Yielding to the temptation of justifying or brushing off unhappiness expressed by senior members as “they are getting old” is irresponsible at best. Our responsibility to our membership is from “cradle to grave.” Eventually, every member will be in the same situation as our current senior populations.
By Robert Sereci, CCM, General Manager/Chief Operating Officer, Medinah Country Club, Medinah, Ill.
Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted and recast for a general audience from a white paper that Robert Sereci wrote for the Board of Medinah CC in June 2020.
Over the last several years, many club managers have seen some of their senior-aged members (generally defined as 65 and over) become disenchanted and express concerns that the club is not meeting their needs or being sensitive to things they deem important as a member.
When pressed to explain their position, the majority of these members tend to cite the same examples as evidence of their discontent. Here are some that are commonly heard:
• You are focusing too much on the young families, and not enough on our needs.
• Younger members pay less than a regular member, yet they have the same privileges.
• I have been a member for 20 to 30 years and like the Associate Junior members, I should pay less dues, especially when I don’t use the club as much as they do.
• You have asked me to pay for amenities I may never be able to fully benefit from.
• Food and service are not up to par.
• The culture is deteriorating, and the club is no longer the same.
• The club is going too casual, and I don’t like it.
• I cannot play the golf course on a regular basis given length, difficulty, and non-standard tee boxes for the shorter tees.
Member-satisfaction and strategic-planning surveys also often reflect a similar divide. Very often, it holds that the younger the member, the higher the satisfaction score. And for strategic planning, no matter what the initiative or request, seniors are more likely to vote against the proposal almost every time.
In my opinion, yielding to the temptation of justifying or brushing off this unhappiness as “they are getting old” is irresponsible at best, and cruel at worst. We need to take the time to dig a little deeper and try to better understand what it is that seniors want, or do not want. All of their responses should be seen less as sentiment towards a specific service or product, and more as an appeal for attention, because they feel we have “left them behind.”
Before starting to address possible solutions in each area, it’s important to first agree in principle that we have legal, ethical and moral obligations to take care of our senior populations. The cyclical nature of a club is no different than the circle of life. We all universally recognize the legacy left by our previous members, which has preserved and sustained the enjoyment of the club by all of our members today.
Conversely, we anticipate that our members of today will do the same for those who will apply for membership in the future, through what I call generational equity.
Also, let’s agree that what we are doing for our seniors is relevant and applicable for the entire club community. No one group is more important than another. Our responsibility to our membership is from “cradle to grave.” Eventually, every member will age and be in the same situation as our current senior populations.
Walking in Their Shoes
Why do many club managers struggle to understand our senior communities? One main reason is that we have difficulty genuinely relating to them. When we consider how we can attract families, we don’t have any problem devising an effective plan, because we have a good mental model of the many challenges young families are experiencing that helps us come up with strategies and solutions to meet their needs. We can still remember well, or currently relate to, what it is like starting careers and families. From that personal experience, it’s not difficult for us to practice some degree of empathy.
Unfortunately, this is much more difficult with seniors. None of us have yet experienced life as an 80-year-old, and our view of life is quite a different paradigm. The challenges they are experiencing at this stage of their lives can include: financial concerns from being on fixed incomes; loneliness or depression because they live alone and their kids and grandkids are far away; the gradual decline of their health, both mental and physical, that is largely out of their control; and continued loss of their remaining friends, both at the club and elsewhere. Imagine showing up at the club and learning another one of your friends can no longer play golf, or perhaps can’t even play cards or have lunch.
We have the responsibility to exercise the same care for our senior members as we would for our own parents. Every senior is someone’s parent or grandparent. As current members, we are responsible for their well-being and safety, and displaying proper empathy for their needs should be a prerequisite for all managers in the club business.
While the terms used for what senior membership categories are called vary from club to club, recognition of special levels for senior members is consistent. Some clubs offer eligibility based on calculations such as the “rule of 90” (reaching 70 years of age and paying 20 years of dues). And some suspend senior membership eligibility until their appropriate membership categories are full, or at a waitlist.
The privileges associated with most senior membership categories provides similar access to the non-senior category; however, voting rights for most senior members are relinquished upon transfer. Upon transfer to senior membership at most clubs, the senior is awarded with reduced monthly dues. Some clubs even surpass a senior category, by offering an emeritus or distinguished category for their more senior members, which offers even greater reduced dues, and in some cases, no dues.
