Farmington CC (VA) GM Joe Krenn on COVID’s Impact

Farmington CC in Charlottesville, VA is, simply put one of those special places. With history dating back to 1735 and the club founded in 1927, it has the endurance many clubs seek and outstanding facilities to match. With 2,000+ members, 28 holes of golf, excellent practice facilities and numerous other amenities, General Manager Joe Krenn is a superstar and directs a well-oiled machine.

I first met Krenn when he gave a presentation at one of the golf industry seminars and then again in February, 2020 when he presented to the Club Managers Association on the topic of Crisis Management. Talk about prophetic! At that time, Coronavirus and COVID were unfamiliar terms, if only for another month. Krenn gave an excellent “how to” on dealing with crises to the club managers in attendance. Nobody knew what was coming.

Krenn was kind enough to answer some questions about his club and his thoughts for the club business in general moving forward and (hopefully soon) into the post COVID era.

First, I asked Krenn about how the revenues at Farmington had been impacted by COVID-19. The club is a $20+ million per year operation and he indicated that by year’s end they’re projecting a <5% negative impact. This is due to diminished use of banquets and function rooms somewhat mitigated by additional golf cart revenue and “to go” food & beverage programs. Like many other clubs golf rounds are up considerably with utilization up from 65% in 2019 to 92% in 2020, showing an increase from a recent norm of 32,000 to 35,000 rounds to 50,000 this year. Accommodating members demand for tee times has been a challenge.

Membership has been largely constant, mainly because interviews were curtailed early in the pandemic. Krenn shared that he and his board have developed 3 different budgets (red, yellow and green) based on COVID restrictions. He thinks clubs that have maintained and upgraded facilities will stay strong as a “safe haven” as compared to clubs that opt for a “holding pattern” mentality and avoid capital investment and addressing deferred maintenance. Krenn observed that at many clubs, leaders and managers are scared to make tough decisions and that good governance and leadership is critical.

Though only in his early 40’s Krenn has observed that club management has evolved from the “maitre d'” mentality of the 90’s to where club managers are now more like COO’s. Club leadership (if they’re smart) will seek guidance from the professionals and focus on policy as management directs operations. He recommends aligning governance with “best practices” for club and non-profit organizations.

Krenn’s concept of club leadership discourages those who place over-importance on the club in leadership positions and suggests that a board discussing food costs is troubling. He encourages making the criteria for board service transparent thereby encouraging more members to come forward offering to serve. Especially with COVID, some qualified people may be hesitant to come forward. Krenn encourages a turnover of leadership injecting fresh ideas into club policy.

Farmington has continued what they consider essential or in-process capital projects and put others on hold pending financial performance and budgetary considerations. When the club closed for 6 weeks at the beginning of the COVID crisis, staff were maintained and then reduced from 420 to 260 until the end of June with current (September) levels at about 80% of normal, banquet and pool staffs impacted the most.

When I asked about operational changes, golf course maintenance was an area of concern and Krenn indicated that full crew hires in the spring were delayed until June 1 and they pushed back in-house capital projects. Course conditions were maintained at normal levels which he speculates is due to increased walking and resulting in more divot replacement and ball-mark repair.

The use of club assets has been converted to outside wherever possible, such as fitness classes and outdoor dining. All holiday events are expected to be to-go only and the only group functions being considered are those under 50 people.

Krenn looks at COVID as an opportunity for those clubs that have struggled to reinvent themselves. He perceives COVID as a “gift” to those clubs as a reason to re-engage membership, especially at premiere clubs. The more regressive clubs have a chance to “reset” and move forward with new ideas. With not as many kids heading to summer camps, the club can thrive offering a controlled environment. The spike in golf has created new golfers and junior programs at Farmington have expanded. The club staff has been energized with new ideas and activities.

Krenn says COVID has taught us to be nimble and “react to a punch in the face.” It’s also created that situation where club leaders are seeking – and heeding advice from professionals, often leading to more expeditious decision-making.

The focus of club leaders and their governance model is a key to success. Understanding what the club wants to be and clearly and transparently communicating that is essential, according to Krenn. While still important, the bottom line is no longer the sole focus as protecting the members and staff takes precedence in a crisis dominated environment.