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Family Needs and Club Solutions

The notion of the family being an essential part of the private club scene is not new. Many country clubs have had to replace their pools in recent years because they were 50 years old, so that most essential element of family activity has been around a long time. The Saturday morning “gym and swim” program at Missouri Athletic Club is a longstanding tradition. The junior sailing championship at Grosse Pointe Yacht Club is highly prized, as it is at most yachting clubs in the U.S. Focusing on families has been good for clubs and good for families for a long time. So on one hand, nothing’s changed. On the other, it’s completely different.

So what’s happened? The modern American household is so different from what it was only a decade ago, let alone a generation or two, that clubs need to rethink their approach to re-engage families into the mix. What’s the difference? Clubs at one point were best classified as “family tolerant” or seasonally family-oriented, which was perfectly fine when the key driver of their existence was the man of the household. Serving families was a nice thing to do, but it wasn’t a core requirement in most cases. Having a pool to use for the summer or offering brunch with Santa was an added bonus; sort of a perquisite to add to golf course access.

Changing Demands

The ramped up demands for family and children’s activities have changed as families have changed. A big part of that is the expanded role of women in society. Over the past twenty-five years, women have entered the work force in a big way. This has happened even in the wealthiest 1 percent of households, where 40 percent are dual income. As we move down from the loftiest levels of affluence, we find some 70 to 75 percent of households to be dual income. This is a “game changer” in terms of time availability, expectations and requirements. It affects when activities should be scheduled and so much more. This new environment will only increase in the future as women far outpace men in important career and income predictors like college enrollment and completion. We will not be returning to the “Ozzie and Harriett” days ever again.

As a result of the increased time the adults in American homes are spending at work, the non-work hours are significantly compressed. Due to the increase in the increase in hours worked in the dual income household, a much higher percentage of non-work time is consumed by parent-child activities. When there is such limited time available, parents are much more focused on doing things with their children, not to be apart from them, or they are buried with chores that once would have been performed by the spouse who focused on home making. This is why parents these days are much more inclined to want to grab the kids and take them to the club with them than leave them at home with a sitter.   

The age at which families have their first child has moved up also, and along with so much remarriage, this has created an environment where members in their forties and fifties—the prime years for membership—often have young children in tow. A generation ago people in this age group would have been completely past or substantially through their child rearing years. Not today.


Children are also becoming more independent at a much younger age. Clubs used to offer Teen Rooms because teens hung out at the club. That’s very unlikely today. Most teens have access to cars and when they do, they’re driving them to places where they’ll find their friends, not their parents. This has moved the target group for club programming to the 8 to 12-year-old bracket, the Tweens. They take a little more supervision, but they are much more independent than their predecessors. Some clubs have struggled with this in recent years as they failed to plan to service this age group. When they end up running up and down the halls outside the Grill Room, they can be a problem.

This is really the first rule of child programming: when young children are present there is going to be chaos. The lack of facilities and programs results in uncontrolled chaos, which is not a good thing in a world where some two-thirds of the members will be past child rearing years and decorum is still a value. When you plan effectively, you can have controlled chaos—or just good fun—and if the right people are in charge, everyone will have a good time. It is so simple to create a Tween Room to house this energy that it is surprising that not all clubs have done this. It can also be something you can create on a Friday night by using a private dining or meeting room as a place to watch a movie and be with friends. 

So What Should Clubs Do?

First, family engagement in clubs is first and foremost about great holiday events. It is absolutely critical to make all holidays a special time. The team at Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club in Menlo Park, California, makes the Christmas season a “can’t miss” time. The electric trains circulate around the living room. The clubhouse is decked out from top to bottom and a series of special parties take place throughout the month. Parents and grandparents arrive with wide-eyed kids in tow and enjoy the festivities. Interactive events are an important part of the mix, such as making gingerbread houses with the Chef.

The Fourth of July is, of course, a staple at most clubs, while Halloween has been coming on very strong. At the Country Club of St. Albans outside St. Louis, the haunted house, hay rides and other programs have moved it to the top five events in attendance. The staff has put a lot of energy into this event and it has been rewarded with strong participation. At Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria, Virginia, attendance at New Year’s Eve was a record this past year because it was scheduled for the early evening and the children were able to gather together in the Tween Room. Many members reported how they wouldn’t have been able to attend if they had to leave the kids at home or get a sitter.

Next, families need to view the club as a comfortable place to dine. While they may periodically want to venture into the main dining room to have the children experience what it is like to display their inside voices and etiquette, what families want most is comfort, casual dress, speed and good value. If they are worried about being on display in the middle of a quiet dining room, or are put off by dress codes that won’t recognize soccer uniforms or jeans as part of what young kids are most likely to have on, they aren’t going to come. The modern U.S. household eats out with greater frequency than ever before, but it is most likely to be on the run versus something stuffy and slow.

Third on the list would be a great pool complex—with “complex” being the key word. This includes a good pool, of course, but more importantly fun wet and dry play areas, a good café (food outlet) and a grassy field for games and running around. More and more it’s about what’s around the pool than the body of water itself.

