We face the challenge of attracting new, younger members who do not necessarily hold older values, and simply have too many alternatives for their leisure time.
I’m a fan of the PBS program,“Downton Abbey.” If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a ridiculously rich British family that lives in a huge but grotesque country manor with an endless supply of servants.
One of the main characters is Mr. Carson, who is the head butler and manages all aspects of the household. He is a very dignified, phlegmatic character who above all wants to maintain the values and traditions of 19th-century England, even though the program takes place in the first part of the 20th. He deplores any and all change or move toward modernism, and does all he can to stifle any adaptation to the current times. His employers (who are monumentally stupid) encourage this or, at the very least, allow this attitude to dominate all aspects of the household that he manages.
Mr. Carson would hold onto his 19th-century values till the very end, which was right around the corner. The British aristocracy’s final acts were played out by World War II, and all or most of the grand estates were gone by loss of wealth and taxation, or turned into tourist museums.
As I’ve mentioned in previous Publisher’s Letters, I recently spent six months in London pursuing an academic goal. While there, I had the opportunity to visit quite a few classic private clubs, many of which were on St. James Square. If I had to describe them, I would say that they were somewhat shabby, wedded to 19th-century mores, and either reluctant or absolutely resistant to 21st-century change. All were still married to outmoded dress codes, desperate for banquet business, and faced rapidly declining membership. The “old guard” Boards were committed to maintaining an outdated status quo, could not attract newer, younger members, and were more committed to what they had (which was decaying) than what it could or should be.
In the U.S., the club market faces a serious demographic reality. Our memberships’ median age is advancing, and we face the challenge of attracting new, younger members who do not necessarily hold older values, and simply have too many alternatives for their leisure time.
I’ll take an absurd but meaningful example. Lots of clubs have dress codes that include the requirement of not wearing hats inside the clubhouse. While this is largely unenforceable (what waiter, bartender, or clubhouse manager is going to walk up to a member and tell them to take their hat off?), it sends two messages to a prospective member: 1) While such a rule is probably admirable in the abstract, in reality it says that the club is wedded to hidebound rules from a previous era and 2) while no prospect will say they didn’t join because of the hat rule, it sets a tone that says “This probably isn’t the place for me and my family.”
I use the hat rule because if a membership were polled in its entirety, most wouldn’t care. But a headstrong few can force the rule and quietly drive potential members away.
Perhaps Mr. Carson would like to be a clubhouse manager after his estate folds.