When a Baltimore private school family with several children applied for financial aid, the school politely suggested they reapply – after you have quit your country club. The story is true, and not even that uncommon, according to admissions staffers. It simply underlines the fact that for many well-off Baltimoreans, membership in a one of the area’s many country clubs — Elkridge, Greenspring, Baltimore Country Club, Suburban, Caves Valley Golf Club, to name just a few — has been a part of life for as long as memory serves.
The bankruptcy last November of the Chestnut Ridge Country Club has brought home to Baltimore the realization that club memberships are, in fact, a luxury that many people are having to reconsider in a down economy. At clubs nationwide, members are quitting – a fact that can accelerate a club’s demise because, in the words of attorney Alan Bloom who represented a group of former Chestnut Ridge members, “It’s like a Catch-22. Every time someone leaves, dues go up.” And thus can begin a death spiral of less service, falling upkeep and further attrition.
Increasingly, potential new members are thinking hard before committing to clubs where initiation fees alone can top $40,000 ($21,000 is the national average) plus additional fees for golf, tennis and dining. And today, a country club membership, once de rigueur for aspiring executives and business leaders, is no longer necessary for a successful career — let alone paid for.
Along with high costs, “[country] clubs now face withering competition for the time of younger consumers,” a 2010 article in USA Today points out. “Many teens and twenty somethings prefer doodling on an iPhone, iPad, Wii or Facebook over playing golf. Kids play video games indoors and can excel. Golf is outdoors and it’s hard.”
Even among older adults, there has been a decline of interest. “The overall percentage of the population in the U.S. that plays golf is down over the past 10 years,” confirms the WSJ Online in an article last month, from 11.1% in 2000, to 9.2% in 2010. For a host of reasons, even people who are by any measure well-off are wondering if there is still time and money enough to justify a place in the budget for “the club.”
Protected for decades from economic pressures by a wealthy base of members, most area clubs are now actively looking to expand their base, in a way they were not a few years back. Country club finances are opaque to say the least, and naturally, no one is talking publically. But a close look at the local market indicates that virtually all Baltimore clubs are “reaching out” to attract new, and keep existing, members.
A friend gives the short answer when asked how his club is coping in tougher times. “Temporary memberships,” he says. In other words, selling “summer memberships,” “golf memberships” or other short-term memberships at reduced rates that bypass the initiation fee and let non-members try out the facilities for a short time, a strategy that has met with some success. Other incentives include discounted memberships, and “spouse joins free” deals. The Hunt Valley Golf Club, for example, currently advertises “No Initiation Fee with Full Golf Membership” on its website.
Besides offering short-term or reduced rate memberships, clubs are catering to families in a way never before seen in history. Elkridge Club recently sponsored a wildly successful “turkey shoot” – father and son paintballing on the golf course — as well as a golf course “camp out.” At Baltimore Country Club too, there is greatly increased attention to junior members, with clinics and tournaments designed to insure a bigger supply of golfers, tennis players and club members in the decades to come, one member said.
Child care, fitness centers, holiday parties for teens, twilight ladies golf for working women and chef-driven cooking demonstrations are perks that clubs are beginning to offer — innovations that are new within the past few years — all designed to increase club usage and revenues in a shrinking member base.
Times are changing, even in the hallowed halls of the country club. What consumers with less time and/or less money seem to be looking for — in a country club as in most aspects of life — is value. A club that caters to more than one interest, for more that one family member. In the words of Charles Darwin, “It is not the strongest species that survive, or the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”