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The Changing of the Guard
Written by Richard C. Day, Chairman & CEO, The Hospitality Resource Group International

“This is the way we’ve always done it”. This statement is all too familiar to the younger, more creative, General Managers that are entering the private club industry. It also contributes to the high turnover and short tenure (approximately 3 years) of many General Managers. The reason being that in today’s highly competitive and increasingly demanding club environment, change is almost essential for survival. Many of the older “traditional” clubs are discovering that their membership is aging and yet they continue to resist the fact that every trend in the club industry says that young professional families with children are the driving force with respect to membership growth and club utilization. These “new” members are typically in their late 30’s to late 40’s, have children at home, and are looking to join clubs that their entire families can utilize and enjoy. So why are some clubs and boards still resisting this fact? Many of them don’t want young children running around the clubhouse, they still enjoy fine dining and find children disruptive to the social atmosphere of the club. They still enjoy smoking cigars which many younger people today find offensive and the club doesn’t have separate facilities to accommodate both groups.

So these “new” members are searching for, and joining, clubs that are “family friendly”, which is a term that club boards and decision makers better get used to if they’re going to be able to compete.

Part of the problem is that many clubs have either an outdated or no strategic plan, whatsoever, in place, to assist them with making decisions that significantly affect the future of the club. Many clubs today have outdated bylaws. An examples is: how does the club deal with “significant others” who are very common in today’s social environment? How important is a long-range strategic plan? Almost every successful organization has one that tells them: who they are now, who do they want to be in the future, how are they going to get there, what do they have to do to get there, and, if need be, how are they going to pay for it? Who is their competition and what are they doing?

To answer these questions with a dose of reality and not just the thinking of the board, a club should also perform a comprehensive membership survey that encompasses general feeling and attitudes among the membership, as well as addressing the current trends within the industry, such as fitness centers, less formal and more casual dining, childcare, along with family friendly facilities and programming. It also should address and renovation issues and how the membership would pay for them if the consensus indicates that they are needed. This type of survey should usually be outsourced rather than be done in house, in order to get truly objective results and a truly objective survey. Also, industry experts will be able to communicate, within the survey, the industry trends previously mentioned. Many General Managers are wary of comprehensive surveys that could indicate membership dissatisfaction, however, they shouldn’t fear them because, the survey can be a valuable management tool that can usually improve the club in a variety of ways.

The reason for conducting a comprehensive survey prior to developing a long-range strategic plan is that the survey tells you what the membership is thinking and what they want. The long-range planning committee then takes this information and uses it as the foundation for the strategic plan. The planning committee should consist of a variety of club demographics with but a few board members in order to get true member input and not just another edict put out by the board. By having a wider demographic variety, these members will also generate support for the final plan through their peer groups. The strategic planning sessions, and final presentations, should usually be led by the same facilitator who developed the survey, if possible. This provides for continuity of purpose.

Returning to the beginning of the article and the statement “this is the way we’ve always done it”, many clubs also find their membership classifications improperly skewed. They do not have membership categories that address today’s current needs and future trends. Again, there are industry experts that can guide clubs through this process as well as design membership marketing programs for clubs needing more members and integrate these strategies into the planning process.

The private club industry today is so fraught with the “traditional” way of doing things that despite the educational materials and seminars widely available in the marketplace, the clubs who are going to succeed in the future will find themselves having to think more and more, “out of the box”. If you don’t believe it, look again at the average tenure of a club General Manager. Often, when a General Manager expresses new and creative views to his or her board, they are often viewed as self-serving and not in line with the “way we’ve always done things around here” and “ we’ve been successful all these years; we don’t need to do anything different”. This is why part of an outside consultant’s job is to provide board education, to take this pressure off of the General Manager. American businesses and American culture, in general, have always been resistant to change and, as a result, are finding themselves in a position of catch up. Those who recognize this are gaining ground they had lost, however, it hasn’t come cheaply or without cost. Clubs deciding to grow with the trends and make the changes necessary to compete and succeed, do so, often, at the risk of alienating older long-time members who don’t go quietly. Boards find it difficult to resist their strong vocal chorus. The loss of some of these members, while seeming significant at the time, will be more than offset by new members who will be the future of the club. The costs in renovating facilities, designing creative membership classifications and marketing strategies and the creation of family friendly programs, etc. will more than pay off for the club in the years ahead. Don’t be afraid of “the changing of the Guard”, embrace it.


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