Club Master Planning – A Market Based Approach

With recent surges in membership and increased revenues, many clubs are considering, developing or implementing master plans for their future. This is a good thing. Prior to the COVID surge in golf participation and club membership, lots of clubs neglected any reinvestment in enhancing facilities and worse yet, allowed deferred maintenance to go uncorrected for extended periods.

Over time, the wish lists have grown and as the next generation populates the club includes many items not always best for the club. While not advocating a policy of stagnation, clubs need to consider not only their desires but also immediate needs and the overall economic impact of master planning. At most clubs, there are factions who ask only about the cost of plan components and others who don’t care about cost. It’s critical to know not only how much a particular improvement will cost, but also how much revenue it might generate and its impact on operational expenses. It’s one thing to be able to afford the capital expenditure. It’s another to understand its long term impact on the club.

All clubs have wish lists. Some want to host a major event. Some seek to add prestige to membership. Some hope to establish financial stability. Some simply want to fix what’s broken. All are different. No quality plan specific to the club in question can be developed without a complete understanding of:

  • its market
  • its location/demographics
  • its facilities
  • the club’s culture
  • its membership

Once these benchmarks are established, realistic goals for the specific club can be set and a vision for that club’s future developed. The “one size fits all” approach must be avoided at all costs. Economics often dictate that a club should phase in any improvements to first address the elements that either need to be corrected (deferred maintenance) and those that will pay for themselves. Each and every club has a different combination of these characteristics and each has to consider both the intrinsic and extrinsic factors and respond accordingly in their planning.

A master plan is no small project. It should start with analyses of the items listed above to fully understand the specific needs and potential of the club. Simply developing a wish list that may be the result of what a board member observed on vacation, another club might have or something one may have seen on television is flying blind. Using a wish list that may be nothing more than a compilation of what other clubs are doing is too broad.

There are several critical questions that need answers for a successful plan. These include:

  • Can an improvement generate additional revenue?
  • How will improvements being considered impact operations?
  • Will (new and existing) members be willing to pay for it and its operation?
  • Is the improvement being considered:
    • capable of generating additional revenue and;
    • does it provide the club with a competitive advantage?
  • Can the club’s site and infrastructure physically support the improvement?
  • Does the market desire and will it support the improvement being considered?

As these (and other) questions are answered a realistic vision of the club’s future takes shape and then the planning process can begin from a more informed position. Quite possibly, the most important question addresses the club’s vision for the future. Almost like asking a little kid what they want to be when they grow up, every club, no matter how old, is evolving and needs a vision for the future. Accordingly, part of the plan should focus on what the club is expected to be in 2 years, 5 years, 10 years or more. Though the plan is likely to be (and should be) updated periodically, ignoring the next generation of members and how they’ll use the club is shortsighted. It’s not uncommon for those clubs steeped in tradition to hold on to the past without an eye toward the future. Tradition is a great thing, but some traditions are no longer relevant. The planning process suggested helps to identify those traditions that are useful to maintain and those that may be counter-productive.

I’ve often observed that some clubs, especially “top-tier” clubs tend to ask what “peer” clubs have done relative to a specific issue, policy or improvement. It’s imperative to know what the competition is doing or has done, but equally important for any club to develop its own identity. Being the first club to add things like music or food service to the practice area, more liberal dress codes and fewer rules could actually enhance a club’s panache simply by the assumption of a leadership role. Diversity in membership and staff is now considered essential by many clubs as the private club industry seeks to not only broaden its appeal but also achieve a higher level of social responsibility. A lack of more family-friendly environments can be a deal breaker for many. These issues should be a part of any master planning as facilities needs evolve.

While this article focuses on the economic factors affecting club planning, it’s also important to realize that there are most certainly instances where clubs should most definitely add or enhance amenities that may not have a direct financial benefit. Such decisions should be identified as such and made with the full knowledge that they have a cost.

Master planning is a big part of the club landscape in a time where 43% of clubs now have waiting lists for membership, many now have the confidence to reinvest and private clubs have become more popular. None of us know how long the good times will last and while master planning and club enhancement projects are generally a positive thing, we encourage informed planning and intelligent investment.