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Advisers of The Year by Golf Inc.

Members of Fargo Country Club knew they needed help. For several years, the private club in Fargo, N.D., had suffered from the double whammy of a high membership attrition rate and difficulty attracting new members.

"After 10 straight years of net membership loss, it was time to do something different," General Manager Michael Charest said.

Faced with a need for drastic change, club officials made a critical call: They brought in a consultant to examine the club's operations and lead a season-long membership campaign.

While some clubs and course owners may bristle at the thought of hiring an outsider to tell them what to do, it's a move that can make the difference between success and failure. Advisers don't get emotional. They don't worry about hurting feelings. They see the task at hand and get to work.

A professional consultant analyzes club facilities and staffing levels, examines the numbers and finds room for improvement.

For clubs, that means helping them recognize that they're in the membership dues business. For golf courses, it's about showing them how to generate enough rounds of golf to balance the books.

At Fargo Country Club, Charest says bringing in Steve Graves and his Creative Golf Marketing team "may be one of the best decisions this club has ever made."

Golf Inc. invited golf course consultants, attorneys and other advisers to share their greatest successes of the past year. Here are three who engineered some outstanding turnarounds.

Creative Golf Marketing

CGM specializes in a small niche of the golf business. Manhattan, Kan. - based Creative Golf Marketing has worked with 1,500 member owned private clubs in the United States.

"We want them to stand the test of time for the 21st-century consumer;' Graves said.

During the past five years, Graves has helped many clubs make important changes in their membership policies, such as restructuring their age brackets and categories. When it comes to age, he believes 60 is the new 40 and 40 is the new 30. To meet the changing needs of different types of members, he advises clubs to adapt their messaging to a target audience.

"The private club leadership is so afraid of making the wrong decision that they're just not making any decisions,' Graves said. "That's where we come in."

While every club thinks it's unique and faces completely different challenges than other clubs, Graves has concluded that, by and large, private clubs have many similar issues.

For example, Fargo Country Club had experience 10 years of net membership loss. Its $8,500 initiation fee included a $7,000 refundable certificate, so the club had significant liabilities on its books from resigned members awaiting reimbursement.

Following recommendations from Graves and his team, Fargo established a non-refundable initiation fee, restructured its junior membership categories to include a tier for ages 35 to 39, and changed its monthly dues structure.

Soon after, the club added 71 new members, including 21 families in the under-40 age group. It collected just over $202,000 in nonrefundable initiation fees, decreased attrition by 50 percent and found an average of $70,000 in annual savings by eliminating future certificate redemption.

"Everyone wants to talk about the beauty pageant clubs in the industry; Graves said, "but the other 90 to 95 percent of the private clubs in the United States, such as Fargo Country Club, are the true bread-and-butter clubs that every city and community needs to flourish - not just to survive, but to thrive."

Another recent success story for Creative Golf Marketing is Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Calif., where exiting members were required to continue paying dues (at $900 per month) until their $21,000 membership equities were resold. With 125 names on the resignation list, prospective new members were being scared away by the thought of never being able to leave.

"For the people in the game at the club, it's very, very emotional," Graves said. "For us, it's simple, and not emotional. . . . It took an outside, objective third party to come in and calmly say, 'Let's talk about this, and let's look for solutions where the members don't feel that we're trying to cheat them and that we're actually trying to help them.' That's the ultimate goal."

The vote to change the requirement was nearly unanimous, and in two years the club sold 150 memberships. One of private clubs' biggest mistakes, Graves said, is using dated strategies to sell memberships. Instead, he advises that club members promote their clubs and extend invitations to prospects.

Ultimately, he said, it is the responsibility of members to help grow the membership, even if a club has a membership director.


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