Efforts to attract younger members have included adding a sports bar and embracing social media. The Center Club has also launched book, craft beer and whiskey clubs and a Spanish roundtable, in addition to relaxing the dress code.
The Center Club in Baltimore, Md. was founded by city business leaders 56 years ago, making it close in age to its average jacket-and-tie-wearing member, The Baltimore Sun reported. But club officials are working hard to skew the demographics as well as relax the attire, and give more up-and-comers a place alongside the “already-made-its,” The Sun reported.
“Young people make up about 15 to 16 percent of the total membership, but they are probably the fastest-growing group,” P.J. Mitchell, the club’s President, told The Sun. “They’re finding value here.”
The average member age at the Center Club is now 54, even with the number of members under 40 growing by 50 percent in the last five years, The Sun reported. Those newer and younger members still make up only a few hundred of the club’s 2,100-member roster — a number that represents a 10-year high for membership, but is still below the club’s early-1990s peak of 2,300, The Sun reported.
Attracting younger members has become a survival strategy for the Center Club and others across the nation that face an aging membership, have lost members to the recession and have seen a general movement away from the martini lunches of the past, The Sun reported. But it’s also in keeping with the club’s founding mission of inclusion — The Center Club was established as a place to meet and do business regardless of race, creed, color or gender.
And the efforts are showing the desired results, The Sun reported. The Center Club’s median age is five years younger than the national median of 59 for such clubs, according to the National Club Association.
Once a business club, The Center club is more of a business and social club now, Mitchell told The Sun. It recently renewed its lease for 10 years and is in the midst of a $2 million renovation designed to make the club’s space in downtown Baltimore’s Transamerica Tower more event-friendly and welcoming.
Aung Arkar joined the club about four years ago as an alternative to city sports leagues and beer drinking, The Sun reported. The 33-year-old contracts consultant for Becton, Dickinson and Co. said he normally works from home, but spends two weekdays in the club’s business center and then has lunch with people he’s met there.
“The food here is great and the views are great for Instagram photos,” he said of the skyline that includes sports stadiums and Baltimore Harbor, as seen from the 15th and 16th floors where the club rents space.
According to The Sun’s report, Arkar’s friends have been doubtful about what they’d find inside the club walls, which were indeed once mahogany-paneled (and some still are). But he’s brought many as guests, and a couple have joined.
Mitchell told The Sun that she’s relying on younger members like Arkar to sell the place to those who might not see themselves as the club type, or may scoff at the cost. Discounts and a monthly payment plan are offered, but Center Club membership may still not seem cheap compared to other entertainment. The one-time initiation fee ranges from $600 for those ages 21-29 to $1,500 for those over age 40. The annual dues range from $530 to $1,550.
A 2016 assessment by the National Club Association (NCA) found that millennials, age 18 to 34, would be good growth targets for clubs like the Center Club, The Sun reported, because there are 70 million of them and they have an “interest in experiences over possessions” and like being in cities.
And while business lunches and corporate functions remain the bread and butter of club dining rooms, younger members may shift the clubs’ reason to exist, The Sun reported. The NCA study found that millennials would respond well to the opportunity to socialize in casual dining rooms, game rooms, gyms and meeting spaces, and that clubs should seek to reach them through social media.
In recent years, the Center Club’s outreach to the demographic has included adding a sports bar and embracing Facebook, The Sun reported. The club has also launched book, craft beer and whiskey clubs and a Spanish roundtable, as well as networking events for those in real estate and health care.
Frank Vain, President of McMahon Group, the St. Louis, Mo.-based private club planning and consultancy firm, told The Sun that attracting younger members has always been important for clubs like the Center Club, and is even more so now. Clubs that once had 2,000-3,000 members needed 125 new members a year just to break even, as current members moved on or died, Vain said. Many also saw their ranks depleted during the recession and have not seen their numbers rebound from those losses.
Clubs also can no longer rely on the business class to just automatically sign up executives for membership as was the norm in the pre-1990s, when there was more of a culture — and better tax advantages — for business entertaining, The Sun reported.
The clubs that are successful in luring younger people to join, Vain told The Sun, will provide good opportunities in settings that are comfortable for them, though they need not relax the rules so much that they put off older members. (No ripped jeans and backward baseball caps.)
The NCA has noted a trend of clubs opening sports pubs, relaxing dress codes in once-formal dining rooms, and allowing and even encouraging use of mobile devices and social media, The Sun reported. The Genesee Valley Club in Rochester, N.Y., for example, has added a pub that offer beer tastings and happy hours, networking opportunities and wellness classes.
John Corey, Genesee Valley’s General Manager and Chief Operating Officer, told The Sun that his club still needs to boost its social-media presence.
“In our small city with many clubs to choose from, we need to do a better job getting the word out about us,” he said.
But making the changes needed to attract younger members isn’t always easy, Vain told The Sun. Some clubs don’t have money for improvements and others don’t have space for new services. Another challenge is understanding the community enough to know what to offer.
Some like the Center Club may have natural advantages, The Sun reported, including a location central to jobs and a downtown where some millennials and baby boomers are now choosing to live.
“What we typically preach to those facilities is the need to invest and offer people a modern experience,” Vain said. “A new marketing plan is great, but what you really need is a product to sell.”
That’s why the Baltimore club is renovating, to invest in its future, The Sun reported. The upgrades not only include stripping the club’s décor of its brown color palette and relaxing limits on denim, but adding WiFi and networking through social media. An app has also been developed that members like Arkar say they use to follow news of club events on their phones.
Arkar told The Sun that he particularly likes the club’s wine tastings and Kelly Drnec, a 34-year-old sales manager for a hotel in the city’s Mount Vernon section, told The Sun the club offers the opportunity to hobnob in a more natural way with professionals that people like her would like to know, or have know them. More senior members often don’t mind sharing professional wisdom with younger versions of themselves, Drnec noted, and through her membership she has also had the chance to join charity events and moderate a panel with prominent business figures.
Another Center Club member is Joey Price, 31, the CEO of Jumpstart:HR, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm, The Sun reported. He represents younger members on the club’s Board, where he said his suggestions are welcomed. And Price has developed such a sense of belonging at the Center Club, he got married there. “There’s a place for us here,” he told The Sun.