The Changing World of Country Clubs

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According to National Golf Foundation (NGF) statistics, both the number of people playing golf and the frequency with which they played stabilized in 2012-2014. This is followed a long period of decline. The number of golfers peaked at 30 million around 2003 and rounds have declined almost every year since 1999. So while this is good news in one sense, the long term outlook for golf remains bleak. NGF estimates that there are now about 25 million golfers in the Unites States. A decline of nearly 15 percent from the highs is alarming by itself, but it is even more disconcerting when you realize the number of golfers nationally is the same as it was in the mid-1990s. There are about 40 million more people in the country than there was 20 years ago, so, if the same percentage of the population played golf now as then, we should have some 35 million golfers. The combination of lost players and the shrinking percentage of people that participate mean the golf industry is about 33 percent smaller than it should be.

The preceding paragraph is probably not a news flash to club managers and board members. Perhaps this is: it doesn’t have to be this way. There are ways to turn around golf participation at your club. Interestingly, only a part of that is by improving course conditions, upgrading the practice facilities or adding new programs. These are all worthy things to do, mind you, and they should be pursued with vigor. Interestingly, the best way to turn around membership demand and golfer participation at your club is to invest in the non-golf aspects of the membership experience.

While golf may have been the dominant force driving country club membership since the end of World War II, health, fitness and wellness and more inclusive recreation will be the identifying characteristics over the next 20 years. This is where society is going. It is a response to a profound shift in interests and values, particularly among younger members and prospects. This may not be the stretch it seems at first. The majority of early country clubs in the U.S. were formed to provide a healthy outlet for member recreation. So it is not so much that the desire or intent is different as much as it is that our definition and expectations as to what constitutes healthy exercise has changed. Walking a golf course at the turn of the 20th century was exercise. Spending an hour in the fitness center or participating in a Power Flow Yoga class is increasingly the norm.

This continued evolution will be so powerful that over the next decade the average country club will look more like a sports center surrounded by a golf course. In addition to golf it will offer fitness and wellness. This means there will be standard exercise options as well as functional training like TRX, TPI, Muscle Activation Therapy (MAT) as well as spa, nutrition, joint rehab, physical therapy and athletic and sport-specific training. In regard to more accessible recreation, growth will occur in facilities and instruction for children and fun games like pickle ball and bocce. Clubhouses will also feature creative spaces to promote fun and interaction, such as game and computer rooms for adults and children and dedicated spaces for tweens and babysitting.

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This approach is right in the wheelhouse for country clubs. While many have been slow to adapt to the fitness and wellness revolution, the fact is wellness is in their DNA. Extensive research on aging shows that people with plentiful social connections live longer than those without such a network. The evidence is also overwhelming that people who exercise live longer on average that those who don’t. According to dozens of studies, regular physical activity reduces risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some forms of cancer, and depression. Exercise may even help you stay mentally sharp into old age. The more mentally active a person is, the longer it takes for accelerated memory decline to begin. Mental stimulation delays the start of memory decline, studies show. What they are seeking is to maintain their health so they can enjoy that blessing to its fullest.

So while the golf culture was allowed to take over the country club landscape these past 30 years or more, the primary reason most members are in a club is because they are social animals. They have the lifestyle and personality that thrives on meeting new people and networking. In order to stay current with new societal focus on wellness, private clubs need to rethink their recreational offerings. As noted, a part of this is refocusing the golf program to counter declining play and utilization. Due to time constraints and other factors, the future of golf will be more about practice, fitness and training than actual course play. Look at today’s professionals. They are athletes in the fullest sense of the word and that is translating to the exercises, clothing, shoes and training enjoyed by amateurs. The future of country club golf will include enhanced outdoor and indoor golf practice and training areas. As computer graphics continues to advance, you will see more indoor experiences and games. Think Topgolf, but on an indoor scale. This could be a foursome in an area of the clubhouse or fitness center playing Pebble Beach or working on their game. Learning centers with the latest technology will increase dramatically so the players can have the tools and skills they need when they have the time to actually play 9 or 18 holes.

Once securing your relevance to the new golf culture, country clubs need to build recreation programs for year-round usage. Fitness centers are part of this, as is things like platform tennis, pickle ball, squash, indoor tennis, indoor swimming, bowling and similar activities along with mentally challenging games like bridge, board games and other mental exercises that spur interactions and delay the onset of dementia-related memory decline in seniors. Along with the facilities to house these programs, clubs will need to build their expertise on staff to direct, teach and promote these activities.
 
One of the key places to facilitate healthy lifestyles is the club spa. Members enter the spa in a relaxed manner, so they are primed to learn about the benefits of exercise or mind-body activities. Since the spa is already offering wellness, healing and renewal, the next obvious step is to combine this with education and programs focusing on prevention. The result is a new visionary environment that combines traditional spa offerings like exercise, massage and aesthetics with the services of preventive care professionals. The aggregate package puts the club in positon to serve as the members’ exercise center and it is also the point of departure for their participation in wellness related activities.

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In addition to individual workouts, personal training and traditional exercise classes, members will be participating in nutrition lectures, yoga workshops for active aging bodies, Muscle Activation Techniques to ease chronic pain or overcome injuries that prevent them from enjoying their favorite recreational activities. Creating a lecture series covering a wide range of topics to help with active aging and the link between diet and exercise to promote healthy living will generate a following and more activity.
 
In every case where we have facilitated or observed the impacts of these types of advanced recreational and wellness programs we have seen a corresponding rise in golf participation at these clubs. The modern golfer can only justify the investment in country club membership if they are going to derive a package of benefits for themselves and their family. There is typically at least one family member that wants to have access to the premier golfing experience that only a county club can deliver. When it is accompanied by broad social and recreational experiences, they can justify the expense. Without that, they have other options to spend their leisure time and money.

While golf formed the identity of the modern country club, health, fitness and wellness will be the overarching characteristic of the future club. This is in response to the greater awareness that exists throughout society for just how much control and influence people have over their physical and mental well-being. And while the golf culture for a time replaced wellness as a key element of the membership experience, we are simply returning to our roots with this renewed emphasis on health. It’s why most clubs started and it will be a strategic pillar supporting their relevance and success in the future.

VainHeadShotFrank Vain is President of McMahon Group, a private club consulting firm that has provided services to over 1,700 clubs during its 30 years of business.