United States

Membership marketing begins by looking within the club


Lately, the buzzword in the club industry seems to be marketing.

Private clubs are asking themselves how they can convince the next member to join their clubs, rather than the one right down the road. Many clubs seek to respond to this question through the development of a membership marketing plan, and begin immediately by appealing to new market segments. This approach is flawed, and these clubs would be better served by first examining themselves.

When looking at the external marketing, clubs should consider whether their rules and bylaws would scare away new members, and reflect on whether their rules and policies are flexible enough to allow for members who are different from those they currently have. For example, clubs should recognize that many states allow same-sex marriages. If a club is in one of those states, management needs to consider whether they have any rules that would exclude a same-sex partner or any policies that might lead to that couple be treated differently before they ever start marketing to this segment of the population. Poor planning and a lack of introspection can lead to a lot of wasted energy and additional complications later.

To continue on a focus of introspection, clubs should examine their current facilities. If a clubhouse looks like an outdated library, it is highly unlikely that any immediate marketing efforts to appeal to adults in their 30s and 40s will be successful. Other examples of this thought process include considering the impact on market appeal of policies that disallow jeans or wireless communication devices; child care services might be a requirement for some. At a retirement community, wellness services and rehabilitation facilities might be critical to maintaining current members, let alone attracting new ones.

The list of questions can be a long one. Other current examples include:

  • Does the current dining room menu offer ample options for people who require a gluten-free diet or those who want vegetarian dishes or low-fat alternatives?
  • Is the clubhouse in need of repairs?
  • What is the maintenance status of the golf course(s)?
  • Does the club offer a competitive tennis team?
  • How far away is the next planned renovation or addition?

These questions highlight just a sampling of expectations made by many in the market for club membership today. Clubs are hearing requests never heard in the past, and many clubs are starting to respond. For example, there has been an increase in the demand for pickleball courts (also known as paddleball) over the last couple of years. To be able to adapt quickly might mean being able to convert those quickly to tennis courts should that demand dwindle.

One club recently visited by the McGladrey team spoke about their curling facility. This same club shared that the membership decided that curling was unnecessary only six or seven years ago. The club had converted the rink into a television room, children’s play area and a casual dining area. More recently, the demand for curling was increasing again and some members were already leaving for clubs that offered this amenity, while others indicated that their retaining membership was in question. What this example illustrates is a need for adaptability, and a focus on the changing demands of current members before responding too quickly to perceived needs in the market to attract new members.

When the time comes to market to attract new members, there are even more considerations around current members that should be addressed. For example, management should consider whether there was a vote that recently passed by a narrow margin and left the club divided. Clubs will also want to look at how members treat the staff, as well as how treat each other—the culture of the club—as a disgruntled clubhouse is not an inviting one.

Disgruntled members are not the only source of potential marketing nightmares. Staff can also be a source for potential marketing problems. The extent of this can possibly be best described through recounting a visit to one club where the mission was to provide the ultimate experience for members and guests. Meanwhile, this particular day started with an early morning entrance—met at the guard gate by a sleeping guard and an open traffic arm. Later that same day, a walk along a commonly used path from the administration building to the clubhouse featured the employee smoking area. On another visit, the guard at the gate was busily chatting away on his cell phone, while greeting those coming into the club. These employees might not be disgruntled, but clearly they are not fostering the environment that will attract or retain the members targeted by the club’s vision.

Membership marketing is about consistency, and that consistency is as important in retaining members as it attracting new ones. No matter the marketing message, every club should ensure that is the reality within the gates before turning their attention outside.