Skip links

Growing Your Membership: Mega-Trends in the Marketplace

At Club Trends, we have observed that the private club industry continues to positively adjust to wholesale changes in the larger environment. In this particular issue, some of these “mega-trends” that have now become an accepted reality are highlighted: diversity in household composition; the influence and power of women; desire for strong communities and connectedness; environmental awareness and hectic, time-constrained lifestyles.

Just as the market for membership has been characterized by considerable diversity, so too has the mission, the facilities and the overall offering of programs and activities changed in response to the shifting needs and expectations of the members.

Membership Attraction Keeping Pace

So what remains is the challenge for membership marketing to keep pace with the rapidity of change in the larger club world. At one time, the Membership Committee (maybe a committee consisting of one or two members and a part-time administrative assistant) was charged with a role more akin to that of gatekeeper, rather than marketer or recruiter. Member referrals or, better yet, a healthy waitlist could be screened, evaluated and, after sufficient due diligence, acted upon. That was then.

Now with more intense competition, with more couples making decisions jointly, and with a larger set of considerations and choice criteria, the membership marketing process needs to be strategically conceived and competently executed. More specifically there are a range of opportunities and market segments to evaluate, there are misconceptions and misinformation held by those who might otherwise become members, and there are bottlenecks and choke-points in the membership process that can be anticipated and eased. But this takes foresight and resolve—not to mention resources and membership engagement.

The Call and Response

Let’s take stock of what’s happening on the club scene:

Clubs are lowering barriers to membership.

Full-service country club: Bethesda Country Club serves the hotly competitive Washington, D.C., market. Its “Preview Membership Initiative” allows prospective members a low-risk approach to club membership. Candidates for membership experience club life and then subsequently decide when and how to make the financial commitment that club membership ultimately requires.

Gated community: St. Ives Country Club consists of nearly 1,000 homes built in the Johns Creek area outside Atlanta. Over time membership in this community has broadened to include a younger cohort of upwardly mobile professionals. This was no accident, but rather the result of a thoughtfully calibrated path to membership. Dues were worked into a stepwise progression that put younger members on a smooth trajectory to full buy-in that made sense for the members and the long-term finances of the club.

Clubs are raising the value inherent in membership.

City club: To boost its value to younger members and those with families, the Boulevard Club engaged in careful planning that folded up some traditional old-line facilities and opened up a host of activities that accentuated the more progressive, urban ambiance that Toronto now embodies. Out went curling and in came fitness operations, facilities for sport-focused interest groups and an outdoor patio overlooking Lake Ontario. Penetration of the business segment and family market increased dramatically.

Yacht club: “Here, I always thought you needed to own a boat in order to sail and be a part of the yacht club.” So said one satisfied member of the Chicago Yacht Club (CYC), who now races competitively with her husband. The CYC has added value to its membership, by removing barriers—both real and perceived—to the sailing adventure and the camaraderie that attends it. And the club delivers this message with panache. Its communications program is strategically conceived and expertly delivered. To member and potential members alike, club communicators tell a story in ways that are easily accessible and invitingly visual. You may not be a sailor, but the club will usher you into that world and the unique pleasures it offers.

Clubs are integrating membership efforts strategically.

High-end market: Monterey Peninsula Country Club in Calif., carefully integrates its member services efforts with its approach to bringing new members aboard. Though this club is an elite one with no need to “sell” its memberships, it does recognize that the club’s brand image combines with the priorities of current members to decisively influence the process and outcome of membership attraction. This is a balancing act that requires leveraging the club’s very distinctive assets and social calendar together with expert networking and tailored communications. At Monterey, this is not left to chance. There is a philosophy, structure and professionalism attached to all this—and a “go-to” person, Rachel Carter now the assistant general manager at Monterey, who provides the integrative influence and strategic sensitivity.

Mainline market: North Ridge Country Club in Raleigh, N.C., like many clubs, experienced a membership decline in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. The club responded by hiring a membership marketing director, Erica McEachern, who together with the club’s other key leaders, embarked on a careful and thoughtful membership marketing strategy that, over a two-year period, brought in 185 new members. The team at North Ridge needed to execute expertly along several dimensions—research, competitive analysis, market segmentation and integrated communications—both to develop a concise and compelling strategy to direct its recruitment efforts and then to monitor their implementation. Additionally, this fact-based, data-driven approach not only inspired the active support, participation and confidence of the existing members, but also provided further momentum for the club to engage in a continuous cycle of club improvement.

Clubs are addressing issues important to members.

Sustainability: Venice Golf and Country Club’s eco-friendly investments are paying off—in more ways than one. “Our members love being environmental stewards,” says Jim Shell, the club’s general manager. The club’s recent $2.5 million golf course renovation included an irrigation system that gives Venice control of each sprinkler head, helping reduce water usage by 30 percent thus far. The club is also using satellite images to determine the health of its turf and to help decide how its grass should be mowed and watered. This has helped limit the amount of pesticides and other chemical agents used to just the areas where they are needed. These efforts have earned the club GEO certification from the Golf Environment Organization.

Food Waste:  Ferncroft Country Club in Middleton, Mass., became the first private club in the U.S., and the first business in its state, to commit to a zero food waste initiative by using an innovative type of fermentation composting called Bokashi. This program enables Ferncroft to divert four tons of food waste per year from landfills into on-site gardens and plantings as fertilizer using a technique that is safe, hygienic, easily implemented, inexpensive and odorless. “A lot of sustainability ideas seem abstract or taxing, but this is simple and tangible: turn four tons of would-be garbage into food and fertilizer, all within a small area visible to everyone. It feels good, and ultimately we believe the club business is about making people feel good,” comments David Swales, managing director of Affinity Management, which owns and operates the club.


Club Trends Winter 2016