Skip links

Finding the Right Mix for Your Communications

Like a great pot of soup, developing the right mix for your club’s communications plan takes a base of quality ingredients, blending in a little of this and a little of that, all seasoned to your liking. What strikes a chord at one club may be seen as off-putting at another. “We’re all about the future” says Jeff McFadden at The Union League of Philadelphia, “and our communications strategy is no exception.” Under the direction of Erica Martin and staffed with three full-time professionals, the department is a hive of activity, focused on driving member use and engagement. Since attracting and connecting with Millennials is a big part of the club’s strategy, The League makes use of a broad spectrum of communications tools, including Instagram and other forms of social media.

Jackie Singleton, Director of Communications and Technology at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., takes a more conservative approach befitting the club’s traditional culture. She is equally focused on getting the message out, but she does it with what would be considered more standard tools of the trade, augmented by a smart mix of modern features like the web and emails. Her focus is on presenting pieces that have the understated look and feel consistent with style of The Country Club, meets the club’s high standards of professionalism with just the right balance of timing. “Our members our very busy people and we understand that they are getting bombarded with information in all aspects of their lives all day long.” “We want them to know that when they get a communication from us, they’ll find it to be full of important and useful information, so they read it and appreciate it.”  

Reinforcing the need to customize your mix, what works may not be what you first expect. Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, N.C., is a large, vibrant family country club with an average member age only around 50. That sounds like a hotbed of tech-savvy members who consume all their news on an electronic device, but that’s not the case, at least when it comes to information from the club. “Mailing is alive and well at Carmel,” says Diane Willi, Carmel’s Communications Director. “We still think it is important and nice to put something in members’ hands, like a newsletter or brochure.” In fact, the club often gives members more than one copy of things they decide to print so they can pass it onto their friends. “We get great feedback on the bi-monthly hard copy newsletter that we send to our members’ homes and we’ll keep relying on it until that changes,” says Willi.

One thing everyone agrees on is that there is only so much time available to the sender and receiver, so their biggest caution is to use it wisely. While it sounds simple to push out an email, post pictures to Instagram or develop a Twitter feed, the highest priority is quality. Our contacts are telling us to be selective and make sure that whatever you are doing, do it very well. More communication is not necessarily better, while the right message well-delivered trumps all. For example, Anne Stryhn, Assistant General Manager at The Country Club of Virginia (CCV), coordinates the timing of some of the club’s messages to the target audience. Announcements about a men’s golf event are pushed out first thing in the morning while information about children’s activities work well towards the end of the school day when parents might be waiting in the car pool line.

While The Country Club currently relies on its weekly email blast and newsletter, the leadership continually keeps its eye out for new tools. The Communications Sub-Committee conducts an annual review and discusses what’s working and how things could improve. There is an awareness that social media could play a role, but the need is not yet there. The five-year capital budget includes the flexibility to adapt and grow as circumstances arise. In addition to active listening, Carmel’s Willi tracks member satisfaction with communications in member surveys and updates her communications plan semi-annually. CCV’s Stryhn makes use of focus groups to identify how members want to receive their club communications. It seems all good communicators are also good listeners.

Communications Directors: Tsar or Air Traffic Controller?

Most every general manager and communications director we interviewed entered their communications enhancement process thinking that the director would take sole ownership of all club communications. They’d interact with the various department heads to download the list of upcoming events or learn about other important communiques to go out, draft it up and send it along. This certainly makes sense from the perspective of quality and tone, but as is often the case with battle plans, most club leaders have modified this approach after the armies hit the field.

The main culprit here is that clubs are using all their resources in peak season and they are increasingly year-round hubs of activity. Unless there is someone willing to work 24/7 or the club has the resources to have multiple people in the communications department, it isn’t practical to hold up vital information for a single individual’s schedule. “It’s just not realistic for one person to own all that,” says Carmel’s Diane Willi. “We have eight different departments with a full slate of activities, plus governance and administrative issues to cover. And all their communications are time sensitive.”

