Like any private golf facility with an avid membership, the Harmon Golf and Fitness Club in Rockland, Mass., receives phone calls from members asking if it’s possible to get off the first tee sometime soon. “We can tell them, ‘Sorry the course is booked,’” says Ron Lavoie, who oversees the operation, “and they’ll say, ‘Oh well, I’ll come over anyway and find something to do.”
Started up in 2003 as a learning-center concept in search of $7,500 initiation fees that would be paid mostly by corporations, the 9-hole, 100-acre facility has stumbled, recovered, redrafted its business plan and found its key to steady profitability–$150-per-month individual memberships.
The golfers who pay these modest dues make frequent visits of 60 to 90 minutes and use fewer of the club’s myriad facilities than they perhaps realize. Many don’t socialize much with fellow Harmonites but they respond well to new program ideas developed by the staff.
“We have a few members who behave like country-club types,” says Lavoie. “They show up on weekend mornings to drink coffee, read the newspapers then go play 18 holes, riding in a cart. We cannot afford to have a lot of this type if our model is going to work.”
Instead the Harmon Club wants to go with the flow of modern life—attracting busy, middle-class golfers who consider golf an important part of their lives but can only spend so much time and so much money pursuing it, and want to extract some health benefit from it.
Lavoie is director of 1921 Golf and a partner in the private capital firm that operates 1921, the Wellesley Companies. He trained as PGA professional and worked in clubs before teaching business on the university level then signing on with the well-known management group, Meadowbrook Golf. One of the club’s original investors was giving Lavoie a casual tour of the facilities during its opening season in 2003, extolling the virtues of its high-tech teaching equipment and the gleaming workout machinery lined up in the fitness center.
“I must not have sounded too impressed, which prompted him to call me on the phone that day, after I’d left,” recalls LaVoie. “I told him they were focusing on fancy gear that wasn’t going to drive the numbers. Their youngest and lowest-paid employee, a 17-year-old girl, was assigned the most important job in the organization—selling memberships.”
Brought in as a consultant, Lavoie began noticing a number of counter-intuitive, even paradoxical aspects of the club’s operation. For example:
>> The Harmon Club has an expansive, modern fitness complex and it operates on a fitness-center business model, but about half of the golf members don’t care very much about fitness and tend to spend their time on golf.
>> New members rave to their golfing friends about the short-game course, the “wedge range,” the variety of practice putting and chipping greens—but many spend the majority of their time on-property thumping drivers and three-woods on the range.
>> The members aren’t golf snobs, by any means, but they consider it essential that PGA Tour-quality, natural-grass tees and unblemished practice balls be available on the main practice range. “That’s the core of everything, the grass tees and perfect golf balls,” says LaVoie.
>> New England’s most beloved and in-demand golf instructor, Tom Cavicchi, is the star of the Harmon Club staff, but the most relied-upon staff member is GM Rich Campbell, recruited from the fitness-club industry.
>> The original model called for a game-improvement nirvana, but no golf instruction was ever packaged into the monthly dues offer. “If I had it to do over again, we’d include lessons, on some level, as a no-charge service.”
>> An award-winning architect with a national reputation, Brian Silva, designed the 3,400-yard, par-36 Harmon golf course, but top-rank course architecture is seen more as a liability than an asset as LaVoie ponders future Harmon Club projects. “We don’t want a great golf course,” he says. “Too many people would want to play here. It would throw the operation out of balance.”
During its trailblazing first four years, the Harmon Club has run dry of cash, changed plans, postponed capital projects (like its main clubhouse) for uncomfortable lengths of time, and all the while experienced just one single month without positive membership growth. The drop rate is 10 to 15 members a month, fairly normal according to the health-club retention model.
“We stumbled upon the satisfying, rewarding 90-minute golf experience,” says LaVoie. “If you could bottle it, you’d do very well, and sometime I think we really have bottled it.” Multiplying the Harmon Club’s $150 a month (members who pay $175 a month don’t have to pay a per-round golf fee) times the 500-ish members now enrolled, produces a core annual revenue number of nearly $1 million. Instruction fee revenues, merchandise, food-and-beverage and other categories round out the income statement.
“It isn’t a grand slam,” says LaVoie, “but we can go places with this. It’s a nice product that recognizes market realities and holds out a lot of positives for the future of golf.”