A common perception in the club business is that a club either has to be brand new, or struggling to sell memberships or attract people to its events, to need to market itself and its features. Another is that “marketing” refers only to promotions or advertising like activities, which are downplayed and even discouraged in many private- club settings.
These are understandable conclusions, given that the dictionary defines marketing as the “process or technique of promoting, selling and distributing a product or service,” and that as consumers we too often see only marketing in its most intrusive forms, as junk mail and electronic spam. So it’s not surprising to hear a club manager like Victoria Wilson, Member Services Director at the Austin Country Club in Texas, say flat out, “I don’t do any marketing, actually. I don’t do any cold calling, and I don’t work with any real estate agents.”
But marketing where clubs are concerned is not confined to the most aggressive types of selling, or the neediest of situations. Even clubs that are steadily successful often don’t realize that it’s the little things they do on a daily basis—many times, purely out of habit—that really market what they have to offer, both to existing members and those who could join them in the future.
Increasingly in today’s over-automated world, how an organization handles the basic tasks of communication and customer response can be as big a factor in establishing and maintaining its market presence as splashy ad campaigns or slick brochures. That doesn’t mean you have to handwrite every note or personally answer every call, though. To the contrary, properly harnessing the power of readily available—and easily adaptable—technology can provide the most effective approach to immediate and impactful marketing: Personal touches at the push of buttons—or more specifically, computer keys.
Extending Your Reach
Regardless of whether or not a club’s membership director thinks she or he is actually doing any marketing, the tools you use each day to help keep things organized have a big impact on how far, and effectively, you can reach out. At the most basic level, this starts with your list of contacts, and their status.
Judy Wilcox-Wilson, Membership Director at BallenIsles Country Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., manages her contacts in a simple spreadsheet. The property has 1,574 homes and 85% have some form of membership (which is not mandatory). The club’s limited release of 1,000 golf memberships sold out this year, though, so there isn’t a tremendous sense of urgency to build membership.
That doesn’t mean all efforts to connect with both members and homeowners in the development have ceased, however. Wilcox-Wilson still keeps in contact with members by phone. Members also receive the club’s monthly newsletter, The Legend, and non-member residents receive a mailing about once a month to encourage them to join. These efforts, in no small part, are why BallenIsles is a thriving club.
In fact, the events held at BallenIsles are so popular that they sell out within 20 minutes, on average. Many events have waiting lists of over 100 people, and the club is considering moving to a lottery system for its largest events. Right now, Wilcox-Wilson has to put extra staff on the phones at 7:30 a.m. when registration for events opens. Members used to be able to sign up in person, but the popularity of the events has made that impossible. Can you imagine having a line of people waiting in the lobby to add their names to the sign-up list?
The club has considered online registration, but has had trouble finding a system that allows for the 15-minute staggered start times it uses for seated events. As it is now, BallenIsles’ dining reservation software had to be customized by the club’s system vendor to accommodate its reservation needs.
Spreading the Word
Beyond Excel, several database software systems are available that allow for much more complex record-keeping. One such system is available to BallenIsles as part of its automation package, but Wilcox-Wilson isn’t inclined to use it.
“[A spreadsheet] is so easy to use, plus it’s already set up for me,” she says. “[Our database software] is very labor-intensive to set up.” The club’s software can’t import the information directly from her spreadsheet, so it would take considerable effort to retype and then reformat all of the information for all of her contacts in the development’s 1,574 homes. Understandably, no one would look forward to tackling that monumental task. Besides, when it comes right down to it,Wilcox-Wilson has a system that works for her, and that’s the important thing. It may be cliché, but if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Halfway across the nation at the Austin Country Club, though, Victoria Wilson finds a database system to be a big help. “The main reason I have the software is to keep myself organized,” she says. “The software has a prospect database that I can add my own notes to. I keep track of things like where they moved from, why they’re looking to join a club, how many kids they have and their names and ages, what other members they know, and so on. On the other end, they’re thinking, ‘I can’t believe this lady remembered all this!’ So it really makes you look good.”
Right now, Austin Country Club has 10 golf memberships for sale. But even if membership were full,Wilson wouldn’t give up her database. And whenever a Board member might ask how many people she’s talked with about memberships in the last month, the information is right at her fingertips.
