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What is a modern country club? An Investigation.

Posted On: November 1, 2018 by VGM Club in: Clubhouse Food and Beverage VGM Club

What is the modern country club? An Investigation.

Written by Andrew Huff:

Almost 40 years ago, the New York Times published “Country Clubs Sell a New Image.” Below is an excerpt from the piece,

Harrison Dorothy Fine, who has been with the Westchester Country Club for 38 years, was standing outside the main entrance one Saturday night recently when a motorcycle pulled up. The passenger, a young woman dressed in jeans, was a club member.

“Anything wrong?” she asked Miss Fine.

“I said I remembered the days ‘when you wouldn’t dream of coming to club on a Saturday night without getting dressed.’”

“’Well,’ the young woman replied, ‘I’m a member of the new generation.’”

It is a generation that country clubs must accommodate in order to survive, and the accommodations – lower dues and special dances for younger members, for example – are only some of the changes being made, here and elsewhere.


Image Source: Ford Plantation Club

This blast from the past reminds us that country clubs have always been searching for their next young members. Included in that search is a rush to offer flashy new amenities since flashy meant “special” dances.

A lot has been written about the 2008 recession and the negative effects the new generation has had on the country club world, but by many metrics the industry has bounced back. Country clubs have more competition than ever, and it has resulted in innovation across the industry spectrum. We are seeing less and less golf-centric facilities consistently rising to the top.

Today, flashy means hip coffee shops that could just as easily flourish in Brooklyn, New York. It means having fitness instructors on site, dressed and ready for a workout only thought to be available at boutique fitness studios in West LA.

The fact is country clubs no longer face nearly as much competition from other country clubs when attracting new members. This has forced a slew of ideas on what exactly being a modern country club means. In a recent City Lab article “Why Won’t Millennials Join Country Clubs?”, the article that spurred this work, Jeff Morgan, CEO of the CMAA said this,

In the past, the model for a country club has been very golf-centric and largely male-centric,” he said. “Probably if you think of a country club, you think of Caddyshack, and middle-aged men out playing golf on the weekend.”

But Morgan insists that there’s more to modern club life: He calls today’s country club “a family-centric activity center, with golf as potentially [just] one of the activities or assets or experiences that are offered to members.

Deconstruct the re-imagination of a modern country club and you see why they are facing more competition than ever, and more importantly, why that is ok. We gathered experts from across the industry to discuss four elements driving this change:

1. Trendy versus necessary
2. Changing hospitality culture
3. Changing competition sources
4. Importance of data

Gabe Aluisy, host of Private Club Radio and membership marketing guru expounded upon this from a unique and eclectic perspective after interviewing hundreds of industry leaders on his weekly show.

How do you sell a club on understanding that “trendy” amenities aren’t actually trendy – they are necessities? We tend to hear them framed as trends, but clubs need to add young families to their membership in order to stay competitive.

Gabe Aluisy: There's a balance to strike in preserving the history and tradition of a club against the need to improve and appeal to the next generation of members. What sets clubs apart is often what holds them back from progress. It's dichotomy unseen in most segments of the market. Often cultural shifts get mistaken for fads when they are actually trends that should be embraced. It takes forward thinking leaders, who study trends outside the industry, to move a club in the right direction and steer the ship.

What Gabe has found is a balancing act all clubs are frantic to perform. Above each club stands the board, owner or management high atop a tight rope bound by budgets, time, and space. Take a step in one direction and opportunity costs follow suit. A diverse membership community anxiously watches below as the club takes a step in either direction.

Millie Harper, Assistant General Manager at North Ridge Country Club in North Carolina, shared similar sentiments fresh off the heels of introducing The Bunker Café, a coffee shop located on the North Ridge Campus:

Millie Harper: The fact is – we are now living by a model of ‘You have to spend money to make money. Well, actually, break even.’ We are all trying to reinvent ourselves with hip, cool, trendy, one-of-a-kind experiences while also trying to be that Cheers type facility where everyone really does know your name. It’s almost scary! Scary to drop money into a huge project when you know you need other things. Scary they will love it or hate it. Or, that they will just drop you like a bad habit if you can’t keep every person in the family interested and invested in what the club has to offer.

It is tireless work to conceive, build, execute and survive new and custom projects, but the reward is huge. If you can please the older demographic, keep boomers active and retain millennials, you are doing something right! I think every club out there is still trying to find the perfect recipe for success. Read more about the coffee shop here: North Ridge Country Club Adds New Avenues for Revenue.

Intertwined into every article an industry professional reads in resources like Club & Resort Business Magazine are mentions of items found above. What becomes difficult is deciphering where to draw the line between trendy and overall culture shifts in hospitality. Heck, look at July’s cover of Club & Resort Business Magazine and you will find a group of young people climbing a rock wall. Imagine showing that to Miss Fine!

