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The War for Talent: How Private Clubs Must Evolve & Adapt

While inflation, gas prices and the state of the economy are all real issues, among the most concerning issues for the private club industry is labor and what it will look like in the future. Club executives are grappling with the number of open staff positions, the lack of applicants, salary hikes and record-breaking employee turnover. We’ve heard, “Our community is paying $30/hour for dishwashers! How do we compete with that?” “What are other clubs doing to attract and retain employees?” “How do we prevent current employees from being overworked when we can’t find staff to fill open positions?”

It seems the questions are endless and the pressure on club leaders grows as the challenge to find and retain staff spreads beyond departments or positions. Hotels, restaurants, resorts, golf courses, hospitals, airlines and countless others are being forced to adapt to the tight labor conditions.

April 2022 marked the eleventh consecutive month when more than 4 million workers left their jobs. In May, available jobs outnumbered unemployed workers by nearly 5.3 million. Businesses of all shapes and sizes are feeling the effects of the labor shortage.

The Global Golf Post reported that the No. 1 problem in golf is labor. The golf industry flourished during COVID-19, but while courses stay busy with golfers, clubs are discovering that providing a high-end golf experience has never been more difficult. Most superintendents report being short five or more workers, which leads to cutbacks on the course and overworking of current staff. Many grounds teams are relying on high school kids and retirees who are inexperienced but can rake bunkers or operate mowers just to keep playing conditions acceptable. Finding assistant golf professionals in nearly impossible these days as many left the industry as a result of long hours, low pay and/or mistreatment by demanding and frustrated members.

John Barker, president of the Ohio Restaurant Association stated, “Restaurants are doing well driving revenue in 2022. However, the industry is short-staffed by 750,000 employees compared to pre-pandemic levels, which is -6.1%. This is taking a toll on customers and workers.”

The Good News

Even though times are challenging, the good news is that clubs are evolving to survive, just like they did during the pandemic. To combat labor issues, clubs ultimately have two choices: cut services or raise dues, and both can be tricky to implement without infuriating members. Gus Jones, COO of Martis Camp Club in Truckee, Calif., worked with his finance committee and board to formulate a plan for increasing dues to offset broad compensation adjustments in 2021 and additional wage increases in 2022. They shared research and information with the membership prior to the changes going into effect.

GMs have found themselves in difficult positions as they attempted to balance open staff positions with overworked, exhausted employees who were trying to keep up with booming dining outlets and busier-than-ever member facilities. “We are facing an unprecedented crisis in hiring. The problem goes beyond private clubs and the hospitality industry. We cannot succeed in this time of flux without trying new things,” said Phil Kiester, The Country Club of Virginia’s (CCV’s) general manager.


The following are 13 options for clubs to consider when dealing with the shortage of labor:

  • Finding new labor pools. While hiring member children to work at the club has its pros and cons, hiring other clubs’ members’ children opens a whole new pool of potential employees. Also, consider sharing employees with neighboring clubs to ensure the success of larger events. CCV has found success in a number of different ways:
  • Social Media Campaigns. The club provides content graphics and awards prizes to team members who share job openings on their social media accounts.
  • Phone Blitz. The club pulled contact information for

candidates who had applied in the past and proactively reached out via phone call and text. They found that by far, texting was the most successful medium for communicating.

