Healthy economy means healthy profits for event venues
Watermark Properties sees growth in corporate meetings, team building and weddings as customers seek upscale, natural environments.
Watermark Properties is building on a formula that has helped the company grow over the past five years as the downturn lifted: a formal “country club feel” away from the city and out in nature.
The company owns four events venues in the north, south, east and west corners of Grand Rapids: Thousand Oaks Golf Club, 4100 Thousand Oaks Drive NE in Grand Rapids; Watermark Country Club, 5500 Cascade Road SE in Grand Rapids; StoneWater Country Club, 7177 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Caledonia; Sunnybrook Country Club, 624 Port Sheldon St. SW in Grandville
The four country clubs offer full-service, large event spaces that can accommodate corporate events and weddings, as well as smaller spaces for birthday parties, bridal showers, anniversaries and the like.
Craig Smith, Watermark Properties COO, said all the locations have experienced sustained growth since about 2012.
“On the events side, we’ve been growing our business every year, not through acquisitions, but (through) steady growth,” he said.
“With the economy growing, people are spending more money on events. We see the trends of spending going up for businesses and individuals. They are making the events more elaborate.”
Chaparral Shimko, sales event manager at Watermark Country Club, said having all four country club properties in Watermark Properties’ portfolio means more options for the customer.
“The four that have event centers are basically identical in terms of offerings,” she said. “We use the same menus, service functions, wait staff — they just vary in terms of numbers of rooms available and size of rooms.
“If one of (our locations) is not available for a customer, we can put them into another one.”
Smith said if Watermark gets a request for a venue that is booked, they can offer the customer two or three other options for the same date.
Often, Watermark’s corporate clients like to mix things up.
“With corporate clients, a lot of times, they hold multiple meetings throughout the year, and they will have a couple here, a couple at StoneWater, at Sunnybrook and Thousand Oaks … just to give more variety,” Shimko said.
“They like the change of scenery, the change of venue,” Smith added.
Although Smith said Watermark Properties would not categorically rule out expansion into the city, the company has intentionally stuck with its upscale suburban brand for a few reasons.
“(We have) a couple real distinct advantages,” Smith said. “One is parking. Parking is always a challenge downtown,” he said, noting all Watermark Properties have free parking. “Two, we can give better quality at a lower cost because our operating costs are lower.”
He said being in private, wooded settings with plenty of room to spread out has its advantages.
“We like the upscale feel with the patio and outdoor setting. We’ll even do weddings outside for people, and they’ll come inside and have the meal.”
Shimko said the bridal parties are starting to incorporate lawn games into the plan for their big day.
“I have a lot of parties that bring in corn hole and other yard games they can play outside,” she said.
Smith said business groups have started using the natural settings for team building instead of staying in the meeting space for a whole day.
“With being next to the golf course, we’ve had a few companies come to us where they want to do team building with a lunch inside and then go outside with competitions and events,” he said.
“We were also approached recently by a group here in town who looks to host sporting events, small things like dodgeball, fowling (a combination of bowling and football) or backyard games — all kinds of new games.
“It gives variety other than being trapped in a room.”
Shimko said in the past few years, Watermark has made a special effort to include allergy-friendly food options on its menus.
“As far as weddings, there’s a huge increase in dietary special needs, which our chefs are great at accommodating,” she said. “They’re not just doing it for dinners; they’re doing it for heavy hors d’oeuvres, dinner, a snack and a late-night pizza.”
Smith and Shimko agreed that a couple other trends are common to most venues: letting customers bring in food trucks, for a fee, as well as changing up the traditional dessert offerings.
“A lot of our customers are doing cupcakes instead of cakes. We have a gourmet line of cupcakes from a pastry chef on staff,” Shimko said.
The company’s largest venue, Watermark Country Club, recently underwent a $2.2-million expansion, increasing the size of its ballroom, raising ceiling heights, redecorating, renaming the former Watermark Grille to Cork Wine & Grille and adding a high-end steakhouse called Vintage Prime & Seafood.
Despite the company’s current prosperity, Smith said finding qualified staff continues to be a problem.
“You can ask anybody in our business today,” he said. “Unemployment is low in Grand Rapids, and that’s great, but it makes it harder to find cooks, sales staff, event managers, servers — they are hard to find, and that’s our single biggest challenge.”