They go by many different names and often go out of their way to avoid the “club” label altogether. But post-recession realities have combined with the transition to Millennials and the undeniable influence of Topgolf to spawn a host of new concepts that are redefining the industry.
There is no clubhouse; instead, there’s a “base camp” described as “a launchpad for adventure.” No pro shop, either, but rather a place to buy “lifestyle goods,” with proceeds beneﬁtting social-impact funds. And the sub-groups that have been formed to focus on shared passions, ranging from music to wellness and social causes, are called “tribes.”
(Don’t worry—that last term was run past local Native Americans, who gave their assurance it wasn’t oﬀensive when used in that way.)
And while this is a facility that sells memberships and collects dues, it wouldn’t dare be called a club. Instead. it’s “The Collective,” which opened in Seattle’s trendy South Lake Union area in mid-May.
And who’s behind this place that’s not only rewriting club-related terminology, but rethinking every traditional aspect of what a club should look like, what activities and services it should provide for its members, and what the collective (lower-case) entity should stand for and represent? None other than ClubCorp—the company spawned by Robert Dedman, Sr., the “King of Clubs” and “Prince of Pinehurst” who built an empire that came to be seen by some as representing the club world’s worst kind of corporate, number-crunching, cookie-cutter evil.
“A club doesn’t have to have the negative connotation of mahogany walls and leather-bound books,” says Tommy Trause, The Collective’s Vice President of Innovation (you weren’t expecting something as mundane as General Manager, were you?)
Trause previously did serve as a GM, of ClubCorp’s nearby Columbia Tower Club, so he knows both Seattle and the more traditional approach to club operations. The city’s downtown is now dominated by Amazon’s futuristic, glass-globe corporate headquarters (known both aﬀectionately and disdainfully as “Bezos’ balls”) and the eclectic mix of business, art and environmental and social advocacy that has grown up around it. And “The Collective” has been designed to welcome and embrace the full range of diversity and interests now found in the area.
“Membership is a bridge to bring together fascinating communities, rather than keeping people out,” says Trause. “We see connections happening because of the community and the space.”
The Collective’s price point certainly speaks to a much more broadly inclusive invitation to a club lifestyle, with a one-time joining fee of $100 and monthly dues of $100, with no minimum commitment. (In its feature article on The Collective in early June, The Seattle Times reported that dues were scheduled to be raised to $150/ month later this year.)
“We’re trying to lower the hurdle for members to get in,” Trause says. “It’s still a commitment, but it’s not prohibitive as long as it’s valuable to them.”
The Collective has also sped up the pace for the club world’s gradual adoption of more casual dress, by offering no speciﬁc guidelines at all. The club’s website even notes, in a nod to Seattle legends Nirvana, that members should “come as you are. While you do have to wear clothes, be comfortable, be you.”
Guests are welcome and encouraged, with each member of The Collective permitted to bring groups of up to six, to check out the facility and engage with the community.
“Member aspirations and needs have evolved, and we need to understand what those needs are, rather than just oﬀering shiny new amenities,” Trause says. “We need to anticipate member needs before they have them.”
The much more rough-hewn “shine” of The Collective’s 15,000-sq. ft. of ground-ﬂoor space is divided into two “wings.” One, “High Tide,’ includes work spaces, three music stalls where members can be play Gibson guitars and record themselves, a stage, and a food counter, as well as table service.
|Some Numbers to Note:
Population projections from the U.S Census Bureau show that Millennials (born 1981 to 1996) are expected to overtake Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) in the U.S. population by 2019, by a count of 73 million to 72 million. Generation X (born 1965 to 1980) is not projected to pass the Baby Boomers until 2028.
Among the golfers counted in the 2018 Golf Industry Report from the National Golf Foundation, 8.3 million played exclusively at an off-course facility such as Topgolf, on indoor simulators, and at driving ranges.
“Soho House & Co., Ltd., known for its chic, members-only properties catering to those in creative industries such as entertainment and media,” according to The Wall Street Journal, “is in the midst of a counterintuitive strategy: expanding its limited-entry club model into a global empire. The 23-year-old London operation says its 19 locations in nine markets around the world currently have 71,000 members, who currently pay $1,050 to $3,250 each in annual dues (food and drink not included) for access to the club and its hip events and social networks.”
The other, “Alpenglow,” which includes the lifestyle shop, also houses the art studio for the current season’s artist-in-residence (a program that invites local artists to apply for use of the space). The Alpenglow wing also has a campﬁre circle and a tech-free “hammock garden” (see photos below), a “bouldering” climbing area (see cover), and spa-inspired showers and locker rooms (the luxury of the locker space contrasts sharply with the rest of the facility, which Trause describes as “raw and rustic”). The two areas are bridged by Crest, a public-facing coﬀee outlet, and the Bulkhead, a to-go window.
As a combined work-and-play space, each table in the dining area features green and red lights, to let club staﬀ know if members would like service or to be left undisturbed. Décor includes locally sourced art, murals and topographic maps, and food-and-beverage oﬀerings are also locally oriented.
