They’re no longer the future—they’re now very much making their presence felt, both among memberships and as key managers, to help shape exciting new directions for even the most traditional properties.
The FIELD CLUB OF OMAHA (Neb.) is as tradition-steeped as any in the private-club industry. Its throwback name reflects its historic roots and connection to activities including cricket and clay tennis, in addition to the rich golf legacy it has built over its 121-year existence (which includes being the home course of former caddie Johnny Goodman, the last amateur to win the U.S. Open, in 1933).
But while it might not be the first place one would think to look for evidence of how the Millennial generation (those born from 1981 to 1996, and now ages 22 to 37) is now making its presence felt in the private-club world, the Field Club of Omaha actually stands as one of the best examples of not only how Millennials are being assimilated into club memberships, but also becoming important influences in how they’re managed.
The Field Club’s General Manager, Greg Gilg, CCM, PGA, is in fact a Millennial himself. He began to work in club management even before graduating from Creighton University (where he was a member of the golf team) in 2010 with an Economics and Finance degree. Gilg became the Field Club’s Controller in 2017 and was named the club’s General Manager at the start of 2019.
As GM, Gilg has ramped up the club’s concerted efforts to embrace Millennials as both valued members and membership prospects, as well as key parts of the management staff who can help to inject a lot of fresh energy into the club’s programming and culture. Those efforts have already paid off with publicity such as a recent feature story in the Omaha World-Herald that was headlined, “Omaha’s Oldest Private Club is the New Place to Be for Millennials, Young Families.”
Much of the impetus behind the Field Club’s new direction, Gilg says, stemmed from his frustration, while at previous clubs, that came from watching club Boards sit around and sulk about how Millennials don’t value the club lifestyle.
“As a Millennial, it’s not that we don’t like the club lifestyle; we just want the value proposition to make sense to our family, because there are more options than ever before fighting for discretionary dollars,” Gilg says.
“Omaha has a market of really awesome clubs, each uniquely different,” he adds. “We have tried to position ourselves as the family-friendly option for Millennials.”
In the past two years, that positioning has paid off for the club with a net gain of 53 memberships for which the primary member is under the age of 35—growth that has taken it to capacity for social memberships, and near capacity for golf.
One key to this growth was adjusting the Field Club’s junior membership structure to provide greater value for the dues. Before 2019, the club’s dues structure lumped all members under the age of 36 into one Junior category. But coinciding with Gilg becoming GM in January 2019, tiered dues and initiation-fee pricing were introduced for the age groups of 21-25, 26-30 and 31-35.
In addition, Gilg reports, the club started to waive initiation fees for children/grandchildren of current members. The only requirement is that the existing member must have five years of prior membership, and both members must commit to 12 months of future membership. This has allowed high-use dependents to transfer and remain members on their own account.
“We’re in the dues business,” Gilg says. “Too many club and club Boards get focused on selling more dinner covers or adding five additional weddings or golf tournaments. What we’ve really focused on in the last two years has been how do we retain existing members and how do we add, via current member recruitment, new members that align well with our existing culture and membership.”
Starting in 2018, the Field Club also increased the recruiting incentive for new members from $100 for full members to $500. This caught existing members’ attention, to the point where they are now reaching out to the Field Club’s Membership Director to ensure that they’re being listed as a new member’s sponsor, Gilg says.
“Regardless of economic status, $500 is a chunk of change and noticeable to anyone,” he says. “Even if the money isn’t a motivator, pride is, and our members take very seriously their responsibility to help grow our membership base.
“Our attrition rate has dropped from 9.3 percent in 2017 to 3.7 percent this year, while our new member signups have stayed steady,” he adds. “This has produced a full-member equivalent increase of 62, [which we see as] proof that the various programs we’ve implemented have had a positive effect.”
The Field Club has also found that targeting Millennials is much easier than old-school member recruiting methods. “The data that’s now available to help you target-market certain categories is just amazing,” Gilg says. “Couple this with the talents that our new Membership Director, Amber Quigley, has brought to our club in social-media marketing, and we’ve really been able to bear fruit from our cold-source marketing efforts.”
SCOFFING NO MORE
While the Field Club of Omaha stands as a particularly striking example of how even the most traditional club is now successfully appealing to Millennials, it is by no means alone in what it has accomplished. After years of reports that only bemoaned the yawning and unfixable disconnect between established properties and the emerging Millennial cohort, it’s now common to find evidence of successful outreach in all aspects of the club and resort business, including dining and recreation as well as membership.
