The history of private clubs around the world is well documented…even back to the 1600s in the United Kingdom, with a club named White’s, documented as the oldest gentlemen’s club in London.
The earliest U.S. clubs date back to the 18th Century, some of which have evolved into the “great clubs.” Today, BoardRoom’s Distinguished Clubs is dedicated to preserving the institution of private clubs and encouraging ‘great clubs.’
So, what is a great club…what characteristics make it great? What’s the difference between a run-of-the-mill and a ‘great club.’ Is it the people…the amenities or the ‘intangibles’, that ‘it’ factor that great clubs possess?
“At Distinguished Clubs, we define a great club on its ability to deliver a world class member experience,” expressed Keith Jarrett, president of the Distinguished Clubs of BoardRoom magazine.
“What we have found consistently in Distinguished Clubs, is a commitment to excellence, roles and responsibilities clearly defined between the board, committees and management, an ongoing commitment to strategic and long-range facility plans, and a great general manager,” he added.
It’s pretty clear in Frank Gore’s mind. Gore, the chief analyst for BoardRoom’s Distinguished Clubs, during his tenure in the private club industry, has visited 4,040 clubs…and he’s adding new ones every week.
“Great clubs I have visited include The Union League of Philadelphia, Jonathan Club in Los Angeles, Fort Worth Club, University Club New York, Olympic Club in San Francisco, Southern Hills in Tulsa, OK, Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, Winged Foot Club in Mamaroneck, New York and the Florida Keys’ Ocean Reef, to name a few,” Gore expressed.
“Great clubs stand the test of time, they have vibrant and active members with a full roster of members and a waiting list to belong. They offer relevant programs, amenities, facilities and activities for their membership. They maintain their facility’s in pristine condition.
“They have well thought out strategic plans for the future. They have the courage to modify their offering and facilities to attract future generations of members but still maintain their heritage, traditions all while giving reverence to their history,” Gore added.
“The club is more about the members and their experiences than the facilities. Members have a pride in belonging and there is a special bond between the members and the staff that does not exist anywhere else in the hospitality industry.”
Author Molly Cox, who has co-authored The Distinguished Club Experience with me, says, “a great club is one that continually engages its members and creates loyalty by delivering intangible benefits, value and meets unexpressed needs and desires. The culture support and empowers staff members in their efforts to delight the member.”
She offers the Union League of Philadelphia as an example.
“General manager/COO Jeffrey McFadden took a calculated risk to improve offerings and value to the members by opening satellite facilities (restaurants). As a visionary leader, McFadden paid attention to where League members worked and lived, how far they commuted. He took into consideration demographics and trends and took the idea to the board—which supported buying properties. The League now offers unique experiences, and value for those who can’t always drive to the club.”
That The Union League of Philadelphia exemplifies a great club is just not by happenstance.
“As we’ve said at The Union League of Philadelphia for the past 18 years and what continues to push us forward: great clubs don’t happen by accident,” expressed The Union League’s General Manager Jeff McFadden.
“Great clubs happen as a result of thoughtful planning, taking calculated risks and support from both the membership and the professional staff. Visionary leadership, a long history of good governance, both volunteer and professional, and a seriously detailed strategic plan have ensured not only success, but excellence.
“Never resting on our laurels, we continue to pursue any and all viable options that enhance membership value,” McFadden stressed.
“Adding satellite facilities in The Bungalow, The Union League Guard House and The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale has diversified our offerings and amenities and further proves that The Union League of Philadelphia is a Lifestyle Club and a great one indeed.”
This gives us an overview of what makes a great private club, so let’s look at more specific aspects of greatness.
“First, there is no single or universal definition for a great club. The great clubs are special because of what distinguishes them,” injected Frank Cordeiro, general manager of Diablo Country Club in Diablo, CA, a BoardRoom Distinguished Club.
“The unique stories, history and intangible qualities are what separate the great club from the others. Unlike hotels and resorts, conforming to a standard list of amenities or ratings does not apply. Clubs offer experience, people and relationships, hotels sell space, amenities and services. Big difference!” he enthused.
“Great clubs know who they are and do not imitate. Great clubs celebrate people, place, stories and the unique and priceless qualities that only they can offer and that only those privileged to receive an invitation can experience.
