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Enhancing Club Facilities: How to Provide Value and Attract Members Who Stay Members

Great facilities are one of the key factors that contributes to a club’s success. They personify a club, define who it serves and project what its mission is and should be. While a club’s facilities visually tell a story, they should also be communicating the intangibles of tradition, good taste, exclusiveness, inclusiveness, friendliness, adult/ family orientation, golf emphasis, and more. So as we begin to look at club facilities and their ability to enhance club value, it is important to understand:

  • Who it serves?
  • What it provides?
  • What quality level it strives to achieve?
  • What makes it unique in its marketplace?

Only when the answers to these questions are provided can a club evaluate and plan facilities successfully. On page 14 in this Outlook edition, “Maintaining Relevancy” explains what is required to make clubs strategically relevant to existing and new members. This ties into knowing where a club is going and what it needs to provide for members before trying to design its facilities. In other words, clubs need a strategic plan before it can develop a facility plan. Club facilities must provide physical spaces to house the essential offerings of a club. But the success in facility planning can be as much about the aesthetic and inspiring architecture and interiors as it is about achieving required spaces that fit within a budget. One very important aspect for club prosperity is providing necessary facilities that attract and retain members. According to McMahon Group surveys, general managers repeatedly state that “adding and improving the right facilities are the single most effective way to grow a membership except for fire sales on club initiation fees.”

Successful boards and general managers are thinking and acting strategically when addressing facility needs. This is especially important when clubs need to attract younger members under age 55, when many of its existing are over 65. Fortunately, McMahon surveys find that 90 percent of members support adding facilities and programs for attracting the next generation—even though many older members may not use them. This forward-thinking attitude welcomes good strategy. One of the biggest challenges in country clubs today is convincing members what facilities will attract new members. Experience shows new younger members want improvements to swimming pools, fitness gyms, casual dining areas, outdoor dining, children game rooms and year-round indoor facilities. When a club plans its facilities based on strategic planning objectives, those objectives are more easily met.

The club world is ripe with examples of improvement projects gone astray that ignore strategic issues. One county club whose primary focus is golf and hosting major tournaments proposed a $20 million clubhouse dining project while its golf course greens needed serious attention. Making matters worse, the board did this coming into a PGA event. This club is now playing catch-up as members are resigning from the club, leaving it in a very precarious position. This board’s leadership lost sight of the club’s essential golf mission by trying to build the best restaurant in the city versus taking care of its most important strategic asset.

Board members must understand strategic planning and use it to make good decisions. A successful facility example of this is in Houston at the Briar Club. The board and general manager took a diamond-in-the-rough, urban club and made it the shining jewel the club is today. Based on the goal of building a superior family club without golf in a major city already inundated with golf-oriented country clubs, the Briar Club did something unique. It built real value in a family-friendly club for nongolfers. So yes, it does pay to strategic plan before developing a facility plan.

There are many types of clubs with many different missions. Every club has its own DNA which makes it special. Of course there are similarities in clubs, but more importantly, there are differences. These differences contribute to uniqueness—and uniqueness is a driver of club success. Each club has its own characteristics and mission for which its facilities must deliver the desired results.


Major cities in North America have undergone a major rebirth, and with the growth of urban residences coupled with prosperity and adjacent business work places, city clubs have been reborn.

Today’s city club is the urban counterpart to the suburban country club. While the city club does not have an adjacent golf course, many city clubs do offer distant golf with reciprocal programs. They offer social meeting spaces, top quality dining offerings, state-of-the-art recreation/athletic facilities, high-quality hotel rooms, rooftop gardens and parking garages. They have become the social, recreational and occupational hub for their members living and working in the city.

The University Club of Chicago has been completely transformed by trading high rise building air rights overlooking Lake Michigan for extensive athletic facilities in the adjacent 70-story condominium. The Denver Athletic Club offers licensed day care for children. The Missouri Athletic Club in St. Louis (see page 24), Boulevard Club in Toronto, Detroit Athletic Club and Soho House in New York all offer very innovative offerings that have triggered each club’s recent success. The Union League in Philadelphia, which not only totally upgraded its downtown historic clubhouse, but also now operates two suburban country clubs. This innovation happens when many people work to make the strategic vision become a reality.