What about using e-mail to market a club, either to promote memberships to new prospects, or events to current members? E-mail appears to be a great way to reach dozens of people at once without spending a significant amount of money on printing and mailing costs—but is it really a marketing technique that will always be met with a positive response, even when you’re known to the recipient?
Austin Country Club’s Wilson is a bit hesitant to start relying too heavily on e-mail because she doesn’t want anyone to feel like they’re getting spammed by the club. “Cost-wise, it would be real nice for us to just e-mail our newsletter, but a lot of people still like to hold something in their hands,” she says. “Also, a lot of people don’t have color printers, and color can add a lot to a newsletter.” But most of all, she says, “I just don’t think an e-mail newsletter is as friendly.”
Despite her concerns,Wilson thinks it’s likely that e-mail will begin to play a larger role in her club’s overall communications approach within the next year. Rather than sending out the newsletter by e-mail, she thinks it will more likely be used for small reminders and other notifications.
At BallenIsles, Judy Wilcox-Wilson also doesn’t see an immediate move toward e-mail-based communications. Many of the development’s homes are second, third or even fourth residences for their owners, so it would be nice for the members to be able to receive their newsletters instantly, regardless of which of their homes they’re currently using. And as a bonus to the club, it would cut down on paper and postage costs. But only 65% of BallenIsles members actually have an e-mail account (something Wilcox-Wilson attributes to the club’s older demographics). Until that percentage increases, she’s understandably reluctant to run the risk of leaving a big part of the mem
bership out of the loop.
No matter what tools you decide to use to help with your marketing, don’t lose sight of what you’re trying to accomplish with your efforts. From pretty much the beginning of time, word of mouth has been the most effective form of marketing, and it’s no different as we move into the era of 21st Century club marketing.
Or, as Victoria Wilson puts it, “Probably the biggest marketing tool that we have is to keep our current members happy—because then they can go out and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I just love Austin Country Club.’ They’re the ones who are going to talk up the club.” C&RB
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Summing It Up
• Many clubs don’t think they’re “marketing” because they don’t utilize hard-sell tactics. But little things, like being able to recall and use details about individual members, can be just as critical to effectively promoting a club and its benefits.
• Database software can help organize notes and even record the time and date of your last phone conversation.
• Even a club with a full membership can benefit from database software. It’s easy to pull up reports on various marketing activities or to quickly remind yourself which members have birthdays or anniversaries coming up.
• Be careful with e-mail marketing and let members choose whether or not they want to receive communications that way. Just because a member recognizes the e-mail’s sender doesn’t mean they won’t see it as intrusive.
E-mailing the masses
Some e-mail programs have restrictions on the number of e-mails that can be sent out at once. This usually isn't a problem if you want to send reminder e-mails to everyone who has a tee-time for the next day. But if you want to send out a reminder to sign-up for the annual Welcome Back bash, you may have a problem.
Teton Pines Resort and Country Club, in Jackson, Wyo., gets around this problem by using a module in its Web site that can access the member database. This is something that your Web developer will have to set up, but after it's installed, it makes it easy to send out reminder e-mails to all or some of the addresses stored in your club's database.
Because of legislation regarding online privacy, even the most basic system modules will have a way for members to either opt in, or opt out, for receiving e-mails. More advanced systems can allow members to sign up to receive certain categories of e-mails, but not others— for example, if a member is interested in hearing about the dining room's weekly menu changes, but doesn't want to hear about the various tennis lessons being offered, because he doesn't play.
E-mail opt-in menus are gaining favor as new clubs come on stream or existing ones launch membership drives, as a good way to capture prospects and keep them informed about progress. Every new update is another marketing opportunity, after all.
For example, at the Web site promoting development of the new Poplar Hill Golf Club in Farmville, Va., which is scheduled to open next spring, visitors are invited to "Join our E-Club." Clicking that button then generates a menu through which site visitors can provide basic contact information and register to receive project updates.
This approach helps the club's developers (and marketers) get beyond the uncertainties usually associated with how e-mails may be received—as it's a pretty safe bet that anyone who voluntarily chooses to join the "e-club" in this fashion will also be receptive to all future e-mail communications.
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