“You cannot manufacture or build a great club. Bricks, mortar and expensive materials do not make a club great,” Cordeiro added. “Clubs are about that kind association of people, relationships and the belief that you belong to something greater than yourself and something than brings meaning and purpose to your life,” Cordeiro explained.
“Members join clubs in the pursuit of recreation but stay because of the people. And you must focus on the story. What is your unique story?” he queried.
Then there are the pretenders. “There are clubs that think they are a great club, and then there are clubs that actually are great clubs,” said Barrett Eiselman, an analyst with BoardRoom’s Distinguished Clubs.
“The great clubs seem to have some similarities. These clubs have a clear understanding of the demographics/ profile of their membership. This allows them to offer appropriate programs and activities that the membership will want to participate in. But more importantly, it allows them to offer high-levels of personalized services that are appreciated by the members.” Ah ha…the intangibles!
And in Eiselman’s opinion great clubs have operational systems in place to ensure the club is consistent with the services they offer.
“These systems also make sure that the club’s amenities are well taken care of and that they also have sound financial management. It doesn’t matter at these clubs who the leadership team is because the systems allow the personnel to be interchangeable.
“Saying this, it’s important that the leadership team has the right personality and disciplines to follow the systems that have a tradition of working. Therefore, it is important that the board sources a GM/COO, who sources the department heads, who understand this,” Eiselman explained.
“Great clubs have leadership teams that truly appreciate and respect all the associates at the club. This creates a positive working environment and one that has team members that are proud of their club and in turn, strive to work hard for the management team and its members.
“Take, for example, Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club,” Eiselman said. “General manager/COO Oliver Boudin has created an environment where each and every team member strives daily to exceed the members’ expectations.
“While respecting the traditions and systems of the club, OCGCC continues to offer its members fun and innovating programs and at the same time, offering its associates a great working environment where everyone understands their roles and feels empowered in their responsibilities as well,” Eiselman expressed.
“Great clubs embrace tradition and at the same time are also breaking the mold,” added McFadden of The Union League of Philadelphia.
“Great clubs adhere to their values and champion their roots, but they also push the envelope. Great clubs seek opportunity. Great clubs empower their staff. Great clubs devote time and resources, financial and otherwise, into research and studies that determine areas of improvement and expansion.
“Great clubs constantly renovate facilities long before they go into disrepair. Great clubs make cost effective decisions, but don’t pinch pennies. Great clubs actively solicit insight and opinions from members. Great clubs are transparent with clear intentions. Great clubs have a symbiotic relationship between the board of directors and executive managers with a common goal in the pursuit of excellence,” added The Union League’s GM.
“Great clubs ensure brand loyalty and invest dedicated resources in the form of an in-house marketing team to protect and promote the club’s brand in an engaging way. Great clubs create interest and intrigue and exploit it however appropriately possible. Great clubs relentlessly pursue adding value for their members.
“Often little things make a big difference,” McFadden suggested. “While many clubs are most certainly great, a few stick out as they pursue certain areas with passion and clear intention.
“The California Club, Los Angeles Athletic Club and Detroit Athletic Club, for example, all have found ways to exploit their locations, history and underutilized parts of their buildings. They created new, innovative spaces that spark intrigue and interest to the current membership and appeal to prospective members,” McFadden detailed.
“The Vancouver Club, Tokyo American Club, and more recently, The University Club of Chicago, have all embraced social media as a platform to communicate so much in a clear image with a witty caption. They have used a once frowned upon outlet to maximize their message in a truly complete way,” McFadden emphasized.
Kathy O’Neal, principal with Club, Resort & Hospitality Consulting, suggests “a great club versus a run-of-the-mill-club, is one in which the members take a great deal of pride in saying they are a member.
“It’s a club whose members feel as though joining the club was one of the best decisions they have ever made each time they leave the club,” added O’Neal who has worked many years with private clubs throughout the country.
“While great facilities are important (in this competitive age, truly the “ante” into the game of private club success), it is the intangibles of service performed by a staff that has “servant’s hearts” that members remember and mention the most in member surveys.
“These ‘great clubs’ focus and successfully provide exceptional member experiences. A few examples of some great clubs that deliver on these member experiences, according to their members, are Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio; River Crest Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, and the Commerce Club in Atlanta, Georgia,” O’Neal indicated.
