SUMMING IT UP
• The challenging economy has made member recruitment difficult and has prompted some clubs to waive initiation fees temporarily.
New classification categories are emerging to give prospective (and current) members more choices and offer a better fit with their specific interests, and projected use of club facilities and activities.
Previously, Woodbridge (Conn.) Country Club based its membership fees on age: There was a 25-to-35 level, a 35-to-45 level, and one for members 45 and over.
However, about a year ago, the club decided to revamp its membership age groups.
“When you got to be 35, there was a huge jump [in cost], and then at 45, there was another huge jump,” says General Manager Marc Possidento. “We broke it down to five-year increments, so there would be more gradual increases.”
The new system was designed in part to recruit more members of varying age brackets.
“We lost a lot of members with the economy,” Possidento says. “The idea was, the more new people who could be brought in at a lower rate, the more we could lower rates [for existing members].”
The new membership levels required the club to institute a different billing system, which Possidento says wasn’t a big deal. However, it also helped Woodbridge to sign up 25 new social members—which, he says, “was huge.”
Establishing membership levels isn’t always easy. Clubs need to ensure that they are effectively meeting potential member needs—without alienating current members.
However, with careful consideration, club membership levels can act as a dynamic recruitment tool—provided a club offers the right options at the right price.
Club membership levels can vary, and often offer different amounts of club access.
KemperSports, which manages more than 90 clubs across the country, says its clubs tend to offer full golf memberships, which include all golf, dining and social events; social memberships, which include clubhouse, dining and event access; and clubhouse-only memberships.
“We develop different programs at each club to cater to the local community,” says KemperSports CEO Steve Skinner.
In some communities, clubs—including Springfield (Ore.) Country Club—have altered their initiation fee structures in response to the faltering economy.
To increase recruitment, Springfield temporarily eliminated its $2,000 to $3,000 initiation fee toward the end of 2008. “People are changing the way they spend their money,” says Manager Leslie Benz.
The fee will be reinstated in early 2009, but will be waived again during a 30-day spring recruitment promotion.
As spending has slowed, club competition has increased. Woodbridge has also waved its initiation fee until spring.
“We’re a high-end country club for our area,” Possidento says. “Our club is in an area surrounded by other clubs. The market is flooded.”
In today’s economy, proving each club membership level is worth the cost for potential and existing members has become key—especially for golfers, who would pay to play elsewhere.
Springfield CC offers its corporate clients a deal via its business membership, which is offered for the family membership price and with a reduced initiation fee for each additional member. “If you have five people join, that will lower the fee quite a bit,” Benz says.
But the club’s family membership is its most popular.
“It is a really good deal,” says Benz. “If you’re a family with two kids and you all came and golfed together two times, that’s your entire monthly dues. If you’re an avid golfer and want to come out five to six times a month, it’s a total benefit to be a member.”
However, golf isn’t the central selling point for all clubs. Hawthorn Woods (Ill.) Country Club, which opened in 2006 and is managed by KemperSports, offers a social membership that restricts course access, but is still popular because it offers a well-rounded club experience. “Since there are plenty of additional amenities that Hawthorn Woods provides, we find that this is a great way for people to interact with other community members,” Skinner says.
The Right Mix
Because Springfield CC is “just far enough out of town, in terms of driving distance, for daily use,” according to Benz, the club created a special out-of-area membership for residents who live more than 50 miles away. Its dues—$750 a year—are based on the cost of 25 rounds of golf.
Yet the club is hesitant to add too many membership levels. “With the [classifications that we have], it’s pretty easy to monitor,” Benz says. “If we started to have all kinds of different levels, it would definitely be a challenge to manage.”
Luckily, tweaking membership doesn’t always require adding new levels. In some cases, extra club amenities can help.
Allowing members to transfer their membership isn’t necessarily a new practice; but many clubs are offering creative transfer-related options.
Some clubs managed by KemperSports offer memberships where part of the initiation fee is refunded when the member leaves and is replaced. “We also encourage members to move from one class of membership to another, for example from social to golf,” says CEO Steve Skinner.
At Springfield (Ore.) CC, equity members who joined the club before the end of 2000 are allowed to transfer memberships. “If you signed up in 2000, you have $500 equity when you resign,” says the club’s Manager, Leslie Benz.
Members can transfer the equity to use as an initiation fee, or put their name on a waiting list to get the money back. However, the club isn’t paying out equity until its initiation fee, which is on hold, is reinstated.
“But we have offered to get people on the list for rounds of golf,” Benz says. “So we send them passes for that, and they seem pretty happy with it.”
To determine what to offer with its memberships, Kemper pays close attention to demographic research in the communities where its clubs operate.
“We continually survey our members and the community,” Skinner says. “This approach allows us to continually improve and react to member feedback, to ensure that we are meeting their needs.”
At Woodbridge CC, the social membership is the most popular classification—in part, Possidento says, because the club added a workout area to make potential members feel like they’d be getting more value for their fees.
“We put in a gym so people could quit their [separate gym memberships] and still pay a reasonable price here [for gym and club access],” Possidento says. “Now they can spend all day here.”
One Big Happy Family
While many clubs are finding they may now need to change membership structures to offer better enticements to prospective new members, keeping current members happy is also a concern.
There’s little potential conflict at Springfield, where all members have the same access to club amenities—except for the social members, who pay a $100 initiation fee and $10 a month in dues to use the clubhouse for dining and special events.
“Not everyone is going to use the club at the same level, but you’ve got to be careful not to make other membership levels mad,” Benz says.
Woodbridge garnered internal support for its new membership plan by promoting it in the club newsletter and at town- hall meetings held three Sundays in a row.
“Our long-time established members are toeing the line,” Possidento says. “But we said listen, if we don’t change with the times and get in younger members, we’re not going to be here at all.”
Offering a multitude of membership levels can be a challenge. However, having some variety can help to enhance the member experience.
“The younger families were so thrilled to be able to join a country club at the price we were offering,” Possidento says. “I’ve got some that are absolutely hooked.”
Which is exactly the level of enthusiasm and excitement that clubs now need to retain members—and recruit new ones.
“For clubs to be successful in the 21st century, they must be willing to adapt to changing lifestyles of members and potential members,” Skinner says. “The advantage of offering multiple membership levels is that we are able to reach out to people of different interests and better serve everyone’s needs.”