What Private Country Clubs Will Have to Do to Survive

Several questions arise when discussing today’s Country Club’s survivability.  What is causing Country Clubs to fail? …What can Country Clubs do to avoid bankruptcy? …What is the attitude towards Country Club lifestyle by the next generations golfers?  Just to mention a few.

I discussed most of this in my recent blog..Why Are Country Club Giving the Baby Boomer Golfers the Shaft? It will be the next generation golfers, the kids of the Baby Boomers, who are going to be the future private country members. Gimmicks or tricks are not going to get them to join these clubs. There have been a number of programs put into place over the years to court younger members, but none have long lasting effects.  The solutions to Country Club survivability will come once they see they have to change direction.

If Private Country clubs are to survive they will need to offer things the current and futures members want or need.  How they do this is to take a look at the problems they currently have and not brush away what is not working until they understand why they are not working.  From that review will come the answer to the questions on what private country clubs will have to do to survive.

So lets take a look at what some of the problems Country Clubs have that threaten their existence and where there are opportunities for the private country club to change.

Aging Membership

It is true that Country Clubs, especially the private equity clubs, failed miserably in marketing their club’s membership during the ‘hay days’ of the booming golf economy.  To the most part these clubs did not have a marketing plan and saw no need for one since they depended on their members to recruit new members when the time came to fill a member spot who is leaving.   Matter of fact, some private club charters require a new member to be sponsored by a current member to become a member which would negate the need for a viable marketing plan.

Now with the majority of these older club’s membership in the autumn of their life and having to leave the club for health or financial reasons, the number leaving is more than the current members can recruit replacement from their network of business associates and friends. So now most of these clubs are left with looking outside the box for the first time to fill their memberships.  This means these older established, yes, sometimes stuck in their ways, private clubs are looking to the younger generation to fill their club’s needs. But, will this solve their problems?

Aging Facilities

Many of the private country clubs are very old and need a tremendous investment in the complete reconstruction of their infrastructure.  Why these clubs let their facilities get near dilapidation usually is based on a bad decision someone made years before.  Of course, that ‘Stuck in their ways’ attitude comes up many times as a reason.

With an aging membership the funds needed to completely rebuild clubhouses and golf courses are just not going to be allowed.  This situation does not make recruiting younger members go well.

Debt Ridden

In the new age country clubs, built in the past five to 8 years by over zealous developers, are the country clubs sucking major air in this failed economy.  In the club’s operations I have examined there just is absolutely no way they are going to avoid bankruptcy unless investors just walk away…which would be less expensive for the investors than trying to get their ROI out of a debt strapped private club nobody can afford.

Many of the older clubs who attempted to compete with these newer younger appealing clubs hired expensive operating companies to manage and market their facilities.  As a result the cost of those operations on top of the cost of maintaining a golf course put them into a bottomless pit of debt.  There are only a few thousand people in the world who could afford these type of facilities and from the few dozen of them I know are already over committed in the number of private club memberships they can realistically maintain.

Still the people or groups of investors who put these clubs in this situation will really need to take a hard look at their options and do like many are doing now and selling the clubs to the current membership at a tremendous lose and Walk Away.

Boring

Then there are those clubs that are doing well financially.  The private clubs making it usually have a well trained club manager who knows golf and what it takes to float the club’s boat through hard economic storms.  Usually these clubs look lean with sparing amenities and average quality of a golf courses.  This made the club’s appeal to the new generation of country clubbers as being boring.

Still, the lose of older members and the costs of infrastructure replacement results in these well healed clubs becoming also in need of  recruiting new members or adding more members to keep the operations budget balanced.

So, what is it going to take to place the private country clubs on solid footing for the next generation of golfer?

Did Not Work

Lets take a look at some of the things some of the non-innovative private clubs have tried over the years that Did Not Work.

Reciprocate Memberships: This is a program still used by some private clubs that has failed miserably to accomplish what it was needing to accomplish..bring in fresh money.  This program used by private golf clubs gathered together and created an affiliation between several clubs so members of each club could play at each other’s club.  This program is still in place for many clubs but what did not work was it did not generating any revenue for the clubs.  There was always a billing issue that primarily was caused by the lack of technology or the incompatibilities between the club’s technology.  The sense of competition between the clubs before members played part of the affiliation between the clubs not being promoted.  Lack of trust between clubs was the root cause why the Reciprocate Membership Program fail to reach its goal for most clubs that were part of the program.

This is why some of the new innovations to the reciprocating plans that are being developing today, where members of one club swap tee times between their clubs, all sound good but is nothing new.  They will loose steam once the clubs find they are not really getting anything out of the program.

