A year ago, the country was in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic and no one knew what the future would hold. Perhaps no place was hit harder in terms of infection rates, but also economically, than New York City.
There wasn’t a single industry that was left unaffected by the lack of people visiting stores, walking on the streets and going to work. While very early on, tennis was deemed a safe activity, the shutdowns would have a drastic effect on the tennis business in the area, and forced the clubs and facilities to adapt in order to keep their head above water. Advantage Tennis Clubs, with three indoor clubs, an extensive 18-site QuickStart Program, and several day camps, was directly impacted.
“The immediate financial consequences included lost revenues equal to about 30 percent of 2019 revenues as we had an obligation to provide cash refunds or credits for prepaid monies related to membership, season time and various programs, and the necessity to reduce overhead,” said Skip Hartman. “We furloughed most staff, keeping only skeleton crews to protect our air structures that were still up.”
Hartman is the Owner of Advantage Tennis Clubs, which operate three tennis facilities in New York City: Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club, New York Tennis Club and Roosevelt Island Racquet Club. Operating one club during a pandemic and making the necessary adjustments is difficult enough, but overseeing three different places in three separate locations only adds to that challenge.
The Clubs shut down for about 110 days, beginning in March and lasting until late June and early July.
“The big thing was figuring out what percentage of our customer base and members were going to come back,” said Steve O’Keefe, General Manager of Roosevelt Island Racquet Club. “We started with camp, which opened on June 29, and the club opened fully the week after that. It was all a question of what percentage of members would be back, what percentage of campers would come back, and then how are we going to keep our staff safe and comfortable.”
With many of the regular customer base leaving the city and heading out east for the summer, which happens often during a typical year, but even more so under last year’s circumstances, it was up to the clubs to adapt and be more creative.
“Once our players were satisfied that we had created a safe environment to play, they also realized that tennis might be one of the few safe activities during the pandemic, in which they could also get some exercise and have fun,” said Mark Keye, Manager at New York Tennis Club Indoors (NYTCi). “NYTCi had one of its best years, in terms of turnout, during the pandemic.” The staff members did much more active outreach through non-member programs, adult and junior lessons, leagues, UTR events, USTA Sanctioned tournaments, Metro Tennis Leagues and other social events. By doing so, the clubs saw an uptick in activity that mirrored its 2019 participation.
“New York Tennis Club Indoors has been more active than ever thanks to Mark Keye’s unbridled tennis enthusiasm, attentiveness to COVID-19 protocols, Bill Wiese’s organizing of USTA-sanctioned tournaments, and the outstanding tennis programs of tennis pros who run their independent programs there such as Harel Srugo, Gilad Bloom, Marty Smith, Salvador Guerrero, Robert Cridge and Jeff Nerenberg, and John Londoc has joined us this summer and is doing great as well,” said Hartman. “On the plus side, because tennis in general has been more popular as a safe sport, we have seen members actually playing more often.”
That is the heart of the success of the three clubs before, during and after the pandemic. The creativity and willingness to try something new is imperative, but so is having the dedication of your staff members.
“There was a lot of apprehension about reopening last year in regards to if we would be able to enforce all the protocols, would the staff be comfortable, and would we have to shut down again if we had an outbreak,” added O’Keefe. “And we really had no issues. The staff stepped up, and the members stepped up. Sometimes it can feel like you are just running a business, but I really felt like we were doing something to serve the community. Our staff has been amazing, and we really would not have been able to be open without them.”
Serving the community is one of the top priorities at Advantage Tennis Clubs, and they don’t just speak it, they back it up. This year, as the vaccine for COVID-19 was approved and began to rollout, Manhattan Plaza stepped up to do its part.
For multiple days in January and then again in February, one of the facility’s courts was repurposed to serve as a vaccination site, which was open to the residents of Manhattan Plaza, and allowed the club’s staff members to get their vaccination early. At Roosevelt Island, the north bubble was repurposed as a New York City Department of Education Learning Lab program for eight months. This allowed students who were either hybrid at the time, or not going into school at all, to get out of the house, be amongst other students and continue their in-person education.
“Skip is a master at utilizing space, and through his years of being in the city and working with the Department of Education, he was able to re-purpose our back bubble during the daytime,” said O’Keefe. “It gave the kids a chance to learn in an environment outside their homes, and it also served our needs because we had the space available and it kept our staff busy so we could avoid laying people off. The lab would go to 4:00 p.m. each day, and then be turned back over to the club for programs or court rentals. It really served two purposes, and it was great to be able to use our facility to help the community.”
While Advantage Tennis Clubs made sure to adapt and fought its way through the challenges of the last 18 months, there were also downsides. Some of the staff members who were furloughed at the beginning had to relocate and find work elsewhere and the inability to use public and private school sites for its QuickStart programs is something it is still grappling with today, but with schools expected to be back in full this fall, those programs should be back at their normal sites soon.
Nonetheless, the three facilities and other tennis programs that make up Advantage Tennis Clubs met the challenges presented last year head on.
“Our clubs work together all the time and effectively to create good and consistent communication,” added Keye. “During the pandemic, our three clubs worked even more closely, sharing information, supplies, practices and procedures and even clients who came to the Bronx, perhaps wanting to get away from the city and play in a new atmosphere.”
Thanks to the dedication and talent of all of its staff members, from directors to tennis coaches, to front desk receptionists and maintenance staff, it took a village in order to remain open and do so in a safe manner for everyone involved.
“We are seeing a steady increase of both new and returning players coming to our courts and we welcome them with open arms (socially distant of course!). Yes, the revenue loss was great but the loss of our tennis family and normal life was far greater,” said Milos Vojvodic, Manager at Manhattan Plaza Racquet Club. “A deeper appreciation and closer relationships grew between our co- workers. The gratitude we have towards members and guests and the love for the game of tennis have been the silver linings brought on by COVID-19.”
Now that we seem to be approaching the end of the fifth set of this long, grueling match with the pandemic, Advantage has come away poised to continue moving forward.
“The net result of this 20-month ordeal is that we are emerging stronger than ever on the staff and the business side,” said Hartman. “We’re looking forward to many long-time members and customers returning to the City with an even greater appreciation of tennis.”
Brian Coleman is the Senior Editor for New York Tennis Magazine. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org