Country clubs try new strategies to boost membership

Although Peter Tull says he has enjoyed playing golf at the Mohawk Golf Club in Niskayuna for the pa

Although Peter Tull says he has enjoyed playing golf at the Mohawk Golf Club in Niskayuna for the past eight years, it wasn’t until this year that he decided to join.

This year, Mohawk began offering corporate memberships featuring discounts for the employees of member companies.

“The corporate membership certainly helped a lot,” said Tull, a branch manager for First Niagara Mortgage. “I used to come here a lot because some of my friends were members. I’d get here probably four or five times a year.”

Tull, 45, fits smack in the middle of the target demographic group private golf courses nationwide are creating new types of memberships to entice — men ages 35 to 50.

Mohawk Golf Club General Manager Dan Daily said his organization, which is a nonprofit, reversed a nearly decade-long trend of declining membership this year by introducing corporate memberships, which offer a 10 percent discount off the annual $1,500 club membership fee, and “social memberships,” costing $1,000 per year, which grant members access to the club’s pools and its 9-hole “wee course” used mostly by children learning the game.

Daily, a veteran of the Florida golf scene, said he was hired by Mohawk Golf Club in January and has since imported ideas he learned during the housing downturn in Naples, located in affluent Collier County, Fla.

“Any good ideas I can steal I do, and down there in Collier County there are over 200 private clubs, and with the downturn in the housing market we had to get creative in order to get new members in,” he said. “The construction industry is so big down there, so starting corporate memberships worked very well. We simply duplicated and it worked just as well up here.”

The new tactics have helped the club attract 32 new members and 38 corporate memberships. Daily estimates that total revenue will increase by about 25 percent in 2008, with the club’s food and beverage business generating $1.2 million and golf operations about $800,000. Countering this, he said, is a 40 percent price increase for the fuel needed to groom the golf course and significant jumps in food prices — as much as 60 percent for seafood. Also, he said, very high rainfall this summer has also cut down on the club’s cart revenue.

“The private sector is tough right now. When I came here, we had some memberships that were not in line with the competition and we changed them. This is the first year we had an incline in membership; the past eight it’s been declining,” he said.

In 2007, the number of rounds of golf played on golf courses in the Northeast was down about 1.5 percent from 2006, according to the National Golf Foundation. That compares favorably with areas like the south central U.S., where rounds played declined 6.8 percent, and the Gulf Coast, where the decline was 3.6 percent, but is still worse than the national average, which was unchanged year to year.

New York State Golf Association Executive Director Bill Moore said that after an industry boom in the late 1990s, likely spurred by the popularity of pro golfer Tiger Woods, golf has gone through some lean years, with declining memberships and interest.

“I think the golf industry pretty much mirrors the economy up here. Golf’s a disposable income item, and when you’re a middle-class family and not independently wealthy, country club memberships are the things that take the first hit,” Moore said. “What I’ve seen is when you go to the towns that aren’t doing that well economically in central New York, like Utica, Syracuse, Auburn, they aren’t doing that well at the club level getting members to join and keeping their members. However, when I go to Albany, Buffalo, Rochester, things seem fairly healthy in those hubs.”

Moore said the New York Golf Association sells a golf handicap numbers crunching service that he expects will show about a 5 percent increase in usage in 2008. He said he thinks New York clubs are effectively using special types of memberships to stop the loss of members.

“Two or three years ago, it took everyone by surprise when clubs started having trouble recruiting members and keeping them and they had to adjust their strategies, and I think that adjustment is now [working] and clubs seem to be leveling off their spending and recruiting,” he said.

Edison Golf Club General Manager Andy Hughett said his organization’s membership will be down about 4 percent to 5 percent this year. He estimated that 2008 revenues will be about $4 million total, about flat or slightly down from 2007.

“We’ve set ourselves up to be prepared for the loss. We’ve managed our expenses. We focused on our revenue centers not dependent on dues, like our banquets, which are up this year. Our food and beverage is up,” he said. “We’ve had a corporate membership for some time, but we haven’t added any new membership [types] because of the state of business at this point. What we have done is we’ve gotten a little more competitive with initiation fees, but we haven’t gone to the point of creating new memberships and that sort of thing to meet the economy or what’s going on with the world.”

Edison Golf Club also has not finalized new contract negotiations with its 30-year veteran golf pro, Rick Wright.

Hughett said it’s possible that Wright may still come back. He said Wright operates the pro shop at the Edison Golf Club, but the club owns the building in which the shop operates.

Daily said he’s seen that many golf clubs in the Northeast do not generate revenues from pro shops associated with their clubs because that’s something that’s traditionally gone to the club’s golf pro.

Todd Manderson, the golf pro at the Ballston Spa Country Club, said he owns the pro shop at his club. He said his club is experimenting with offering a new $750 start-up membership in August, whereby new members could pay the start-up rate for the remainder of 2008 and the $750 will go toward the full-year membership price of about $1,850 for 2009.

He said that if the fall weather is as warm this year as last year, it could counterbalance the soggy summer and participants in the start-up membership could effectively gain a discounted year-and-a-half membership.

“It’s been really good. I think we’re up 53 new members over last year,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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