Picture an upside-down funnel, says ClubCorp CEO David Pillsbury. He’s speaking metaphorically. At the top of the funnel, the narrowest part, are avid golfers, the backbone of the private-club business. At the bottom, the widest part, are social members who may never have played golf.
Those avid golfers always have been the most coveted customers because they play the most golf and spend the most money. But here’s the rub: Their numbers are dwindling.
“You’ve got all the same clubs chasing a shrinking audience, which is not a good formula …” Pillsbury said. “There aren’t enough people to support the narrow end of that funnel.”
His plan is to turn the funnel right-side up and pursue the vastly larger market of casual or non-golfers who want to join clubs. Once ClubCorp, the country’s largest owner of private clubs, gets those people to join one of its clubs, it hopes to move them through its “membership stack,” from entry-level social memberships to sport memberships to the most lucrative golf memberships.
To expedite this process, ClubCorp, in partnership with the PGA of America and RetailTribe, is testing a program at eight clubs, where the pros are spending less time behind the counter and more time calling and emailing members to entice them to the course, typically for casual events such as a Happy Hour Wine & Nine.
“It takes ClubCorp from a golf-centric country club company to a lifestyle-centric company,” Pillsbury said. He’s convinced that “All of your best candidates for future (golf) memberships are already at your club.”
Pillsbury’s strategy is representative of an industry-wide shift.
Participation continues to decline, and course closings annually outnumber openings. That’s not likely to change. Rob DeMore, president of Troon Golf’s private-club division, Troon Privé, predicts that 15 to 20 percent of private clubs will disappear over the next decade. Yet he remains “bullish on the future” because he’s convinced the investments being made now will pay off long term. Like ClubCorp, which Pillsbury said has spent more than $900 million on upgrades over the past decade, most of the money is being spent on new amenities that will appeal to a larger audience.
“They’re not going to join a club that’s a golf club,” Pillsbury said. “There’s not enough breadth of experience for growing young families.”
Start with the clubhouse. DeMore said that more than 50 Troon properties are “reimagining” their clubhouses. “I see an expansion of fitness almost every single time we do a private-club renovation,” he said.
Pillsbury estimated that more than 40 percent of ClubCorp members have separate fitness memberships. He doesn’t want them leaving the country club to work out.
Even some of the most hardcore golf clubs are embracing the new reality.
PGA West in La Quinta, Calif., has been billed as the western home of golf in America, but in recent years the staff saw members switching from full golf memberships, which are $1,400 per month, to $450 sport memberships that still allowed them playing privileges.
“Adding the sports membership was to attract multigenerational (families),” said Jennifer Jenkins, PGA West’s director of marketing and membership sales. “The main reason we were losing our golf members wasn’t because of health or finances, it was because of the grandkids.”
PGA West wanted to keep those members and their extended families on property. In November, PGA West opened its new $10 million sports complex, which offers residents casual dining, swimming, fitness, games for children and adults, and other activities.
“Now the sports complex gives them a place where families can congregate,” Jenkins said.
There are two natural areas to gather at the golf course: the bar and therange. DeMore said formal dining rooms are trending down, with most clubhouse renovations centering on a better bar experience.
“People want more TVs, more bars, more casual, more views, more indoor/outdoor (seating), patios where people can eat outside,” he said.
He thinks this reflects the fact that couples are having children later in life and prefer places where they can spend time with their kids.
DeMore views the range as “the lounge” – a natural gathering spot at the club. “The opportunity to entertain me while I’m practicing will be essential,” he said.
That means new technology. At the new Twin Dolphin Golf Club in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, Greg Villeneuve, whose firm, Summit Golf, manages the club, knew most of the members wouldn’t be golfers.
“We had to ask hard questions: How can we get them excited about this new amenity and get them to be part of it and stroke that check for dues each year?” he said.
Twin Dolphin put cabanas with refrigerators on its range, installed Trackman and powered the range for evening events.
“We want to introduce them to the game through technology for instruction and fun in the evenings and better uses for it where there’s no intimidation factor,” Villeneuve said.
Brookhaven Country Club, a 54-hole ClubCorp property in Dallas, has gone all in on this idea with “Drive Zone,” a green-grass version of Topgolf, with Toptracer technology. Some of ClubCorp’s northern clubs have installed Golf Lounges, which bring the same concept indoors.
“We think it’s indicative of what’s coming in the green-grass category as we try to broaden the appeal to a wider audience,” Pillsbury said.
The on-course experience also is going to change. It’s already happening. Bernie Friedrich, senior vice president of golf operations and resort sales for Boyne Resorts, has embraced playability. Courses are getting wider, dress codes are out and music in the carts is in.
“It has to be more social, it has to be more fun,” Friedrich said. “I think the best thing we could do would be to eliminate scorecards for a while.”
Even PGA West has embraced this change, though it wasn’t easy.
“Culturally, it was getting our club to shift and saying, how can we be more things to more people,” Jenkins said. “It was very difficult. Everybody who works here lives and breathes golf. To go to our head golf pro and director of golf and say, ‘Yes, we’re about golf, but it needs to be quicker, it needs to be more fun, we need to set up different games. It can’t be just competitive. We have to be more things for the families and the weekend (residents).”
But PGA West is seeing dividends. The total number of memberships rose the past two years, including 30 new sport memberships since the
sports complex opened, and the hope is eventually to convert those residents to full golf memberships. Another benefit: Five years ago the average member was in his 60s; that’s fallen to 52, reflecting the return of families.
The change might have been difficult, but it should pay off in the years to come. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the December 2018 issue of Golfweek.)