The good, bad and ugly of renovating

Advise from the front line.
by Greg Cary

Anyone who has done a renovation of any type or scale will be wiser upon completion. With that in mind, what follows are a few tips and a little advice from those who deal with renos on a regular basis and those who have been through what can be a very difficult and stressful time. 

In Clubland the experience impacts in a variety of ways, not least on staff.

Dan Nipperess the Workplace and Compliance Manager for Clubs Qld, has seen this at close quarters: “Given the disruption during building, certain areas might be closed down so flexibility with staff is vital. 

It could be a matter of some staff taking annual leave. That’s one of the reasons it’s important to consult employees about renovations. Not only so that they know how their particular area might be disrupted and changed, but also to understand the wider impact on the club and what it is you are seeking to achieve. Where are we positioned now and where are we going to be positioned? How and why are we changing our service standards? Will we have concierges? Are we introducing or upgrading uniforms? It’s all about consultation and for staff to be aware of expectations of them but also for them to know that, although a lot of money is being spent on renovations,their service standards are critically important to the success of the club.” 

Brad Morgan, General manager at Brothers Ipswich, gives a practical example of that: “I think it’s a good idea, when you bring in consultants, to also get input from a cross-section of your staff. What they think the club needs. Remember, they have the most direct contact with customers. It also increases their sense of ownership.”

This involves a level of trust and respect that is not always present. Here’s Emma Nicholson, an Officer in Workplace Relations and Compliance (Clubs Qld): “I was advising a small club about the provisions to stand down staff during renovations and take their annual leave, but they didn’t tell their staff until the last moment. So they were offside from the start because they weren’t being kept informed.”

More than that, they were being treated with contempt by management that clearly had little idea of the real value of service. It can’t be an artificial or fake construct but, like the renovations themselves, must have a firm foundation and clear intent. It needs to be genuine and organic. 

Dan agrees and takes it a step further, asking: “Why would they NOT consult with staff as soon as the decision to renovate is made? Even if the tenders all come back too expensive you just postpone and tell the staff. There are no secrets. Too often staff are just an afterthought. Their needs should always be considered - including things like how their car parking is going to be affected with tradies all around the place.”

Emma chimes in: “That’s true. Managing the wellbeing of employees is as important as securing their physical safety. One club on the Gold Coast was doing a lot of work with great disruption for the staff. The staff areas and the locker rooms were all pretty much being torn apart so, to prevent closing for the duration of the build, they brought in demountables and made provisions for making coffee and tea. Little things that make staff feel they are being thought of.”

“We are a service industry” Dan adds. “People come to our clubs because of the people. Increasingly people don’t need to come out and improving the physical environment to make it more attractive and appealing is the major reason for renovations and staff are integral to that.”

Something not everyone understands.

“One club” Emma recalls “stayed open during renovations and they thought, on reflection, they should’ve shut because of the impact on staff morale. They realise it would’ve been better to explain to staff what the renovations were all about and, therefore, to capitalise by getting them more involved.” And that raises a crucial question: To close or not to close?

On this, Brad Morgan has something of a cautionary tale. Brothers Ipswich, he says “..hadn’t done much for nearly 10 years so, in a very competitive environment, they felt that to stay relevant they needed to update the facilities. With competitors all around, the club was in desperate need of spending some money, but the disruption was huge and I wouldn’t recommend doing that again anytime soon. On face value we’re offering the same facilities as we did before - food, beverage and gaming - so we’ve updated that.  I think people are looking for something a little bit different these days in clubs and I think we’ve done that.”

Speaking in a considered way he goes on: “We have a better style of facility and we’ve changed the way we present ourselves. Some at a more superficial level, like staff uniforms, and others a bit more substantial. Things like food offerings, entertainment and the gaming room, which is now a much more comfortable environment for our players. So I guess what we have is a much better version of what we had before.”

Brad wasn’t there when the plans were being devised and his advice from the experience would be that “..rather than doing major building programs we should be doing little bits and pieces as we go along so that we continue to keep the venue fresh for patrons, but also limit the impact on the business over a lengthy period. That’s what happened here. I call it open-heart surgery while the patient’s still alive. Trying to trade while you have builders on-site, concrete dust, concrete floors and ceilings collapsing isn’t much fun for anyone. So members and visitors have the choice of whether to come here or go elsewhere for a better environment and experience. 

That happened to us and now we’re scrambling to win back those customers we lost during the building program. My advice would be to do small bites and keep the venue up to date, rather than waiting for it to get to a point where it’s in desperate need of a major refurbishment because you then need to fight hard to get all that lost business back.”

