This past Saturday, The Boulevard Tennis Club team made its Orchid Cup debut and cruised through the eight-team tournament’s men’s, women’s and mixed-doubles competition to take home the trophy.
Just two years ago, such a triumph would have been unthinkable, and not only because The Boulevard wasn’t invited to participate in the annual, inter-club event.
It would’ve been unthinkable because, just two years ago, The Boulevard was a tennis ghost town – a wonderfully equipped but poorly managed club that, despite its early promise, was hemorrhaging members fed up with shabby treatment from an uncaring and unresponsive ownership.
Many of the remaining members, particularly more advanced players, struggled to find games. There were no club-sponsored events or activities. The 13 courts were too often unoccupied, even during the previously busy evening hours.
All that was missing were the tumbleweeds.
“I drove by this place for 10 years, and I knew the potential was there,” longtime Grand Harbor tennis director Christophe Delavaut said. “It just needed the right ownership, the right management.”
Help arrived on Jan. 18, 2017, when a local ownership group fronted by Delavaut, who left Grand Harbor in April 2016, bought the foundering club from Sue and Walter Rodman.
The new group, particularly Delavaut, hit the ground running – marketing the club through local advertising, recruiting lost members, listening to existing members, organizing club-run activities, even installing water fountains that worked – and continues to make strides.
Now, 16 months later, The Boulevard is buzzing.
The membership has more than doubled, increasing from 108 to 238. There are men’s nights, women’s nights, junior programs, adult clinics, beginners groups, USTA League teams, and tournaments. Court reservations are now necessary.
The club has come to life, and members actually feel good about being there – a sentiment that was sorely lacking under the previous ownership.
“Over the past year or so, The Boulevard has earned a reputation as ‘the place to play’ in the Vero Beach tennis community, especially for advanced players,” Delavaut said. “We have an abundance of 4.0-plus players. And we have eight USTA League teams, men’s and women’s from the 3.0 to 4.5 levels, playing this spring and summer.
“We’re also going after the beginners,” he continued. “We’ve started Tennis 101 clinics for beginners who pay $10 per session for three clinics. If you develop new players, you develop new members. That’s happening.
“But we want to be about more than just tennis,” he added. “We’re also creating a more social environment.”
The new ownership – Grand Harbor residents Tony Randazzo and Ed Friedman are the money men backing Delavaut’s efforts – want to provide an atmosphere in which the club becomes a gathering place on and off the courts.
They want members to hang around to eat, drink and socialize after they play. They want members to stop by and hang out, even when they’re not playing.
That’s happening, too.
“Maybe you come by for lunch or dinner, or maybe you come by just to watch your friends play and have a drink,” Delavaut said. “Our food and beverage numbers have been increasing since we brought in Counter Culture to run the restaurant.”
The owners plan to upgrade the deck furniture to encourage more outdoor dining, Randazzo said, adding that they also will make indoor improvements to the restaurant area to make the dining experience more appealing.
“We don’t look at this club as just a tennis facility, or even a tennis facility with a restaurant,” Randazzo said. “Don’t forget, we also offer massage therapy and a fitness center, and we’ve got a swimming pool, too.”
Among the other perks are the reciprocal agreements that allow The Boulevard’s premium members, who comprise about 30 percent of the total membership, to play golf, dine and drink at Pointe West and the Indian River Club on a year-round basis, as well as at the Vero Beach Country Club from May to November.
The Boulevard also has year-round reciprocals with the Vero Beach Yacht Club and a summer agreement with Sea Oaks, giving members access to a beach club.
And, relatively speaking, the price is right: Annual dues for single memberships range from $800 for “young professionals” (under age 30); $1,600 for “seniors”; and $1,750 for adults.
“If you look at all you get, the price is a bargain,” Delavaut said, “and we didn’t raise our dues this year.”
That could change next year, though, as the surge in membership – most of which plays in the late afternoon and at night – and the increase in USTA League play has forced the owners to explore adding lights to three additional courts.
Currently, The Boulevard has seven lit courts.