And this even includes golf, where in fact Millennials are now seen as offering one of the best opportunities to revive flagging participation numbers. This is in large part because of the success seen by Topgolf and the imitators that it has spawned. Where club Boards and managers were once quick to scoff at the concept of target golf and its related dining, social and recreational activities as sure-to-be-short-lived gimmicks, virtually every new golf practice facility that is coming on stream, at even the most tradition-rich clubs, now incorporates some sort of simulator or target-golf component that also includes a new socializing and F&B venue.
Seeing how Millennials gravitated so enthusiastically to the Topgolf concept has also spurred the implementation of successful new ideas within the industry for other ways to draw members of that generation into golf.
At the Indian Wells (Calif.) Golf Resort, General Manager Steven Rosen was trying to create an added revenue stream that would be appealing for a period of the day—evening—when traditional golf is done, while also introducing the game of golf in a fun and non-threatening way. Thus was born the idea for “Shots in the Night”— an interactive entertainment venue that uses laser technology paired with golf to provide a fun experience for any skill level.
And after Indian Wells introduced Shots in the Night as an activity that doesn’t start until after sunset, Rosen reports, Millennials were immediately drawn to it.
“It’s ever-changing, it’s fun, it can be competitive, it can be a group dynamic,” he says. “It’s a way for Millennials who do not want to invest the four-plus hours in a traditional game of golf to experience peer interaction, while having fun [with something that] can be accomplished in an hour.
After shutting down for the summer, Shots in the Dark will kick off again at Indian Wells in mid-October, Rosen says, with the resort planning to add more seating and fire pit areas. “The game is not only a participatory sport, but a spectator’s sport as well,” he notes. “People love watching people having fun, laughing and interacting. We will also be adding more laser technology to build in the group dynamics and to have team and league play.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Rosen adds. “[Shots in the Night] has not only been a revenue success, but it has been responsible for bringing people [out] who might not have gone to a golf course before. It unknowingly puts a club in a person’s hand and before they know it, they are actually enjoying it.”
As the Field Club of Omaha’s Greg Gilg says, there’s now plenty of proof that Millennials can be attracted to even the most deep-rooted club or resort property. The task at hand is now to find the unique formula that works best for a particular place, he says.
“We have them on our roster; now our job is to make them happy and retain them,” he says. Which certainly doesn’t sound very different from what the business has been about all along.
Bridging the Generation (Golf) Gap
Mackenzie Mack, LPGA, PGA, MBA, serves on the WE ARE GOLF Millennial Task Force. A professional golfer and certified LPGA and PGA of America teacher, Mack played collegiate golf at Indiana State University, where she graduated with a B.S. in Business Marketing and Masters of Business Administration.
Mack, who was named to Golf Digest’s list of “Best Young Instructors Under 40” in 2016-2017, currently serves as Senior Program Director for The First Tee of Tampa Bay.
She recently issued these “Five Tips to Help Golf Pros Retain Millennial Clients”:
Be Flexible. Millennials do not adhere to traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedules. They may pop in to work at 8 a.m., have a long lunch at 12 noon, and want to stop in for a lesson at 2 p.m. Keep your teaching schedule open to their ever-changing needs.
Provide Class-Size Options. Millennials are social! They may take an individual lesson and want to invite their best friends to the next one. Make sure you provide lesson packages that allow for different class sizes.
Get Off the Range and Get to the Course. Millennials like to see results quickly. Do not spend five lessons on the range. Get them the basics, and then transition them to the course. They want to see how everything ties together. If they think they need more time on the range, they will say so!
Cash App it! Millennials don’t have a checkbook and rarely carry cash, because they don’t have to! Make sure you make quick and convenient payment options, such as PayPal, Venmo and Cash App, available, so they can quickly pay for the lesson and be on their way.
Pause for a Selfie Break. Take time to capture fun experiences on the lesson tee to share with the world. Sharing on social media allows you to connect with millennials by speaking their language. Meet them where they are!
Next Up: Gen Z
As millennials (ages 23 to 38 in 2019) become well-assimilated in club’s memberships and their staffs, an eye should also be kept toward what’s coming next, for both groups, from “Generation Z” (those born in 1997 or later).
Recent research identified these traits that speak most directly to how workers from this group should be managed—but also provide some insight as well into what will attract, or deter, their interest in joining clubs as well.
• A third of those surveyed said they view their Gen Z generation as the hardest-working and most slighted entry-level labor pool in history.
• Only 39% felt that high school adequately prepared them to enter the job market, and 21% felt they were unprepared to be managed.
• The three most valued attributes of an employer to those in Gen Z are trust, support and caring about them as an individual.
• Thirty-five percent of surveyed Gen Zs said they wouldn’t tolerate an employer who scheduled them for shifts or hours they wouldn’t want, and 30% said a directive to work double shifts would be a deal-breaker.