Today’s city clubs include innovative facilities for new generation members like:

  • Rooftop outdoor dining areas
  • Coffeehouse-style areas
  • Contemporary, spacious wellness and fitness spaces and spas
  • Rooftop swimming pools and sun decks (e.g., Soho House in N.Y. and the East Bank Club in Chicago)
  • Sport bars with games and simulators
  • Racquet sport facilities (squash, pickleball and paddle tennis) with comprehensive programs

New millennial, free-thinking clubs are blossoming like The Assemblage in New York. This new, quasi-club concept with its all-encompassing, one-location, co-habiting building includes urban residences, occupational work areas and social entertaining areas for members is a new club model. The club has special emphasis on health, diversity, personal adventures and discovering one’s place in today’s evolving society. It is only a matter of time until The Assemblage and other similar clubs spread across the nation. Existing city clubs are adapting to this new model of club successfully.

The club world has undergone significant change in the last 10 years. From a country and golf club world going way back into the 1920s and before, these club types were golf-focused, having male members and disdaining club use by wives and children. These clubs were primarily summer and special occasion places, mostly for adults. Now, country clubs are more family-focused social and recreation centers, putting less attention on golf as the primary draw.

In years past, two key aspects drove country club initiation fees into the stratosphere. They were the tremendous popularity of golf and the social prestige of belonging to one of the best clubs with the best people. However today, these two characteristics are having less and less appeal to newer members.

While it has become more and more difficult for clubs to attract members, we are seeing the rising success for the urban family club without golf, like the Briar Club and Houston Racquet Club as future trend setters.

The full-service country club with golf is still the primary club type for the North American family marketplace, but it is quickly changing. Today’s clubs have had to expand into year-round social and recreation centers for families. They offer a more casual life style, are gender friendly, promote health and wellness, are receptive to technology and are environmentally responsive to protect society. Interestingly many country clubs are also finding they can serve more members. Historically the limitation on country club membership size was the golf course and too much play. This is no longer an issue at many clubs, so they can plan to expand their membership sizes. One interesting survey finding on club quality is, the larger a club member- ship, the higher the member satisfaction. The ever-expanding country/golf club offerings of tomorrow include new and updated facilities such as:

  • Enhancing golf beyond just the golf course with great driving ranges; innovative short game areas; indoor/ outdoor teaching and training centers like at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., and Grey Oaks Country Club in Naples, Fla., golf simulators adjacent to golf bar/ lounges like at Brookhaven Country Club (see page 28) and tracer technology on ranges. In today’s world, practicing golf is increasingly popular.
  • Fun, favorite-place dining offerings that are casual in dress, outstanding in food quality and service and conveniently located.
  • Smaller locker rooms due to declining use.
  • Exciting bar/lounge/pub areas away from primary family dining spaces are popular so adults have places to relax, congregate and socialize.
  • Expanded recreation offerings for pickleball, bocce, paddle tennis, indoor and outdoor tennis, recreation resort swimming pools, ever expanding wellness/fitness centers, spas, croquet, lawn squash court and even bowling alleys. Many country clubs need reasons for existing besides golf and dining. In gated residential communities, it is the quality of the club that determines the quality of the community.

Clubs, like all organizations, must always be looking to the future as to what next generation members will want. It surely seems there will be fewer traditional clubs than we have today. But there is also the potential for developing new clubs with new missions as is now happening. Clubs will most likely continue evolving with larger memberships as bigger clubs can provide lower membership costs and increased member satisfaction. The rebirth of central city areas with new residential developments is saving some of the old city clubs that were on the brink of closure with only a business-oriented focus. And finally, the decline in golf and its high cost is evolving to provide opportunities for urban family recreation, including clubs without golf and the expansion of nongolf recreation activities at traditional country clubs.

All in all, progress is being made as private clubs transition into new and better organizations serving all age groups—as long as they continue to change with the society they serve. Club boards and general managers have to stay ever vigilant as to where society is going and making sure their clubs go with it.

William McMahon, Sr., is Chairman of McMahon Group, Inc., a premier full-service private club consulting firm serving more than 2,000 private clubs around the world. He can be reached at [email protected].  

Club Trends Winter 2019