Club Warfare: Why Smarter Positioning Is No Longer A Luxury For Country Clubs


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You have a pristine golf course, fantastic tennis courts and a variety of social activities. Guess what?

So do your competitors.

Your prospective club member is evolving and in the wake of shifting values, country clubs have to find a stake in the ground that drives them toward a group of individuals and away from a specific group of competitors. In this White Paper, we explore why the shrinking pool of membership dollars and resulting club vs. club environment creates 4 weapons that General Managers and Marketing Directors can use to their advantage.

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Club Warfare: Why Smarter Positioning Is No Longer A Luxury For Country Clubs

  1. 1. Club Warfare: Why smarter positioning is no longer a luxury for country clubs You have a pristine golf course, with 18 or 36 holes. Maybe it’s even the kind designed by the likes of Robert Trent Jones or Jack Nicklaus. You have a fantastic group of tennis courts. You have a variety of interesting social activities. So do all of your competitors. If you’ve been paying attention to the number of clubs closing or making major price concessions, you know it’s not nearly enough to be another country club. Not all by itself. And there’s a very good reason why: Your prospective member is changing. And they’re not changing back when the economy gets better. In a recent study by the New York-based Luxury Institute, 62% of wealthy consumers reported that the state of the economy has changed their views on luxury purchases. The affluent have become budget-conscious. Flaunting frugality is in, flaunting wealth is out. What’s more, there’s nothing to suggest this trend is going to reverse itself once the economy takes a turn for the better. For many in this crowd, including country club members and prospective members, great amenities at a premium are fading as a game-changer for attracting and keeping their dollars. In the place of this individual, there’s a new type of prospective country club member. He or she is: ➤ A member that wants to see more value than ever for their investment, regardless of whether that investment is at the full equity level or at the lower end / introductory phase. ➤ A member that has elevated interest in a “try before you buy” experience ➤ A member who seeks out more personal interaction from the club, wants to attend special events or be involved in a select group for feedback (and not necessarily via a board either).
  2. 2. ➤ A member who craves rewards for their investment and doesn’t merely see club membership in itself as a reward. ➤ A member who values personalized communication and efforts from the club to know what they like best, not blanketed “everything about our club” marketing. The club has to fit into the prospect’s lifestyle, not the other way around. What’s the result of this change in purchase behavior on country clubs? You knew something had to give. ➤ Country clubs that used to be far separated by membership costs are coming closer together in light of the current economy. High-end clubs are watching some members willing to “trade down” to other clubs that offer reasonable amenities at a fair price. ➤ Private clubs are transitioning to semi-private clubs. ➤ Clubs on the lower investment end, some of which may have been already losing members due to financial or age-related reasons, are finding it nearly impossible to sign new members who view joining a club at all as a waste of disposable income. ➤ Quality public golf courses and tennis facilities are competing favorably with private clubs. In the wake of these shifting values, what you have now is a climate where now, more than ever, country clubs have to find a unique positioning, a stake in the ground that drives their marketing efforts not only toward a specific group of individuals but away from a specific group of club competitors. This positioning can then help GMs and Marketing Directors create more products and services far beyond the standard Golf Membership, Tennis Membership and Social Membership. The shrinking pool of membership dollars has created a club vs. club, brand vs. brand environment. I call it Club Warfare.
  3. 3. Club Warfare Weapon #1: laser-focused brand Positioning Weapon #2: Openness to Different Media Choices Weapon #3: fresh Club Products and Services Weapon #4: Turning Select Members Into ambassadors It takes four weapons to wage club warfare successfully. A very specific type of brand positioning merges with an openness to different media choices in order to convey that positioning, which in turn drives the audience toward unique products and services from the club. Meanwhile, from an internal standpoint, constant communication from club management and the development of loyalty incentives turns already passionate and outgoing members into Ambassadors for the club. This last point involves internal buy-in, and while it may sound like a nice “extra to have,” the reality is that you need internal buy-in on every level, from club management to board members to “regular” members, to make your brand message ring true. Could you get by without one or two of these weapons? Possibly, but your chances of success in battle are significantly better the more weapons you have. Just like a sword, shield and armor are better than just a sword or just a shield, these weapons of branding make you more formidable and better your odds for a continued conversation with who you’re targeting. You can position your club well toward a specific audience, but if you merely want to say the traditional messages in the traditional places (i.e. doing nothing but newspaper ads when your audience may be interested in other areas), you’re at a disadvantage. If you have unique membership programs but are unfocused in who those programs should be best communicated to, you’re at a disadvantage. The more weapons you bring to the battle, the better.
