Smooth Seas Don't Make Skilled Sailors

If recent years have taught us anything, it’s that circumstances can change quickly. We want club leaders to be prepared for changing tides, not just sitting back enjoying the smooth seas. The most respected leaders emerging from the challenges of 2020 were proactive, strategic thinkers who actively planned for and anticipated the future. These traits will remain essential for club leaders going forward.


When things are going well, it is very easy to start taking things for granted. We may overlook certain deficiencies due to the fact member numbers and corresponding revenue streams are at all-time highs. There’s an old saying, “it’s easier to get to the top, than it is to stay on top.” This is certainly true for many in the golf and country club industry due to the sudden resurgence of golf that the pandemic brought. This rise in golf has led to the current “golden age” the private club industry thinks it is experiencing. When member rosters are full and club usage patterns are off the charts in every area of the club, it is easy to get caught up in the comfort of perceived smooth sailing.


However, clubs must be planning and programming to maintain the interest and usage. Just because things have been great, doesn’t mean it will stay that way. During a podcast conversation last year, Kurt Kuebler and Joe Beditz of the National Golf Foundation, addressed the influx of golfers and reiterated the importance of identifying tactics to retain golfers beyond the initial surge. Joe Beditz recommended a multi-reach approach to programming/services and recommending the following to strengthen the connection to the game:


  • Get people comfortable with game terminology, staff, course, etiquette, etc.

  • Find ways to overcome the obstacles that limit players’ ability to have fun.

  • Help golfers get that “great shot euphoria” sooner by building their foundational skills.

  • Create social opportunities around the game that players care to participate in.


In addition to golf, most clubs experienced a boost in membership interest during the pandemic and many are fortunate to have waiting lists to get into the club. However, it’s important to recognize whether your club has a true wait list or if the wait list is just a result of a timing issue. There is a stark difference in having 10 to 15 individuals waiting to join your club versus having a wait list of 50 or more. You can determine the strength of your wait list by using a simple standard of multiplying your annual attrition x 2. For example, based on a 400-member club with an average annual attrition rate of 7%, a very strong wait list would have at least 56 names on it (they would typically lose 28 members per year). If their wait list was only 15 people deep, you can see that one weak recruiting season would quickly diminish this club’s wait list.


As the world begins to transition to an endemic state of mind, staycations will turn into vacations. Clubs will once again be competing with how members spend their leisure time and recreational dollars. Over the last two years recreational and travel opportunities were limited so members flocked to their clubs. Now, clubs must up their game and be prepared to compete with the masses once again. This is the reason we recommend clubs use pre-COVID attrition rates to estimate future attrition rates.


Given current world events, the residual effects from COVID-19, the political unrest, potential natural disasters, and the volatility of the financial market, it’s hard to know what lies ahead. What is your club doing to anticipate future member needs? Are you surveying members to better understand their priorities and satisfaction levels? A full membership doesn’t mean an engaged and happy membership. What is your club doing to ensure new members coming in become loyal, long-term members? Have you enhanced new member onboarding to make sure these new members are properly engaged and indoctrinated into club culture? Historically new members have been “at risk” of leaving the club within the first few years of membership if they didn’t feel sense of belonging or if they weren’t using the club as much as anticipated. It is imperative that clubs do everything possible to help new members get acclimated with the club, staff, facilities, rules, programs, and the club community. Providing effective orientation and engagement tools for new and current members will create loyal, life-long members.


A surprisingly few clubs have an organized and dedicated orientation process. A letter welcoming new members into the club, along with a copy of the club’s by-laws, club history and 25 pages of rules and regulations doesn’t cut it.


Clubs should make the effort to create an Orientation Guide that includes some of the “why” of what makes your club special. While building culture is often an over-used term, this is the club’s opportunity to highlight and instill various club practices, values, traditions and strengths from the beginning. Familiarize new members with various departments and department heads and get them comfortable with how different areas of the club operate and the various amenities and services that are available.


Learning as much as possible about your new members will assist the club in providing a level of service that is expected when joining a private club. Knowing the interests and tastes of your members is critical, from whether they prefer bourbon or tequila, are gluten free, to where they went to school, or what pro or college sports teams they root for can help clubs personalize the member experience. While clubs attain some of the basic information from new members during the application process, there is so much more information that directly correlates to providing an elevated member experience.


It is also important to evaluate how things have transpired at your club over the past 24 months. Has this sudden unplanned success exposed weaknesses within your club’s overall marketing and operational processes? What could your club be doing to increase brand awareness in the community?


This is the perfect time for clubs to re-evaluate all of the fundamentals regarding the club’s marketing plan. From making sure the club’s marketing collaterals are of the highest quality and telling the proper story to potential members, to wait list policies, membership classifications and offerings, and onboarding strategies for all new members, every aspect of a club’s marketing plan is critical to ensure clubs can navigate through the potential of choppy waters ahead.


While we all would rather sit back and enjoy the smooth seas, now is the time to plan for your club to sustain the potential volatility that will certainly reappear in the future. Club leaders that recognize social, political, and environmental issues and think strategically about their impact on club members and how they use the club, will be better prepared for the next big storm. Commit to frequent and transparent communication with members, employees, and the community at large. Don’t make long-term changes to club rules and bylaws based on short-term circumstances. Adjust programming and marketing initiatives to continuously engage members in all aspects of the club. Stay focused on the future because even though the seas are smooth for now, it’s the clubs that continually anticipate and adapt that ride out rough waters better than those who don’t.


Written by Creative Golf Marketing and Kopplin, Kuebler & Wallace