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Private clubs are thriving with soaring real estate market

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of November 25, 2021)
Photo: Kevin Given, Managing Partner at Quail Valley Golf Club.

Vero’s 14 private clubs are enjoying a phenomenal boom heading into this mostly post-pandemic season, with waiting lists as long as six years and tens of millions in upgrades recently completed or underway that are increasing club use by members and attracting still more prospects.

Much of the success is driven by the same pandemic-related factors that have pushed the real estate market here to record heights – people migrating from big cities to small, charming towns like Vero with a renewed passion for outdoor pastimes such as golf, tennis and boating.

“The clubs are doing great, and they are a tremendous asset to the community, major economic drivers,” says Quail Valley managing partner Kevin Given, who hosts a regular Zoom meeting where club managers talk about challenges and share tips and intelligence.

“We are all doing very well,” agrees Ursula Gunter, marketing manager at The Moorings Yacht & Country Club. “Business so far this year has blown away what we did in 2019. I think the coming season will be huge.”

“October was crazy,” says Michael Gibson, general manager at Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club. “It was the busiest golf month we have had in years.”

Two clubs, one free-standing and one embedded in an eponymous residential community, illustrate just how dynamic the Vero club world has become.

Quail Valley with its sprawling river club, hotel and restaurant facility on Royal Palm Pointe and epic golf course west of town has thrived in the past two years, with more than $7 million in capital upgrades complete or underway since the beginning of 2020.

Projects include a new 7-hole, par-3 course, a 2-hole short-game facility and complete revamp of the practice area at the Quail Valley Golf Club. The handsome golf clubhouse is getting major upgrades, too, with a new and expanded pro shop, expanded dining room, new outdoor kitchen and new main dining room bar overlooking the 18th hole of the club’s championship course.

At the river club, Given dredged the 43-slip marina – just in time for the explosion in the popularity of boating – and moved fast during the covid shutdowns to completely rebuild and expand the fitness center and add “Martha’s Market,” named after Martha Redner, director of membership and marketing, who has worked at the club since it was founded.

“As soon as Gov. (Ron) DeSantis shut things down, I called Proctor Construction who has done most of our work over the years and asked them how fast we could do a design build project,” Given says. “We gutted the place and brought in all new equipment and created rooms for pilates and stretching. Between the fitness center and market, it was about a $2 million project that we knocked out in 90 days.”

Given insists Quail’s success is due mainly to the quality of the club’s members and employees, half of whom have worked for Given for five years or longer.

“You can’t have a great a club without great members and team members,” he says. “When we ask our workers why they stay, the No. 1 reason always is ‘the members.’ We haven’t the problem with staffing that many businesses have faced.”

Despite his modesty, it’s clear Given’s leadership is at least equally responsible for how well the club is doing, with Martha’s Market a prime example of his strategic thinking.

“People in the club world tend to say that tennis players don’t spend much money at the club, but you have to give them something to spend on. That is why we opened the tiki bar a while back and the market a year ago, to capture the spending of people coming off the courts or out of the fitness center or off their boats who might feel underdressed to go into the club house.

“People want a coffee or smoothie or something to eat after working out or playing tennis and the market has a nice selection of drinks, light sandwiches, salads and gourmet grocery items – and people are comfortable coming in their tennis or workout clothes.”

With more than 1,000 members, 300 loyal employees and a 6 ½ year wait list for prospective members, Quail epitomizes the success of area clubs.

As does the Moorings Yacht & Country Club.

Created to draw residents to The Moorings ocean-to-river community and serve its residents, the club also takes outside members – new doctors at Cleveland Clinic, businesspeople who have decided they can run their northern enterprises from island home offices, and an increasing flood of seniors who moved up their Florida retirement plans during the pandemic – all looking for a country club component in their lifestyle.

“Things are wonderful,” says Gunter. “The pandemic period has been great for our club, with high demand for membership and rounds of golf and other outdoor activities.”

Gunter says the club added 150 new members over the past two years and is now at capacity with 1,075 members and an 18-month waiting list.

