Stability vs. Change – Where’s the Balance?

Recently, we’ve been privileged to work on several assignments that are unfortunately the result of golf facilities that had ceased operations and in all but one case seeking alternative uses.  Though we all know about the trend of golf courses shutting down, preliminary estimates show that 2016 closures exceeded 200 courses nationwide, which would top previous years.

The golf industry continues to seek reasons for this decline and mobilize efforts to turn things around.  Here are some observations I’ve made in my travels to private clubs, daily-fee courses and everything in between:

  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it: As many clubs have recovered from the recession and some now boast waiting lists and rising entrance fees, some club leaders have developed a feeling of immunity from distress.  Accordingly, those in power at clubs, often staunch traditionalists, advocate a strict environment of expanded rules that often discourage the next generation from joining or participating.  It’s important not to forget how the club became successful.  I’ve actually heard board members indicate that because a club had reached success that procedures needed to change.  That seems counter-intuitive.
  • When in distress – Do Something: Conversely, when there’s a problem, deal with it.  I once belonged to a club that was in a constant state of distress for more than a decade.  The club experienced declining membership, deteriorating facilities and low member morale.  The reluctance of the membership to support necessary improvements, a well conceived membership development plan and development of a long range plan turned out to be the club’s undoing.
  • Take advantage of opportunities:  It’s always bewildering to see courses that have excessive real estate tax assessments neglect to contest those assessments.  Significant funds can often be saved which can make a difference in the club’s financial situation.  Yes, it can cost money but if well planned can be money well spent.  There are also often opportunities for clubs to expand or broaden their reach for membership.  The days of exclusionary clubs are mostly long gone and most clubs have established policies of inclusion in membership.  Reaching out to the “3 M’s” (Millennials, Minorities and Moms) is a great opportunity.  This is essential in most cases for long term success.
  • Club Culture: At many clubs, the biggest impediment to membership growth is the club’s culture.  It’s essential that all members feel welcome and included.  At many (if not most) clubs, there are usually a group of members who self-appoint themselves as “the member police”.  That guy that’s always smiling in your face and then going behind your back to report you for a rule he or she thinks you’ve violated.  It doesn’t take long to learn who these “backstabbers” are and the board should take it upon themselves to eliminate this practice from the club.  One such incident can often make existing members resign and potential members back away.  Any club is a diverse community of people with a variety of reasons for being there.  Some may be serious golfers, while others may be more casual.  Some may use the club for business while others prefer family recreation.  As the USGA and R & A have recently discovered, less may be more.  Clubs, (like the USGA and R & A) should consider seeking to eliminate some of the many (often pointless or outdated) rules in favor of a more relaxed environment where scrutiny (or even perceived scrutiny) by the “member police” is dramatically reduced.
  • Facilities:  Most golf courses and clubs, at one time or another have facilities issues.  They wear out, decline and before long the club’s facilities are no longer competitive in the marketplace.  Recognizing these conditions and addressing them is one characteristic of all successful clubs.  No golf course should be considered untouchable and no facilities can be neglected.  Objectively reviewing a club’s facilities on a regular basis and developing a plan and funding for periodic restoration or renovation is essential.

These are just a few of the issues which confront the leadership and ownership of golf clubs and courses.  I would be remiss if a discussion of balancing member desires with economic sustainability weren’t addressed.

With an ever increasing diversity of member desires (especially at private clubs), the sky’s the limit on how much a club could spend to meet those desires.  Unfortunately, the club can’t be all things to all people.  That’s where the idea of a long range plan enters the discussion so that club leaders can plan based on the goal of meeting as many of those desires as possible while remaining financially sustainable.  At some clubs, where the number of activities is limited (such as golf only clubs) this may be easier to accomplish than at clubs where there are more activities.  In some cases, in order to be competitive, clubs have to add facilities, such as fitness centers to remain competitive.  This means C H A N G E to some members and that can be a dirty word at many clubs.  Critical to this process is ensuring that decisions are made in the best long term interests of the club, not one or two small groups or “cliques” within the membership.

Implementing productive change, while avoiding change for the sake of change is a fine line.  Implementing a balanced policy takes sound planning and constant review of that planning.  One area of particular importance here is governance.  Some clubs, where leadership changes every year change with each new regime.  There’s no stability.  At others it seems like the “same old crowd” runs the club for decades.  There’s no change, even when it’s necessary.  Fix the things that are broken and maintain the ones that aren’t.  A balance of stability and well-conceived change are a common characteristic of successful clubs.  Too much of anything is rarely productive.