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January 2013

Back In the Game

by David Gould

Among the vital signs studied by golf industry data collectors, private-club membership is less frequently probed. But a recent National Golf Foundation survey turned a spotlight on the member-only segment, and the findings are compelling.

Core golfers who hold memberships at private clubs (17 percent of them do so) were asked how likely they were to keep paying dues for the next three years. It was an upbeat report, in which no less than 94 percent of respondents said they felt confident about continuing their memberships. According to researchers, this means that only 6 percent of current members could be classified as “somewhat vulnerable,” or in a group that doesn’t feel completely confident they’ll retain their private-club memberships in the next few years. Vulnerability appears highest among members who play large percentages of their rounds away from their club. Within the group of members who play 40 percent or more of their rounds away from their club, 15 percent are classified as vulnerable. Parsing these percentages, researchers decided the figures showed a willingness among members “to overlook high cost-per-visit numbers.”

Club consultant Otto Hartman—himself a former club manager—would disagree with that interpretation. “If a club is succeeding, and it expects to thrive in the future, its members aren’t keeping a tally of their visits in the back of their heads,” says Hartman, vice president of Creative Golf Marketing. “A private club needs to feel like an extension of each member’s home. That’s an old truism, and it has to be even more true today.”

Therefore, clubs have to allow a style of dress that fits into the flow of home and work life. And, since people today are wired to digital devices, Hartman contends that club managers should “provide facilities as close as possible to a business center.” In other words, the club can’t be a lifestyle component the member must go out of his or her way to patronize.

Few would debate this last point, but does it signal a monumental shift within the industry? Perhaps.

Since 2008, the member dropout rate at country clubs has been disturbingly high. This NGF study shows “lapsed members” leaning strongly toward rejoining in the future.

“Those who resigned their membership four to six years ago show the highest likelihood of joining again in the future (59 percent),” researchers noted.

Furthermore, NGF officials contend that these were golfers whose decision to resign their membership was highly influenced by recessionary circumstances. As such, they assert that this group of lapsed members represents a significant target market for private clubs in the next few years, provided the economy and personal financial situations are stable or improve.

David Morris, veteran manager of San Diego (California) Country Club, did welcome back a member just recently, but he doesn’t call that a trend. “I personally don’t see things getting better as we get further from the financial crisis,” says Morris, citing problematic demographics as the main barrier to growth. “The average age of our members is 65, which makes it difficult to achieve stability.”

Newly installed as general manager of suburban Atlanta’s Stonebridge Golf and Country Club, Chris Wyant has devised a plan for recapturing lapsed members in 2013. “The economy has come back to the extent that most former members ought to be candidates for returning,” he says. “We’ll be going into the database and sending letters or emails to any member who has resigned since 2008. It’s another form of marketing, and one we can’t overlook.”

One downbeat stat in the study identified members “vulnerable” to resignation as being those who play at least 40 percent of their golf at places other than their club—presumably at daily fee facilities—at least some of the time.

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