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April 29, 2010

University Club celebrates 1st year


As the University’s new faculty and staff club begins its second year of operations, administrators want to strengthen ties with Pitt departments to expand use of the facilities. “We are targeting more internal business and making sure the departments truly understand what we have available here so we can grow that business,” said Eli Shorak, vice chancellor for Business.

Membership numbers and social event bookings are exceeding initial projections and many departmental meetings and events that once were held off campus are being scheduled at the club, a trend that administrators would like to see continue.

“We’re very pleased with revenue for the first year of operations,” said Shorak. “We would look for that revenue to probably double over the next three to five years.”

As an auxiliary function, the club building is expected to generate sufficient income to break even without support from the education and general budget. At the time the club renovation was announced, administrators projected annual gross income from the Family House lease, conference/banquet facilities and membership dues to be $1.18 million with an annual operating cost of $645,000. (See Jan. 10, 2008, University Times.)

The overall operations of the University Club, including debt service obligations, are projected to be self-sustaining within three-four years, Shorak stated.

“The results for the first year of operation have exceeded projections for both sales and the number of faculty and staff members. As with any new venture, there are one-time startup costs and challenges with operating efficiencies that affect the first few years of operation. We are very pleased, however, with the first-year results and believe we are on a positive path to having a successful University Club,” he stated.

“Our revenue from dues is strong and our faculty and staff club operations are becoming more self sustaining. The first year is the most difficult … so we anticipated operating at a slight loss. As more members take advantage of all the club offerings, our operating revenues will grow and we fully anticipate positive operations in future years,” he stated.

An elaborate chandelier and decorative ceiling are focal points in the University Club’s Ballroom B, located on the second floor of the club.

An elaborate chandelier and decorative ceiling are focal points in the University Club’s Ballroom B, located on the second floor of the club.

Shorak said relationships have been established with a number of Pitt departments. For instance, Athletics held its women’s basketball banquet at the club and several segments of the Jamie Dixon and Agnus Berenato radio shows were broadcast from the club.

“Once a department holds something here, you have a lot of repeat customers,” Shorak said, adding that the club will focus on engaging more departments in the year to come by reaching out to deans, department heads and the administrative support staff responsible for organizing events to encourage them to schedule conferences and social events at the club.

“For every Pitt event we’re having here, I believe it’s an event that otherwise may have been taken off campus,” Shorak said. “I would rather departments spend money on campus than take the money to a third party.”

The club’s first-year wedding and social event bookings exceeded expectations, said University Club project manager Richard C. Iams. “Marketing has gone extremely well; the response has been very positive,” he said.

The club hosted 25 weddings in its first year and managers are forecasting double that number this year. “A lot of people are drawn to this facility because of their affiliation with the University or their love for the institution,” Iams said, adding that the club’s proximity to Heinz Chapel “has proven to be a very, very big plus.” The conference and banquet facilities can accommodate events ranging from 20 to 200 guests.

The club’s history also has played a role, said club general manager Cathie Kahn, who estimated 15 weddings had been booked before the club opened its doors. “We have a lot of brides whose mothers were married here,” Kahn said. Many times they pose on the club stairs to recreate their parents’ or grandparents’ old wedding photos.

The eight-story former private club, built in 1923, was purchased by the University in 2005 for $3.1 million and renovated at an estimated cost of $20.2 million before the club opened last April.

Katz Graduate School of Business faculty member Dennis Slevin was a member of the former University Club’s board at the time Pitt bought the building. “I’m delighted to see it rehabilitated and put back into service,” he said, noting that the renovations are beautiful, but lamenting that, as in any renovation, “You lose a bit of the charm of the old building.” He especially misses the old club’s parking and covered entry that enabled guests to be dropped off under shelter.

Slevin has observed that the club’s focus has shifted more toward daytime activities and conferences, adding that the nature of the club has changed with the elimination of the rooms that once housed a number of single, older men who lived and took their meals in the club.

In addition to the faculty and staff club, which includes dining and fitness facilities, the building is home to Pitt’s Office of Research. The building’s upper floors have been leased to Family House, a nonprofit group that provides housing for families of hospital patients.

