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Membership Outlook for 2015

Private clubs are at a very pivotal time as the next generations of Boomers, Generation X and Millennials take their place on the club stage. The great recession of 2008 and 2009 is now behind us, but its residual impact, some six years later, is just now being felt. Private golf clubs, as we have known them, are now experiencing closures and conversions into new entities and real estate developments more than has ever happened before.

According to National Golf Foundation (NGF), research in 2013 revealed that the private golf club supply has contracted by 9 percent, or 384 18-hole (18HEQ) courses. NGF’s research study, Private Golf in America, reports that the continued contraction in private club supply is less about closures, which remain disproportionately public, than it is about clubs opening their doors to outside play. Though 78 18HEQ private facilities closed since 2008, more than 400 changed their operating model from exclusively serving members and their guests to opening their doors to public play.

What does this mean for private clubs? The reality is, clubs are beginning to recognize that “the times they are a-changin” and must adapt to ensure that their current and future members are satisfied. This is the challenge before private clubs; but what will turn the private club situation around? How can clubs again attract more members than they lose from normal attrition? Clubs must focus on attracting the next generation of members by offering an experience in which they find value, which means looking ahead to the trends and issues that future club members find attractive while continuing to serve the current membership base.

What this suggests is focusing on changing lifestyles and a family-centric mission—if your club culture demands this—and less on the golf-centric mission. Clubs must move toward providing the full-service, year-round club experience for everyone in a membership family. In almost all recent membership surveys conducted for clubs by McMahon Group, the importance of golf for newer members is plummeting in importance. In addition, NCA’s landmark Delphi study, Navigating the Future, asked respondents to rate the activities by importance and found that fitness and wellness, youth programs and dining programs all ranked ahead of golf. While golf has been the lynchpin of full-service country clubs in decades past, new elements connected with club membership are becoming more central in order to provide multiple reasons for joining a club.

So, what is the outlook for various private club types in 2015? The data from the NCA Delphi study indicates that growth prospects for the club industry vary by club type. In addition, research further indicates that geography and other factors also contribute to the success of clubs, but that the distribution of both opportunity and recovery will be uneven.


The day of the private country club with a golf-centric mission appears to be declining. Yes, there is a place for a true golf club. For these members, their club can be all about golf. NGF research indicates that the “top tier” private golf clubs seem to remain unaffected by market conditions. The larger “middle tier” of clubs is showing signs of modest recovery from the recession, though a segment appears to be offsetting declines in membership and utilization by lowering or waiving initiation fees and routinely increasing member dues to ensure financial viability—vehicles not a sustainable model for private clubs. About 10-15 percent of private clubs report being seriously challenged financially—despite nearly 1 in 10 clubs closing or converting to a public access operating model in the previous five years—and NGF projects another 400-600 clubs may close or convert from the private club category in the coming years.

In order to improve the value proposition for many country clubs, a broader focus on the full-service, family-centric club offering is needed. Americans are pressed for time and looking for places to spend quality time with their families. Clubs must appeal to potential members under age 56 (who are not club members today) to see their memberships grow again.

            So what are the major trends expected to play out for country clubs in 2015 and beyond?

Health and fitness are permeating our society, and country clubs will have to continue following this trend with facilities, programs, dining and membership appeal.

The country clubs that offer full-service, family activities and programs on a year-round basis will attract members, while those that don’t are likely to struggle. There is growth potential in youth programming, fitness facilities, casual dining, swimming pools of the new variety (such as splash pads, water sprays, tanning pools and others), the addition of new recreation activities (like pickleball and bocce), and multiple indoor activities for the non-summer months as well as for the primary outdoor seasons.

Country clubs must expand their memberships beyond the limitations of just their golf courses. Clubs like Bellerive in St. Louis that normally had annual golf play of 23,000 rounds are now experiencing golf play in the 17,000+ rounds per year. So golf access will no longer be the determinate of membership size. Clubs must have more members paying less in initiation fees and dues if the value of clubs is to adjust properly to the cost/value equation for success. The great potential for membership growth is in the non-golf categories, such as dining, recreation programs, special events and experiences that only club members can enjoy.

