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Special Events


AFTER 25 years managing private clubs in New York, Charles D. Dorn, CCM, has launched the Dorn Group, offering consulting services for hotels, clubs and restaurants. Here, he shares his insights on new event opportunities for clubs.

SPECIAL EVENTS MAGAZINE: What led you to found your consultancy?

CHARLES DORN: The primary reason was that there is a real problem in the club business, and has been for many years. In many of the clubs throughout the U.S., the leaders change almost every year, and so tend to ignore the long-range planning for the club and focus on things that benefit them or their legacies. The president who uses the Grill Room will renovate the Grill Room when, in fact, the electrical system of the club is falling apart. And then the next president might come in and say, “The Grill Room is an abomination,” and rip out everything the previous president had done. I also really felt that there was a lack of strategic planning going on in the industry. Many of the strategic planners, especially in the club business, are tied into other businesses. Strategic planning is very often done by architects, or it's done by people who do membership and marketing work. You're asking somebody to give you their opinions and judgment when they have a vested interest in the result.

Q: What trends do you see in special events in private clubs and hotels — cost pressures, tight timelines and so on?

A: I think you almost can't mention private clubs and hotels in the same sentence. The hotels and maybe a small portion of the high-rent clubs have started to do stuff in the last five years that is very different than what was done before. But I would honestly say — and I'm going to offend a lot of my club management friends — 75 percent of clubs haven't found that yet. They haven't taken it to the next level. One of the problems in the club business is that the people who are directors of catering in the club business, especially in clubs that aren't all that busy, are typically young people who are fresh out of school. Whereas you would never find that in the hotel business. If you are opening a new franchise property of a major hotel chain, you are going to bring in a seasoned professional, because he or she recognizes that every single time someone walks through that door, who knows where it's going to lead? Who knows if that person isn't going to have a successful birthday party for their wife or husband and in return, you may get the local chamber of commerce. In clubs, there tends to be this mind-set: “We're going to do Mrs. Jones' birthday party,” and that's it. The trend in hotels is: Give the customer what he or she wants. And the more we do it their way, the more repeat business we get.

Q: Don't private clubs still have issues with decorum at special events?

A: It used to be when someone would come in and say, “I want to do something really off-the-wall,” clubs always said no. I think you have to hear what people want to do and see if there is a compromise. There was a member of the Union Club {in New York} whose wife wanted to throw him a 60th birthday party, and they wanted to bring in traditional Las Vegas-type dancers, who would basically be topless or close to it. You don't say yes automatically, but ask, what night of the week? And, where is it going to be? The answer was the ballroom, and the ballroom had a small room to the side, and so we could allow the dancers without disrupting the membership. It's not like these 12 women with their Chita Rivera-type headdresses would have to walk topless through our club.

Q: Do you see any new event “occasions” opening up as new markets?

A: There is a tremendous market in clubs for memorial services. The best thing about them, from a business standpoint, is they are all un-forecasted revenue. Imagine 300 people coming in at noon for finger sandwiches, mini-pastries and an open bar. It requires so little setup, and it doesn't tie up your ballroom on a Saturday night. You might work with their florist to say, “OK, we're going to do 25 little 30-inch cocktail tables; give me a bud vase.” It would be over at 2 p.m., and literally at 3 p.m., your room can be reset. So there's an incredible market there.

Whether it's the Union Club or the Hyatt, the truth is we are all businesses, and we need to be run like businesses. We need to take the emotional decisions out of it. If you are running food and subsidizing food for your membership, why should you subsidize it for an outside group?

The Dorn Group can be reached at 472 Grace Church St., Rye, NY 10580; 914/921-3150;

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