Junior Membership: This program developed for private club members under the age of 35 to 40 offers this age group a discounted membership fee until they reach a certain age. This statistically should have worked, but in reality, from the studies I have made, over 60% of the younger generation who signed up for these packages dropped their membership all together when they reached the maximum age requirement where they would have to start paying the more profitable Full Membership rate.  As a result, these clubs will fill with new younger members for awhile, but eventually were back to struggling to find members once these junior members decided they would rather pay Full Rates at a better or more convenient located club.  The clubs using these junior membership programs run a huge risk of running in the red or being strapped with age discrimination law suits from the older members.

What Works

Membership for the Day

One of the most favorable plans adopted by many Private Country Clubs is offering a non-member to become a member of a day or month.  This allows them to come in see the club, bring in friends to get their opinions of the facility.  The investment of this program is paid for from discounted monthly membership due these potential members would pay.  So if they decided not to become a full member then the club has not lost.

Play for Free Programs

This is a new concept that is taking off that offers a non-member an opportunity to be a member for the day at the private club for FREE if he/she brings three other non-members to play golf at the course at a discounted guest fee.  This is a great way to market the club to new members.

Now that we briefly looked at some of the top issues causing the problems private country clubs have and at some of the recent attempts to solve the problem that did and did not work, lets now look at why they failed and what will work to solve the ultimate solutions..a large Younger Membership.

Today’s Golfer

First, in order to solve any problem dealing with human beings you have to know their needs and wants. Lets take a look at who is playing golf today and review their interests.

We are not necessarily looking at a fleet of Tiger Woods clones or Paula Creamer wannabes when we look at the millions of average golfer today that are under 40 years old.  Nor, are we talking about all of today’s golfers being Donald Trump style business people.  Still they all love golf as much as previous generations and are looking for a way to play golf while meeting all of their other needs in life.  What has changed the attitudes of today’s golfers towards private country clubs comes from the change in the economics and the culture that has developed around the change in the economy.

Most golfers work. Lets face it.  How else can they pay for golf if they did not work in some manor.  With the onslaught of the failures of large corporations to hold up the economy the creation of the small business owner took place.   These more enterprising young golfers now are taking the economy by the throat.  Most of these younger potential private country club members are working in fast pace small businesses that require a lot of attention.  Today’s golfers have to stay in touch and in some cases stay in constant touch with their business’ ever changing markets.  This makes committing to anything in business or life tough since there is not enough time in a day to get all they need done and play golf.

These golfers also have families with a working spouse.  The need for family time sometimes pressure the number of hours in a day.  So today’s golfers need for quality family time is paramount.

Evolving Country Club Environment

So, what the private country clubs are dealing with is golfers who are focused in their business, who move quicker, deal with change faster, are constantly on top of technology and have a very demanding family schedule.  To lure these golfers into the country club environment will take the club’s meeting all of their needs immediately.

What Today’s golfers are wanting is convenience.  Those country clubs that develop programs and construct facilities to handle these golfers wants and needs will be the clubs that survive.

Country Clubs of tomorrow will need to offer their members a mix of business related programs and a facility that allows business to be conducted at the Club.  The successful Private Country Club will have business conference centers, business centers and meeting halls that cater to the member’s business needs.

The golf at Private Golf Clubs will remain private since today’s golfers are not into anything that waste their time like slow pace of play.  And the Country Club of tomorrow will have to construct more family friendly facility..playgrounds, water parks and day care centers.

Once country clubs move into this direction and invest into creating these environments then the reciprocate club programs will be accepted by more members who see the value of being able to take their business interest to other facilities to possibly reach new markets.  Business golfers will then see incentives to sharing their tee times with a members at a club across town or across the country that is closer to a market of interest to the business golfer.  As long as the programs meet the golfer’s business needs then the programs will be accepted by Today’s Golfers.

The solution to Country Club’s survival stands on meeting the next generations wants and needs and these wants and needs are based on their business’s wants and needs.  Private clubs need to look to helping the members improve their business to substantiates the cost of being a member and provides a deeper purpose of becoming a member of a private country club.  Status quo has to be stopped and change made to offering today’s golfers more than a frill.

Golf will benefit when more of the golf industry adapts to Today’s Golfer’s needs.  Let me know how I can help.

Comments

  1. says

    In today's environment, any private club which is not looking for ways to add value to its membership just isn't paying attention. We've developed a program where private clubs can organize and host international travel for their members at no cost and very little effort on the part of the club. And a proposed trip only needs seven paying members to be a success. Lots of clubs have jumped at the opportunity. What amazes me is that more than half the clubs we've approached have not. They just don't seem to get it and think continuing to do the same old thing will somehow replace the members they lose. You're right. Successful clubs need good professional leadership.