Having facilities that are attractive to families is fundamental to being a successful family club, of course, but they need to be supported by great people and programs to make them fully flower. There are the standards of swim team, junior golf and tennis. The swim team is the big one because it is so effective in uniting children and families together in a common mission. There are athletic skills to be learned, competitive events against other clubs and fun banquets after every meet and at the end of the season. This is bonding at its best.

Family Focus in Action

Club members are passionate about lifelong sports like golf, tennis and sailing and they want to pass these on to their children. Formal programs to help get children hooked on these activities include Quick Start, which has really boosted tennis participation around the country and clubs that embrace this program are seeing booming activity. Scaling the game to kid size makes it fun and entertaining. The small class sailing boats also create this right-sized experience and it has long given the yacht clubs a family-friendly edge.

Programs like The First Tee help introduce golf to youth, and the SNAG program is great for young golfers just learning the sport by offering specialized equipment with color-coded grips. Short game areas and practice facilities also are being modified to accommodate younger players. Walnut Creek Country Club in South Lyon, Michigan, has a three-hole short course that is geared for family play. It’s length and conditions make it easy to play and has the sort of relaxed pace that novice players need. General Manager Kevin Frantz points out how moms and dads really perk up when this family-friendly golf option is explained to them.

A great way to kick off the season is with a Family Funday like they have at Country Club of Albans. All of the coaches and instructors are there to promote participation and take sign ups. Fun events and music create a lively atmosphere for Golf Zilla, a long drive and putting contest, Carnival Games and a cookout. Tee shirts and uniform sales are part of the sign-up day also. Held in April, this fun bonding activity breaks the long winter of school and non-club activities and gets everyone focused on the season ahead.

Clubs like Denver Country Club are also advancing further into youth activities, especially fitness. Its hockey rink certainly sets it apart as a family-focused club, but its youth director is focusing on athletic training for the younger set. This is a great concept as many of the children of the affluent group that comprises club membership have children who are on elite competitive teams and they need to hone their skills. Training, learning and practicing for team sports is big business, and if a club can tap into that network, it can really go far in the family arena. Offering team sports is generally beyond the reach of most clubs, although the Olympic Club in San Francisco and The Tokyo American Club have fields and hundreds of children in leagues. While we’ve yet to see it come to fruition, some clubs have discussed partnering on these sorts of facilities and programming.  

Recently named one of America’s healthiest clubs by Prevo Healthy Solutions, Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club is all about recreation, relaxation and family. When the club was considering building a fitness center about seven years ago there was a lot of skepticism among the membership about the need for an expansive facility to serve what seemed like a niche group. It became apparent early on that the support for the concept was much higher when the leadership began to describe how the new building could serve not only as a fitness center, but also as a place that could serve families. Members are now sure to find an activity to satisfy everyone in the family. The state-of-the-art fitness center is a “club within a club” complete with a variety of cardiovascular and strength training equipment, a dynamic balance system (DBS) for those who want to analyze and improve their golf swing, two exercise rooms to accommodate a weekly schedule of fitness classes, Pilates reformers, personal trainers and more.  An infinity pool (heated year round) and three tennis courts round out the recreational options for members.

Aqua Spa is a centerpiece of the Fitness Center—a sanctuary for relaxation—with a full menu of spa services for members and guests.  Use of steam, sauna and a hot tub complement a spa service, or become a great place to visit post workout or after a round of golf. The facilities for families, which were not a vital part of the original planning, now take center stage. The youth director takes it all to another level, which includes a youth room, Kool Kidz Club, junior tennis, summer camp, Kidz Fit classes, swim team, swim lessons, magic shows, cooking classes, Earth Day, camping on the golf course . . . the list is endless. One of the last times I visited the club they were anticipating a Tween dance social with the other clubs in the area. Fully five clubs were participating in the event. Parents were excluded from checking on their child while the event was underway, which created a good evening in the dining rooms. 

Country Clubs aren’t the only ones who can get into the act. Westmoreland Club, the great little city dining club in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, offers a family night complete with bouncy castles set up in the parking lot. The event regularly sells out and gets children of members together in the urban setting.

As we saw in Navigating the Future, the 2013 National Club Association study conducted by the McMahon Group on the direction and key issues expected to impact private clubs in the future, the values of safety, security and family will, along with wellness, form the strategic pillars of clubs in the future. The wealthy in the U.S. want to associate with like-minded individuals and they want their children to be a central part of the mix. Rather than sit back and hope the families will use or be attracted to membership, most clubs should move ahead with bold and innovative family initiatives.

Families have long been an essential part of club membership. Clubs need to raise their game in this area to serve the busy, time-constrained family that is willing to pay for membership if the value is there. It’s not that this is a new role for the club, it’s the fact that the concept of “family” has changed significantly. They’ve moved from an auxiliary aspect of the membership experience to become a core requirement. If a club can get to a place where the children in the house are clamoring to go to the club because their friends are there, it’s won the battle for member’s time and it is well on its way to winning the hearts and minds of their members. 


Club Trends Spring 2014