Philly Cricket Club President John White Talks COVID-19 Impact

Philadelphia Cricket Club (PA) is America’s oldest country club, having been established in 1854. The club has over 1,600 members, 2 campuses, 45 holes of golf, grass & hard tennis courts, paddle and pickle, swimming, squash and fitness, among its sporting venues and generates $20 million+ in gross annual revenues. Privileged to be a club member, I had the chance recently to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the club and clubs in general with our president, John White. I began by asking him if the pandemic has been the biggest challenge of his 3+ years in office.

The short answer was “yes”. Relative to COVID, White cited the clubs multiple locations, in two counties as complicating issues because of different timetables related to the various and ever-changing restrictions related to the pandemic. One campus is located in the City of Philadelphia while the other is in Montgomery County. Often, the City is “out in front” of the state in implementing policies and has its own large public health department. Sometimes, it’s confusing to members, depending on which campus they’re heading to on a given day. Of particular interest was the challenge of controlling the large number of club entrances to ensure compliance with whatever restrictions in place on a given day. White said that most members have been cooperative with the changing policies but some not so much. He indicated that in his opinion, mandating masks or vaccinations for members and staff “would not be popular” and that clubs “have been a refuge” for members seeking escape from the COVID impacted world outside. Should they be mandated?

White was very enthusiastic that clubs should follow the lead of governmental agencies because club personnel, and even doctors among the membership are unqualified, not trained and ill-equipped to make decisions he says are best left to public health experts. That said, his only regret in how the club has handled COVID so far is that they didn’t implement some policies and actions in response sooner. Communication was a key element and increasing the frequency of same was critical to the club’s dealing with COVID.

The president of any club, especially a large complex club like PCC has a challenging job. To White, COVID was “just one more thing” he had to deal with, almost on a daily basis. He mentioned as an example the swimming pool reservation system that was implemented last year creating pods with a limit on chaise lounges, chairs and a waiter system for food & beverage. The club, like most others had an impact on revenues with no golf outings and weddings, and then later a limit on the size of weddings to 50-75 guests. Once golf returned, outings had limited food & beverage offerings. In White’s words “every little issue” had become a challenge and required rethinking. Conversely, much of the loss in F & B revenues was made up for with takeout service. The club’s overall decline in revenues from 2019 to 2020 was approximately 11%, with Food & Beverage Revenues down nearly 40%. Golf rounds, up nationally 14%, according to the National Golf Foundation from 2019 to 2020 were up approximately 26% in 2020 over 2019 at PCC. These trends are fairly consistent with what I’ve seen at other clubs and courses around the country.

Concern for the club’s staff was addressed by using PPP funds and member contributions, as well as the establishment of a caddies fund, with the goal of “making the staff whole” as their livelihoods could’ve been severely impacted by the closures. The club supported golf industry lobbying efforts to re-open golf courses in the state.

Of course, moving forward the club now has to decide whether to mandate masks and vaccinations for members and staff. Currently, the St. Martins Campus (within the City of Philadelphia) has a city-ordered mask mandate. The Flourtown Campus does not have such a mandate. With the Pfizer vaccine recently gaining full approval, White says the executive committee plans to discuss the issue of vaccine mandates at its next meeting. So far, he says members have been very cooperative with only a few incidents of members approaching club leaders with disdain for some of the restrictions.

White listed listening to the public health experts, regular and frequent communication and the establishment of an employee relief fund as the most effective decisions made during the pandemic. Given that most clubs, including PCC don’t always communicate with their membership as transparently as possible, I would concur that the club’s communication during this emergency has been outstanding. White concluded that regular, frequent communication and following the lead of governmental bodies would be his two takeaways from this experience that he would strongly recommend other club presidents heed. Like most clubs, PCC has its politics. White acknowledged that these political implications do receive some consideration in the decision-making process, but that the input of senior staff was critical to both enhancing and expanding that communication and determining the direction to be taken.

COVID has been a boom for golf. Let’s see how much of that is sustainable and how much clubs have learned from it.