How “Third Places” Drive Club Success

Third Place

In building on Ray Oldenburg’s premise that nothing beats a good “third place” for fostering friendships and meaningful human interactions, we must make each of our clubs “great third places”.

That is, if our clubs are to reach their full potential. In properly positioning our so-called “third places”, the home is first and work is second. However, when we aren’t at home or work, we are somewhere else. Somewhere we enjoy life, with family and/or friends, at a party, exercising, enjoying a quick/casual delicious meal, an escape from the stress of home and/or work. Does this “third place” sound familiar? It should because it’s a place we treasure and long to be at. It is our clubs, and every club must be a good “third place” if it is successful.

Just as there are many variations on “third place” activities, there are just as many variations on types of clubs. The key to “third place” success is compatibility of the persons using them. You can’t have a compelling social environment or a good “third place” without humanizing the element of friendship. Friendship must be cultivated; and, there is no better place to do so than in a private club. As we embrace the need for clubs to be their members’ primary “third place”, we need to identify which club activities and facilities are best for developing those places of comradery, friendship and meaningful interaction among like-interest members of all ages. The entire club (with its hundreds of members) cannot develop the synergy of a “third place” as there is too much diversity with age, gender, interests, etc. We must approach our feasible “third place” development in smaller groups where true bonding among people can ferment. Here are the best potential areas for “third place” development.

Outdoor Recreation Swimming Offering

Most clubs in North America have a swimming offering that is the most treasured family-friendly recreation offering. A good swimming pool attracts children like bees to honey and they bring their parents who have much in common with one another. A good, attractive pool area has all the ingredients for a successful “third place” – children of similar ages, families with similar economic means and parents from similar backgrounds. However, for the pool to be a true “third place”, it must be organized with programs, facilities and staff to deliver the “third place” promise. The pool area “third place” must have:

  • Good swimming pool with lap lanes for meets, a diving well, shallow water socializing area, zero entry access and heating capacity for cold water
  • Possible assortment of pools and water play areas for both children and adults
  • Sufficient deck area with good furnishings and adequate shading
  • Good food and beverage offerings beyond that of a traditional snack bar; and, if possible, a tiki bar area for adults with foodservice from the main kitchen
  • Good towel service with large towels and terrycloth lounge covers – we actually know of a club that makes its members bring their own towels
  • Active pool manager who promotes the pool area and its facilities – a real people person
  • Water games for children, music sound system, competitive swim program against other clubs, summer camp program and game room
  • Attractive locker rooms and a separate locker room for women
  • Visionary swimming committee with a strong chairperson and general manager who understands the importance of this “third place” so the pool is a real hot spot for members of all ages

Fitness Area & Cyber Lounge

Today, fitness is the third most important activity to members. For a fitness facility to achieve “third place” status, it must bring members together who care about being fit and healthy. To accomplish this, a fitness facility needs an adjacent cyber lounge (a club’s own Starbucks). This way, members meet and build friendships before, during and after workouts. Phil Kiester, ECM, a very well respected club manager says his fitness facility encourages more member interaction than any other club offering.

Men’s Grill (& Women’s Space)

The Men’s Grill in a club is a special “third place” for about 25% of its male members. They are usually the heart and soul of the club’s real golfers. Golf is an essential ingredient for bringing like-minded, golf-centric men together. The Men’s Grill can also be built around other activities men enjoy such as smoking cigars, playing cards or squash, shooting, etc. Remove a central common ingredient like golf and the “third place” disappears. It’s interesting to see clubs, today, that have eliminated their Men’s Grill and their men’s golf programs have disintegrated.

Now, what’s done for men must also be done for women. They too need their own “third place”, but not necessarily the same space as men. We find fitness and spa facilities in clubs today offer good opportunities to develop womenly aspects so they become “third places”. The single gender clubs today (in most urban centers) are actually some of the most successful clubs in big cities like
New York, Chicago, St. Louis, etc. These clubs have found that they have more social glue and meaning to their members than trying to offer clubs to all persons with a broad array of offerings for every activity under the sun.

Private clubs must remain viable in today’s society by giving members what they want, not what social extremists think they should have. Build a “third place” and your club will prosper. Don’t get caught up in social correctness fads. Involve your members in deciding what they want their club to be. Our clubs cannot be everything to everyone; but, they can focus on doing a few things very well by becoming a great “third place” for the most important people in our society – members.

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About Bill McMahon, Sr. AIA, OAA

Bill is a strategic, financial and architectural planning consultant to clubs throughout North America. He established McMahon Group in 1983 as an affiliate of the family architectural firm his grandfather founded in 1906. Over the ensuing years, the firm has expanded its club consulting services beyond clubhouse improvement planning to a full range of services for all aspects of private club challenges. To date, the firm has assisted more than 2,000 private clubs across the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. McMahon Group provides a unique approach to developing club facility projects first establishing design and financial feasibility so membership approval is achieved. Thereafter final design and construction firms are selected to build the member approved project.

Mr. McMahon is unique among club consultants in providing an integrated strategic, financial and architectural approach to solving club problems. His personal involvement with his own clubs in St. Louis (serving in the roles of president, board member and committee member) has allowed him to bring unparalleled experience to each client. Mr. McMahon’s club memberships have included Bellerive Country Club (St. Louis), Racquet Club Ladue (St. Louis), University Club of St. Louis, Spring Lake Yacht Club (Michigan) and the Royal Yacht Club of Tasmania.

Mr. McMahon is a graduate of Washington University School of Architecture in St. Louis and holds architecture licenses in 44 U.S. states and in Ontario, Canada. He is a featured author in industry publications and a featured speaker at the annual conferences of the Club Managers Association of America, the Canadian Society of Club Managers, the National Club Association and the Hospitality, Financial and Technology Professionals. He serves as a visiting lecturer at continuing education sessions offered by regional CMAA chapters and at Michigan State University. Bill is a co-author of McMahon Club Trends®, the comprehensive research reports on strategic issues facing private clubs published with the National Club Association. He is also founder of the Excellence in Club Management Award.

Mr. McMahon is a member of the American Institute of Architects, and the National Club Association. He is a former president of the Missouri Council of Architects, AIA and has served on various charitable boards in the St. Louis area.

More articles by Bill McMahon, Sr. AIA, OAA
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