  • Community Involvement. The club has prioritized growing relationships with community organizations and schools for mutually beneficial partnerships and with the hope of yielding future team members.
  • Public Relations/Visibility. The club entered local and national top workplace contests and won! They leverage their awards in job advertisements and during the interview process.
  • Intern and Manager in Training Programs. The club has invested in these positions and enhanced their programming to provide a quality experience, resulting in a pipeline of prospective employees.
  • Regularly reviewing salary and hourly rates. With inflation and market salary rates continuing to climb, clubs should review salary and hourly rates of all employees every two months. It is important to note that the market, not the club, sets salary rates. If other employers are paying it, clubs must keep up to retain and attract employees.
  • Boosting benefits. Employers across the board are aiming to offer unique benefits that entice and keep talent. Costco, for example, offers free memberships to the store, extra pay on Sundays, 50% 401K matching and numerous promotion opportunities. This is all in addition to above minimum wage salaries, exceptional benefits packages and paid time off for vacation, sick leave, holidays and maternity leave. CCV noticed comparable businesses in the local market (restaurants, landscaping companies, etc.) did not have the resources to offer broad benefits like the club could, so highlighting them became strategic advantage. Baltimore Country Club discovered many of their employees wanted/needed pet insurance, so they added it to their standard company benefits offerings.
  • Adjusting Expectations and Restructuring Hours. Work-life balance is a priority for workers and that won’t change anytime soon. Clubs cannot have the expectation that employees are going to work 80+ hours per week during season or 15+ days in a row without a day off, as once was customary. Clubs are being challenged to think differently about matching availability with operations. While visiting a client earlier this year, we witnessed success in surveying employees on which days and hours of the week they preferred to work. Club leadership anxiously anticipated the results, worried they opened a can of worms and the findings could make the already daunting task of scheduling even more difficult. Surprisingly, it was actually easier to navigate shift assignments by understanding when employees were open to work, and staff appreciated the opportunity to communicate their preferences. Another example for inspiration is Chick-Fil-A, which offers employees the option for three 12-hour shifts or four 10-hour shifts to provide balance, flexibility and predictability for their workers.
  • Promoting Employment Offerings. Clubs will need to think differently about how they market staff perks, including promoting employment benefits, opportunities and other compensation on the club’s website. CCV has an employment section on the club’s public homepage and proudly includes benefits package details. They also shortened information about the club to a few key statistics and revised employment opportunities to make them seem more approachable to job seekers. The club offers signing bonuses for many positions and created a recruiting task force to share best practices and brainstorm out-of-the-box recruitment ideas.
  • Helping Employees See Their Value. Kate Buhler, a consultant and trainer with Profitable to Train©, says many employers believe managers should simplify jobs during a labor crisis to make positions as easy for employees as possible. However, Kate recommends giving employees as much responsibility as they can handle. When she recently trained a team that works in reservation sales, she asked the group, “How much revenue do you think you bring into this business each year?” The team responded with answers between $50,000 and $100,000 each. She shared the actual statistics which proved each person in that department brought about $2 million into the business each year. She then divided that number by the average annual employee salary to show the team how many employees each one of them were keeping employed each year. “Give them real data that communicates their value,” she advised.
  • Provide Flexibility and Freedom. Giving employees more freedom over when they work and what they do when they are at work is proving successful. Tara Iti Golf Club in New Zealand allowed grounds employees to pick their own work shifts for the two weeks surrounding Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a busy time for the club and while employees were urged to work, they were also encouraged to take time off. The result was that employees who really wanted to be there were working and they still got time off as needed. Other clubs have given employees in certain departments the opportunity to select their roles for the day—i.e., opting to work in the bag room, clean carts or work the bag drop depending on their mood for the day. While this sort of flexibility may not be possible all the time and in every department, giving employees more control over their work environments can boost employee morale and job satisfaction.
  • The H2-C Program. There is a bill in Congress proposing an H2-C visa program that would bring in 65,000 workers for three years in a row. If approved, this may provide some relief for labor shortages. Candidates must be vetted and committed to 12 months of work with a specific employer but could sign for two more years after the initial 12 months. This bill is not a cure, but it is a viable option for workers in the near future.

The key to overcoming the labor crisis for clubs is communication and transparency with members. Educate members on the reality of the labor shortage and how it is impacting your business on a daily, weekly and annual basis. Inform members what the ramifications are if the club doesn’t have employees and what it means for services and dues.

There’s a two-prong problem that your members need to understand:

  1. You have to pay employees more than you used to.
  2. You aren’t getting as many people to apply for jobs as you once did.

Communicate and educate members on what this means over time. GMs may need to start informing members that without staff, the only other option is reducing operating hours or limiting services.

To be as transparent as possible, keep the following in mind:

  1. Use data to back every decision. If you go to any superintendent and ask him if he can cut his budget, he’ll respond with something along the lines of “Yes, I can. But that means we can only mow greens once per week not twice per week.” This is how clubs need to think in every department. How can the club operate more efficiently and identify opportunities where small changes or cutbacks can have a big impact on labor and/or staff morale? For example, the chef may say, “We can still be open on Sunday evenings but we can only have one dining room open with reduced hours and a limited menu.”
  • Make members part of the process. Have members vote on what is most important by asking them to identify which services are vital and those that are farther down on the priority list. Perhaps closing on Sundays is less important than closing on Tuesdays.
  • Educate members on what the workforce today values:

Creative compensation structures, caring environments and work-life balance. Help members understand that valuing and respecting employees in a positive, caring environment is what attracts and keeps employees. For more than a decade, the industry has focused on attracting the next generation of members. Clubs realized they had to evolve services and offerings in order to attract millennial members who valued family activities and non-golf facilities. Now the industry must focus on attracting the next generation of workers. Clubs have to adapt and create the kind of employment opportunities that workers today seek.

Richard M. Kopplin, Kurt D. Kuebler, CCM, and Thomas B. Wallace III, CCM, CCE, ECM, are partners at KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected]and [email protected].