At Bali’s Frontier Canggu Club, an Even Playing Pitch

By William J. Furney and Laurane Marchive
The Bali Times

CANGGU, North Kuta ~ The colonial-sculpted Canggu Club celebrated its second anniversary towards the end of last year, more than two years since the divisive and ambitious project swung open its doors to a largely affluent expatriate audience.

Marketed to foreign residents of the island who are doing big business in Bali and who have thousands of dollars to shell out for membership, the sports, fitness and leisure facility with a raj-style verandah overlooking a playing field was labeled “Bali’s First International Private Members Club.”

But while that exclusive tag early on brought in business, from private individuals paying US$2,500 for a 25-year membership, as well as monthly dues, the lofty enterprise in this rural part of North Kuta soon dissolved into something of a farce, people familiar with the situation told The Bali Times in interviews over several months.

Surrounded by ricefields and smallholdings but in a semi-remote area fast becoming popular with Bali’s swelling expatriate population, who are either renting properties, purchased or are building their own, the club was the brainchild of Bali resident Steve Kenny, who died last October in Singapore, where he was undergoing treatment for brain cancer.

At the outset, most calamitous for the new country club was apparent infighting among the management and staff, people that spoke to The Times said, and a failure to net the amount of members that would see the property break even and move into profit, despite firm marketing drives that included widespread advertising.

Something was drastically wrong: in the space of two years there had been five different general managers; an alarmingly high staff turnover saw people frequently getting hired and then fired; member satisfaction was at a low, with complaints about service and even the food.

One former employee who was with the club at the start said it did not have enough members, and that some who had signed up had refused to pay.

“First of all, they had no idea what they were doing,” said the ex-worker, who requested their name and details be withheld because they are still living in Bali.

“The managers never did any market studies. They didn’t even know who they were targeting. But this is a very common story: people come to Bali and they feel rich and powerful, and they think they can do anything, which is not true,” said the former employee, who was fired from the job over disputes concerning marketing strategy.

“For example, Steve Kenny, who created the club, hired a company from Hong Kong to help him develop the project. This company was named ILC, International Leisure Consultants, but they never did anything for the club. They had nothing to offer.”

The Times sought clarification from Chris Wooten, who worked for the club when it opened and is now president director of ILC Indonesia, but he declined to comment.

In the lead-up to its opening, the club had hired a local PR company run by an Australian expatriate, Diana Shearin of DiSh PR in Seminyak, who was pitching the club as Bali’s new and privileged social scene, where influential and rising expatriate businesspeople and their families would come to relax – and play.

The PR company had been planning “a big media blitz” to announce the sparking new facility, Ms. Shearin told The Times, which had been running advertising for the club, at the time. But as the opening day drew ever nearer, the public relations firm, which had been organizing glitzy parties at the unofficially opened venue – including for a World Cup 2006 event sponsored by this newspaper – was dropped, its contract expired and not renewed at what should have been a critical publicity time for the club.

Some members, meanwhile, were growing unhappy.

“I remember receiving a phone call from someone who was working for the club,” a young French expatriate said. “It was very annoying, as I didn’t know what it was about. They wanted to have an appointment with me, to talk about the Canggu Club, but I didn’t know them, and I didn’t understand what they wanted. They insisted on making an appointment; it made me feel pressured.”

A former member told The Times that not enough attention was paid to members.

“They don’t value their members. They don’t realize it is easier to keep a member than to get a new one. I left the club, and nobody called me, or even just asked me why I wanted to leave. I was just a number for them.”

Others bemoaned a lack of service and “terrible” food. Some said it was pointless paying thousands of dollars to become a member when they had to pay for everything and non-members were able to gain access and use the facilities, and so they asked themselves what the point was of being a member.

Another former employee said the club was drifting down a rocky river without a paddle, or rudder.

“The most difficult was that the direction kept changing all the time. We didn’t really have any long-lasting orders, any real direction. Actually, I think they had bad luck with the managers.

Some didn’t know Bali and tried to bring a Sydney mentality in a different place – it is not easy.

“As Bali is a very small community, people talk. They know each other, so you have to be really careful, and if people don’t like you, it will be very difficult for you to do your job. Marc Dressler, for example, who used to be the general manager – he was passionate about the club; he worked hard. But people just didn’t like him, his personality.

“The lack of marketing strategy was also really annoying: the club was selling membership for 25 years, while Bali is more like a transit place for a lot of people. So why not sell membership for one or two years?”

At least one positive aspect of the club, the ex-employee said, was that it helped the earlier-established Canggu Community School, which is now sits beside it.

“It wouldn’t exist without the club,” said the former staffer.

The school began life in 2001, and moved near the site where the club would be built in 2005. But even if the two entities seemed similar in name and location, they were different from the outset, their main connection being that club conceptualizer Steve Kenny’s wife helped found the school, which was planned before the club.

“I started working here in 2006. I have no idea what happened in the past, with the staff and the managers,” said school principal Ian Ward.

“All I know is that the club was always very keen to support the school. They let us use the facilities, such as the swimming pool, and our relationship remained good while the managers where changing. The situation seems to be better now, as more and more people are becoming members,” he said.

Holding the reins at the club now is general manager Matthew Gray, who acknowledged the birthing pains of the venue but insisted greener days had arrived.

“It’s right that is has not been managed to its full potential in the past. The ILC was underperforming. Some other managers didn’t know what they were doing. It has become a much easier operation for us to run,” he said.

These days membership starts at $1,500, valid until 2031, along with monthly dues from $60, and there is a partnership with management and investment firm Strategic Hospitality Oceania, whose president director is James Wynne.

“For us, the club began on the 31st of March 2008, the day we walked in,” said Wynne. “At that time, there were about 500 members in the club, and that number is now increasing. Because there has been a lot of management teams, there have been a lot of different views – that’s why we are now focusing on food, as well as more privileges and benefits for families. But the most important aspect is the fact that we able to act quickly and make every single decision now.”

Now there were far brighter days ahead, he said.

“It’s no secret that the club was once in some serious financial trouble. I am delighted to report that it is now the flourishing business that it was always meant to be. It is now the club that the late Steve Kenny – the club’s founder – intended it to be. The club’s fantastic new team has put it back in the black; there’s money in the bank; and its future is now undoubtedly secure,” said Wynne.

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