To provide management support for Trause, The Collective enlists the help of “community and experience ambassadors,” along with 40 staﬀ members and a membership assistant.
While The Collective certainly has a distinctive Seattle feel and vibe, and those involved with its rollout acknowledge that it’s an “experiment,” especially for a once much more buttoned-down ﬁrm like ClubCorp, Trause still feels the concept could be applied elsewhere.
“The Collective is a pilot for ideas that are scalable to other markets,” he says Trause. “It’s a private club that’s intended to be as inclusive as possible and to help to do good in the community. While those things have not always been put into one concept, we’ve already seen it take hold here, and don’t see why it can’t in other places, too.”
Boston Brahmins Meet Millennials
Creating a “new breed” offering, though, doesn’t have to call for finding space in trendy areas, equipping it with climbing walls and hammocks, and using a lot of hip new terms to describe what’s been created.
In Massachusetts outside of Boston, an historic property that dates back over 130 year—and still uses not only “club,” but also “polo” in its name—has undergone a dramatic transformation to also take on “new breed” attributes. Those involved with the story suggest it should be given this title: “Old ‘Yankee’ Club Entrusts Its Resurgence to a Group of Millennials,” with the subtitle “How a new-age workforce can help to overcome the common stereotype of a waspy private club.”
“It’s funny,” says Ryan Kenny, CCM, General Manager/COO of Dedham (Mass.) Country and Polo Club (DCPC). “My staff and I go to the [club managers’] conference, and all they talk about is millennials—how to attract them as members, and how to make them an effective part of your workforce and management team. We just roll our eyes.”
That’s because, Kenny says, the DCPC story is a living testament to how millennials like himself, and those on the team he has assembled since coming to Dedham at the end of 2013, can apply the positive attributes that often go unrecognized and unappreciated for his generation—”industriousness, 24/7 accessibility, empowerment. an optimistic viewpoint and an understanding of how the rules have changed”—to bring about real and needed change in even the most established and entrenched institutions.
At Dedham, reports Kenny (who brought experience from other traditional clubs including The Philadelphia Cricket Club and Wykagyl CC), those management attributes have helped to reposition the club as an appealing alternative by taking full advantage of its uniquely bucolic property in the congested Boston-area market. And while new amenities and activities have been introduced to help give the club a more contemporary look and culture (and have paid off in attracting new under-40 members and dropping the average age five years, to 54), this hasn’t been a case of abandoning all connections to Dedham’s past in the process. To the contrary, one of the new team’s most important and immediate initiatives was to restore the DPCC golf course so it could rightfully reclaim its identity as Massachusetts’ only Seth Raynor design (see “Knowing the Score” in this issue, pg. 58).
The New Breed of Golf
Topgolf continues to have its very vocal detractors who insist it has nothing to do with “real golf” as played in club settings (conveniently ignoring the undeniable statistics about its phenomenal growth and appeal, as shown in the box on the opposite page). But there’s no denying that these “entertainment venues” have had a huge “new breed” impact on the club business, not only in terms of the souped-up golf practice facilities that have come on stream to try to duplicate Topgolf’s appeal (see “Class Acts” in this issue, pg. 24) but even more so in how clubs are blending their golf offers with casual food-and-beverage service, on-site parties and events, and family-oriented offerings.
All of the major management firms have now forged some sort of partnership or relationship with Topgolf or one of its competitive imitators that have popped up to try to draw a share of the new business segment that has clearly been tapped. One prominent example again comes from ClubCorp—this time, notably, at Brookhaven Country Club outside of Dallas, the property that Robert Dedman, Sr., acquired in 1957 to begin his entry into the club business.
Brookhaven CC is now home to the “Drive Zone” (see rendering, pg. 21), an interactive driving range amenity that incorporates Topgolf’s Toptracer Range tracking system, but, just as significantly, includes an outdoor lounge with a full-service menu, and will be open to the public and available for event rentals. “Alternative entertainment like Drive Zone includes golf, but creates a broader experience for more members of the family, and in particular, kids,” said golf-industry veteran and new ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury (see pg. 10 of this issue) when the Brookhaven Drive Zone was opened in mid-June.
The British (and U.S.) Invasion
While much of the “new breed” movement is being spearheaded by established and powerful club-industry organizations like ClubCorp, along with well-funded and momentum-fueled golf-oriented newcomers like Topgolf, there are also some newcomers on the U.S. scene that bear watching. Foremost among these is Soho House (see box, pg. 20), which has been aggressively expanding its globally proven concept into New York, Chicago, Miami and other markets. And many other new projects are coming on stream that seek to follow, in at least some form, the Soho model built around chic properties that emphasize hip events and social networks, and have a limited-entry membership criteria often geared to specific professions or interests.
Others to watch in this vein include the Arts Club in West Hollywood, Calif., which has secured approval for its nine-story structure that will house the only American branch of an exclusive London club that was founded in 1863 by a group that included Charles Dickens, and the Fitler Club, a private “lifestyle club” that will come on stream in 2019, with the hopes of establishing itself as “the Union League of New Philadelphia.”