Private Golf & Country Club CULTURE – “Owners or Customers”

Among the characteristics prospective members try to assess when joining a private golf or country club is that club’s culture. Among the definitions of culture found in Webster’s Dictionary are:  “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” and “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”. In other words, is this club a place where the member would be comfortable with the attitudes, values and customs unique to the club? Sometimes lost in the shuffle, especially to those leading or managing the club is the impact on economics that a club’s culture can have.

Many elements contribute to formulate each club’s unique culture. Is the atmosphere formal or casual? Is the club perceived as warm and welcoming to new members, guests and do older members still find the familiarity they seek? Some clubs are busy with a constant buzz and lots of activity, often dominated by couples, families and their kids that use the club heavily as the center of their sporting and social lives. Others are more subdued with an emphasis on business networking and entertainment and some are focused primarily on golf and are often the venue for buddies gatherings and guys hangouts. The culture can also be influenced by the physical atmosphere. Is the club bright and open or dark and reclusive?

Sometimes clubs are defined as primary clubs where the members frequent the club and others are “second” or destination clubs used as getaways and visited less frequently. Residential Clubs are often the center of a community and serve as the main attraction for purchasing real estate. These are often combined with a resort and serve the dual purpose of getaway and resort lifestyle. Even within these segments, club culture can vary.

One reason a private club’s culture is important to understand is that the culture largely determines the level of activity. An active, primary, family oriented club is likely to produce more rounds of golf and other activity per membership than a club with primarily business oriented members or a secondary club. Accordingly, its capacity for members is less to ensure a quality experience and access for the membership. Likewise, a club that has a culture emphasizing social and dining activities over golf and sports is likely to have a greater capacity for members who use the golf course and sports facilities less intensively and frequently. Among the metrics we often consider is the number of golf rounds per membership (including all rounds). This gives us a clear snapshot of how many golf members a club can accommodate. If one were to work backward from the desired number of golf rounds in a given year and divide that by the average number of rounds per membership, an estimate of the desired number of golf members can be calculated. It’s also important to consider whether future members will use the facilities more or less.

Now comes the tricky part. Are members willing to pay more for increased access if the club limits membership to a desired level to control play? This is often where the most important question about club culture surfaces. Is the membership culture one of “ownership” or are they largely “customers”?

Those memberships that take ownership in their club (regardless of whether the membership owns it or an investor) are typically inclined to improve the club, pay for enhancements and access, have pride in their club, consider the future membership and take good care of the golf course and other facilities (replace divots, rake bunkers and fix ball marks). They are usually respectful and courteous to staff and management. Conversely, at clubs where the membership thinks more like customers, they complain about most expenditures, resist any cost increases or assessments, care only about the impact on themselves and consistently seek to let the next generation “pay for it”. They rarely care about the elements of the club they may not use.

It doesn’t take rocket science to see that a club’s culture can impact its economics. While no ownership culture clubs can (and often do) overspend and get the club into a financial hole, the customer culture can avoid even the most necessary investments to a point where (like the old “pay me now or pay me later” commercial) the club declines past the point of no return. This is often how clubs become housing developments.

As I write in “The Culture of Golf – Isn’t it Just a Game”: Historically, private clubs have been an oasis of decorum and politeness. Many clubs attempt to create a welcoming and friendly atmosphere. Others seemingly seek to establish rules and policies attempting to develop prestige that are often perceived as “stuffy”. Still others, attempting to elevate their reputations foster an air of superiority while attempting to display (an often insincere) culture of warmth. Anyone who’s visited many private clubs can attest to what I call the “country club wave” where members might acknowledge others with a wave of the hand while not even looking at them. Private clubs can be the most comfortable places and at times the most awkward. At some clubs it seems as though the goal is to make guests as uncomfortable as possible. Each club has its own unique culture.

How important is a club’s culture? Pretty darned important! It not only determines the atmosphere and appropriate target market for a club, but also has tremendous impact on the club’s economics and its prospects for success, often being the difference between joining one club versus another. The physical quality of a club is critical, but a reputation for having the wrong culture for the prospective member can be deadly. Having an independent assessment of your club’s culture can help establish the path to success and for informed and rational planning for the club’s future.