    Sam Baker
    Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions

  2. says

    Sam,
    Thanks for your comment. I feel the travel component you suggested is a much more viable offer to private club memberships than other third party offerings many clubs are using or considering. Now, if your excursions had a business agenda, many more members would be all over it. Let me know how I can help.

  3. says

    In today’s environment, any private club which is not looking for ways to add value to its membership just isn’t paying attention. We’ve developed a program where private clubs can organize and host international travel for their members at no cost and very little effort on the part of the club. And a proposed trip only needs seven paying members to be a success. Lots of clubs have jumped at the opportunity. What amazes me is that more than half the clubs we’ve approached have not. They just don’t seem to get it and think continuing to do the same old thing will somehow replace the members they lose. You’re right. Successful clubs need good professional leadership.

    Sam Baker
    Haversham & Baker Golfing Expeditions

    • says

      Sam,
      Thanks for your comment. I feel the travel component you suggested is a much more viable offer to private club memberships than other third party offerings many clubs are using or considering. Now, if your excursions had a business agenda, many more members would be all over it. Let me know how I can help.

  4. BodDisqus says

    Scott:
    You put your finger on the big things. I have been a private club consultant for the past 20 years, specializing in membership marketing, strategy and development. You touched on some of the many ingredients. There are plenty more. If I had to put it into the simplest of terms, private clubs will need to make the decision to join a pragmatically “intelligent” one, and no longer rely on ego, luxury, signature golf design or tradition. The future generation of golfers do not care about the “prestige” or bragging rights of club membership. They do care that the decision to join makes them look “smart” to their spouses, children and their friends.

    Here some of the elements in my mantra:
    1. Lower the dues cost (“More members make a better club” – Robert Dedman, Club Corp)
    2. Get the Pros out on the practice tee giving free clinics and playing a few holes with club members who might be new or struggling (that is an endless supply of opportunity). How many sweaters need folding in the golf shop anyway?
    3. Pay the Pros better and include lessons in the dues.
    4. Have a professionally trained, full time Membership Director
    5. Have a full time “Communications Director” – One of the biggest problems in clubs is inconsistent communications and terrble follow up on member interest and new ideas (i.e., energy)
    6. Develop a professionally facilitated strategic plan and a strategic membership plan and stop following what other clubs are doing.
    7. Develop and adhere to a set of Quality Standards for product, service and facility (doesn't need to be Four Seasons level, but needs to be consistent quality).
    8. Keep the golf course in great condition. Fix the nagging issues (i.e., bad drainage, hard sand in bunkers,
    9. Develop and maintain Governance Best Practices at the Board level
    plenty more…

    Bob Bodman
    President, ClubResources

  5. Anonymous says

    Scott:
    You put your finger on the big things. I have been a private club consultant for the past 20 years, specializing in membership marketing, strategy and development. You touched on some of the many ingredients. There are plenty more. If I had to put it into the simplest of terms, private clubs will need to make the decision to join a pragmatically “intelligent” one, and no longer rely on ego, luxury, signature golf design or tradition. The future generation of golfers do not care about the “prestige” or bragging rights of club membership. They do care that the decision to join makes them look “smart” to their spouses, children and their friends.

    Here some of the elements in my mantra:
    1. Lower the dues cost (“More members make a better club” – Robert Dedman, Club Corp)
    2. Get the Pros out on the practice tee giving free clinics and playing a few holes with club members who might be new or struggling (that is an endless supply of opportunity). How many sweaters need folding in the golf shop anyway?
    3. Pay the Pros better and include lessons in the dues.
    4. Have a professionally trained, full time Membership Director
    5. Have a full time “Communications Director” – One of the biggest problems in clubs is inconsistent communications and terrble follow up on member interest and new ideas (i.e., energy)
    6. Develop a professionally facilitated strategic plan and a strategic membership plan and stop following what other clubs are doing.
    7. Develop and adhere to a set of Quality Standards for product, service and facility (doesn’t need to be Four Seasons level, but needs to be consistent quality).
    8. Keep the golf course in great condition. Fix the nagging issues (i.e., bad drainage, hard sand in bunkers,
    9. Develop and maintain Governance Best Practices at the Board level
    plenty more…

    Bob Bodman
    President, ClubResources

    • says

      Bob,
      Yes, all you have mentioned is what I found when I drilled down into how country clubs are mismanaged. It looks from the tone of your message that you may have ventured off into reviewing the CCA sell to KSL since most of the items you listed run as their mode of operation. If this is the case I hope one day we get to meet so we can compare notes.

