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February 2021

Forest Lake

forest-lake.jpgGrowth for the Generations to Come 

By Scott Kauffman

As Forest Lake approaches its 100th anniversary in a few years, this member-owned club has seen its fair share of generational changes and trends during its time as a traditional private ‘golf club’ in Columbia, South Carolina.
But what remained constant over the years was a club mostly highlighted by an older male-dominated membership focused on playing the 18-hole championship course that opened in 1928, enjoying a no-frills clubhouse built in 1955 or hanging out for a drink and/or smoke inside the modest men’s locker room lounge. Recently, however, the lifestyle at Forest Lake is becoming dramatically different than decades past and the impetus behind the evolving club life are some newly completed capital improvement projects driven by Atlanta-based private club specialists Kuo Diedrich Chi Architects.

Among the $3 million-plus round of popular new amenities changing the club’s look and feel are the family-oriented resort-style pool complex and free-standing pool bar to go along with a newly refurbished competitive-length lap pool that goes back to the 1950s. Throw in a completely transformed 44,000-square-foot clubhouse setting that now features upscale dining/lounge facilities, the highly popular new Lakeside Grille dining venue and completely remodeled and well-appointed women’s and men’s locker rooms (smoking no longer allowed), and Forest Lake resembles nothing like its former club life past of previous generations.

Indeed, this “legacy-type” member’s club in the heart of Columbia’s affluent Forest Acres community is younger, healthier, and more active than ever before. To be sure, this traditional golf club was always well-rounded with a decades-long swim program with 150 members competing in youth leagues, not to mention a membership often found using the club’s 10 tennis courts (8 clay; 2 Har-Tru surfaces) or new tennis shop built in 2010.

Considering Forest Lake has long been capped with 1,150 members and little or no membership attrition/retention concerns some members certainly questioned why all the club changes and capital investments were even needed. Chartered in 1924 and incorporated two years later with approximately 100 members that quickly grew to 200, Forest Lake’s founding members would likely agree, seeing that the original vision turned out to be quite successful for some 94 years.

But there is a new generation of Forest Lake members living and working in the surrounding neighborhoods, and their tastes and private club expectations are nothing like their parents’ or grandparents.” Club manager Sean McLaughlin, who is in his eighth year at Forest Lake, has been at the forefront of Forest Lake’s transformational membership demographic changes.

For instance, though Forest Lake lost a number of older core golf members in their 60s during the recent capital investments, McLaughlin says the club not only experienced an influx of new younger members (average age around 45), but they also are more inclined to be less price sensitive and willing to pay for a higher-level food-and-beverage experience.

As McLaughlin describes it, this is a membership no longer motivated by maintaining catered appreciation parties free of charge or lowering the prices on their favorite fillets and/or glasses of house wine. To the contrary, this is a membership that is far from frugal and willing to pay for a “better chardonnay than accepting the free house chardonnay,” McLaughlin says.

“The younger members really don’t care what it costs,” McLaughlin adds. “They want what they want when it comes to quality and experience.”

Perhaps the most popular destination for this changing membership is the new 140-seat Lakeside Grille, a casual indoor-outdoor dining venue overlooking Forest Lake and the new pool facility.  McLaughlin says the new Grille and pool complex, featuring family-friendly splash pad and fountains, zero-degree entry and underwater seating, contributed to significant increases in member satisfaction/growth in 2020 and food-and-beverage revenue approaching $2 million annually.

Besides revenue growth, McLaughlin also credits the new amenities for driving higher initiation fees in 2020 as well as next year, and consequently shoring up the capital reserve account. Meanwhile, Forest Lake managed to grow its wait list by another 16 percent with 100 individuals getting added to what is now a four-year list.

And all of this growth in overall member activity, revenues and interest was achieved despite the Lakeside Grille being forced to close in March within a month of opening and limited to takeout only through the end of May due to the pandemic. Since June, Forest Lake resumed outdoor dining at the Grille but stayed at 50 percent capacity out of member caution and still had an extremely busy summer pool season with pool and snack bar numbers hitting budget, thanks in part to the Grille menu being served poolside.

McLaughlin sums up the club’s state of affairs by stating: “Our new members have sophisticated tastes in wine and dining, are avid golfers and tennis players, and they’re family oriented and use all of the amenities – especially the new pool facility. These members have access to the best clubs in the Southeast. Our goal is to exceed these expectations to continue to make Forest Lake Club the most desired club in the area.”

Based on the recent round of capital improvement projects and return on investment, Forest Lake Club appears to be positioned right where it wants to be for another centennial of compelling South Carolina club life.



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