Are there steps everyone involved with a private club can take to ‘create’ a great club?
“Club leaders must instill, support and exemplify a ‘membership culture’ that pervades the club, focusing everyone on the importance of the member experience. This begins with finding, training, motivating and retaining talented employees with the best service attitude. It also includes a membership enrollment process that makes members feel ‘chosen’ and ‘sponsored’ into a wonderful new club family,” O’Neal expressed.
Along with staffing, a club’s board of directors also plays a key role in ‘greatness.’
“The board’s role should be stewardship, sustainability, leadership and oversight. Hire a great chief operating officer and invest in their success!” added Cordeiro.
“The board is the cornerstone and foundation for every private club,” O’Neal added. “These club leaders have an awesome responsibility to ensure the club’s present and future success. Beyond their operational and financial oversight, board members should play a major role in welcoming and getting to know all new club members.”
Craig Martin, general manager/COO at St. Andrews Country Club in Boca Raton, FL, who worked for many years at several five-star-rated hospitality properties draws some parallels with the private club industry.
“It’s my view that there are good clubs, great clubs and exceptional clubs. Look at it as comparable to a three-star, four-star or five-star rating in the hotel/resort or restaurant industries. Those ratings are defined or measured by the standards of the club for its facilities upkeep, service and product delivery and overall satisfaction levels from the membership and employees,” Martin explained.
“If you understand the rating platform in the hotel industry, you are constantly being measured to those elements defined in the highest category. Certainly, achieving the five-star rating meant everything for our brand reputation and credibility to attract new and repeat customers and it’s no different in the club industry.
“By striving to be the best at what you do for the membership means having a well-kept and meticulous facility whether it is a yacht club, sporting club or country club. Clean facilities are ‘Good’ and maintained up to a standard that most members and employees are happy with.
‘Great’ is an elevated attention to the detail of cleanliness, beauty and maintenance excellence, but ‘Exceptional’ is viewed as being immaculate to every detail, the creation of a sense of well-being from every aspect upon arrival to the property by elevating all your senses,” he stressed.
“Our goal is to deliver an exceptional club experience to our membership every day. This goal fully encompasses everything that management can do on an operational level – in each area. The goal is for each department to continuously explore ways to be memorable and exceptional and therefore create an exceptional club.
“Members of an exceptional club are proud to invite their friends to their club and seek out those who also value and appreciate what they are fortunate to experience every day,” Martin added.
“Members who take on a leadership role by serving in advisory positions on committees and the board are educated by the management team on the key success factors and best practices of how great clubs operate strategically and structurally. The GM must be a strong leader working closely with the board to craft the vision and plan accordingly to protect its brand reputation to sustain it long term.”
It’s vital for a collaborative effort between the club’s management and the board.
“They all must work cohesively together and understand each other’s roles. Building trust and respect through transparency and education of member volunteers is essential to the engagement of those members who are helping to shape the club,” Martin expressed.
“The entire professional staff and member volunteers work hard to achieve this environment for the success of the club. Most clubs want to be different than their neighboring clubs and create events/tournaments or menus that distinguish them from the others, which aids in creating excitement for the membership and staff.
“Getting everyone working together to achieve the goal of creating memorable and exciting events for every department is a key factor to its success,” Martin intoned.
In Martin’s opinion, the board members are advocates who listen to the membership and take direction. “They must also be engaged and willing to make tough decisions. The board’s input and participation is critical when it’s time to select new board members and develop strategic plans.
“The board must be very supportive of the GM and allow them to do their job without interference while providing constructive performance reviews to ensure alignment of the memberships expectations,” Martin stressed.
In other words, no micromanagement.
To Gordon Welch, president of the Association of Private Club Directors (APCD), and a former club manager, says simply, “a great club surpasses the members’ and communities’ expectations, and a great club is two to four steps ahead of its needs.
“I’ve seen exceptional clubs fall from grace and rise again. But when you drill down, the leadership and vision of the board, staff, members and the community make a great club,” Welch expressed.
“Synergy and collaboration are needed to make a great club. I recently read an article about the global brand manager of Adidas, in which he said, ‘I believe in collaboration, discussion, debate – creative friction. That gives you fresh perspectives and challenges your own experiential bias.’
