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Updating Your Club’s Membership Development Strategy: Developing a Marketing Culture

Every private club must recruit and retain a dues-paying base sufficient to cover its fixed costs, a process that includes replacing the roughly five percent of members who resign each year. In the previous article, Bill McMahon, Sr. focused on how to deal with controllable attrition—the “at-risk” members who are thinking about leaving the club because they are less satisfied with their membership experience. This article will focus on developing a club’s membership marketing culture, analyzing aspects of club operations that can help increase member attraction and replacement.

In the 30-plus years McMahon has been studying the club industry, reaching and maintaining full membership has never been a more daunting task for clubs. This is the result of well-documented and analyzed issues including the shrinking middle class, shifts in household structure and lifestyles, and a shift in values among members and prospects. These factors call into question the relevance of club membership in the modern world. Therefore, it’s vital that your club offers a complete membership experience that appeals to the needs of modern adults and, if present, their children. Great golf is often at the core of the offer, but it is increasingly only a part of the winning formula. City clubs need to cater to young urbanites and empty nesters who are more likely to live, work and play in the city. Other categories of clubs that fall into the “sweet spot” include the country club without a golf course and the casual, family-oriented yacht club.

Despite the challenges to member recruitment and retention presented by today’s world, clubs continue to hamper their own membership marketing through inefficient operating procedures. Clubs often misunderstand what they can and can’t do in membership development while complying with private club status, or they perceive new member attraction to be a much more complex process than it really is. The following examples all took place within the last six months at highly esteemed clubs (their names have been withheld):

· At a meeting to discuss membership development at a large private club in the South, the opening consensus of the sizable and experienced group was that the chief membership development problem was the club’s inability to market for members (because of its tax status). Realities like the understaffed Membership Committee and failure to replace the membership director (who took maternity leave six months prior) were overlooked in this discussion.

· At a well-known Midwest country club, a member survey showed that the existing members were highly satisfied with the club. In fact, more than 90 percent of them indicated they would be willing to refer someone for membership. However, the golf member cap was down by 40 members and, despite having a motivated membership, the club had a Membership Committee of exactly one person—the chairman. His entire support staff consisted of the 10 to 20 hours per week the administrative assistant was able to provide him in the process of vetting, approving and soliciting new members. There was no actual outreach program.

· One large, prestigious club in the East didn’t want to tell the members that membership had both declined and aged significantly over the past decade for fear that it would alarm them.

It is possible to overcome these common misunderstandings and misguided approaches to membership and marketing. A case in point is Philadelphia Cricket Club. Founded in 1854, this venerable institution is one of the oldest private clubs in America dedicated to recreation. Over the past five years, the Cricket Club has made a remarkable transition from a club that was classical in its thinking to one with a vibrant membership and marketing culture. Jacob Smith, the club’s membership director, shared his perspective on what is required to move from the practices of the past to today’s thinking:

1.       Start with Leadership: Transforming the marketing culture starts with the club president. Someone needs to stand up and say, “what we’re doing isn’t working and there has to be a better way.” In the case of the Cricket Club, it took a president deeply rooted in the club to help the board recognize that the club’s environment had changed and that their old ways were no longer going to work. Steadfast in their need to change and resolute to preserve their culture, the board made a commitment to change the club’s approach toward membership development. Instead of being an organization that simply responded to inquiries, the approach would now include outreach and active lead development.

2.       Form a Membership Department: This sends the signal to the membership that the club is serious about membership development. It establishes a central point of contact to support the Membership Committee and provides the members and prospects a “go-to” person who can stimulate interest and facilitate introductions. Like many clubs, prior to establishing a membership department, Philadelphia Cricket Club responded to inquiries only as rapidly as its volunteers could act.

3.       Modernize Your Policies: Clubs often hold onto past practices for too long or they act impulsively when making changes. Philadelphia Cricket Club ultimately revised its entrance fee, developed a completely new membership plan and adjusted its policies for sponsorship. These major actions became logical when the leadership saw the true state of the marketplace. Once the board had the facts, it was easy for them to make effective decisions. It is also smart to look at the relevance of your policies. For example, is the number of required sponsors realistic and appropriate? Do you restrict new members from sponsoring other new members until they have been at the club for several years? Make sure your membership process is streamlined.

4.       Be Visible: Membership development is about connections. The membership director and others involved in membership development need to be visible to existing members and keep interest up. Attending events or scheduling ones where guests will likely be present creates opportunities for networking. Like a lot of sales activities, there is no single action that by itself makes the sale. It is a culmination of events and activities that build the pipeline.

5.       Get the Right People Involved: Joining happens in a very specific age range, generally ages 36 to 45. It is critical that your existing members who are in this age group are active in your membership development efforts. Their role may be separate and distinct from the approval process, but there should be an ongoing effort to get them involved in events that influence membership. Smith has found that formal ambassador committees are not as effective as simply building a network of contacts that can be called upon when needed. More and more, this involves matchmaking as people who are new to the area or the club become interested in membership.

Effective membership development is the result of successfully executing a number of remarkably simple activities. While often blamed for their failure to attract members, the rules related to private club status have little impact on real success. Even if clubs were able to overtly market for memberships, say by running advertisements or sending out solicitations, these are not the types of things that attract members. People join a club because they already know members and they have experiences and contacts that entice them to become members. It’s networking at its most basic level. There is a tendency among club leaders to set up artificial roadblocks or hold onto dated policies when simple, logical “meet and greet” actions work.

The Philadelphia Cricket Club has accepted well over 300 new members during the past four years. The average age of the membership has dropped significantly and activity is up dramatically. Substantial money has been invested in all areas of the club, from restoring the original Wissahickon golf course designed by A. W. Tillinghast to renovating the pool and adding fitness facilities. They’ve done it by first changing an insular approach to one of qualified outreach and then executing an ongoing series of fundamental marketing and networking activities that produce a steady stream of interested prospects. 

Club Trends Summer 2015