Brad has a formidable record of accomplishment so remains undaunted in confronting that challenge: “We’re doing that now and have to effectively change our business model and the way we market ourselves. We end up spending a lot of money trying to get those customers back and then we have to get word out into the marketplace that we have this brand new facility and encourage people to come and have a look.”

At Bribie Island RSL, Operations Manager John Brittain is in serious agreement: “The most important thing in a renovation is to maintain your trade. If you’re renovating your restaurant, for example, it should be the last resort to close the restaurant down to do it. Relocate it if you possibly can. When we renovated the Botanic Dining Room three years ago, Janelle (Barraud - the GM) and the catering team created a pop-up dining room in what is usually the auditorium. They didn’t just throw tables and chairs in there but themed it and spent good money getting it right. During the current renovation we’ve done the same thing, again using the auditorium space to open the pop-up Bloom Cafe.”

Echoing Brad’s thinking, he adds: “You don’t want your members going somewhere else on a regular basis.”

Richard Butler, the CEO of Rubicon Design and Construct says “Our relationship with the team at Bribie was an effective collaboration in the truest sense - a great business partnership. For that to happen they must know as much about us as we know about them and their members. The end result is more than the sum of the parts. 

At its core, the renovation has to tap into the emotions of the user. It has to be an emotional experience, NOT a transactional experience. What keeps people coming back is when they have a personalised, enjoyable experience.”

Steve Harvey, a fellow Director at Rubicon, expands: “People are loyal more to the experience than the venue. You really need to be nimble to stay relevant. Shopping centres are a good example. They’re always rolling out to maintain relevance and it’s probably even more important in Clubworld. Maybe even moreso because you’ve got many of the same people coming regularly. So you have to stay on top of your game to stay relevant. The last thing that you want to be doing is boring up your maximum capacity because then you can’t be nimble. You can’t change on short notice.”

A Final Tip? 

From Bryan Jones at The Surf Club Mooloolaba: Get Club specialists to give you advice. Don’t rush it. Once you build it, it’s there for a long time. It’s much easier to change on paper. Think it through. Picture it. 

Go through it over and over again. Visualise the process. Pay attention to detail. A small example, for instance, when we built our freezer we built it long and narrow rather than square. You can walk straight in and see everything and it eliminates waste. Make sure you have plenty of storage. It’s a big thing for clubs and people often underestimate it.

And take your time. Be careful about who you select to do the work. Have people who know what it’s going to be like when it’s finished. Be fussy and particular about what you want. Make sure the kitchen’s big enough, for example, so that patrons aren’t kept waiting for meals. Make sure all areas are balanced with the anticipated amount of trade. Patron service and comfort is the number one priority.

From John Britain: Keep your members and neighbours informed. In the restaurant we had a demolition theme before the renovation. We conducted two letterbox drops in the vicinity apologising for inconvenience and inviting people to come by when the work was finished. Also be sure to work closely with your builder. Develop that relationship.

From Richard Butler: We’ve always promoted a strategic masterplan that evolves and is then broken down into lots of small stages and projects which are flexible. That’s in the context of a cycle - redevelop, consolidate, redevelop again. 
From Brad Morgan: Before anything at all happens with the building I think it’s important to make sure that not only is the venue going to look good but that it works operationally. Sometimes architects can be guilty of building venues to win awards and not necessarily to be operationally effective. Before our builder, Rohrig Constructions, began work in each area we got them to set up a dummy-style environment to make sure everything was operational. That way, we were assured the beer taps were in the right place, the cooking line was correct, we had enough fridges, the point of sale was in the right place. Those sorts of things. Planning is very important.

From Emma Nicholson: Rebuilds are a perfect time to introduce other changes - the food offering, safety and attitude. Safety doesn’t just rely on policy but needs to be inherent in the staff. Renovations can provide a perfect time to re-boot attitudes. There’s lots of research showing that your line-managers have the most impact on staff performance. 
More even than the GM. My advice for GMs would be to first establish the buy-in of your junior and department managers so that they can live it every day with their staff. There is also a danger of boards getting tied up in the build and what it’s going to be like after the build without paying enough attention to details of the build.

From Dan Nipperess: Consider the cost-effectiveness of training staff. What’s a few thousand dollars when you’ve just spent a million or more on a reno. It’s a no-brainer. 

So work with staff but, equally, they must be prepared to make the journey. Not everyone is. Give them the opportunity but if their heart isn’t in it, what’s the point in them being there? The business is about service delivery.

Remember, you can always contact the team at Clubs Queensland for help and advice in any of these areas.