“He added ‘his innovation mantra is to build, break, rebuild, learn – to every aspect of the company.’ I like creative friction and innovation as a basis of creating a reoccurring newness to the culture of the club,” Welch added.
“The board, with the general manager/COO lead the process of creating and maintaining the unique greatness of any club. The board collaborates with all shareholders to make this possible,” Welch opined.
The fact is, there has be to a “deep desire and a ‘why’, in order to be a great club. The club’s ‘makers’ must all have a set of goals that everyone is working toward. Those goals are always a few years away but they are the focus of an entire group of employees, members, and a force outside the organization that also wants to see it prosper and be a focus of the community, city, state or region,” Welch added.
“The best general managers know what it takes to lead a club and how to hire, select and inspire the talent of their team to perform optimally in each area. It is also critical that the GM provide the professional staff with the necessary resources to fulfill the goals and expectations, to achieve the desired results of the membership and board. A happy membership is achieved by happy employees who understand their purpose and role in bringing it all together,” Martin emphasized.
The Union League’s McFadden points out that “many club managers benefit from relationships formed with colleagues at conference, seminars etc. It’s remarkably beneficial to share ideas, issues, solutions and thoughts with industry leaders.
“Roundtable discussions that continue after conferences promote a dialogue and a network of support that encourage camaraderie and allow for a sounding board by which to measure current happenings and future trends. The clubs that truly take advantage of professional services, educational opportunities, conferences and networking undoubtedly come away with new energy that pushes their clubs to greatness,” McFadden offered.
“Great clubs have a staff that is forward thinking, devoted and truly cares about the experience their members have each and every day,” Eiselman reiterated.
“This is not something a club can achieve overnight, but through years of establishing a culture. I believe every club believes that they have this, but in reality, some, if not most, do not.
“It almost takes someone to visit a great club and really spend some time digesting the team’s moral, their details to service, the offerings they provide and not to just the members, but what management is doing for the associates, and the genuine relationship that the members have with the staff,” Eiselman added.
Despite the industry’s ups and downs, Cordeiro sees a bright future for the private club industry.
“The future of clubs is brighter than ever,” he expressed. “Community, purpose and the desire to belong and contribute to something greater than oneself has always been an essential component of the human condition.
“Clubs are one of the few institutions that can deliver this very basic but important human desire in a meaningful way. As an industry, we should stop focusing on the size of the golf hole, the pace of play, etc. and start promoting the essence of what we are and what we have always offered our members and their families…community, relationships, meaning and purpose,” Cordeiro intoned.
“Great clubs have an image/brand that is positive within the community that can also expand on a national level,” Eiselman added.
“Having a great clubhouse is certainly beneficial, but without the right people even the club that has the most expansive amenities will not become a great club without the right people.”
To which Kathy O’Neal added: “As Robert Dedman, the founder of ClubCorp and author of ‘King of Clubs’ frequently said, ‘With members we are everything, without members we are nothing.’”
Publisher’s final thoughts
Great clubs, as viewed by our private club guru, Frank Gore, “stand the test of time.” They’re vibrant with active members and a list of people wanting to join.
And the underlying reason is the ‘intangibles’, that ‘it’ factor, amenities, friends and activities.
Great clubs are immersed in tradition, as we ‘ve discovered consistently with BoardRoom Distinguished Clubs. These clubs deliver on a world class members experience. There’s a commitment to excellence and the roles and responsibilities of board and committee members and the club’s management are clearly defined. What happens doesn’t happen haphazardly. It’s by design through well-thought out long range strategic plans.
“Great clubs”, as Diablo’s Frank Cordeiro explains, “are special because of what distinguishes them…the unique stories, the history, and the intangible qualities.”
It’s not about the bricks and mortar, but the association of people, the relationships we build and the intrinsic feeling that comes with the fact that the sum is greater than any one of the individual parts.
Great clubs know what makes them great…there’s an understanding of who they are, who and what their members are and want that leads to exceptional personalized service deeply appreciated by the club’s members.
In my travels throughout the private club world, it is the great clubs that possess these qualities, the people, the values, the culture, the pristine governance, the brand loyalty, the member pride and exceptional member experience that sets them apart. It’s been that way in the past, and it’ll continue in the future.
At least, that’s the way I see it. BR