Reinventing An Icon

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Balboa Bay Club, a beloved Newport Beach landmark, celebrates 65 years of storied history as it steps forward into a new era.

By Karlee Prazak

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It began with a classic Newport summer day—blue skies, turquoise waters, the sun’s gentle warmth and a slight ocean breeze. Two visionary young gentlemen, Tom Henderson and Hadd Ring, were meandering along the then-desolate 1940s Newport coastline when they came across a series of abandoned Army Air Corps shacks, part of the Santa Ana Army Air Base training drills facilities that were long forgotten. It might have been the azure skies and fading summer months or the desire to capture and share the moment, but an idea began to take root. By 1946, Tom and Hadd purchased the nearly 27 acres that would soon be home to Balboa Bay Club, one of the most sought-after clubs in the country.

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Through the Years

It wasn’t until Ken Kendall acquired the property in 1948, however, that the passing idea came to fruition. With Ken’s enthusiasm, courage and charm, the necessary permits were acquired and the city was on board, with construction beginning May 1, 1948.

Soon thereafter, iconic stars like Humphrey Bogart, Ruby Keeler and Harry Owens became regulars at the members-only Balboa Bay Club. It was common to see celebrities lounging around the centerpiece of the club, with its aquamarine pool overlooking the glassy marina waters. It was during this era that tales were told about people leaving their rooms with a party going on, and coming back days later to find the same antics still underway.

No celebrity became better known around the club than “the Duke”—John Wayne. Stories place the Duke sitting on the balcony playing cards with fellow members, cruising the harbor on his yacht, the Wild Goose, and just enjoying his role as an unofficial “governor” for the timeless Balboa Bay Club. It became a sort of safe haven for public figures, notes 20-year member John Wortmann. John says it isn’t uncommon for the club to host celebrity guests and, most notably, past and current presidents, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon.

Then, in 2003, the Balboa Bay Club opened to the public under the ownership of the Ray family (after changing hands several times), adding the new Balboa Bay Resort to its grounds and emerging under a new name—the Balboa Bay Club and Resort. As more social events began taking place in the new facilities, the exclusive nature of the Balboa Bay Club and Resort began to teeter. Guests attending events mistakenly ventured into the private club, while local community members didn’t recognize the resort as a public destination. All that changed, however, in summer 2012.

In recent months, the well-known guard tower that once prominently stood at the entrance was torn down, a “public welcome” notice was posted and new signs marketing the Balboa Bay Resort and Balboa Bay Club as two separate entities went up. This signifies a new chapter for the club, which began in June 2012, when the Newport-based Pickup family closed on the property with one goal in mind: “To put the ‘club’ back in club,” explains Todd Pickup, son of purchaser Richard Pickup and CEO of the club and resort’s parent company, International Bay Clubs.

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A New Era

Initially, a Chinese businessman had plans to purchase the Balboa Bay Club and Resort, something that Todd—a longtime visitor of the club—felt strayed from its local ties. But around Thanksgiving in 2011, he received word from his good friend and business partner, Tim Busch, CEO of Pacific Hospitality Group, that the deal fell through.

Within a few months, the family picked up the Newport Beach landmark—a feat Todd attributes to the Pickups’ local ties: Richard was born in Whittier, but raised his family in the Newport and Laguna Beach area.

“We were living in North Laguna at the time, so we [were not yet] members, but I remember always coming to [Balboa] Bay Club events with friends,” Todd says. “BBC is one of a kind. It’s not really a yacht club—it’s just a special place.”

The club needed a local’s touch to “carry on the tradition of the past,” as Todd put it, and move the facility as a whole to a more contemporary, family-oriented lifestyle—a point that Todd’s brother-in-law Kevin Martin, who is the president of International Bay Clubs, agrees with wholeheartedly. As fathers with kids of their own entering a business venture with their father (Richard), it makes sense.

“It was so nice this summer when … I wanted to go out and get a meal—this was my first choice, and I could bring my kids,” Kevin says. “There’s a sense of community. It’s so nice to have [that] in today’s world.”