The University Club’s conference and banquet facilities are open to the public, as is the Brioche Dorée coffee shop, located on the first floor.

The coffee shop has yet to reach its full potential, Iams said, but a new take-out catering program set to begin in the fall is expected to boost sales.

Jim Earle, assistant vice chancellor for Business, said 843 people have joined the new University Club. Of those, more than half are social members with dining, bar and library privileges at a cost of $15 a month; the rest are full members with fitness center privileges at a cost of $45 a month. Membership is open to current faculty and staff as well as to emeritus faculty and University trustees.

Shorak said the initial budget was based on 300 social members and 300 full members. “Once we hit 800, I felt really comfortable that we’ve succeeded,” Shorak said. “For that many people to have joined tells me that we’re doing something that was right and something that is meeting the expectation of the faculty and staff.”

The current membership is 47 percent faculty, 44 percent staff, with the remainder a mix of others including Pitt executives, research associates and post docs, Earle said. Noting the balanced mix of members from across the University, Shorak said, “It doesn’t look like it’s becoming a club for any specific area. It’s truly coming out to be a University club.”

Dick Howe, an associate dean in the School of Arts and Sciences, was among the first to join the new club. “I was waiting for the amenities and the convenience the University Club offers,” he said, “I hate to take time to go too far from the office” for lunchtime or evening meetings. Howe noted he had been a member of the former Pitt Club, but dropped his membership when the quality of the food and condition of the building declined. A frequent attendee at events in the new club, Howe commended the service and food quality as well as the club atmosphere.

“I have found the University Club to be a convenient venue for relaxed discussions with colleagues from across the campus. In this less formal setting, creativity and non-traditional concepts seem to flow at a more accelerated rate,” he said.

The club’s fitness center, operated by students from the Department of Health and Physical Activity, offers access to a personal trainer and a slate of 15-20 classes per week, including spinning, Pilates and boot camp exercise programs.

A weight management program also has been very popular, Earle said, noting that a new 12-week session starts in May.

In conjunction with the program, general manager Kahn said, the club’s dining facilities worked with nutritionists to offer healthful 500-calorie menu options.

Club member Maureen Anderson of Athletics quit exercising at the Rivers Club Downtown in favor of the convenience of using the University Club fitness facilities every day before work. She has participated in several classes and recently completed the weight management program. “It was extremely helpful. It taught me so much as far as food content, what’s good for you, calories, portions, nutrition. It makes me think before I buy something at the grocery store.”

Anderson, associate athletic director for development, also uses the club for business purposes, such as taking donors to lunch.

Many longtime donors remember the old University Club, she said. “They jump at the chance to go. They want to see the renovations.”

She said many reminisce about the bar, which was a popular gathering spot prior to football games in the old Pitt Stadium.

On weekdays, the lunch crowd dominates.

Initially, the club opened the Fraternity Grill on the club’s second floor as a high-end dining experience, but members quickly expressed their interest in a more casual, walk-in option. The College Lounge in the club’s bar area now offers a casual menu including lunch buffets and soup and salad specials.

Shorak said it was thought initially the Fraternity Grill would be the more successful component, but the downstairs lounge seems to be equaling it in sales.

“Because we’ve expanded the menu for lunch, it’s also challenged us to expand and look at other opportunities for evening things,” he said, pointing out that happy hour complimentary food offerings have been added and Wednesday night “cocktails and collegiality” events launched. Departmental sponsors host the events as a way to engage employees in a social atmosphere.

The club’s evening schedule pays homage to the old University Club’s traditional Friday night jazz on the terrace, updated to include other styles of music. Other popular events include weekend holiday brunches and wine pairing dinners, Earle said.

Not all the initial offerings were a hit. Comedy and bridge nights, for instance, fell flat and have been discontinued in favor of less structured entertainment. Members want to socialize, Earle said. “They don’t want activity overtaking their conversation. They come to engage their friends and have conversation and fun.”

Shorak said the club provides an ideal venue for mingling with faculty and staff from other areas of the University.

“It’s a very informal casual way to invite other people you wouldn’t necessarily get together with on a day-to-day basis.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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