Golf Clubs Don't Die Overnight
Golf Clubs — even established ones that pride themselves on tradition and timelessness—are facing new challenges to sustaining membership levels in today’s increasingly crowded golf market. This is usually as a small problem, starting first as a slow leak that goes undetected or unaddressed by clubs’ boards and management, only to suddenly gain in intensity and cascade into a serious drain on a club’s financial stability. Especially in the current economic climate.
As the saying goes “Clubs don’t die overnight; it takes time.”
When these situations occur, it is always easier to point to outside forces such as bad local economies, new competition (golf or otherwise), or other external causes as the primary sources of the blame. And while clubs rarely fail or deteriorate completely on their own, some have shown the ability not only to stave off, but counter, these outside threats much more effectively than others.
The difference between sustainability and failure usually hinges on basic, common-sense tactics that build, and keep, a strong membership base. Being Proactive and Not Reactive.
By the time a member gets around to informing the club or the decision to leave it is probably a pretty firm decision that’s been made after months of mulling it over and trying to find a way to stay. Filling the spot is not as easy any more as few clubs have a lengthy waiting list. In today’s market with thin operating margins, lost dues need to be replaced as quickly as possible, or quality and efficiencies can suffer and a damaging effect can start that quickly leads to more dissatisfied members.
But while these are important considerations, when a member leaves it’s even more imperative that the club find out why. Sensitivity needs to be exercised toward personal issues, such as financial difficulty or job loss that may have prompted the defection. But management and the Board have an obligation to the membership at large to also learn if the resignation is indicative of a problem that’s more widespread (or could become so) and related directly to club operations.
If you have a membership director - and the data suggest you should), conducting formal exit interviews with departing members should be seen as just as important a part of their job as welcoming new ones. Even if formal exit debriefings are not conducted, it should still be the mission of club management to understand the reasons behind every transition in the member ranks—subtractions even more so than additions.
This is critical information that needs to be gained and studied for the sake of the club as a whole.
While it is probably too late to keep any one member from leaving, understanding and reacting to the factors that prompt any defection—even when they seem to be isolated occurrences — remains the best way to prevent a problem from escalating and perhaps causing other members to follow suit.
When it comes to member retention, there is no really such thing as “micromanaging”; instead, each membership should be treated as a valuable part of the club time should be taken to see if something can be fixed.
In the old days, a country club was all about prestige and while this may not have always been visibly acknowledged, being invited to join a private club—and being able to afford it—certainly came with an amount of status. However today, it’s different.
Lifestyles have evolved and decisions are increasingly driven—even for “luxury goods” such as club memberships—on the basis of perceived value. That in turn has turned club costs into one of the top drivers of attrition, as more members leave because they feel they can get the same benefits from other sources — usually a combination of other golf courses or other active altogether.
Clubs must rely on service — anything from remembering member names to storing clubs—to add a sense of value. But how they offer these services can say a lot to a value-sensitive member. Nobody wants to feel like they’re being taken advantage of, and multiple individual fees, on top of dues, can quickly give that impression.
The key thing is that someone must be responsible for this area and if a club is struggling to retain members, such a person will help even if there are other concurrent problems as well. Such as a mounting financial crisis due to declining dues revenue. Or maybe a constant turnover in chefs has led to decreased restaurant loyalty.
Whatever the cause, the management team has enough things to worry about without having to focus on recruiting new members, too. Even in tight times, the answer often lies in making the investment in hiring someone whose sole responsibility is membership-related issues. So if your club does not already have a membership director, the facts suggest you should.
The truth is general managers can find the time to do a meet-and-greet with prospective members and give them tours, but the reality is that their mind will likely be swarming with all sorts of other items on the to-do list, detracting from the quality, or enthusiasm, of the show-and-tell. Many times, in fact, they will be interrupted and distracted mid-tour with issues that are discovered, or raised, as the prospects are being shown around.
A clear-minded, focused membership director can do wonders to make members feel welcome and for clubs in crowded markets, a personable membership director with a selling personality can make the difference.
One trend that should be profiled are the members most likely to leave your club — and they are the ones who now use the club the least. This is especially true among heavily scheduled younger members with many more demands on their time and money. Indeed young people tend to be the least satisfied members because they have so many lifestyle issues that limit their use of the club. For this group, especially, it’s important to have programmes that stand a better chance of capturing a member’s interest. Putting all your time and effort into “traditional” galas will continue to miss the mark with members who will only be interested in casual theme parties or family-friendly events that can be more easily worked into their busy calendars.
Certainly, most clubs do not have unlimited resources to be everything to everyone, but trying to strike a better balance can make a huge difference. Even if members still cannot make many of the events you offer, just their recognition that “their” club is making an effort to cater to “their” needs and desires can go a long way towards keeping them from bailing out.
Hand in hand with this goes the need for clubs to make a better upfront effort to prevent eventual “non-users” from joining in the first place. Many clubs are now learning the hard way that the flip side of price-based membership incentives is that they can encourage the wrong kind of thinking among potential members. Instead of taking a long-term view of membership as an investment, they focus only on how much they can save by “getting in” through the incentives.
While it’s hard to discourage any window-shoppers these days, clubs should still take care to ensure that their application screening and admission processes look carefully into applicants’ intention, and likelihood, of remaining long-time members. Short cuts in the admission process, even in the face of increasing membership pressures, will only serve to diminish a sense of value about the club and tarnish its perception as a top class establishment.