Jun 08, 2021 8:33 PM
Involved in anything and everything from organizing draws and schedules to collecting tournament results and supervising facility improvements, each day in the role of a club manager presents its own rewards and challenges. Tasked with an endless array of responsibilities, a club manager’s levelheadedness and keen attention to detail is the secret to keeping a club running efficiently, drawing both new and returning players and spectators season after season. Working tirelessly behind the scenes year round to ensure each season runs smoothly, Haley Bryan (International Polo Club Palm Beach Polo Coordinator and Club Manager of New Bridge Polo & Country Club) and Melanja Jones (Polo Manager at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club) manage the host sites of some of the USPA’s most publicized tournaments including the GAUNTLET OF POLO® in Florida and the Pacific Coast Open in California.
Sharing a common thread as Intercollegiate/Interscholastic (I/I) alumni from Colorado State University (CSU), their similarities extend to the same mentor, drawing upon the experience of working alongside legend Jimmy Newman to run other successful USPA Member Clubs across the country. Taking a summer opportunity to groom for Jimmy Newman in college, Jones was eager to pursue polo after graduation, working for the famed women’s player Sunny Hale. Following a similar path, Bryan worked for the Upchurch family at Brushy Creek Polo Ranch in Texas for three years before diving into her first Florida high-goal season with former 10-goaler Adam Snow. Following a passion for the sport ignited in college, Jones and Bryan’s willingness to help wherever needed opened the door for their natural progression to club leadership.
Dedicated to creating a seamless onsite experience, Jones and Bryan have fine tuned the routines which allow their clubs to thrive. Working at IPC (Wellington, Florida) for over 10 years, Jones left Florida for a full-time position at Santa Barbara Polo & Racquet Club (Carpinteria, California) in 2015, where she now manages both outdoor and arena polo of varying levels. Dividing her time between Florida, South Carolina and Wyoming, Bryan’s years of experience range from high-goal all the way to youth polo. Delegating when necessary and leading with humility, both Jones and Bryan have taken the lessons learned in the early years of their career and adapted them into effective strategies which have allowed their clubs to flourish.
How did you come to work for the International Polo Club Palm Beach?
Melanja: “Jimmy Newman got a new job at IPC when it was first started in 2002 and he called to ask if I could come help. Our office was a converted stall at Isla Carroll that first year. Flying H Polo Club had a lot of horses the next year, so I went back to Wyoming for a couple of years. Then one year Flying H didn't have as many young horses and Haley Bryan couldn't come to Florida, so we switched again in the office.
The first few years I would go back to Sheridan, Wyoming, in the summer and I worked for a couple of different people riding green horses. Then Santa Barbara called Jimmy needing someone who was familiar with high goal and draws. About 10 years ago I started going to Santa Barbara in the summers instead.”
Haley: “Jimmy Newman is definitely a mentor to me, and I previously worked with him in Aiken, South Carolina. He hired me to run Rose Spur Polo Club (Woody Creek, Colorado) and we also worked together in 2005 and 2006 when the USPA Gold Cup® was hosted at New Bridge Polo & Country Club (Aiken, South Carolina). In 2005, I went to Florida and worked with him for one season at IPC. After that I took a few years off and returned to Florida in 2008 to run Flying Cow Polo Club’s 12- to 14-goal pro-am league. I did timing and scoring at IPC and Melanja [Jones] was still Jimmy’s right hand person at that time. I started doing the medium goal for IPC and helping out with the club so when Melanja went to work fulltime at Santa Barbara I stepped into her role and Jimmy and I have been working together ever since.”
“Learn how to do everything you can because when you're a manager, no job is too big or too small. If you're not doing a job yourself, you want to know that it's being done right.” – Melanja Jones
What is your biggest professional challenge?
Melanja: “I think one of the things that is a delight and a challenge in polo is the wide array of personalities. As a polo manager, you have the opportunity to get really close to some fascinating personalities and by that same token, since these are all people who are here to play a competitive sport sometimes it gets a little competitive off the field. It can be tough being in the middle of all the alpha personalities.
Jimmy [Newman] always used to say, you can make some of the people happy all the time, but you can't make all the people happy all the time. It’s important sometimes just to step back and remember things are not always personal and it's just part of the job.”
Haley: “There is no way to make everybody happy. We try hard to keep everything fair and we’re as transparent as we can possibly be. We try to do everything by draw and we never give any advantage or favoritism to any particular person or team that is not earned by draw. Their schedules and needs are different and not everyone’s priorities are the same. In high goal some teams want the least number of games they have to play to reach the final and others want as many games as they can get. Often the teams are not on the same page so you have to come up with something that is fair to all participants, even though it may not be exactly what everyone wants.”
“Personally, success to me is seeing people develop through the different leagues, from the coaching league to pro pool and get their first couple of horses. It's a long process and some could lose enjoyment along the way, so to see people progress from one level to the next and find enjoyment at the next level is a big success.” – Melanja Jones
What qualities do you think are vital in an effective club manager?
Melanja: “You have to really like polo to start with—that is actually one of the pleasures of my job because I get to see a lot of great polo and people learning to play and experiencing that enthusiasm for the first time. You also definitely have to be interested in engaging with people, and engaging with them as a salesperson. The challenge is switching back and forth between being a salesperson and enforcing the rules and good conduct which are two very separate roles, you have to stay calm. Sometimes you have to accept that things are going to be a little out of your control and still be able to deal with it.”