    • brian says

      As a full time membership director at a private club, i have proposed lowering the dues for full membership and was met with much resistence. Our club is considering an increase and i am extremely fearful that it will cause unprescedented attrition from the club. Is there any research or data available that shows lowering dues may in fact increase overall membership as well as increase the bottom line?

      • says

        Brian,
        Right now, no statistics and data on substantiating lowing membership dues is available. The need to reduce membership fees is based on common logic. However, more clubs are dropping dues and initiation fee. Once more time has passed more data can be obtained on how they are doing with this change.
        What takes place in all cases I have reviewed where clubs refuse or are reluctant to reduce their membership fees is the operations budget is so top heavy with salaries for executives that provide no relevance to the profitability of the club. In other words what keeps the membership due up is from top executives salaries, third party management companies fees or unruly returns on investment requirements. Reeling these costs in would usually result in the ability to reduce membership fees by at least 30%.

        Clubs that do not get real during this economy will be left behind.

  6. says

    Bob,
    Yes, all you have mentioned is what I found when I drilled down into how country clubs are mismanaged. It looks from the tone of your message that you may have ventured off into reviewing the CCA sell to KSL since most of the items you listed run as their mode of operation. If this is the case I hope one day we get to meet so we can compare notes.

  7. says

    Bob,
    Yes, all you have mentioned is what I found when I drilled down into how country clubs are mismanaged. It looks from the tone of your message that you may have ventured off into reviewing the CCA sell to KSL since most of the items you listed run as their mode of operation. If this is the case I hope one day we get to meet so we can compare notes.

  8. brian says

    As a full time membership director at a private club, i have proposed lowering the dues for full membership and was met with much resistence. Our club is considering an increase and i am extremely fearful that it will cause unprescedented attrition from the club. Is there any research or data available that shows lowering dues may in fact increase overall membership as well as increase the bottom line?

  9. says

    Brian,
    Right now, no statistics and data on substantiating lowing membership dues is available. The need to reduce membership fees is based on common logic. However, more clubs are dropping dues and initiation fee. Once more time has passed more data can be obtained on how they are doing with this change.
    What takes place in all cases I have reviewed where clubs refuse or are reluctant to reduce their membership fees is the operations budget is so top heavy with salaries for executives that provide no relevance to the profitability of the club. In other words what keeps the membership due up is from top executives salaries, third party management companies fees or unruly returns on investment requirements. Reeling these costs in would usually result in the ability to reduce membership fees by at least 30%.

    Clubs that do not get real during this economy will be left behind.

  10. Anonymous says

    I belonged to a private club for over 30 years. When my Husband walked out after 42 years; I had no access to that club. Yet, the papers were to mr. & Mrs. I golfed there, had dinner there; yet, I no longer was a member. Although, the “scum bum and his new wife still were members. I live on the course only 4 doors away from the entrance. Yes, clubs do have to change. You pay a big fee to join; yet never see it again. AMEN

  11. Anonymous says

    I belonged to a private club for 30 years. After 42 years of marriage, my husband walked out. He and his new bimbo still had club privilages. (We were always listed as Mr. & Mrs. Yet, all my privilages stopped. I live on the 11th tee and played golf frequently. Now I cannot play golf or even eat there. No justice.

  12. maryellenhennel says

    I belonged to a private club for over 30 years. When my Husband walked out after 42 years; I had no access to that club. Yet, the papers were to mr. & Mrs. I golfed there, had dinner there; yet, I no longer was a member. Although, the “scum bum and his new wife still were members. I live on the course only 4 doors away from the entrance. Yes, clubs do have to change. You pay a big fee to join; yet never see it again. AMEN

  13. maryellenhennel says

    I belonged to a private club for 30 years. After 42 years of marriage, my husband walked out. He and his new bimbo still had club privilages. (We were always listed as Mr. & Mrs. Yet, all my privilages stopped. I live on the 11th tee and played golf frequently. Now I cannot play golf or even eat there. No justice.

  14. Dennis Moody says

    we are a membership committee at a private club interested in the idea of increasing memebership with the “business center” idea. Can you point us to clubs where this has been done that we could investigate? thanksDennis Moody

  15. Dennis Moody says

    we are a membership committee at a private club interested in the idea of increasing memebership with the “business center” idea. Can you point us to clubs where this has been done that we could investigate? thanksDennis Moody

    • says

      Dennis,
      There are a few country clubs around the country that have added buildings to their facility that can be used for conferences, seminars or tradeshows. The one that comes to mind I recently visited was the Seville Country Club in Gilbert, AZ. A very innovative country club that I was very impressed with their innovation towards things ppeople really look for in a Private Club.

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