But while creating special appropriate categories for seniors often rightfully includes recognition of their longtime loyalty to the club, reducing dues or relinquishing voting rights shouldn’t mean that those in this category are seen in any way as “lesser” members. In fact, efforts should still be made to ensure that appropriate and special service offerings are available for this segment of the membership, just as those efforts are also made for children, families and other groups.
Here are some areas where special accommodations and programs can be developed to demonstrate that seniors are still seen as a valued and important part of the club community:
Food and Beverage—Because surveys often show that seniors may be the most dissatisfied among the membership with the F&B products and services that are offered, efforts should be made, through special committees or other forms of outreach, to give representatives of their group an opportunity to express what they would like to see the food-and-beverage program include, and then to take steps to meet those preferences without compromising the satisfaction of other demographic segments. Simply by extending this opportunity and taking time to discuss and try to act on the concerns that are voiced, most clubs will likely see improved satisfaction scores, because usually the dissatisfaction is primarily more of a signal to management that seniors want to be heard, rather than evidence of genuine dissatisfaction with specific offerings.
Non-Golf Opportunities—Seniors’ expectations for club events are very different, as are their expectations for dress codes and entertainment. They naturally want to be with others who share an interest in the same activities. Clubs that are serious about including seniors in their communities should devote adequate resources and time to develop senior-specific event programming.
While it may seem counterintuitive to try to accommodate this group by segregating events for them from the rest of the membership, it’s really no different than doing the same for children or teens or other groups. Natural aspects of getting older include loss of patience, an unwillingness to change, wanting to become more isolated, and other attributes that should be recognized and accommodated. Dinner theaters and dances, guest-speaker luncheons, classic-movie nights, or senior “date nights” are the type of activities that will help those in this group continue to see the club as a conduit for fostering new relationships and feeling engaged in the community.
Golf Opportunities—Clubs can also do more to accommodate seniors who still golf and would prefer to play with others in their age group who also share their continued interest in the game. While many clubs may arrange senior-group play once a week during the golf season, more can be done to drive participation in “Golf for Life” programs that would encourage seniors to play from permanent and properly distanced tee boxes that are not seen as “temporary” or “handicapped” and can help them still enjoy a full round, or arrange more ways for them to enjoy shorter courses or rounds.
Efforts can also be made to arrange special mixed and couples’ events for seniors, as well as Senior Member-Member and Member-Guest tournaments, and to have golf-staff instructors develop senior-specific clinics and schools that would include golf and fitness, which would help to overcome the physical difficulties that often cause many seniors to stop playing.
The roles can also be reversed, because many in the senior community have very high golf IQs from their years of experience and accomplished play—so why not arrange for some of them, or bring in guest speakers from this cohort, to present informational seminars on golf rules, handicaps, history, education or other subjects that could be presented specifically to other seniors, or even made available to the entire membership?
From an equipment standpoint, there are also hands-free, walk-behind remotely operated carts that could be made available for seniors at special rates, or on a complimentary basis, to encourage them to get exercise while golfing without having to carry their bags.
Memorial Gardens—It would be easy for many clubs to find and designate a small, quiet parcel of land on their properties as small Memorial Gardens that would not only have flowers and other pleasant surroundings, but that could also have walls or structures with permanent remembrances through plaques or bricks. Benches would be included, and it would be made clear that this was an area reserved for quiet and private reflection, and even for where ceremonies to spread ashes of loved ones who had special attachments to the club could be held.
Oral-History Initiatives—Most club managers often have conversations with longtime members where they learn new things about how the club was operated or functioned many years ago. The best club managers know the value of regularly engaging members from this group to encourage them to share these remembrances and insights, because they can not only spark new ideas for improving the club or enhancing and preserving important traditions, but also go a long way to keeping those who provide them feeling good about their membership and connection to the club. Passing down stories is how communities retain their identities and ensure that their history passes to future generations.
It wouldn’t take much to extend this into having senior members share interesting club stories and important historical facts in a regular event series that would be available to the entire membership. With many of our clubs having members from multiple generations of a family, an oral-history series would probably have special appeal and be a source of pride when grandchildren and their parents see and hear an elder member of their family make a presentation. While all clubs mark anniversary milestones with history books that capture some of these stories, an oral history project or series could sustain the momentum and help to preserve history on a regular basis.
