“If you build it, they will come”

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When Ray Kinsella (Kevin Costner) first heard that voice in an Iowa cornfield, he couldn’t possibly have imagined that in 2016 it would become a “call to action” on the lips of virtually every club manager and club leader.

It was just a few years back when that phrase was a question – with a very uncertain answer.  But as a result of the actions of many courageous managers and club presidents who believed that renovating an aging, tired and inefficient clubhouse would invigorate their membership, the question is once again a statement.  As everyone associated with the private club industry know, there has been a dramatic shift in member demographics.  More importantly, this shift applies to the demographics of “potential members” as well.

Today’s clubhouses are designed with families in mind.  The desired atmosphere, while still remaining “clubby” (a term with an unclear yet widely understood meaning),   is more reflective of high end resorts and restaurants.  Pool complexes are being updated with among other things, zero entry pools, water slides and splash pads as well as food and beverage outlets that entice not only day time snack use but evening use as a summer alternative to the main clubhouse.  Features like bars and pavilions are driving revenue and not just swapping business but actually increasing member utilization.

Clubhouse member dining areas are the single most popular renovation subjects currently.  Driven by the need to create a central gathering place for the community that is the club, renovations are focusing on the development of dining spaces that combine an area for adults and an area for families all of which is integrated into a subdivided but single space anchored by the most important element – the bar.  Much like any of the most successful and popular restaurants (the places your members go), an active, attractive and vibrant bar that encourage eating is an imperative.  Bars are important in what they represent for the members – a destination – fun – relaxation – community!  The recently renovated Union League Country Club at Torresdale in an effort to reinvigorate a declining membership as part of a total clubhouse overhaul replaced a stale underused member bar with a modern member dining destination – with overwhelming success. (see before and after insert) 

Beware of the “bar in every room” trap however.  The driving force behind a successful dining operation is the bar and the success on the bar although dependent on the atmosphere and “feel” is also dependent on energy.  Energy comes from people – your members – and if they have too many options they will be divided and the energy will not be there at any of the bar locations.  Think deliberately about how the members may gather and limit destinations creating those that serve different seasons or purposes, not necessarily member groups.  The goal is to gather members together, not create divisions between the tennis players, the pool people and the golfers.

The dining venues that are supported by these great bars must be equally spectacular.  It is a challenge to develop appropriate seating areas for adults and families that are separate but connected but it is critical in order to support the entire membership community.  Although many adult members have children and want to be able to feel comfortable in their club with their kids, they also want the option of an adult experience.  

Typically club dining spaces must keep flexibility at the forefront of design.  The new bar and dining as well as pool facilities model requires some sacrifice of flexibility in order to create spaces that the members can call their own.  

Utilization of the club equals member satisfaction which translates into member retention and the gold ring – new member attraction.  Recent revenue models of both dues and F&B show – if you build it they WILL come.

Peter Cafaro is Senior Vice President at Judd Brown Designs and Jefferson group Architecture providing planning, interior design and architecture for private clubs.


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