Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Clubs and Associations

Pampering is part of Columbia Club's turnaround plan

July 30, 2007

Growing up in a Holland luxury hotel, Maarten van Wijk observed how to make wealthy guests feel welcome: Remember their names. Pamper them, and never forget their preferences. Some enjoy extra olives in their martinis. Others always want to sit at a certain table in the restaurant.

The son and grandson of hotel managers, van Wijk, 53, is attempting to apply lessons he learned half a world away here in Indianapolis. He became the general manager of the historic-but-ailing 2,000-member Columbia Club in May. And van Wijk's first priority is to polish the venerable private club's tarnished quality standards to a lustrous sheen.

Impeccable service is the basis of a new five-year plan that van Wijk believes can attract 1,000 new members and, with them, the financial resources to preserve and improve the Columbia Club's landmark building on Monument Circle.

He aims to renew the Columbia Club's in-crowd mystique. Downtown now offers a variety of options for high-end dining and lodging. But hotels and restaurants, no matter how well-appointed, don't offer entry to a network of deal makers.

"No matter how good a five-star hotel is, it can't match what a private club can do," said van Wijk, previously the general manager of the Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa. "We're going to provide tradition in a modern jacket."

Six months ago, the Columbia Club faced a difficult crossroads. It had parted ways with its general manager and faced an imminent cash crunch.

A balloon payment on a $5.5 million loan the club had used to refurbish upper floors was scheduled to come due in August.

Worse, the books were in the red. According to filings with the Internal Revenue Service, the Columbia Club reported losses of $283,903 two years ago, then another $444,230 last year. And membership has fallen by more than one-third since the late 1990s.

The Columbia Club's board members sharpened their pencils and began confronting problems. To replace its loan with the National Bank of Indianapolis, the club negotiated with 18 financial institutions, ultimately refinancing with Charter One.

The Columbia Club now has 15 years to pay off the $5 million in remaining principal, at 5.5-percent interest. And it hopes to take advantage of the loan's provision for no prepayment penalty.

The financial situation was never as dire as Columbia Club's IRS statements show, van Wijk and his staff say.

Most of the losses stem from annual depreciation of $800,000 on the building, which was built in 1925. Set depreciation aside, and the club has relatively strong cash flow. And even with depreciation, the Columbia Club managed $120,000 in profit when it closed the books on the fiscal year that ended last month.

But the Columbia Club's aging building has a litany of problems. The plumbing is poor. So is the electrical infrastructure. The roof leaks in spots. The heating and cooling system needs an upgrade.

Those problems eventually will be addressed, van Wijk said, but there are no immediate plans to borrow more money or kick off a fund-raising campaign from donors. Instead, improvements are being paid for out of club profits.

To boost them, van Wijk is concentrating on transforming the Columbia Club's staff into a crack team that's ready to help members at every turn--but that also knows how to elegantly keep its distance when not wanted.

Van Wijk has made several key hires to improve the staff. For example, Douglass Knopp, the Conrad Indianapolis' former chef, has moved over to run the kitchen.

The Columbia Club is putting finishing touches on a new first-floor restaurant, Harrison Bistro 121. Its affordable prices are designed to increase foot traffic. Lunch is under $10. Most dinner entrees range from $15 to $22, in line with the rest of the downtown market.

Improving services of every type is necessary to boost club profits. Only a third of the Columbia Club's roughly $7 million in revenue comes from dues. The majority can be traced to food and beverage sales, events and lodging.

Meanwhile, construction workers are busy with surface repairs. Furniture is being replaced. Walls painted. Rooms reshaped.

Eventually, van Wijk plans to knock out some of the walls in the club's 97 guest rooms, making them into 65 larger suites equipped with writing desks, WiFi and flat-screen TVs. He figures occupancy rates would leap from 55 percent to better than 70 percent. And the club could justify charging slightly higher rates.

Columbia Club Board President David Certo likes what he sees so far. Fresh flowers are displayed throughout the building. The food is better. There are more club events designed to appeal to a younger crowd, such as a recent outing to Chicago for a Cubs game. And most important, new members are signing up. The Columbia Club has attracted 45 in the last four months. Another 30 prospects are in the pipeline.

"The primary reason we had heard in the past for why people resigned was for not using the club enough," said Certo, a local attorney.

"By offering products people want, we won't only serve the members better, but we'll attract other people to come and enjoy what we enjoy so much."

The gains stem in part from creative membership incentives. In a promotional push, the Columbia Club has temporarily sliced its $3,000 initiation fee in half. The club also has done away with additional charges to use athletic equipment.

Van Wijk said such changes reflect the times. Wealthy folks still expect impeccable service for their dues. But there used to be waiting lists for membership at exclusive city clubs. Today, it takes strong word-of-mouth marketing to get members' friends into the building.

"Clubs used to wait to be approached by [potential] members," van Wijk said. "Those days are over."

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