By Pam George
Special to Delaware Business Times
Growing up in the Wilmington area, Jenna Sakowski knew that the University & Whist Club, a private dining venue, was located on North Broom Street in the city. That was about it. “I didn’t know what went on behind the wall,” she said.
That changed in December 2016, when Sakowski drove through the imposing gate to start an internship through Wilmington University.
After graduation, she was hired as the special event and marketing assistant, and a primary duty is marketing to her age group, the millennials, the largest living generation in U.S. history, according to Goldman Sachs.
Born from the 1980s into the late 1990s, millennials are entering their prime working and spending years. The question is whether a group who grew up with rapid change will be interested in a private club — let alone one that resides in a three-story stone mansion that typifies Old Wilmington.
Before John Hynansky and Thomas Hatzis purchased the property last year, the answer likely would have been no. The 20,000-square-foot Tilton Mansion that is home to the University and Whist Club, part of which dates back to 1802, had not been renovated since the 1950s.
(The University & Whist Club was formed by the marriage of the Wilmington Whist Club and The University Club in 1958.)
In its heyday, the club had 800 members. By the time the partners acquired the building, the club’s 220 members often had to pay an assessment to cover expenses. Most would suggest that Hynansky, the founder of the Winner Group, and Hatzis, owner of Hollywood Grill, rescued the organization, which now rents the space.
This past August, the club closed to undergo massive renovations. The threadbare carpet and old-fashioned wallpaper are gone. Walls have been painted; floors are new. The ballroom, which has a flexible layout and an all-hardwood floor, sparkles. A four-season room is under construction. The kitchen is outfitted with more than $250,000 of new equipment.
“This is not the stuffy club you went to with your parents or grandparents and had to be formally dressed,” said Michael Crispin, who in August joined the club as the vice president and general manager.
But Crispin knows well that boosting a private club’s membership is a challenge. He was previously the district manager for Compass Group USA, a food-service company, and director of food and beverage for Delaware Park Casino and White Clay Creek Country Club.
Crispin hopes that dining, University & Whist’s calling card, has an allure to a generation with a developed palate. Joshua Dykes, the chef de cuisine, has revamped the menu to include such trendy items as a charcuterie board, sushi and tuna poke. There are small plates and wine flights to tempt the millennials’ need to experiment. The craft beer selection has been expanded. Only one dining room requires a jacket for gentlemen.
“Younger members will find the club’s accommodations to their tastes, including an anticipated cigar and scotch lounge as well as great food and wines,” said longtime member Jay Deputy. “There is always the opportunity to learn about food and wine. I believe this makes the UWC unique among downtown and suburban clubs.”
In addition to promoting the cuisine, the marketing team is underscoring the business advantages. Sakowski attends young professional networking events at the Delaware State Chamber and the New Castle County Chamber. The club plans to host networking mixers.
There is now Wi-Fi throughout the building. Upgraded audio-visual services include tools for teleconferencing in the main ballroom. Smaller rooms also benefit from technological improvements.
These services are geared toward business owners of all ages. Marketing consultant Kay Keenan likes taking clients to the “Whist” for lunch partly because there’s no question as to who will pick up the check.
Stacey Inglis, director of marketing, said the mansion has unused rooms that could possibly serve as offices for budding businesses.
Recognizing the young businessperson’s limited resources, the club now has membership levels in four age groups, ranging from $775 a year for ages 21 to 24 to $2,062 a year for ages 33 to 34. Members 35 and older pay $2,750. (There are no longer assessments.) Every member pays a one-time $750 initiation fee, and they have a minimum $900-per-year food-and-beverage mandate. Spouses have full privileges.
These rates, however, are significantly different from co-working spaces like The Mill, whose entry point is $45 a month.
True, membership can offer the experiences that millennials reportedly crave. There are reciprocal memberships at more than 250 national and international clubs. A relationship with ClubCorp gives members access to specials at more than 1,000 hotels, resorts and entertainment venues.
Inglis has created a roster of on-site events, some of which are open to the public. Arts-n-Appetizers at The Whist, for instance, showcases a performer or artist with a local group, such as OperaDelaware. A loyalty program will reward members who attend events; they can rack up points to put toward food and beverage.
Targeting millennials is also part of the banquet division’s marketing plan. The ballroom’s neutral color scheme appeals to the age group’s craving for customization, Inglis said. Catering is another emphasis. Both banquets and weddings have their own website, Twitter and Pinterest page.
There is also a Facebook page for the club as a whole, which isn’t the case for some other private clubs in urban areas. The Whist’s page promotes events that are open to the public, and there are more than in the past. From Oct. 4 to Dec. 27, the club will open its dining rooms to nonmembers for lunch and dinner on Wednesdays. Last Valentine’s Day, nonmembers were permitted to book reservations. Some say that events open to nonmembers might hurt the club’s cachet.
“We’re in the growth phase,” Inglis said. “So we’re living out loud because we want them to join.”
When the club hits a sweet spot with membership, it will revisit the use of social media and nonmember events. Ultimately, Inglis wants members to enjoy “amazing food, wonderful service and a sense of camaraderie” at the only private dining club in the area.
Keenan, who came back to the club when the owners purchased it, is encouraged. “There’s a renewed energy in the club. Some relatively new members got married in here and kept their membership,” she said. “I think it will work.”