Haley: “Having someone who is diplomatic, organized and detail oriented is key. It’s helpful to have the type of personality or attitude that is willing to listen. You should be open minded when communicating with teams and have good communication skills. A handful of the players and team managers have thoughts and ideas about ways of doing things and its really good to be open minded and see if what they suggest is applicable and will work.”
“If a club wants recruiting to happen in the off season, they should pay someone to do it full time if possible. Of course everyone has their own budget constraints, but that is probably one of the gaps for a lot of clubs.” – Melanja Jones
How do you recruit and what is your advice to help other clubs improve their efforts?
Melanja: “During the winter season our fields are closed, but that's when we make the magic happen and do all the prep for next season. Polo people in general tend to thrive a little bit more on informality so I spend a lot of time talking to people during the off season. These past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time in the desert and Florida where I can just walk around a polo game and chat with people when they're in a good mood and it's not such a high-pressure situation. Polo is a relationship-based business and it takes some time to build relationships. One of the things I've learned at Santa Barbara is that if you spend some time getting to know people and learning what they're interested in, it's a lot easier to suggest they come to play something specific at your club rather than just telling them about the season and dates.
It’s important to listen to what people want. We started a new spring pro-am league this year and a lot of that grew out of what I learned from people this winter. They were interested in it but we didn’t have it, so we ended up putting the league together and brought in a couple of new clients. Now we are seeing the results of all the work we put in during the winter. The number one thing is if a club wants recruiting to happen in the off season, they should pay someone to do it full time if possible. Of course everyone has their own budget constraints, but that is probably one of the gaps for a lot of clubs.”
What is your advice for someone considering a club management role?
Melanja: “Learn how to do everything you can because when you're a manager, no job is too big or too small. If you're not doing a job yourself, you want to know that it's being done right. You want to know the little things like the fields are being done correctly and the goal posts are being put up right. I would also say to learn as much as you can about communication and accounting, because those are two things that are maybe not very glamorous, but they are extremely useful. Nobody wants to make spreadsheets or deliver bad news, so if you can do those things, you're always going to be employable.”
Haley: “Definitely work with somebody who has experience if you can. Every day I learn something new from many different polo managers, but I’ve learned the most from Jimmy [Newman]. Diplomacy takes a while to figure out and Jimmy and I spend a lot of time talking about how things should be worded.
I would suggest picking somebody’s brain who has done it before and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also follow the USPA Rulebook one-hundred percent; it’s a resource to back up your decisions when you find a rule that applies to the situation and of course utilize the USPA. Also schedule changes are a huge source of tension anywhere so plan ahead and always have a Tournament Committee.”
What do you love the most about your job?
Melanja: “There's a lot to love about this job, it’s different day to day. I love being around the horses every day and I also really enjoy the fact that it allows me to be really creative. You don’t have to run the same tournaments and programs every year, there’s an opportunity to try something new like the spring pro-am league we started this year. When I came out to Santa Barbara the programs were really different than they are now and when I said I wanted to start new programs they allowed me to. There's a lot of room for innovation and to work with really interesting and fascinating people.”
What is the best advice you’ve received from Jimmy Newman?
Haley: “Jimmy showed me that it’s really good to listen, gather all the information and work with people to solve problems as opposed to jumping in with both feet and shooting from the hip. There’s a lot to consider so sometimes it takes a while to come to the best decision.”
Melanja: “First, I have to say Jimmy is an incredible mentor and a very humble person. I can't say enough about all the years working for him and I can still to this day pick up the phone and call him when I have a question. I’ve learned many things from him but one of the most important is that you treat everyone the same. Everyone is as invested in their polo as they can be, whether they're playing the coaching league or the 16 goal and for a sport that has a lot of money, power and prestige, there's still a lot of value in treating everyone equally from the players to the grooms, umpires, and the field crew. I think that's one reason why Jimmy has had such success for a long time. The other thing is you have to think a little bit about the things that could go wrong. Part of management is going through your checklist to see if you can come up with a Plan A, B and C.
Also its very important to surround yourself with good people, because they are the ones you're going to be with all day, every day. Even when I was at IPC, I really enjoyed going to the office every day because I liked the people I worked with. It was a very supportive staff and I've tried to create the same thing for my staff in Santa Barbara as we deal with all the things that come up together as a team. Look for someone who is flexible, has good communication, is a hard worker and will deal with the chaos with a smile and a good attitude.”
Effective Date: Saturday, May 16, 2020
The suspension of USPA Tournaments and Events will be lifted for USPA Member Clubs in locales where hosting polo matches and tournaments is permitted under applicable state and local laws, executive orders and similar decrees. The USPA Member Clubs in these locales are encouraged to follow all such requirements of their state and local authorities with respect to polo operations. In addition, we also encourage all USPA Member Clubs to take the precautions recommended by the CDC. We are preparing a detailed list of best practices for USPA Member Clubs as they return to hosting USPA Tournaments and Events and plan to circulate these guidelines within the next week. We will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation closely and will notify you if we determine a different course of action is necessary.Read More