With a $75,000 joining fee, those 150 new members infused more than $11 million in fresh capital into the club, and are paying $1.8 million in additional annual dues, money the board and general manager, Craig Lopes, are using to upgrade and refine club facilities to make them even more appealing.

“Over the summer we renovated the Moorings golf course, which was a $2 million project that included a new irrigation system and did tons of other cosmetic improvements to what I call key touch points – with new parking lot landscaping and pavers where you saw asphalt before,” Gunter says.

In the summer of 2020, the club redid its tennis center and now has “nine brand new Har-Tru tennis courts along with four new pickleball courts.”

Other clubs up and down the island and on the mainland are growing and upgrading, too.

“Things are just great at this time,” says Brian Kroh, general manager at John’s Island, where the real estate market is red hot, and the club is wrapping up renovation of its north golf course to keep up with member demand and expectations.

“We are very, very busy,” says Vero Beach Country Club GM Tim Straley. “The pandemic certainly created more demand for a club experience. We have a lot of members who have taken up golf or are finding ways to play more.”

With what turned out to be enviable timing, Vero Beach Country Club started a $3.8 million expansion in January 2020 that added “a fitness center, resort-style swimming pool and outdoor bar and dining area.” The improvements made the club much more appealing to young families moving into the neighborhood around the club, which has become one of the most desirable on the mainland.

Since the start of the pandemic the club has sold 80 new memberships, reaching capacity at 515 members, and has 87 people on its waiting list.

“We filled up quickly, mostly with a younger demographic than what we saw in the past,” Straley says. “The wait for a golf membership is a year and half. For a social membership, it is more than three years.

“We are having fun doing what we are doing!”

The Boulevard Tennis Club, one of the few Vero clubs without a golf course, is thriving too, according to Director of Tennis Christophe Delavaut.

“We are doing great. Our membership has filled up over the past two years to 399 and we now have a waiting list. When we bought the place in 2017 there were only 108 members, so we feel very good.”

Member families pay $2,700 a year to belong to the club, which now amounts to more than $1 million a year in dues. That’s supplemented by revenue that comes in from adult tennis lessons, a strong junior tennis program and the club restaurant Counter Culture.

“If you love tennis, this is the place,” says Delavaut. “Our members are out here playing four or five times a week.”

“Everyone is very happy,” says Grand Harbor’s Gibson.

Since Grand Harbor’s members took the club over from a problematic developer a year ago, membership has increased from a low of about 580 to more than 700, bringing in millions of additional dollars in $50,000 buy-in fees and annual dues that average $10,000, and Gibson expects another 80-100 new members in 2022.

“When we took over the club we said our goal was to grow the membership by 200 over the next four to five years,” Gibson says. “But we now we think we will accomplish that in 2 ½ years.”

Grand Harbor Golf and Beach Club opened its doors to non-resident members in April, which has accelerated the growth and revenue trajectory and made members optimistic about the future.

Under Gibson’s leadership, the club just spruced up its island beach club and finished a $2 million renovation of its Harbor Golf Course, one of two in the 900-acre, Mediterranean-style planned community, which includes a full slate of amenities and a beautiful harbor on the river. Gibson will present a masterplan to the members for a vote in January that if approved will include a major expansion of the beach club and upgrading the second golf course.

“Honestly, we want to be a premiere golf club, and we plan to have the finest restaurant in Vero at our beach club,” Gibson says. “We believe in that because growth feeds on itself. Half our new members are non-residents and with all the new people moving into the community we think we are in line for a strong upward move in numbers.

“The new members bring guests to play golf and eat and drink here and some of them end up joining. Our existing members are more active, too. A year ago, people were walking around with their shoulders slumped. Now everyone has a bounce in their step. The more members we have paying dues and spending money here, the better club we can create.”

“I think Grand Harbor’s future is extremely bright,” says Given, who tends to talk up other Vero clubs as much as he does his own. “Their growth trajectory is going to be steep.

“Honestly, there isn’t a bad club in town. It is just a matter of finding the one that fits your personality.”
And hoping you can get in.