When the Coronavirus pandemic forced Minnesota golf courses to close, Joel Livingood was already preparing for the next step. It's what he's done since taking over as GM at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, MN, in 2017. With a solid financial footing and a steady hand, Livingood has led his team and membership through one of the most extraordinary years in U.S. history.
Interlachen has hosted major golf championships, including the 2008 U.S. Women's Open, the 2002 Solheim Cup, and the 1930 U.S. Open won by the great Bobby Jones on his way to golf’s Grand Slam. Yet, even with an elite place in golf history and recognized as one of Minnesota’s top private clubs, Interlachen experienced financial challenges like many other clubs around the country after the 2008 recession. Livingood admits the club was resting on its laurels. Strangely, what makes Joel's story unique is how he guided his team through 2020 due mostly to the work the club did long before the pandemic started.
Post-Recession Club Challenges
When Livingood took over as GM in 2017, the existing membership model wasn't working - below capacity with high member turnover, and that was just part of the problem. Hiring and retaining top talent and a lack of trust had become pervasive, and it made it near impossible to operate the club efficiently. Turning around the culture and the club’s financial position was key to what allowed Interlachen to adjust quickly to the pandemic.
“We knew we could weather the storm even if some of our members decided to depart for various reasons,” Livingood said.
By the time the pandemic hit, Interlachen had realized significant membership growth, building a 3-year wait-list during Livingood’s short tenure.
"We learned that the club needed to evolve and become just as important to the families and the non golfers as it is the golfers.”
And yet, building a club that can endure a global pandemic is more than just words and smoke and mirrors. When Livingood took the reins at Interlachen, he made the member experience the top priority, and that commitment had to be rooted in more than just words. In order to deliver outstanding member experience, the club implemented a plan that focused on three priorities: Financial health, strong governance, and a relentless commitment to members.
Club Financial Health
Joel and the club leaders believed the club had to be strong enough to endure the ups and downs in the economy as well as the changing preferences of current and future members. The club began to improve operations, eliminate deferred capital, and invest in facilities to help create the member experience they needed. Interlachen put $11 million into the club, including $10 million in non-golf related activities. They wanted to create a destination where all their members could spend their time.
An Effective and Operational Club Governance Model
The second piece in building a club that would last was ensuring that the club’s governance model would support its management teams’ ability to improve the member experience. The daily boardroom conversations shifted from day to day decisions to long-term vision.
“We joked, we went from picking the Easter brunch menu to what are we thinking about in two, five, and 10 years? And we now spend very little time in the room talking about what happened last month. And we spend a lot of time talking about where we're going to be,” explains Livingood. This structure empowered the management team to make good decisions every day so they could create the experience the club aspired to achieve.
Relentless Commitment to Member Experience
Talking about member experience and delivering it can be two different challenges. To clarify Interlachen’s position on this, Livingood put a stake in the ground, saying his team would have a relentless commitment to the member experience.
“There's a relentless commitment to make it personal, make it special, make it memorable in every facet,” he explains. “Everything matters, and fine is never OK.”
And with that, Livingood inspires his team to bring that relentless attention to detail and everything they do. He believes it's the culmination of the little things that make the Interlachen experience stand out, which is why his members see value in their experience here and why they're spending so much time during the pandemic.
"Everything matters and fine is never okay."
So what of the future? Will Interlachen hold up through 2021 and a prolonged global crisis? Livingood says his team is preparing for more of the same in 2021, being conservative and planning for the worst while hoping for the best.
“We're all anxious to get back to normal, but from our planning perspective, we'll be building out a few different scenarios for 2021.”
A formula that worked for Interlachen in 2020 was to eliminate guest play and outside events. As it turns out, there was a financial hit in revenue, but not nearly what they originally expected at the bottom line. With the additional capacity for staff and space, the Interlachen team was able to avoid “distractions” and double down on the member experience, which paid dividends during the season.
“We believe 2021 is going to be more 2020 than 2019, so we're planning to proceed under the assumption that activity levels of the club are very similar ... with similar restrictions. We're going to be prepared to deliver an even better experience under similar circumstances.”