EXCLUSIVE? YES. EXCLUSIONARY? NO. That's the word from on-site catering and private event managers at many of today's tony clubs. With private events showing staying power as major revenue streams, in-club event experts say they're opening up availability policies, tapping into new markets and emphasizing service to keep the groups coming.

HERE TO SERVE

With its status as a historic mansion, and its setting on the picturesque Saint Johns River, the Epping Forest Yacht Club in Jacksonville, Fla., has built-in cachet as an elegant event site. But this fact doesn't mean that the club rests on its well-landscaped laurels.

Director of catering Daniel Cook says rigorous staff training — including study of the club's comprehensive in-house service manual plus “daily lineups, monthly meetings and quarterly refreshers” — is a must for his crew. A staffing ratio of one server to 10 guests — higher than many hotels, according to Cook — is standard club practice for seated events.

Cook says such measures are critical for the private club, which typically tries to find sponsors for nonmember event clients, but “will generally not turn away a 200-or-more-person wedding that doesn't have a sponsor.”

“We are not as transient as a hotel,” he explains. “If we upset one member, everyone else finds out.” With 2,700 members, that's no small risk, particularly as Cook has both “zero budget for marketing,” and a responsibility to maintain the catering department's contribution of 30 percent of total club revenue.

FIND YOUR FOCUS

Like Epping Forest, private Canyon Gate Country Club, Las Vegas, usually caters to members and sponsored nonmembers, but does not demand sponsorship in all cases, says private events director Dottie Drachler.

Owned by Dallas-based club conglomerate ClubCorp, Canyon Gate instead takes an inclusive approach that accommodates members of associated ClubCorp clubs, as well as nonmember California brides, who are drawn to an elegant desert setting at a much lower price point than in their home state, Drachler says.

Setting is also important to corporate event business, which Drachler plans to pursue with vigor in the coming year to help boost food and beverage revenue, of which events make up “a huge part.” Not only does the club offer numerous event spaces and sweeping mountain views, but its location inside an exclusive gated community eight miles from the famed Las Vegas Strip means “you're away from the casinos and the distractions — people can focus on what's at hand and not wander off at lunchtime.”

CITY CENTER

Being right in the middle of the action is the main attraction of another ClubCorp property — the Nashville [Tenn.] City Club.

According to private event planner and catering manager Rick Adams, the club's location on the top floor of Nashville's 20-story SunTrust Building makes it an ideal site for the city's power brokers to meet. “A lot of business deals made in this town are made in our dining room,” Adams says. Walls of windows on three sides of the club's main space don't hurt either, he adds, noting that one client who is involved in many downtown business development projects “wants a meeting room where he can look at what he's building.”

For clients who are not members, the savvy club has set up a “member for a day” fee, which not only helps boost its bottom line, but also allows the club to market its facilities to potential new members.

That is not to say that the club doesn't have a softer side. Adams notes that he puts much of his effort into creating elegant, custom-designed weddings — “We are very eager to please, and we do not have so much structure, packages, do's and don'ts.” He adds that he already did four in January and has more than usual planned for the spring. That's good news for a club that counts on private events for almost 75 percent of its food and beverage sales.

TEAMWORK

While its setup may seem unconventional — a public golf course owned by a privately held real estate development company, linked up with a hotel catering department — Pelican Hill Golf Club in Newport Coast, Calif., Offers a traditional private-club event experience.

The Irvine Co. owns the operation, while the Four Seasons Newport Beach hotel runs it. And when, for example, a wedding comes to Pelican Hill, “It's the only event going on up here,” says Michele Dial, catering manager for the Clubhouse at Pelican Hill. With unfettered views and a maximum capacity of 250 guests for a sit-down event, “It's like you're in someone's home overlooking the ocean.”

While club-event clients do not get “the hustle and bustle of a hotel,” says Dial, they do get the Four Seasons' culinary expertise and access to the services of well-known Swank Audio Visuals, the hotel's in-house AV provider. Plus, they enjoy the freedom to stay late and enjoy indoor music without restrictions, as there are no homeowners, who might object to noise, located near the club.

GROWTH PLAN

Freedom also figures significantly for the six-year-old Vermont National Country Club, South Burlington, Vt. As catering and events manager Nick de Tarnowsky puts it, “Being privately owned, we can do whatever we want, to a point. We are not owned by members, so we don't answer to members directly.”

That freedom has allowed de Tarnowsky and his team flexibility in balancing private events with member activities as they build the young club's revenues and reputation. For instance, they have been able to establish a $4,000 nonmember facility fee for Saturday events, while members pay only half that price, “thus encouraging people to become members.”

The team has also been able to keep the club open through Vermont's snowy winter months when many other clubs are closed or have limited hours. This allows de Tarnowsky to pull in significant revenue from holiday parties — “We do Christmas parties every day of the week in December,” he says — while maintaining a consistent employee base and, hence, a better quality of service.

While winter business is helping the club find its footing, it's summer weddings that wow the crowds. “We have natural light, vaulted ceilings, lots of windows and no shades, as opposed to hotels, which have box ballrooms with nice chandeliers but no windows whatsoever,” he says. “It's a very inspiring place to have a wedding.”




RESOURCES

Canyon Gate Country Club, 702/363-0303; Epping Forest Yacht Club, 904/739-7200; Nashville City Club, 615/244-3693; Pelican Hill Golf Club, 949/717-6061; Vermont National Country Club, 802/264-9427