Getting Members out of Their House and to the Club Will be the Newest Form of Competition Facing Your Club and the Broader Industry

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We have been saying since the pandemic began in March that it would take time to identify which changes wrought by the quarantine and phased economic opening would stick and which ones would quickly return to normal. Based on last week’s news reports, it seems the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is in the snap-back category. Not sure that was such a good idea, but attendance showed people will continue to do what they love.

Beyond a hard-core biker fest, we are beginning to see changes in lifestyles that appear to have staying power and they are likely to affect private clubs. The most impactful is what is happening on the home front. All things “home” are booming, new home construction, sales and renovations. One driver of this is the maturing Millennial Generation, which is ready to leave the loft in the city and start a family in a suburban home. The other, which has potentially more impact on clubs, is what we are doing in our homes. Dana Tesley, CEO and Chief Research Officer at Tesley Advisory Group reported earlier in the week that from a consumer standpoint, it’s going to be about the home. Her research indicates the stay-at-home trend is part of a sustainable, structural change in society and that will continue beyond the pandemic. Most interesting is what she said about the home itself, stating, “It’s an office, an exercise center, an entertainment and now an education center also. I think consumers are basically re-investing in the remodels of their homes for a prolonged period of time.”

This is yet another example of the erosion of the home-work-play silos that used to represent life in America. Technology is at the root of this, as people can work when they want from wherever they want. Time shifting is huge, so people can exercise midday, work in the evening or on the weekend, or go to the club outside traditional time periods. The other is the pandemic, which has made stay-at-home a new mantra, and in many cases, a necessity.

We’ve often talked about the private club as a member’s home-away-from-home. For much of their history, this was a bit of a stretch. In fact, most clubhouses were large, ornate and relatively formal structures that dwarfed the homes of their members. They reflected the advantage of what banding together as a membership could produce. Most members’ homes didn’t have exercise rooms, wine cellars, golf simulators or offices that rivaled their company headquarters. That isn’t the case today and, as Tesley reports, it is less likely in the future.

The other big change we see coming down the pike is in food service. The demand for traditional a la carte dining at clubs has been declining for years. The formal dining room is a thing of the past in all but a handful of clubs. While the unfortunate demise of many local restaurants could make clubs a bit of a last man standing in the white tablecloth category, the world is heading the other way. The current formula for success is to offer upscale casual dining in a cool pub and somewhat quieter adjacent dining rooms for adults and families, all with walk-out access to a great outdoor space. Carmel Country Club in Charlotte became the poster child for this approach after their 2015 renovation. They are taking the lead again, with the innovative redesign of the lower level of their clubhouse – part sports bar, part Panera, part Starbucks, all fast, quick and easy. The plan was designed pre-covid but seems prescient now.

Illustration of Carmel Country Clubs ‘Grab and Go’ Cafe

Covid brought takeaway front and center in club dining and it is here to stay for reasons of ease and safety. While not yet in the category of traditional club business for IRS purposes, it seems a wave that can’t be stopped. Trends also indicate it won’t only be takeaway that grows. The future of club dining will include more bistro, café/coffee shop styled spaces to reduce personal contact and get more in line with the quick casual world. The good news for clubs is that these concepts have labor savings due to their reliance on counter service and their adaptability to technology in the form of apps and kiosk ordering. These types of operations work in city and country clubs, and in gated community clubs where they can be part of a convenience store concept.

What McMahon Thinks

Club leaders would do well to pay attention to these trends and plan accordingly. The clubhouse of the future shouldn’t be a special occasion palace. Rather, it should reflect trends in lifestyles, which requires features that allow members to socialize and dine, exercise and play, do some remote work and allow their children to play at traditional amenities like the club pool, but increasingly in activity centers. If clubs are going to pry members from their home, they must overcome the dual threats of their members’ houses, with all the bells and whistles, as well as the safety and security challenges people must confront when they venture out. While the pandemic threat will fade over time, it has accelerated the breakdown of the home-work-play segmentation that was the norm for many years. This is an opportunity for clubs if they play it right.

Life is no longer segmented into the neat parcels it once was. Rather than serving as a destination where members go to get away from the world, the clubhouse of the future should be an oasis where members go any time of the day or week to socialize, dine, play and recreate. This allows clubs to serve a broader constituency and, most important, meet the expectations of the vital next generation of members. Club leaders should be pushing ahead with new designs and concepts. As shown by the success of first-adopters like Carmel Country Club, the future belongs to the innovators.

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About Frank Vain

Mr. Vain provides consulting and planning services to private clubs throughout North America. Through use of specialized services including membership surveys, strategic planning, operational analysis and facility long range planning, Frank assists club in developing individualized strategies for their unique situations. 

Mr. Vain joined McMahon Group in 1988 and has more than forty years of experience in the management and development of hospitality properties including country clubs, city athletic and dining clubs and residential communities. Frank is Past President of The Country Club of St. Albans, a 36-hole country club located in Missouri, and he is a former partner in Concord Sports Club, a 1,700 member family athletic club in St. Louis. Frank was elected to the Board of the National Club Association in 2011 and served as Chairman in 2019-20. 

Mr. Vain is a native of Philadelphia and graduate of Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is a featured speaker at the annual Club Managers Association of America World Conference, National Club Association National and Regional Conferences, Major Golf Associations and a regional chapter meeting of club managers and leaders. 

Frank is a regular contributor to industry leading publications like Club Management, Club Director and BoardRoom. He was named the Gary Player Club Educator of the Year for 2012 and 2015 and received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021 by BoardRoom. He is also a co-author of McMahon’s Club Trends, a recognized industry benchmark on the trends and issues affecting private clubs. 

More articles by Frank Vain
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