  4. 4. Now let’s take a look at the key steps of building a battle plan: 1) POSITIONING: Drill down to what’s own-able. As you think about how you can meet at the crossroads of your club’s identity and your target’s social behavior, consider a few statements that you could actually see your club living up to without too much resistance from within. Just a few examples: ➤ Our club is going to be the best home for Canadian Snowbirds from Toronto. ➤ Our club is going to have the most customized memberships in the area, to the point of where people design their own memberships instead of us telling them how a membership will be structured. ➤ Our club is going to be the most technologically savvy club in the area, so that it’s almost as likely to get a Nintendo Wii Golf game going among 4 people as it is a regular golf game. There will be charging stations for iPhones, a club podcast and a website that allows members to alert the kitchen as to a change in their dietary preferences prior to being served at dinner tonight. ➤ Our club is going to be the greatest marketer in the area to the niche market of: 30-somethings / African-Americans / Latinos / Asians / gays and lesbians, etc. ➤ Our club is going to reward members for referral in ways so creative that no other club in the area could dream of doing. ➤ Our club will offer more value for the money than any other club in the area. No member will be able to pay less anywhere else for a preferred tee time, customized spa services and more. ➤ Our club will be the most environmentally-friendly in the area. ➤ Our club will be the most family-friendly in the area. These positioning statements are just the tip of the iceberg — there are many, many statements that can be crafted and identified as a marketing mission. You need to understand what you can be better at than any other club you’re competing with and focus on that. Too often, club after club after club will strive to appeal to many audiences — too many, in fact — and as a result, muddle their message. You can fill blackboards in your next board meeting with countless target audiences and how to appeal to them, but your human and financial resources to effectively connect with all of them will be much too thin. You have to be selective about what it is your club can set out to own. And then truly own it. You also have to consider what positioning is realistic from an existing member perspective. For example, if your club wants to cater to people in their mid-30’s, but the average age of the membership is in their mid-70’s, those 30-somethings are going to run for the hills not long after they open the door to your clubhouse. You may have a very difficult time selling the fact that you cater to families if members scowl at children on the property or board members see a new playground as a questionable expense. If your members aren’t buying into it, your prospects aren’t going to buy into it. If you don’t think you have a difference, you aren’t listening to your members hard enough. This means getting out of the boardroom, out of the clubhouse and into the homes of your members. You can’t create brand positioning in a bubble.
  5. 5. Let me give you an example of why this is so important: One of the clubs we encountered was telling us that their point of differentiation was “great golf, great tennis and lots of fun activities.” This opinion was from several club members who had sat on that club’s board for years. But really, does that sound like an incredible difference to you? I didn’t think so. Yet when we got to talking to members, unprompted and unguided, their reason for joining and staying at the club was consistently, “The value you get here for what you get here can’t be beat anywhere else.” Now, if a dozen different couples are saying that consistently across the board, you’ve got something. Was the golf course or tennis course or fitness facility a difference maker? Not really. But when their reasonable investment was coupled with those amenities, the member’s experience became elevated. Then, when further external research found we could compete on the basis of value (not price, but dollar-for- dollar value), we then had a unique position we could truly build upon. This position, when combined with a brand promise we could honestly back up (best value for the money) helped guide our messaging, media choices and membership product development. “Are you saying we should only go after one group of people?” Not necessarily. But there should be a greater selectivity as to which groups get the lead in your positioning. Just because you cater to families in the area doesn’t mean you completely avoid snowbirds, catering business and other revenue streams. But let’s face it — some groups are going to better mesh with what you offer in the way of amenities and membership culture than others. Ideally, each member category you go after should have its own membership product, its own messaging and its own media mix while still tying into the overall brand umbrella. The more categories you have, the more time and expense you’ll have to plan for. So it is in your benefit to be choosier on what you lead with — yes, even in less-than-ideal times. Here’s an illustration of what we mean, via a two-pronged attack: Pick one group that is easier for you to attract right now and one group that will require a bit more nurturing but could be worth it for building a foundation (and is still attainable, not a grandiose reach). Let’s say the short-term group is comprised of current country club members within a 15-minute drive and the long-term group is comprised of high-income families that have never belonged to a country club. Although you may get a “quick switch” from the first group, you may have a longer-term foundation from the people you get from the second group. In this case, it wouldn’t make much sense to go after one or the other alone — with the first group you may have a shorter window of membership but with the second group you may have a harder time getting non-members to sign up. But combined, they give you a 1-2 punch that provides dimension and depth to your overall brand.