To help make sure the series has the best possible production and presentation value (and to assist those seniors who might need help with their presentations), staff members could coordinate questions and responses in advance, and video and audio recordings could be made and used if and as needed (these would also help preserve the content for its historical value). If a club has a Heritage Committee or something similar, this could also be a project that it could be given responsibility for.
Senior Town Hall Meetings—The reason many senior members tend to speak up at club’s public forums—often to the surprise or even dismay of many—is that they aren’t given, or made aware of, other opportunities where they can voice their concerns or complaints. Much of this can be avoided by scheduling regular bi-annual or quarterly Senior Town Hall meetings geared to older members. After providing a brief state-of-the-club update, open up the meeting for questions and provide honest answers or sincere responses that make it clear you will take their comment or concern seriously and get back to them with how it will be addressed if you can’t provide an immediate response.
Many clubs currently extend this opportunity to past presidents and it pays great dividends—so why not also do it for seniors as a whole? An added value of this approach is how it will provide another special event seniors will look forward to, and afford them another opportunity to be at the club and socialize with friends.
Validation and Acknowledgment—Seniors are no different than any member. They too want to be part of the club community. But when they stop coming to the club and no longer spend time with their friends, their sense of community starts to diminish, and they no longer feel welcomed or appreciated by the club they have often called home for over 30 to 40 years. In addition to their physical absence at the club, they also often don’t have much exposure in club publications or websites or social-media platforms, and they don’t get to see their pictures or those of their friends. Because they’re out of sight, it’s also easier for them to be out of mind.
It’s still easy, though, to find opportunities to recognize members of a club’s senior community, even if they’re not at the club or participating in many activities. Make sure those behind your communications efforts still make the effort to recognize them for things that go beyond just how long they have members, such as acknowledging members who reach marriage-anniversary milestones of 40 or 50 years or beyond. It’s also easy to have publications include a regular Senior of the Month feature that profiles a selected member’s personal and professional accomplishments, as well as their connection to the club; these are sure to get high readership and can go a long way to reinforcing that not only the club knows they still exist, but that they remain valued parts of the community. Encouraging suggestions for who can be profiled in this way will also lead to further interest and engagement.
In addition to including information of this type in club publications, it’s also a great opportunity for the General Manager and/or club President to reach out with a special letter and gift.
Fitness Center Engagement—Seniors often voice the loudest opposition to clubs’ fitness center projects, and the problem is usually that the facility is promoted primarily as an amenity to attract young families, without enough emphasis for the benefits it can also provide for the senior community. If anything, in fact, it should be stressed that for seniors and “super seniors,” exercise is not a fad or gimmick, but an absolute necessity, and the club’s facility will have a significant positive impact on their longevity. Presentations for what the fitness center will include and provide should include an emphasis on the special equipment, workout areas, programs, hours of access and instruction opportunities that will be made available exclusively for the senior population.
On-Site/Affiliated Retirement Residences—To really take our responsibility to seniors to the next level, consideration should be given to building, purchasing or selling part of a property for the purposes of making it easier for seniors to move into retirement facilities, if and when they might want to. If we genuinely believe that the responsibility of a club is to take care of its members from “cradle to grave,” we need to make sure we put forth the same effort and enthusiasm into this phase of their lives as we do for other members through childcare and babysitting services.
Seniors are living longer, and as a result, there will soon be more of them than any other age group. But unfortunately, in many areas of the country, the retirement and assisted-living industry has still been largely building typical retirement homes with little or no amenities. This is quickly changing, however, as that industry comes to recognize that more seniors are refusing to be defined by age, and as a result their expectations are increasing exponentially. When shopping for a retirement location, their wish list now resembles more of what can be found at a country club than at a traditional retirement home. They want to be part of a caring and active community, and they want both hospitality and health care.
Guess what? Clubs can be that place. Instead of pushing seniors out, they can explore the feasibility of building a facility or coordinating a relationship with one, to give them a strategic advantage for attracting seniors who would also still retain, or add, a membership component to the arrangement.
While other clubs continue to complain about seniors, those who think progressively in this regard could be in a position to welcome them with open arms. If many of our seniors are going to eventually spend money on a retirement or assisted-living arrangement, why not with us? Then we would really be able to offer a program that would genuinely provide the assurance of caring for members from “cradle to grave.”
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