The Pickup family is adamant about staying true to this sense of community, which became apparent when they hired a consultant to record nearly 7,500 members’ requests about how to improve the club, explains Director of Club Operations Malcolm Smith.

“The new regime, they’ve come in and realized the need for change,” he says. “It takes time, but they’re doing it the right way. They’re not just making a flippant decision.”

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Upgrades to Watch

The No. 1 desire of club members as of late was a casual, affordable eatery, followed closely by the desire for more access control—which was easily addressed by issuing card keys and increasing security.

The former was handled during one of the management team’s first visits. “When we walked [into the previous club members-only restaurant], there was a hallway to a pool and an empty restaurant,” Kevin explains. “The first thing we said was, ‘Let’s take care of our members’—they’re our bread and butter.”

The result was a complete overhaul to the existing Members Grill. Prior to the upgrade, a total of nine pillars, all 3 feet in width, monopolized the view of the marina. This has been reduced to three pillars and paired with modern, nautical-inspired decor and an open-air seating plan, resulting in more member enjoyment, according to six-year club resident Sue Edelstein.

“[The Members Grill] is gorgeous; … there’s good food; and … the members are showing up,” Sue says of the restaurant, where she now eats several times a week. “It’s just more of a happening place.”

To complement the family-friendly atmosphere of the grill, a children’s area adjacent to the restaurant replaced what was previously two guest rooms. The children’s facility features a relaxed seating area where kids and teens can do anything from play on an Apple computer to challenge one another at Wii video games. Other improvements around the club include new patio furniture, trimmed shrubbery permitting views of the marina and pool, upgraded fitness equipment and soundproofing of the indoor basketball court, which can now be used as more of a multipurpose room.

As a result, Malcolm says he is seeing more involvement now from members than ever before—but there’s still plenty happening on what some jokingly refer to as “the other side of the driveway.”

The resort began undergoing modernization improvements in October, which are scheduled to be complete by Memorial Day weekend 2014. Among the most noteworthy upgrades are the installation of a restroom in the main lobby; a singular, revamped retail store; and the introduction of a coffee shop and bakery called Blend, slated to open in late December.

The First Cabin fine dining restaurant also is undergoing a soft remodel and is scheduled to reopen in early 2014 as a contemporary steakhouse and upscale wine bar called 1221 Prime. Following the retirement of former Executive Chef Josef Lageder, 1221 Prime is led by the resort’s new classically trained Parisian executive chef, Vincent Lesage. Just down the hall, Duke’s Place welcomes indoor and outdoor seating, as well as a revamped lineup of talent to complement both the history behind the Duke and the crowd celebrating the upgrade from two taps to six.

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Maintaining the Commitment 

Since the ownership change in 2012, an annual slew of roughly 40 charity events have taken place in the resort ballrooms. General Manager Dieter Hissin says he can see the members taking a renewed pleasure in their “new” facility, and he believes this will reveal itself in the event calendar for both the club and resort.

“Members look at their club [and resort] now and take a certain pride in what has changed,” he explains. “They like to bring their events to the club [by hosting events at the resort]. It’s a social tradition and I think we will be seeing more of that.”

In addition to the varying charitable fundraisers hosted at the resort, the Pickups also are reinventing the members-only events held on the club side, which were “kicked off” in a sense by the 65th anniversary luau last summer. This paved the way for a summer full of sold-out concerts, a chili cook-off (re-established after a 10-year hiatus) and a series of movies on the lawn.

These family-friendly events are leading the way into a future of holiday-themed parties, casual club get-togethers and all-around fun times that the Pickups hope will breathe some fresh life back into what had become a somewhat stagnant status quo.

As Balboa Bay Resort Marketing Manager Kevin Gasparro puts it: “You can still be prestigious and be comfortable.”

As for the future of the club, it’s a place where a father wanted to share with his family, so they can share it with their children. Because of this, what lies ahead for the Balboa Bay Club and Balboa Bay Resort is really predicted the best by the owner himself, Richard Pickup.

Richard says: “Our goal is to enhance the members’ experience and to provide the community and the public [with] the best bay resort in California.”

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