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In our latest installment of “Things Millennials are Killing,” according to the website CityLab, the outlook for country clubs is quite bleak. The number of country clubs has declined to below 4,000, and a 2014 survey has found that membership has dropped 20% since 1990. One of the biggest concerns is that among most clubs, their share of members below the age of 40 is around 10-20%.
The article points to a lot of different factors that are making country clubs less appealing to millennials, such as high cost (several thousand dollar membership fees plus an initiation fee), exclusivity/exclusion (membership is often only done by referral), along with connotations of racial and religious discrimination. All of this paints an image of country clubs as filled with old, stuffy members like the judge in Caddyshack.
I know, first-hand, that this image is true. My parents were members of a country club for most of my childhood, and it was filled with people who were straight out of that stereotypical mold. I’m not going to wholly shit on clubs; some of my fondest memories as a kid were swimming at their pool, learning to play golf and tennis there, and meeting some good friends. There is value to having that sort of community and a lot of nice perks available to you. That said, as a nearly 30-year-old, I can’t imagine anything that seems like a bigger waste of time and money than joining a country club. Unless they make a few changes.
Tone Back the Emphasis on Golf
If there was one reason that my parents stayed members of their club for years, it was the access and use of their golf course. For almost every country club, this is the pinnacle, the crown jewel, the central focus to entice new members for decades. And they need to give up on this tactic.
See, as the article points out, golf membership is down over the past five to ten years, especially among millennials. The reason is fairly obvious: golf is boring to watch, expensive to play, takes up half your day, requires you to get up early to get a decent tee time, is seasonal, and is incredibly frustrating unless you’re willing to sink a lot of hours into it. Golf is the sport that sounds like it would be a lot of fun to play, then you actually play it and realize “holy shit, it’s so fucking hot out here, I’ve lost three balls, it’s been three hours, we’re out of beer, and we still have seven more holes to go.”
This isn’t the 70s, when all people had to do was hang out around a pool, watch TV, golf, or read until they could go to sleep. With the advent of Netflix, the Internet, video games, and porn, there’s not a lot of reason to justify spending six hours of your Saturday golfing. That’s time could be better spent day drinking. And if you (correctly) point out that you can be day drinking while golfing, I would point out that most country clubs frown on its members sneaking a case of Busch Light in their golf bags and getting rip-roaring drunk on the 17th green. That’s why my next suggestion is…
Relax Your Standards
I’m not just talking about your standards for new members, which you most certainly should do (especially since most clubs are not incredibly diverse in terms of culture, race, religion, or socioeconomic status). I mean you need to relax your standards for how people can act and dress at your club. Most places I’ve been, there’s a pretty firm collared shirt/slacks/nice shoes requirement everywhere outside the fitness center. The members behave that way too, with every person at the bar looking like they just came out of the West Wing and everyone eating dinner looking like they’re on the Titanic.
I’m not saying you’re obligated to just let any riff-raff in, but if people are paying thousands of dollars in membership dues, they should be able to lounge at your establishment in jeans and a t-shirt. Make your bar less formal, and let people bring in their friends (or even open it to the public) on certain nights. Same for the restaurant, make it more comfort food and family friendly, and less like a cigar lounge that brings food to keep the fat cats from getting too sloshed on their brandy. Country clubs are meant to have a certain insular feeling, but millennials are generally more inclusive, so they’ll balk at the idea that they should be expecting to have friends through the club exclusive to their other friends. Basically, make your members feel more comfortable about bringing their friends, and make the establishment more accessible to non-members.
Invest in the Gym
Country clubs are already beginning to do this, because golf and tennis are largely seasonal (depending on location) there needs to be some kind of a draw for members during the winter. If your members are paying dues for your club and to work out at another gym, you’re doing something wrong. Get a room for some spin classes every so often, get trainers to do some HIIT workouts, have a weight rack that would make a D-III college football team blush with envy.
On the same token, clubs should have some other services for their members to make their lives easier, like daycare or summer camps, laundry and dry-cleaning services, food and grocery pick-up, and car services. I’m not saying these need to all be included, they can be part of a premium package or added on, but partner with companies like Uber or Postmates to make your members’ lives easier when they’re there. You can, and should, also leverage your members’ knowledge to have them help others with accounting, taxes, or legal advice. You’re attracting the best and the brightest to your club, so use that as a draw to others who need that expertise.
Be More Tech-Friendly
This should go without saying, but if you’re trying to attract the cream of the crop, your club should be a place where people can have calls about business in comfort. To that end, make sure your facility has a kick-ass business center, top-notch internet, and all the amenities a businessman who is hiding out from his wife and boss could possibly want.
Also, adding more entertainment options that have wider appeal than golf can be a real crowd pleaser. Have some Top Golf-type set-ups, maybe some arcade games, or a large theater for movie showings. Again, I stress this, you have to give people a reason to come to your club other than to play golf. Because it gets cold half the year. And golf sucks.
Know Your Identity
Finally, flying in the face of my previous advice, if you are a country club don’t try to fit your identity to suit the new-fangled kids. If you pride yourself on being a stuffy, old-money golf club that doesn’t admit more minorities than is necessary to keep the NAACP off your back, then be that. Don’t think that just opening up a Dave & Buster’s light on the premises will bring in the kids if you have a track record of not being very inclusive. Millennials will see right through it, and you’ll end up pissing off your established members.
The key is that you want to attract more like-minded people to your membership ranks. If that’s people who love to golf, make golf the focus. If it’s more bougie and high class, focus on having a killer bar and restaurant. If it’s about businessmen making connections, again focus on the business center. The above are all merely suggestions, ways to entice the younger potential members. But it’s all for naught if the new members you’re trying to attract won’t get along with your current membership.
Joining a country club is a lot like joining a fraternity; you’re paying for friends and activities. Just like a frat, you’re selling a certain identity that will also bring members life-long friendships. Country clubs’ only concerns should be modernizing, providing more amenities that their membership wants and will use, and making themselves more accessible. If you do that, millennials will come. As long as you stamp out the whole racist, sexist, intolerant, insular stereotype you have going there. It really is like a frat for adults. .