Clubs, Success and a “Take it or Leave It” Approach

This past weekend, I played golf with a friend who had taken a leave from membership at our club for personal reasons. He mentioned that as he pondered his reinstatement that the club’s recent membership development success has potentially hindered his ability to resume his club privileges. Many clubs are experiencing a resurgence of membership from the COVID impact, a strong economy with low unemployment, a rising stock market and rising GDP. Accordingly, some clubs are implementing policies and rules at their clubs with a “take it or leave it” approach, with waiting lists and potential “replacement” members in the pipeline. Should my friend, a life long member of the club, have his place waiting for him when he’s ready to return?

As clubs become generally more crowded, some members are frustrated with their lack of unrestricted access. I’ve heard stories about members expressing concern or displeasure about not being able to get tee times and being told to “go join somewhere else”. At some clubs, leadership has been more prone to enforcing disciplinary actions than in the past. Situations like this are bound to become more common as club leaders, no longer in need of additional members, have expanded confidence in their positions of authority and many clubs have waiting lists and cash in the bank. At some clubs, leadership has taken the position that the members are lucky just to be there.

As a result of recent membership development success, many clubs have been developing and considering capital improvement plans. We’ve provided several appraisals and feasibility studies for these projects. These plans need to consider not only a cross-section of all the existing members but also potential future members and the potential economic risks ahead. While most private clubs have been relaxing and eliminating onerous rules, some have added more rules, sometimes seemingly simply because they can. Club attorney Michelle Tanzer says: “Issues have resulted in more clubs being sued by members, sometimes those seeking refunds or other membership issues and in other cases disgruntled members resulting from disciplinary issues.There’s even one lawsuit in North Carolina at the prestigious Meyers Park CC where the club was sued over the elements of a renovation plan because it didn’t adequately address women’s facilities. The only people who benefit from these lawsuits are lawyers.

10-12 years ago, I was asked to pen an article for Links Magazine on the idea that (then) prospective members were (and should have been) asking more questions of the clubs than the clubs were asking of them. Many clubs were distressed and in need of more members. Now, in many cases that “buyers market” has come full cycle and the clubs are being more selective in admitting new members and often more aggressive with pursing suspension or removal of existing members for what sometimes seem (to many) like trivial issues. At clubs experiencing financial success, overzealous club leaders, often in power for extended periods, exercise their control with an iron hand that could result in more casual members eventually deciding that’s not what they signed up for. If, and when those folks seek alternative recreational options, and return to their pre-COVID activities – other than golf, the stability of club membership and the game of golf suffers.

As we know, with the numerous club failures over the past decade or so, there are, in some markets fewer clubs to choose from. Since 2000, the US has lost nearly 15% of private golf facilities and the pandemic has created (at least temporarily) more interest in club membership as a perceived “safe haven” for families. Many clubs are full. This persists despite the fact that many clubs have no vaccine or mask requirement, except in jurisdictions requiring same. Bottom line, right now is a “seller’s market” for club membership. However, we’ve seen that change before. And it can happen again should we experience an economic downturn.

Whether the end of the pandemic, the next recession or whatever other extrinsic or intrinsic changes occur to alter our recreational habits, clubs and their leaders should be thinking ahead that leaner times could return and that clubs are a leisure time industry, which is potentially more sensitive than others to economic cycles. Planning for club improvements and reinvesting is necessary. Many clubs are considering the addressing of deferred maintenance and enhancement projects as bulging membership rolls create new opportunities. This is all good, but as I like to say, “no club is bulletproof” and leisure expenses are often the first people discontinue in an economic downturn, especially if the club culture isn’t perceived as friendly. Enhancement plans should be made with a broad and objective view of the future and not only the desires but also the risks that may be ahead. Private clubs, like everything else evolve and are subject to economic cycles. Things are good now, but even with good times, clubs need to evolve with the needs and desires of the next generation of members. It’s not your father’s country club anymore, it’s yours.

Club leaders deserve respect and appreciation for their commitment and efforts on behalf of the club. They also need to appreciate the members, who represent the economic engine and lifeblood of the club and make up the club’s culture. Regardless of whether it’s a seller’s or buyer’s market, it’s always a two-way street where not only do members need the club, but the club needs the members.