• Even though Gen Zers have never known life without a computer, 75% of those surveyed still said they wanted feedback from managers to be delivered face-to-face, and 39% said they preferred to communicate with colleagues in person.
• Nearly half (48%) of Gen Z are racial or ethnic minorities, compared to 39 percent of Millennials at a comparable point for that generation, and more than double the percentage of early Baby Boomers. At the same time, Gen Z is being shaped by changing immigration patterns, with fewer foreign-born members than Millennials and a significantly higher number being born in the U.S. to immigrant parents. One in four in Gen Z is Hispanic.
• Only 13% of Gen Z lives in rural America, continuing a decline from Millennials (18%), Gen X (23%) and Baby Boomers (36%).
• Gen Z has higher high-school graduation rates and lower dropout rates than previous generations, with 59% of those 18 to 20 in college in 2017, compared to 53% of Millennials and 44% of Gen X at similar ages.
• Increased college attendance has kept more of Gen Z out of the workforce, with only 58% of those 18 to 21 reporting that they worked in the previous year, compared to 72% of Millennials at a similar age.
Scott Harmelink has been the Director of Golf at Green Valley Golf Club in Sioux City, Iowa since 2001 and never liked their driving range. He says it is too small for the amount of play they have and the teeing area is elevated 25 or 30 feet. A trip to Phoenix over the holidays led to a Topgolf visit where he really enjoyed the experience. Similar to his range, the teeing bays at Topgolf are elevated – allowing the guest to have a “birds eye view” of the targets. It was that realization that led Harmelink to transforming his facility.
Harmelink and his assistant rented a sod cutter and cut eight 20-foot diameter circles on the range. They then lined the ground with weed barrier and edged each circle, which are about four inches deep. They chose Pink Sioux Quartzite for filler material, which is a little more course than typical bunker sand – making it more difficult for the wind to blow it out. He says the light pink color really “pops” against the dark green grass, too. Eight lights – originally installed in the mid 1990s – were repositioned, turned on and presto … the Night Range was born.
“I have been trying many different things in the last couple years to draw more golfers out here,” Harmelink says. “This range I have created is doing just that, but it is also drawing non-golfers.”
The Sioux City metropolitan area has about 120,000 people—15,000 to 20,000 golfers, Harmelink estimates. “This range has increased my customer base to include all area residents, not just active golfers,” he says.
To attract more Millennials, Harmelink set up a full bar and played music. He also staged contests, challenging players to hit the range picker. He’s ordered custom t-shirts to promote the Night Range, as well, that will be given away as prizes in the future. The first night of operation, Green Valley made $250 in beverage sales. Harmelink says he’s looking into hosting local business and corporate events with food and drink at the Night Range, as well.
The Night Range concept is actually just some of what has changed this year. In fact, I have only opened the range one night so far. I am trying to just use social media at this point to notify customers of Night Range opportunities. I am using Facebook, Twitter, and mass emails. I will consider other advertising, but for now, this is what I’m doing. The weather in this area is very unpredictable so trying to schedule Night Range monthly won’t work very well, I don’t believe. People won’t come if it is raining, cold, or windy. I want the night’s weather to be perfect or near perfect. There is considerable time, effort, and money that is required to prepare the range for the night. The 8 lights on the range tee were actually installed in 1995 I believe. I understand they were only used a few times that year. I have never turned them on until this year. We had a wind storm years ago here that turned the lamps into a different position. I had an electrical company out here a couple weeks ago that realigned them. All 8 bulbs still worked! after over 20 years, they all still worked.
David Shultz is the CEO and Founder at NextLinks, a golf entertainment platform that uses proprietary software to blend golf simulator play with realistic short game play and putting on authentic putting greens.
While still a young company, Shultz says it has become clear over the past couple of years hosting events including significant millennial participation that his company has discovered a real “magnetic attraction.” This was been re-enforced with the introduction of its first commercial success at Indian Wells Golf Resort’s “Shots in the Night.”
“Today’s millennials tend to enjoy ‘chill’ experiences in the company of friends,” Shultz says. “NextLinks has re-imagined traditional miniature golf in the image of familiar activities such as corn hole or beer pong, while using a putter in the place of a bean bag or ping pong ball, respectively.”
The NextLinks business model is primarily about bringing pre-existing amenities like F&B service and practice facilities to life during times when they are typically not being utilized and in ways that attract a new millennial audience while also respecting the traditional values of the game, according to Shultz.
Will users of NextLinks (and similar venues) transition to traditional golf courses?
“Without a doubt,” he says. “The magic of NextLinks is that the games being played take place on a country-club-quality playing surface and use real putters and real golf balls. Even though everyone is having fun they are connected to the addictive qualities of the traditional sport.” C+RB