  6. 6. 2) MeDIa CHOICeS: New times call for flexibility in the way you convey your point of difference. Now that we’ve talked about positioning your club, when we merge that positioning with the behavior of your target audience, the place we land in terms of the best media choices toward that target may be different than anywhere you’ve been before. Take a look at how this shift can occur with a new target audience that isn’t even that much of a departure from the existing membership base: Let’s say your club has an average age of 75 years old and your target is a younger crowd nearing retirement, say, people 55-64 years old (a reasonable step down in the age ladder but not a ridiculous jump). How does this affect your marketing efforts? Significantly. We know this audience can be much heavier Internet users than their older counterparts. 71% acknowledge high Internet use compared to 32% of those 65 years old and over. We’re talking about people who enjoy using email to converse back and forth with friends, visiting websites, reading political blogs or shopping on eBay. As participants rather than originators, what they don’t tend to do as much is create blog content or download videos. This understanding can then drive the media mix — and the key word is “mix.” Obviously from the target snapshot above, we’d want to include some online tactics into the overall media picture. But combining online/social media tactics with offline tactics (i.e. print, direct mail, etc.) can give us the diverse mix that’s right for this audience. Of course, what I’ve outlined above is but one illustration. Change the position and target… and you change the media mix and possibly the messaging too. This is where those clubs that embrace a flexibility to using unique, different forms of media (because they’re right for the audience, not just because they’re new) may distance themselves from those clubs that can’t bring themselves to understand other media forms beyond the traditional. One of the best examples of this is what we’re currently witnessing with social media. Social media being relatively new, some people get it, some people don’t and many don’t know how it fits into the overall scheme of things when it comes to brand building. But at a pitch I had not long ago, one of the people reviewing the work said, “I don’t pretend to understand all of this technological stuff. But I know that what you’re describing is probably right for who I’m going after.” If you have thinkers like this in your marketing department or on your board who understand ours is a new and rapidly changing climate that sometimes demands ways to communicate that are much different than the way it was done years ago, you’ve got an advantage. If you don’t have folks like that, you’ll be pushing a much bigger rock up a steep hill. And while you’re doing that, your competitor down the road will set up a Twitter page, Facebook page and YouTube video to accompany their other marketing efforts.
