A good foundation

Stony Point, Ghost Ranch positioned to grow, consultants say

September 19, 2014

LOUISVILLE

Despite chronic financial struggles, Stony Point Center and Ghost Ranch ― the two national conference centers of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are well-positioned to grow into self-sustainability, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board’s (PMAB) Finance Committee was told her Sept. 17.

A third PC(USA) national conference center -- Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina -- is independently owned and operated.

After a highly-contentious PMAB meeting in early-February led to development of a business plan designed to bring Stony Point to financial break-even by the end of 2017, the board financed a study by Harrell Hospitality Group (HHG), a hotel/hospitality consulting firm, which had also advised Ghost Ranch Conference Center.

“It was a very helpful, valuable process for all of us,” Stony Point co-director Kitty Ufford-Chase told the Finance Committee. “What was most helpful was we were told we have a very good foundation on which to grow. It was great to get understanding of where we’re headed and that, yes, we can get there.”

The numbers, so far anyway, almost bear that out. The plan adopted in April sets benchmarks that call for operating losses of no more than $90,000 this year, $60,000 in 2015, $30,000 in 2016 and break-even by the end of 2017.

Stony Point’s operating loss for this year at the end of August was $67,000, which Stony Point co-director Rick Ufford-Chase said is “the best possible situation we could hope for.” He noted that Stony Point lost two large contracts, totaling $200,000, at the beginning of this year, “so we knew we losing that right off the top.”

Cost-cutting measures in May stemmed much of the flow of red ink. In fact, Rick Ufford-Chase told the Finance Committee, “the $67,000 operating loss is just about exactly the same amount we had to pay earlier this summer for a new roof.” Stony Point has yet to establish a separate capital fund, so expenses like the new roof flow to the operations bottom-line.

“It’s a very positive [financial] report,” Rick Ufford-Chase said, “but we’ve got a lot of work to do ― fall is traditionally low occupancy for us.”

“Heads on beds,” the hotel industry calls it. Stony Point is averaging about 30 percent occupancy and the business plan is predicated on 60 percent occupancy. At the urging of HHG and with financial assistance from the Synod of the Northeast, Stony Point has employed a sales person to seek out more business and Rick Ufford-Chase says a new property management system should be in place within the next six months that will enable customers to book rooms online. Travelocity and Expedia, here we come.

“Many of the things you’ve heard about Stony Point are also true for Ghost Ranch,” said the conference center’s director, Debra Hepler. HHG also helped Ghost Ranch ― which is about $600,000 in the red so far this year ― develop a strategic plan to reach financial sustainability in the next few years.

“We have doubled annual fund income in last few years and doubled attendance at programs at the same time,” she said. Also like Stony Point, Ghost Ranch has substantial capital needs ― about $16 million, Hepler estimated. A $10 million capital campaign is underway ― $4 million has been pledged during the “quiet phase,” she said, and the public phase is set to begin soon.

Both conference centers have fought through the Great Recession, but still face competition traveler, meeting and retreat dollars. “We’re so far out of the way that we’re not looking for “business” customers, Hepler said. “We are a retreat center.

Stony Point, just an hour north of New York City, is a little more accessible, so the market’s a little different. “We’d really like to upgrade our facilities as we can,” Rick Ufford-Chase said. “We’d like to offer ‘La Quinta rooms’ not ‘Motel 6.’”