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Family - Friendly is Par for the Course
Written by Joe Gardyasz, Senior Staff, Des Moines Business Record
Posted October 24 2005

After Daniel Pettit landed a job in U.S. Bank's commercial lending department a couple of years ago, he knew he wanted to put down roots in Des Moines. An avid golfer, Pettit compared the amenities and costs of several country clubs before deciding to join the Wakonda Club. "I think that when they see you're younger that they make a greater effort to recruit you," said Pettit, who was 22 when he joined. "For instance, at Wakonda, they say, 'Bring your friends out.' They've been really nice about showing my friends around who I have brought as guests."

For Jeff Anderlik, no waiting list and no initiation fee were among the incentives to sign up for a family membership with the Ankeny Golf & Country Club in August. "So there weren't a lot of upfront costs out of my pocket," said the Ankeny resident, who likes to get out on the links three to four times a week during the season. Because he plays so frequently, belonging to a club is "more economical than to go to a public course, said Anderlik, who is the health and productivity director with EMC Insurance Cos.

IIn many ways, it's a buyers market for joining a country club as clubs seek ways to make it easier for new members, particularly young professionals with families, to join. At the same time, the clubs are working to make their amenities more family-friendly.

At the Hyperion Field Club in Johnston, for instance, the governing board voted last year to relax the dress code in the casual dining room specifically so that families could bring their children for dinner after soccer games in their uniforms, rather than going to a casual restaurant like Applebee's.

"Our younger members on committees said, "We would much rather come here, so we relaxed that dress code," said Doug Crain, Hyperion's general manager. "And we had offered that kids eat free in the summer, but we're going to possibly do that all year round now, just as an incentive for parents to choose the club."

On average, clubs lose about 10% of their members each year, meaning they must recruit at least that many new members to remain even, Crain said. "So you're constantly looking for new members. The best source is member referrals, when people are proud of their club and want to share it with their friends," he said. Crain, who has also been general manager of Glen Oaks Country Club and the now-defunct Metropolitan Club during his 25-year career, said managing private clubs is a demanding business that tends to be cyclical. "When people are being very cautious with their discretionary income, you've got to be on your toes and fit their needs pretty well," he said.


Younger families like the idea of getting together with other families in a club setting. Anderlik, whose wife is just learning golf, said he hopes to teach his 3-year old daughter the game when she's older. "The social aspect was important to us, too," he said. "There seem to be more families in their 30s with kids who belong. Also, there's a pool for my daughter to go to for swimming lessons."

"Clubs that don't make an effort to bring in younger members are going to find it difficult to survive," said Richard Day, President and CEO of The Hospitality Resource Group International, a Gaithersburg, MD based consulting company specializing in country club management issues. "To attract those younger members, clubs' boards will increasingly need to consider making capital improvements, even if it means having to increase dues and possibly losing older members on fixed incomes," Day said. "You run the risk of losing members to gain members, but the members you gain will be with the club longer," he said.

According to a survey completed earlier this month by the National Club Association, based in Washington, D.C., two-thirds of the clubs that responded said the average age of their members declined over the past year, with the average now between 51 and 60. At the same time, about two-thirds of the clubs said they do not have a waiting list. The survey, which was completed earlier this month, was sent to nearly 1,000 private clubs on the NCA's membership and prospect list, with a 17% response rate.

"I would say that they're holding their own, with membership levels having peaked somewhere in the fall of 2001, around the time of Sept. 11," said Mary Barnes Embody, the NCA's director of publishing services.


The trend toward younger members is readily apparent in Greater Des Moines. Over the last three years, the "vast majority of new members at Hyperion have been young families with children, said Crain, "which means the activities and services offered have to be family-oriented." Among the activities that weren't offered until a year or two ago are camping trips and indoor miniature golf, he said. Also, children's activities are scheduled to coincide with adult activities to give every member of the family something to do.

"We have a huge tennis and swimming program over the summer for kids." Crain said. "Our tennis program is almost non-existent for adults, but our kids' tennis camp in summer is just overwhelming, and the same with swimming." More clubs are also building fitness centers as a draw for their younger members, said Crain, who said Hyperion was well ahead of the curve when it opened its fitness center in 1997. "I think there will be more clubs putting in a fitness center if they want to stay competitive," he said. "I know Wakonda is looking at possibly building a fitness center and Glen Oaks has a small fitness center."

What does a single guy want from a country club? "I wanted a club that first of all was not too big," Pettit said. "I liked the size of Wakonda. It might be about half or a third the size of the others, and that was nice. And I have a condominium off of Grand, so I thought it would be nice to be able to go over there for lunch, or after work, to hit a bucket of balls."

Pettit said several of his friends have also joined Wakonda during the past two years he's been a member. Other people he knows are thinking about joining, but are waiting for commitments from their employers that they won't be transferred. Professionally, joining a club has been beneficial, he said. "My bank has supported getting involved in the community, so those relationships have been a real benefit to being a member there," he said. "Especially for someone young and new to the community, you get a chance to meet a lot of influential leaders of Des Moines. That's something that really attracted me to doing that. I think it's really benefited me a lot."

* HRGI footnote: As we were asked to comment for this article, we noted that what was being said was, in fact, one of several very significant challenges facing the club industry today. Our firm, and others like ours, are able to provide invaluable assistance to clubs that are struggling with these challenges. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Many clubs have chosen not to, and are now paying a steep price.


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