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Club Positioning 2020: A Private Member Enclave

Prevented from offering their members a refuge during the quarantine phase of the pandemic, clubs will be positioned to thrive in the Phase I reopening of the economy. A return to their roots providing social and recreational activities solely for the benefit of their members will be the key to success.

Favorite Place, Third Place or Home-Away-From-Home, however you want to label it, a private club’s role as a members’ enclave will be a highly valued element in the post-COVID-19 world. In fact, it could be the trump card over what has been a decades-long set of challenges facing the industry. Spurred on by COVID-19’s threat to their members and staff and a litany of new and evolving governmental rules and regulations, clubs will have no choice but to return to their core focus of serving members in 2020 and beyond. An effective response could position them to thrive and grow in the new environment.

Unlike other hospitality operations where public participation is welcomed and difficult to manage, private clubs are based on limited access by known parties. They have a rules-based culture, which they establish and enforce and an operating model where dues subsidize departmental results. Clubs also have much more latitude in how they program their facilities, something that will prove very useful for complying with evolving norms, like social distancing.

Top performing clubs have always distinguished themselves by creating a member-first experience. This instills a sense of pride and extracts a commitment from their members that is far greater than what exists at low-performing clubs. Instead of viewing membership as access to an activity, they provide one humanity’s most essential needs—a sense of belonging. Because COVID-19 has so thoroughly unsettled people, they will be in search of community and human engagement. Club leaders should use the quarantine and Phase I opening of the economy to refocus on their core principles and reset their club’s priorities to fill this void.


The trips to Europe have been cancelled. Major sporting events are on hold and unlikely to include fans in the stands whenever they return to action. That crowded new hot spot for dinner and drinks does not sound so appealing anymore. Fall weekends are more likely to be filled with flying leaves, not pigskins. The office may not even be a distraction as more people work remotely due to safety precautions or new-found preferences. No, for 2020, and potentially the next several years, clubs are likely to have their members’ full attention and a greater available share of their time.

Club success will once again be based on the perceived value of the member experience, one that will be delivered in an irregular fashion during the balance of 2020, if not longer. There will be an opportunity for clubs to shine in this environment. The primary mission this year will be to make members feel as safe at the club as they would in their own home—a tall but necessary task, complicated by the fact that the club could be home to 300, 500 or even 1,000 or more families.

For 2020, clubs must protect their safe space status at all costs. Whatever departments are operating, managers need to be extremely vigilant that the staff and members are following all health and social distancing rules. There are significant differences of opinion in society about the need for compliance, but clubs must adjust to new and often confusing regulations, and they will be under the microscope of public opinion. Responses will also vary by region, type of club and the age and profile of their membership. If the leadership is in doubt about the safety of any of their offerings, err to the side of caution and cease or defer on this activity. If there should be a problem, it is critical that you fix it immediately at all costs. Club managers typically wear many hats, but their role as chief host will be supplanted by the need to provide a safe and secure environment for the staff and members. Protecting them from something that you cannot see, and for which there remain many questions Focusing again on core principles, club leaders should strictly adhere to the watchwords of quality, consistency and value even as they reexamine their operation to reflect changing demands and new financial realities. They will have to be smart operators because they will not have the subsidy they typically derive from conferences and meetings, golf outings, wedding and other large sporting contests or social events. It will be all members, all the time.


Prognosticating can be the work of fools, especially during something so surreal as a pandemic. In fact, Club Trend’s Outlook 2020 published in February included no reference to COVID-19 as it was a far distant flu-like virus on the other side of the world when we went to press. How quickly things change. Perhaps that is one of the key takeaways from the pandemic, which is how agile leaders need to be these days. In addition to the attack on the World Trade Towers and the Great Recession, the coronavirus crisis is the third major disruption to American life in the past 20 years. Each had significant near term impacts on social norms and the economy, and they spawned changes that are still with us today.

COVID-19 is likely to spur major changes in consumer behavior. While we currently feel life will never return to what it was like at the start of 2020, many things that we expect to change for good will just as likely return to normal. On the other hand, less obvious or anticipated changes will become permanent. There is no way to know for certain which ones and when, but research and observation of other major crisis suggest changes are likely to include:

• Concerns for personal safety and the challenges of planning and navigating travel will keep people closer to home.

• Forced to shelter and unnerved by the events, life has slowed down, and many will embrace this new pace.

• The COVID-19 health crisis will accentuate the decades long boom in fitness and wellness related activity for individuals and their families.

• Social circles have tightened and will only slowly expand.

• Remote work has been the norm for some 40% of society the past several months and many major companies have already announced plans to continue with this approach when the economy reopens. Many workers are also enjoying a new-found freedom from commutes and flexibility in their hours.

• There is heightened interest in news and information in short, concise bites.

• There has been a dramatic increase in use of the internet for personal connections, entertainment, shopping, education, and work.

• Increased focus on food safety and hygiene.

• Disposable product acceptance as wrapped, sealed and clean trump environmental concerns.

To be effective, club leaders will need to understand these changes and adapt their business model to leverage the opportunities presented to them by the crisis. Focusing on the home-away-from-home theme that is at the center of a club community, clubs will do well to adapt their facilities to parallel the evolving home more closely. The separation between home, work and play has been blurring for years now, as reflected in home design and construction. Once a place where we primarily ate and slept, the modern home includes those basics plus gourmet kitchens, entertainment centers, fitness rooms, remote workspaces, wine rooms and children’s activity wings. As social organizations, the private club will need to offer many of these same features, so these lifestyle benefits can be realized alongside a spirit of community and belonging.

The good news is that when economic activity returns, clubs can be a first choice, if they play their cards right. To woo members to the club, leaders will need to establish and maintain their safe-place status and overcommunicate their policies and practices to their members. This will be the year of the member, with the focus on providing value for them, not guests or outside events. After a generation when words like privacy, sanctuary and enclave were increasingly cast in a bad light, the member-focus that is at the core of the private club experience will be strongly desired.