  7. 7. 3) PrODuCT: add membership options to the “menu.” Not replacements. You want to sell equity memberships or at least memberships on the higher end. But remember, your prospective member may not have the mindset for a large upfront investment at this point. They could have interest in your club but not before fully appreciating what it’s like to walk in a member’s shoes for a while. Not just a tour around the place. So what do you do? Structure new and different memberships not solely around what the club has to offer but the individual’s decision-making process. Sure, some people know what they want before they walk through your door. But many others don’t. It’s about gently guiding those people toward the lifestyle at the club they can envision the easiest, not forcing them into a decision up front whether they belong in the club or not. To get there, take a page from upscale restaurants that are being creative in their offerings these days. These members of the hospitality industry aren’t cutting prices off existing items on the menu. They’re adding new items on the menu at less expensive prices. The result is that the consumer sees a wider array of items for their palate, better value for their budget, portion control options for their diet, etc. The new items may be permanent or part of a limited-time offer. Regardless, with this tactic, the overall brand doesn’t get cheapened. It gets enhanced. There’s a lesson here for clubs that are content merely to tinker with fees. True, you may see some traction by eliminating initiation fees or providing a discount on annual dues. Ultimately, however, a strategy based squarely upon fee tinkering with existing products isn’t going to give your club a sustainable difference in your prospect’s mind. In fact, it will decrease the overall value of your brand, not increase it. On the other hand, if you add new memberships to the overall roster that are built around your target audience’s purchasing preference, you’re not running a risk of cheapening your overall brand because you’re offering variety. So in addition to the positioning, messaging and media choices we’ve talked about above, getting creative with memberships can further hone your point of difference. Right now, many clubs around you are going the traditional golf / tennis / social membership route. But let’s say you come to the table with a wider menu of membership options that include limited-time memberships that allow the prospective member to “try before they buy” as well as memberships that allow the member to enjoy a portion of the club only (golf only, tennis only, etc.) for a discounted fee. The member pays only for what they use. Critics of these tactics may say that after the trial period ends, the prospect will just go somewhere else or in the case of the “only” membership, there’s no hope of an upgrade to a more involved membership status. Admittedly, there is that risk. But the other risk is that you have nothing else to offer this prospect but a take- it-or-leave-it scenario of high-end equity memberships, cutting out a potential influx of people. That’s not a game many clubs can afford to play right now either. The upside to these types of memberships is the reward of getting someone in the door and involving them in the community. Once they’re in and have experienced the club, you can begin up-selling them to a higher-priced membership if you like.
  8. 8. Of course, these are just a couple of the ways to creatively structure a membership package. You could structure a package toward a young executive, a group of 8-10 tennis players, a corporate partner package and more. Can you begin to see how this can distance your club from the traditional “Golf/Tennis/Social” membership set? “Our club is part of a group that has reciprocal relationships. How can we effectively conduct club warfare against those clubs?” Two points to that: 1) You’re still part of a group that is competing against certain clubs that are not in that group. So you’re encouraging prospective members to learn more about the experience at your clubs and not others. The competitive dynamic merely changes to be your group against other clubs/groups rather than your club against other clubs. 2) If someone from a club within that group wanted to join your club instead, I’m skeptical you would have a hard time turning that person away. Regardless, that’s nothing to apologize for if you did not actively pursue that prospect and they came to you. You can’t control who has interest in your club and you are genuine in your intent that you wouldn’t actively prevent membership to someone in your reciprocal group. More club coalitions with reciprocal agreements are being formed where members can play between clubs without paying greens fees. Which is perfectly fine. But while it’s a revenue stream that’s complementary to your strategy, the relationship with your group doesn’t have to completely influence your club’s strategy by any means. You can play nice with the other clubs and still chart your own course. 4) aMbaSSaDOrS: Identify the most passionate members from within who will be easiest to get on board with your direction. In most clubs, hopefully, there are at least a few people who have a sort of infectious enthusiasm. They are a pleasure to be around, whether it’s on the golf course or a group night out at the theatre. They don’t just enjoy the country club experience but they enjoy the experience at your club. Take them out of the equation and suddenly the club’s community loses a little extra something. It is not an overstatement that they are the living embodiment of the brand you want your club to be. Naturally, not every member at your club is this kind of person. In fact, it’s okay if you don’t have that many. You only need a few to begin with. And you probably won’t be twisting their arm too much if you involve them in representing the club in certain capacities. Because these people aren’t mere members. It’s a select club within your club. They are what I would call Ambassadors. Imagine if a prospective member takes advantage of a promotion you’re running where they can play a day of golf or tennis or work out in your fitness facility for free. Sure, you can let them hit the links or the courts or the weight room by themselves, but will that be enough to convert them toward a program? That’s iffy at this point. However, when you couple that prospect with someone who is a pleasure to be around, knows