4. The social benefits of club membership must be enhanced so members can enjoy one another’s company. In today’s world there are few places where this can happen. This means having clubs where members can socialize and spend time with families that are convenient, offer superior customer service and innovative programming and provide value. Many clubs would believe that they have made great progress in these areas. But a surprisingly number of country clubs today are still very much adult-oriented, spending a disproportionate amount of their budget on golf, providing a lesser quality dining experience for families, offering limited fitness, and/or charging their younger members the full initiation fee and very little discount on their dues.

The potential for membership growth is there, if clubs will only offer what the member of the future wants.


      This is a club type that has great appeal to both younger and older members today. Without golf, clubs often have lower dues, making their value-for-cost benefit very attractive. This is one of the most significant areas for growth in the private club world. Such clubs offer a broad array of indoor and outdoor facilities and programs. The for-profit club world, with such entities as Lifetime Fitness or the East Bank Club in Chicago, has capitalized on this club niche with good success. In the Northeast, the “field” clubs with summer, non-golf offerings have been successful while many of the nearby golf club counterparts struggle.

      Clubs like The Briar Club in Houston are paving the way for this club type with a $30 million makeover that will make it one of the dominant players in this city. The message is clear—offer the right club and members will join.


      The original club type has roots in British traditions. These clubs prospered with a traditional focus on business, male social life and athletic activities.

      In some major urban areas, the central city has lost some of its business core and residential activity has moved to the suburbs. Business activity itself has changed with travel, women’s participation and new technology impacting it. So today, most of the great old downtown buildings are trying to serve a private club model of yesteryear. Such clubhouses are fiercely expensive to maintain at a time when city clubs have had to reduce or eliminate initiation fees while having to raise dues to maintain operations.

      Where is membership going for the traditional city club? For major cities like New York, Chicago and Houston there is enough critical mass of downtown population (either business-oriented or residential) to support such clubs. In certain cities like Cleveland with its Union Club, such clubs are succeeding by changing with the times, adding fitness, building social programs, offering casual dining, etc. These clubs have a purpose and members are joining them.

The Missouri Athletic Club (MAC) in St. Louis is another interesting “city club/country club without a golf course” combination that is succeeding. Its downtown clubhouse represents its past and its suburban clubhouse represents its future. Certainly the visionary past leadership who purchased the suburban location some years ago, contributed to MAC’s success today.

So where is membership headed for city clubs? According to NCA’s Delphi study, 64 percent of industry experts predict little or no growth for city clubs, 14 percent expect a decline in city club growth and only 22 percent expect strong growth. These clubs can increase the value in their memberships in order to grow. The value enhancements must come from offering facilities, programs and services which enhance member experiences, i.e., health/fitness, casual dining and pubs, business networking opportunities, recreation, family-friendly emphasis, something for every member, etc. If good value is provided and marketed properly, the city club of yesterday can be the city club of the future.


      Like almost everything else in the world today, convenience drives usage—and club usage is no different. The well-located country club and city club will be used much more than the poorly located ones. In analyzing a club’s membership demographics, it is important to offer a club product that appeals to the specific demographic profile that lives or works near a club. There are “destination clubs” with certain strong offerings that can draw a remote membership, but by and large convenience drives usage, which in the end, drives success. This is why clubs such as the Missouri Athletic Club and the Union League of Philadelphia have acquired suburban locations to better service their families.


      For 2015 and beyond, a continued decline in the number of clubs is expected, as well as in the number of members. And yet forecasters tell us 10,000 Baby Boomers a day are retiring and that the Millennial generation will have more potential for our society than the Boomers. So the prospect for members in clubs is certainly there. Clubs just have to offer the right amenities to capture them. This is the challenge, and fortunately many clubs get it. Now it is up to all managers and boards to recognize the opportunities before them, and to make sure they are delivering a club of the future, not one of the past.

Sidebar insert:

Club Trends Winter 2015