Nationwide, country clubs—even established clubs that pride themselves on tradition and timelessness—are facing new challenges to sustaining membership levels in today’s increasingly crowded golf and club market. This is usually an insidious problem, starting first as a slow leak that goes undetected or unaddressed by clubs’ boards and management, only to suddenly gain in intensity and cascade into a serious drain on a club’s financial stability.
Such was the unfortunate case for Fairwood Country Club in Baton Rouge, La., whose members recently voted to put that club up for sale. Club President A.D. Riley told The Advocate, a Baton Rouge newspaper, that the club’s membership has been steadily declining for the past six or seven years. “We just can’t sustain ourselves with the current membership,” Riley was quoted as saying.
One of our consulting experts on club membership found a much more blunt way to describe this kind of scenario: “Clubs don’t die overnight; it takes time.”
When these situations occur, it’s easy to point to outside forces such as bad local economies, new competition (golf or otherwise), or other external causes as the primary sources of the blame. And while clubs rarely fail or deteriorate completely on their own, some have shown the ability not only to stave off, but counter, these outside threats much more effectively than others. The difference between sustainability and failure usually hinges on basic, common-sense tactics that build, and keep, a strong membership base.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
What’s the most important thing to do when a member resigns from a club?
A. Try to talk him into staying.
B. Replace the old member with a new one.
C. Figure out why she left.
D. Correct the problem that prompted the resignation.
If you answered A or B, you’re not all wrong. It never hurts to try to change someone’s mind about leaving. But in reality, the chances of doing so are slim; after all, by the time a member gets around to informing the club, it’s probably a pretty firm decision that’s been made after months of mulling it over and trying to find a way to stay.
Filling the spot as quickly as possible, especially if you’re among the majority of clubs that no longer have a waiting list, is also a noble objective. In today’s era of razor-thin operating margins, lost dues revenue needs to be replaced as quickly as possible, or quality and efficiencies can suffer and a damaging snowball effect can start that quickly leads to more dissatisfied members.
But while these are important considerations, when a member leaves it’s even more imperative that the club find out why. Sensitivity needs to be exercised toward personal issues, such as financial difficulty or job loss, that may have prompted the defection. But management and the Board have an obligation to the membership at large to also learn if the resignation is indicative of a problem that’s more widespread (or could become so) and related directly to club operations.
If you have a membership director (and the experts say you should), conducting formal exit interviews with departing members should be seen as just as important a part of their job as welcoming new ones. Even if formal exit debriefings aren’t conducted, it should still be the mission of club management to understand the reasons behind every transition in the member ranks—subtractions even more so than additions. This is critical information that needs to be gained and studied for the sake of the club as a whole.
And that is why choice “D” is the best answer of all. While again it is probably too late to keep any one member from leaving, understanding and reacting to the factors that prompt any defection—even when they seem to be isolated occurrences—is the best way to prevent a burgeoning problem from suddenly escalating and causing 15 other members to follow suit. When it comes to member retention, there is no really such thing as “micromanaging”; instead, each membership should be treated as a valuable piece of fine china and whenever one breaks, time should be taken to see if something can be fixed.
New Reasons to Belong
In the old days, a country club was all about prestige. While this may not have always been acknowledged, being invited to join a private club—and being able to afford it—certainly came with a fair amount of cachet.
Today, it’s different. Lifestyles have evolved and decisions are increasingly driven—even for “luxury goods” such as club memberships—on the basis of perceived value. That in turn has turned club costs into one of the top drivers of attrition, as more members leave because they feel they can get the same benefits from other sources—usually a combination of public golf courses, restaurants and fitness centers.
Clubs can rely on service—anything from remembering member names to storing clubs and providing pool towels—to add a sense of value. But how they offer these services can say a lot to a value-sensitive member.
Does your club charge members a fee for locker rental? What about golf club storage? On-site childcare? Managers no doubt feel many of these costs are justified. After all, services cost money.
The problem is that many members don’t often feel the same way. How many times have you heard someone gripe, “We’re paying dues. Why does this cost extra?” Nobody wants to feel like they’re being taken advantage of, and multiple individual fees, on top of dues, can quickly give that impression.
Put Someone in Charge
Think of it this way: If a club is struggling to retain members, it probably has other problems as well. Maybe there’s a mounting financial crisis due to declining dues revenue. Or maybe a constant turnover in executive chefs has led to decreased restaurant loyalty.
Whatever the cause, the management team has enough things to worry about without having to focus on recruiting new members, too. Even in tight times, the answer often lies in making the investment in hiring someone whose sole responsibility is membership-related issues.
If you don’t already have a membership director, the experts say you should. Sure, general managers can find the time to do a meet-and-greet with prospective members and give them tours, but the reality is that the GM’s mind will likely be swarming with all sorts of other items on the to-do list, detracting from the quality, or enthusiasm, of the show-and-tell. Many times, in fact, the GM will be interrupted and distracted mid-tour with issues that are discovered, or raised, as the prospects are being shown around. Is the GM really the best person to convey the best first impression of the club?
A clear-minded, focused membership director can do wonders to make members feel welcome. Granted, if a club has a great product that it sells at a fair price, the selling pretty much does itself. But for clubs in crowded markets, a personable membership director with a selling personality can make the difference.
Target the “Non-Users”
It’s easy to “profile” the members who are most likely to leave your club—they’re the ones who now use the club (and you see) the least. This is especially true among heavily scheduled younger members with many more demands on their time and money. “Young people tend to be the least satisfied members,” says one consultant, “because they have so many lifestyle issues that limit their use of the club.”
For this group, especially, it’s important to have a plethora of programs that stand a better chance of capturing a member’s interest. Putting all your time and effort into “traditional” galas will continue to
miss the mark with members who will only be interested in casual theme parties or family-friendly events that can be more easily worked into their already-brimming calendars.
Certainly, most clubs do not have unlimited resources to be everything to everyone, but trying to strike a better balance can make a huge difference. Even if members still can’t make many of the events you offer, just their recognition that “their” club is making an effort to cater to “their” needs and desires can go a long way towards keeping them from bailing out.
Hand in hand with this goes the need for clubs to make a better upfront effort to prevent eventual “non-users” from joining in the first place. Many clubs are now learning the hard way that the flip side of price-based membership incentives is that they can encourage the wrong kind of thinking among potential members. Instead of taking a long-term view of membership as an investment, they focus only on how much they can save by “getting in” through the incentives.
While it’s hard to discourage any window-shoppers these days, clubs should still take care to ensure that their application screening and admission processes look carefully into applicants’ intention, and likelihood, of remaining long-time members. Shortchanging the admission process, even in the face of increasing membership pressures, will only serve to diminish a sense of value about the club and tarnish its perception as a first-class establishment. C&RB
Summing It Up
• Create a sense of community that involves everyone. Those who don’t feel welcome are the first to leave.
• Learn from mistakes and anticipate potential stresses on membership before they cause a mass exodus.
• Hire a membership director. The importance of a strong membership is too great to let the responsibilities fall haphazardly on other managers.
• Treat different demographic groups differently. One shouldn’t be treated better than another, but the service should be tailored to their specific needs and desires.
Polling the Experts
Sometimes it’s hard to step back and get perspective on an issue that managers face daily: How to keep members at your club when competition for their dollars and time is so fierce.
For this very important topic that speaks to the very core of club operations, we decided to bring in the experts—consultants whose work with a wide variety of clubs gives them unique insights into what works, and doesn’t work, in a variety of situations. We asked each expert to answer five key questions about membership retention. Wile a sampling of their answers appeared in the June, 2005, issue of Club &Resort Business, their complete answers can be found here: Devito
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