  9. 9. how to have a lively conversation, won’t endlessly complain about this or that limitation of the club, etc., you have the potential to maximize the prospect’s visit. Playing alone on the golf course doesn’t give the prospect a sense of what it means to be part of the community whereas playing with a current member can allow them to be a little more at ease to ask real questions, namely because the member isn’t in an official “Board” or “Management” or “Sales” capacity. This is what an Ambassador brings to the table as an extra layer of realism. You can’t turn a constant grump or complainer or whiner into an Ambassador. It’s not worth it and even incentives won’t help. It won’t be realistic because they’ll be actors. And if your prospect sees this, your club has close to zero chance of closing that prospect. Ambassadors already have an outgoing, positive personality built right in. There’s nothing fake about it. Understand that we’re not trying to turn members into overzealous salespeople. All we want to do is locate the most genuine people who already add to the club environment, couple them with prospects during a visit and show those prospective members how it’s people like these Ambassadors that make the club a better place. In doing so, this lays the groundwork for Sales to transition into the type of membership that fits the prospect best (typically something that involves an introductory period is the smoothest). This said, you do want the Ambassador to be on the same page of what it is you ultimately want to accomplish. Involve them in any sort of training so they can feel vested in the program, from materials to a class. It can be a simple primer or complex — the point is it’s still important to guide them on the purpose at hand: To, in the most subtle of ways, educate the prospect about the benefits of being part of the club and entice them toward exploring the next step in the relationship. What’s a potential Ambassador’s incentive for doing this because even the best people may not give up valuable time out of the goodness of their heart? Glad you asked. I am a firm believer that loyalty and incentive programs, when used appropriately, can motivate a membership base. Ambassadors should be rewarded for how often they participate in prospect visits, if their prospect becomes a member, if they provide valuable input on how to make the program better, refer a member who qualifies as an Ambassador, etc. Actual rewards don’t necessarily have to be the most expensive either. A free golf or tennis lesson. Discounts on club merchandise. A complimentary bottle of wine with dinner. You get the picture. By the way, Ambassadors don’t just bring benefit to you for prospect interaction. They provide advantages in terms of internal member interaction as well. Aside from management, they are the most knowledgeable and enthusiastic about new programs and incentives — and they don’t just turn it off when they’re among friends. When you inject that passion for new programs into the club community through this individual, you have a member who is lending credibility to change and excitement to new efforts. The more this happens, the easier it is to bring more non-Ambassador members on board with your effort and the easier it is to marginalize those naysaying club members who would complain about a perfect summer day in June.
  10. 10. Summary: Let’s review where we’ve come from and where we’ve come to: Point A: ➤ Positioning that’s all about your club, little about your prospect’s mentality. ➤ Similar media choices and/or similar messages as your competitors. ➤ Memberships that aren’t structured creatively different than other clubs. ➤ Members who aren’t identified and cultivated as true Ambassadors. Point B: ➤ You are uniquely positioned toward a select group or groups. ➤ You have distinct messaging crafted around what the member desires most, not simply around what your club has to offer. ➤ You have a media mix that’s flexible based on how your target audience modifies their behavior ➤ You have memberships that offer real choices based on where that person happens to be at this point in their life. ➤ You have Ambassadors for the club who are eager and willing to help your sales effort as part of an ongoing loyalty program. Not every country club can get to Point B. Some won’t even want to try, which will be their loss in the face of a luxury purchaser with shifting values. But I hope your club will at least begin to move toward the direction I’ve outlined. With creative brand positioning, media choices and product development, you can sharpen the weapons that help you successfully wage Club Warfare. And win. Dan Gershenson runs a brand development agency called The Creative Underground. Within one year of working with a struggling private country club, it helped the club grow its membership base by 12.5%, to where it enjoyed a $700,000 budget surplus. If you’ve enjoyed reading about the concepts outlined in this White Paper and would like to learn more about how the process can be applied to your own club’s environment, call 561.862.6004 or email
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