“That’s our next big capital improvement,” Delavaut said of lighting Courts 7, 8 and 9. “We got away with not having to do it this year, but with the membership growing and an increased number of USTA teams playing at night, there’s a lot of pressure to do it.”
Asked for a timeframe, Delavaut said, “We know it needs to be done, and it’ll happen in the near future.”
One problem is that, contrary to what many members believed, those courts weren’t pre-wired for lights, which adds to the cost.
Delavaut estimated the price tag for lighting the three courts at $70,000.
“This is an expensive place to run,” he said. “It’s a big club that’s more than 10 years old, and with staff salaries and maintenance costs, there’s a lot of overhead.
“So while we’re doing well with memberships, we need to not only bring in new members but also keep the ones we’ve got.”
Delavaut said about 70 percent of the new members are also members at other clubs, including John’s Island, Windsor, Quail Valley, The Moorings, Grand Harbor and Twin Oaks.
About 30 percent of those new members are former Boulevard members who returned after the change in ownership. Others, however, are former players returning to the sport, experienced players new to town or newcomers to the game.
“We’ve done some advertising on TV and in the newspaper,” Delavaut said, “but what we’ve found is that, in a small town like this, you’re best advertising is word of mouth.”
When he took over The Boulevard’s operations, Delavaut said he would have been “thrilled” to grow the membership to 175 in the first year. He finished 2017 with nearly 200 members.
His goal for 2018 was to added 10 members per month. Thus far, the club has added 17 in January, 13 in February and 10 in March.
“We’ll see what happens in April, and I know things tend to slow down during the summer months,” he said. “But I’d love to finish the year with at least 250 members.”
Delavaut will benefit from the 17 homes being built by GHO Homes in adjacent Boulevard Village, where residents are required to have tennis memberships at the club.
“If you had asked me if we could more than double the membership in our first 16 months, I’d have said, ‘No way,’ but the word has gotten out,” Delavaut said. “I’m not surprised that we’ve grown, but it has come faster than I expected.”
So has the growth of his staff, which now includes four assistant pros who give lessons, run clinics, assist with the juniors programs and run USTA team practices.
So instead of working 60 to 70 hours per week, as he did when he started at The Boulevard, Delavaut’s now down to only six to eight hours on the court each day – and he gets Sundays off.
“It was harder than I thought,” Delavaut said. “I’d leave the house in the morning when it was dark, and I’d come home at night when it was dark. And there weren’t many days off.
“I went through a phase where, when I was on the court, I had a tough time separating giving lessons and thinking about the business side,” he added. “Thankfully, I’ve got some help now.”
And not just on the court.
In addition to Counter Culture running the food-and-beverage service, Randazzo’s daughter, Terri, now manages the off-the-court business, which frees Delavaut to focus on the tennis operation.
“I wouldn’t have gotten involved in this if I weren’t a tennis player,” Randazzo said. “I play. My daughter plays. My family plays. So, for me, this is more than just an investment. I enjoy seeing how people are enjoying the club.
“Obviously, looking at what’s happened to the membership, things are going in the right direction and we’re pleased by what we’ve seen,” he added. “Nothing has come up that we didn’t anticipate, and we’re planning to be here for the long term.
“To this point, everything has been positive, and that’s the reaction we’ve gotten from our members.”
Delavaut has an impressive background as a teaching pro and tennis director, but he’s 54 in a profession where job security tends to wane with age. If he wants to stay in Vero Beach, which he does, he needs this venture to succeed.
“I feel so lucky to be where I am at this point in my career,” Delavaut said. “I’m thrilled to be running a facility of this caliber, especially in a town like Vero Beach, where there’s such a passion for tennis. I’m grateful to have two partners like Tony and Ed, who understand the business and are willing to make the necessary investment.
“And I appreciate our members,” he added. “For so long, they were doing their own thing, putting together games and groups, because that’s what they had to do. We’ve had to change that mentality and change the culture, so they’d let us take care of them.”
Instead of being captained by members, Delavaut now oversees all of the club’s teams – USTA, county league and, yes, Orchid Cup, where last weekend his players’ dominance of Quail Valley, The Moorings and other local clubs sent a message to Vero Beach’s tennis community.
The Boulevard is back … and better than ever.