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Enlighten Me: Breathing new life into the University and Whist Club

Delaware Public Media

Private club across the country have been in decline for decades.

But there are still some locally trying to buck those trends, including the University and Whist Club in Wilmington.  The club, which has roots reaching back to the late 1800’s,  is trying to reinvigorate itself under new ownership.

Delaware Public Media contributor Eileen Dallabrida looks at those efforts in her latest piece and for this week’s Enlighten Me stopped by The Green to discuss what she learned.

It’s a cloudy day in autumn and workmen are pushing to beat the rain, putting the finishing touches on a pergola in the freshly landscaped garden at University & Whist Club.

Inside the 20,000-square-foot mansion that serves as the club’s headquarters, painters are prepping. Three fireplaces are functioning for the first time in years. An antiquated kitchen has been gutted and is being refurbished, with the exception of a recently purchased commercial dishwasher. A newly hired concierge sits at a desk in the stately foyer, poised to assist members.

It has been less than two months since new owners took over the struggling private club, which occupies nearly a full city block in Wilmington’s Cool Spring neighborhood.

Already, they have reached out to former members, inviting them to give the club another try. A big-screen audio-video conferencing system has been ordered to attract business clientele. And the club is wooing the lucrative bridal sector.

“It’s a big ship to turn around,” says Stacey Inglis, the club’s director of marketing. “But it is turning—and it’s turning in the right direction.”

The men driving change at University & Whist are auto dealers. John Hynansky, founder of the Winner Group and a major importer of vehicles in Ukraine. Thomas Hatzis owns Winner Ford in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Hollywood Grill in Fairfax.

They brought in a new managing director, Jacques Macq, whose experience also includes seven years in food and beverage at Wilmington Country Club. The Belgian-born chef and restaurateur most recently operated Bistro Jacques in Wilmington’s Little Italy section, which closed earlier this year.

The owners also are members, who are focused on turning a profit while revitalizing the historic club. To that end, they analyzed the numbers to identify the club’s strengths and weaknesses.

“We took a look at all the different revenue streams and separated the member revenue from the non-member revenue,” Inglis says.

Two clear objectives emerged. First, the club needs to retain members and recruit new members. Second, there is lots of room for improvement in attracting non-member business, such as banquets, company events, non-profit functions and weddings.

Inglis says there already has been a slight increase in membership, with the rolls now at 234. That’s significantly less than the 800 members University & Whist boasted in the early 1960s, when there was a waiting list to join.

“We are getting new members and a number of former members have come back,” she says.

Kay Keenan of Wilmington, a marketing executive, belonged to the club for more than 10 years before dropping out in 2012. She returned this fall, impressed with the investments in upgrading the building and making additions to the staff.

“With the new ownership the club looks better than ever. And there is a new team of professionals, joining some of the wonderful staff that has been loyal for years,” she says. “The vibe is back and we look forward to many wonderful times there like we’ve enjoyed in the past.”

Throughout the private club sector, managers are looking for ways to reverse a decades-long decline. In 2004, industry revenue in the United States was $18.2 billion. By 2008, it had fallen to $16 billion, a 12-percent decline, according to a study by the McMahon Group, a St. Louis-based consultancy specializing in private clubs.

Meanwhile, bricks and mortar crumbled. The number of operating country clubs fell 6 percent between 1990 and 2000 and another 10 percent between 2000 and 2010.

The McMahon study points to three factors: “the Great Recession,” which began in 2008; changing demographics of members, may of whom are aging; and competition from pay-by-the-day facilities and fine dining restaurants.

Challenges for clubs started in 1995, when the Internal Revenue Services no longer allowed companies or individuals to claim membership dues as a business expense.

In response, many companies dropped their memberships in private clubs. City clubs, which lack such amenities as golf, tennis and swimming, were especially vulnerable.

The Rodney Square Club in Wilmington ceased operations in 1999. The Blue and Gold Club at the University of Delaware closed in 2009. The Miami City Club and the First City Club of Savannah (Ga.) both folded in 2011. In 2013, the exiting Washington Club, which had catered to women in the nation’s capital since 1891, sold off such furnishings as a $16,000 Qing Dynasty celadon jade vase before the clubhouse was redeveloped into apartments.

Still, some clubs are adapting and thriving with the times. After a $3-million investment in technology, the City Club of Washington is a destination for young entrepreneurs who frequently work out of the club. In North Carolina, two clubs merged to form City Club Raleigh, which features a casual grill, e-lounge for working members, meeting spaces with conference telephones and renovated dining and ballroom spaces.

University & Whist Club has not had a makeover since the 1950s. The new owners are doing an historically respectful renovation, retaining such characteristics as leaded windows and carved fireplace mantels. The club is consulting with Winterthur to seek an appropriate remedy to a large stained glass panel that was painted over years ago.

In the dining rooms, there are fresh flowers on every table, a mandate from Hynansky. The club just struck a deal with its new florist, M. Coty Designs of Centreville. Substantial stainless steel place settings are on order, replacing worn silver-plated cutlery. 

Members are helping, too. Michele Rollins, one-time Republican candidate for Congress, donated the dining table, chairs and china cabinet that now grace the second-floor President’s Room, where groups can hold private luncheon and dinner meetings.

To retain and attract members, University & Whist will open the club for the first time in years on Sundays to serve brunch. The new kitchen includes a pastry area, where the staff will bake wedding cakes and other treats.

“We just had a tasting the other day and it was wonderful,” Inglis says. 

University & Whist is courting wedding business with a new, two-room suite on the third floor for the bride and her maids. A four-season patio is in the works. Pathways of interlocking pavers have been laid in the gardens. Special events are on the calendar, beginning with University & Whist in Black and White, a gala themed to the music of Michael Jackson.

The team also is pondering plans for a carriage house, now used for storage, to attract Millennial professionals who have good incomes and are looking for activities in the city. Possibilities include a fitness center, a cigar bar “or perhaps a combination of uses,” Inglis says.

Macq expects that higher revenues will please members, who traditionally were billed an assessment when income fell short of operating expenses.

“If the club is profitable, we won’t have to ask the members to pay extra money,” he says. “That makes members happy.”

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.