Most businesses today are considerably challenged by what we’re confronting these days as the virus keeps spreading and vaccines have only now gotten into high gear as they race to our immunity-starved arms. 

Among the hardest hit by the pandemic are those sanctuaries for our souls, not just our churches and synagogues, but those serene places to where we escape to get together with friends, relax, retool and play with our sticks and balls on green swaths leading to those agonizingly small holes. 

These are our private clubs, that is if we are privileged to belong to one and they’re still open and operating. 

Right now, as new, more contagious and some say more virulent variants of COVID-19 are spreading, for many it’s becoming more of a pain and predicament than a privilege for seniors to belong to a private club.

We’re constantly being told to avoid crowds, stay socially distant and wear masks, now even doubled, yet whether we play or stay home, annual dues never stops.   

While there is no private club playbook for how to conduct business during a pandemic, I suggest clubs exercise leniency and flexibility and maybe retool the playbook as rules written back in normal times might have to be assuaged or adjusted in these highly abnormal times.

At my club, for example, which is a combination of private club and public hotel, called The Boca Raton Resort and Club, the rules are there’s no such thing as a prolonged leave of absence.  If you want one, the rules state you’ll have to resign and then if you return, you’ll still be responsible for all the annual dues during the time you were away or inactive. 

So, whether you’re there or not, no matter how long you’ve been a member or how much you’ve paid in initiation fee, annual dues and spending over the years, you’re responsible for annual dues, active or not.  You better pay, brother, even if those amenities have been severely curtailed during this pandemic.  

Discounts and Incentives

Some argue that while discounting and large incentives are tempting for clubs to offer during hard times, they should avoid doing this and instead work on redefining and strengthening their value proposition.

Some think rewards rarely work in the long run, as they do not inspire loyalty. Private clubs want congruent, loyal, and engaged members creating long-lasting relationships with fellow members.  I recall many wonderful times at my club, meeting extraordinary people and even gaining new clients for my PR firm.

One hopeful sign for private clubs amid this coronavirus pandemic are millennials who are ready to join us older members or take our place.

While in the past they typically have preferred the big-city lifestyle, nowadays they’re deciding “burbs aren’t so bad,” which is weakening the magnetic pull of expensive cities like New York and San Francisco.

When COVID-19 arrived, about a third of America’s states began closing golf facilities. Some member-owned clubs challenged the legality of the shutdown and defied state orders.

Other clubs were allowed to continue operating as long as they made significant changes to protect the safety of their staff and members.  During that surreal stretch of time, expectations changed quickly for large club operators.

Roughly half of all American golf courses were closed in April last year. Many were in the Midwest and Northeast, markets where sun-starved golfers were eager to break out the clubs after the snow melted.

New Jersey had one of the most prolonged and restrictive spring lockdowns. State officials ordered golf courses closed from March 31 through May 2. For a period  after, courses were restricted to twosomes only and 16-minute tee time intervals. It was practically impossible to get a tee time anywhere.

In West Orange, New Jersey, club officials opened Montclair Golf Club as soon as the state granted permission. They immediately experienced a surge of interest in memberships, especially among young professionals escaping New York City.

The average age of new members declined from 58.6 in 2017 to 54.9 in 2020, according to a recent market report from Golf Life Navigators, a service that matches golfers with club memberships that best suit their lifestyles.

“Our belief is that these individuals watched their parents work well into their 70s and don’t wish to wait that long before investing in their own health and lifestyle,” said Jason Becker, Golf Life Navigators CEO.

GGA Partners, an international consulting firm and adviser to private clubs, conducted an extensive survey of over 6,300 members worldwide July to find what’s driving the surge in both golf and the club space.

“What we’ve learned is the importance and relevance of clubs is strengthened during emotionally challenged times,” said Michael Gregory, a partner at GGA.

“What people are lacking in their lives, some clubs have found a way to really bridge that gap and provide an outlet.”

So, hopefully my club and other private clubs won’t get stuck in those sand traps of inflexible allegiance to rules enacted at a time much different than today.

I would urge them to fine tune their rules to allow leaves of absences with no penalties or responsibilities attached for annual dues during time of absence.

This will help to uplift all those struggling to repair business and regain clients so they can once again become active club members soon as our skies are clear of this COVID-19 and its rude and vulgar variants. 

Then we can regain without penalty the privileges and enjoyment of once again hanging out with friends at our beloved private club after a delightful round or two of golf.