New England private clubs must innovate and evolve to survive and thrive

February 16 — For years, The International catered to the rich and famous as an exclusive golf sanctuary in the heart of Massachusetts apple country. Its two championship 18-hole courses were must-plays among golfing connoisseurs.

The Pines and Oaks courses remain the club’s crown jewels. But president/CEO Daniel Weadock intends to take his business to the next level.

“We are…evolving from more than a just a private club to a world-class golf and culinary destination,” Weadock said.

Private golf enclaves may be playgrounds of the wealthy, but the industry — like most businesses — continues to labor against a weak economy and changing mores. The New England market may be on the comeback trail, however.

While some 400 of 4,400 private clubs in the U.S. went public between 2000 and 2009, private preserves in New England enjoyed a 3.6% uptick in rounds played last year, according to the National Golf Foundation. “Private clubs are absolutely not going away,” said Greg Nathan, NGF’s senior VP of membership. 

Even so, “Private clubs need to make aggressive changes to remain relevant,” observed Jon Last, president of Sports & Leisure Research Group.

Not business as usual. “It’s certainly not business as usual,” averred Bob Stearns, head pro/GM at Vermont’s Manchester CC, where affiliation has been dropping. “We used to focus on what kind of tuna fish we had in the dining room. Now it’s all about membership — not just attracting new ones but retaining those we have.”

Even such high-end retreats as Golf Club at Turner Hill — whose roster includes A-listers Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley — have tweaked their dues structures. An equity member-sponsored prospect may play for two years without paying the $25,000 initiation fee, Turner Hill president Bob Talbot noted.

Flexible plans, discounts, and outside play are ways clubs hope to boost membership and revenues, but family-oriented offerings are key. “You have to have strong social and fitness programs and recreational opportunities,” said Tablot.

Turner Hill now offers comedy nights, bowling, and child care. For $20 per child, parents may leave their kids with an educator on Saturday night or golf on Thursday mornings.

Flexible options. To commemorate its 50th anniversary, Hop Meadow CC (Simsbury, Conn.) will waive its initiation fee for the first 50 prospects who enlist for two years. The club will give three guest coupons to golfers who pay dues early and 3% discounts on annual rates to those who pay in full. Head pro Jason Waters also offers golf shop incentives — a $1,000 spending card earns an extra $200, a $750 card $115, and a $500 card $50.

Manchester, which boasted 390 dues-payers in 2001 and now has 250, will let individual and family prospects play for a year at 80% of the $4,000 (single) and $6,000 (family) annual dues. The club will waive the $2,500 initiation fee (down from $15,000 in 2001) for those who join by August 15.

As members age, venues like Manchester aggressively target younger golfers. Stearns aims four membership options at the under-40 crowd. Manchester (N.H.) CC and Segregansett CC (Taunton, Mass.) offer similar packages. Manchester provides “young executives” with unlimited play, deferred payments, and savings, while Segregansett provides a “young adults” option for $1,625 per year and no entry fee.

Reciprocity is another popular trend. Under an arrangement with several nearby clubs, Hop Meadow lets members from other courses play its track for just $50. 

In cooperation with local tennis and fitness clubs, Vermont’s Manchester CC members receive discounts if they join the non-golf groups, and gym-goers and tennis players may pay to golf at Manchester up to five times during the season. Troon Golf-managed Manchester CC in New Hampshire offers members discounted play at other Troon properties worldwide.

Outside play. If there’s one thing Waters loathes, it’s an empty tee sheet. He employs the Boxgroove booking network to farm out unused times and receives 80% of each greens fee that Boxgroove sells. “It’s minimal cost to us [to bring] in incremental revenue,” Waters said.

The International will also deploy Boxgroove, but Weadock’s vision extends beyond the golf course. In addition to a fitness center, spa, on-site TaylorMade Performance Center, and 50-room lodge, The International has added a Rick Smith Golf Academy and gourmet cuisine.

“It’s a…holistic approach — from the mental game, to nutrition, to the swing, the whole thing,” Weadock said. “We are trying to bring best-in-class golf products and services to our golf and culinary destination.”

With its restaurant open to the public and 36 holes available to golfers who stay at the resort, The International has redefined the private course.

“As the world and the private club industry changed and the economy went upside down,” Weadock said, “we…evolved out of necessity.”

(Emily Kay is a regular contributor to New England Golf Monthly. Check her out on the Waggle Room, Boston Golf Examiner, and National Golf Examiner websites. You may also follow Kay on Twitter.)