Thus, most clubs have transitioned to what we might call the air traffic controller approach. Lots of planes are in the air and the communications director’s job is to know what’s on them and where they’re going, and help the pilots get there safely.

“The department managers are here because they are passionate about an activity like golf or tennis. We want them spending their time with the members, so we ask them to craft a message and we then bring the information into a central writer, apply the style guide and get it out to our members,” Willi.

Singleton of The Country Club stresses the importance of on-boarding department heads and administrators so they understand the role they play in effectively communicating with the membership. There are a lot of people involved in getting out an effective message and they need to understand the advance planning required to be successful. Her department now plays an active role in cross-training the administrators at the start of their tenure with the club, with an overarching message to think well in advance.

“We don’t just come up with a drink or meal special in the morning and email it out later that day,” she says. “That’s not to say, we don’t have daily specials, but that’s not where the club focuses the communication strategy.” In order for programs to be successful, they need to be developed well in advance, so it all comes together with the right look and feel and combination of text and pictures. Singleton says, “A la carte menus change every two weeks, the cocktail menu changes seasonal, and each need time and pictures to communicate the variety the executive chef and beverage manager are showcasing in the restaurants.”

A Friction Free Future

While the communications plan for many enterprises can target a fairly specific audience, clubs have to connect a co-ed, multi-generational membership and drive participation in a broad set of social and recreational activities, some for adults and others for families. The targets are also among the busiest people in society. It’s a big challenge to be seen and heard and cut through the noise. The message must also reach an audience that has the expectation level of a member, not the general public.

No matter the stylistic approach, our networking group agrees on one thing—put the member in charge of what they see and hear. Due to the rapid and rampant growth of Facebook and other forms of social media, the receiver has an expectation that communications will be geared specifically to their interests. If you don’t have kids on the swim team, you’re just not all that interested in knowing about signs ups and practice times. In fact, it can send the wrong message, as in “we don’t know you!” This “spray and pray” approach is old school and increasingly off the mark.

Message lines are increasingly important to pique interest, as is the sender. Even though the communications department might have crafted the message, open rates are higher if the sender is the golf professional or chef. They build upon their established relationship with the member and draws more attention.

Technology is playing a larger role all the time and this will increase in the future. It’s a visual world and many communications directors are increasing their use of pictures and videos to tell their story. They are playing a much larger role at The Union League of Philadelphia. They can be much clearer than the written word and take less time to consume.

And while we currently think of communications vehicles as things like a letter or flyer, newsletter or email, the future is more about “friction free” messaging. The fastest growing aspect of club communication is adoption of apps. With an ease of use and eye-appeal that far exceeds mobile websites, members are increasingly interested in one-click access to their club.  This is also what’s behind The Union League of Philadelphia’s early-adoption of beacon technology. The puck-like devices use Bluetooth technology to reach out a member’s smartphone, noting their arrival at the parking garage or picking them up when they walk off the 18th green at their new golf amenity, Torresdale Golf Club. Member “check-in” is automatic. Even more amazing is that the club can then push messages to the member, such as telling them about the lunch special when they walk through the door or directing them to their event. This also opens up a host of service opportunities, such as alerting staff that the guests are here and increasing their ability to recognize them.

The Payoff

Our research into the topic indicates that best practices in club communications are in a state of rapid evolution, like private clubs themselves. The audience is multi-generational and there is an art to reaching them. Those who are meeting with the most success are attuned to the club’s culture, they seek out and rely upon member input and feedback, and like all good communicators, they have a good ear. Along with the advances in technology that allows them to track “open-rates” and “click-throughs,” they also use good old trial and error and intuition.

There are many different ways to track the effectiveness of your communications. The one that works best for Baltimore Country Club General Manager Michael Stott is the most important of all, however, and that’s usage. He sees all the tracking and knows his team is doing a good job, but what he also knows is that since ramping up the club’s communications program, 30 percent of the events at the club now sell-out. That’s a benefit he can take to the bank. 

Club Trends Spring 2016