Jennifer Burgess, a fairly new face in the club industry, and owner of Plus One Hospitality, weighed in on this thought as it relates to food & beverage:

Jennifer Burgess: I see club after club struggle to stay relevant and appeal to younger/new members and compete with local restaurants. I think it’s necessary to frame and approach these “trends” not as trends, but as an overall shift of culture in hospitality. Consider the following in today’s F&B industry:

  • People dine out more often than ever before.
  • People have access to more food related information than ever before.
  • Quality is a top priority to diners, and their points of comparison are vast.
  • Emotionally adept service is a priority over technically correct service (i.e. the old adage applies – people will forget what you did or said, but they won’t forget how you made them feel).

As a result the demand for formal, fine dining, lengthy, special occasion, pomp & circumstance-filled experiences is minimal, and this market will continue to shrink further with future generations. It is being replaced with what appeals to the next generation – craft beers and specialty cocktails, artisan coffee & tea, tapas-style menus designed for snacking and sharing, locally and responsibly sourced and processed ingredients, product knowledgeable employees, customizable menu options, grab & go counters, social media campaigns and promotions.

These are not going anywhere – there is no turning back to candelabras and harps and degustation menus and white gloves! What this simply becomes is survival – either you change with the times, or you become irrelevant – and new members either stop joining or they take their meals and money elsewhere.

We dove further into what this looks like with newly hired Gerald Ford, CMC and Executive Chef at the Ford Plantation in Georgia: Where does the Ford Plantation fit within its community as a first choice for dining? How are you adapting as a chef and culinary team to give members these options?

Gerald Ford: I think the club provides a unique experience for the membership because they can get the personalized service they desire. Our main goal at the Ford Plantation is to make sure that we're the members first choice. We have about 300 member homes on property, and we want our members to come to our outlets to dine by choice, not default.

I also know the membership wants to eat great food. For us, that means being responsible and purchasing from local purveyors. I have some wonderful local ingredients around me, and the membership absolutely eats that up. They very much look for grass fed, natural, organic products every chance they can.

When it comes to fine dining, most people don't want to put on a jacket anymore to go to dinner, although it is still important to possess that ability. The difference is it now becomes a more selective, unique and private dinner for 20 to 25 people – as opposed to something they expect every night. At the end of the day, I try and provide the membership with the best possible meal I can, what ever that experience looks like.

What I have found incredibly important as a club chef today is to educate members about the ingredients we use and from where they are sourced. A lot of my time now is spent understanding the different perspectives of members, the costs that go into our operation at The Ford Plantation, along with any tradeoffs, so that I can communicate that with our membership. Much like training my team on how to prepare the food, I get to train the membership on what it takes to source, prepare and serve the quality food they enjoy on property. While many people do not have a grasp of what it takes, I enjoy the opportunity to share the process with the membership at The Ford Plantation.

How does this contrast with boutique fitness centers, dining options, and other places a country club may be forced to compete with for time and money?

Gabe Aluisy: The depth and breadth of the amenities and conveniences a private club can offer, along with the camaraderie that is built from knowing you're sharing experiences with like-minded individuals, makes the membership experience completely unique. In addition, the bond built between the club's staff and the members adds a personal touch that is mostly lost in today's world. There's truly an unmatched sense of community that you can't find in your local gym, restaurant or community pool.

Country clubs have so many unique advantages that it would be disadvantageous to fundamentally alter the foundation on which it was conceived. Strip away the fluff and what is left is a place dedicated to making the people involved feel part of a community that is inclusionary, dynamic and evolving. This foundation is the bedrock for a unique advantage that, when harnessed, places a modern country club ahead of the curve.

Lawrence McFadden, CMC and General Manager at the Union League Club of Cleveland had some solutions to utilizing data to further understand what the modern club looks like. It is imperative a club utilize this in order to get to the root of a problem, (or to learn if there is one to begin with):

Lawrence McFadden: Data is the only way to measure acceptable satisfaction. Otherwise it is just an opinion. A great statement we have used since I arrived at the club focused on, “a preference or opinion doesn’t necessary equal a problem.” It is simply an opinion, which all members have. Here are a few clubs may hear:

  • “The coffee is cold.” Does the operator know if they placed crème and sugar into coffee?
  • “The breakfast was slow.” Does the operator know if you like the business company you invited? Bad guests could equal a less patient member.
  • “The menu is too limited.” Does the operator know they had fish last night and the member is going to a steakhouse with a friend tomorrow?

The greatest piece of data use is to justify that a club “must try” to accommodate all the needs and wants; while public restaurants can market and attract to customers that might be “happy” at their establishments. Some members feel required to dine for reasons such as dining credits or allowances requiring spend. How is forcing someone to do something or penalizing them for not translate into a positive experience?

Why does the club necessarily need to be all things to all people? What is the value proposition to each event, program or experience? Ultimately, data must drive and justify what we do.

The Idea of the “New” Club is Nothing New:

Country clubs have always been searching for younger members. This challenge will not go away the minute your club adds a pool, or a trendy new coffee shop. In order to stay competitive, there must be an unrelenting focus to be dynamic and transformative. Continuing to find ways to offer new and exciting opportunities for your membership results in a new area/activity/experience that acts as a petri dish for an unmatched sense of community.

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