by giving people what they wanted,” Witmondt said. “We had to spend the money based on understanding where the market is today, which was very different from what the current ownership was willing to do.”

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Not everyone is on board with the way Witmondt wants to change country clubs.

“On the boards of these country clubs, it’s all 60- and 70-year-olds who believe that they know best,” he said. “But, in order to be successful, we need families and 30- and 40-year-olds.

“So, some of these boards are out of touch with what younger generations want in the country club, because they have a much different outlook.”

Regardless, Witmondt feels like he knows which direction to go: the only way forward.

“And that’s to provide a new set of improvements and programming to the facilities to accommodate the needs and desires of today’s older empty nesters as well as the younger demographic,” he said.

“It’s important to go this direction for the survival of these facilities.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Eric Witmondt of Woodmont Properties at: eric.witmondt@woodmontproperties.com or 973-316-9400, ext. 223.