Traditional country clubs with their no-jeans dress codes and formal dining options are failing to attract millennials - but clubs are making 5 keys changes to pull in a younger clientele
- Millennials aren't as interested in joining country clubs as their baby boomer parents were.
- The "brokest generation" can't afford the membership dues, doesn't particularly enjoy playing golf, and isn't into the stuffy and non-diverse reputation of traditional country clubs, Kelsey Lawrence reported for CityLab.
- Country clubs are evolving in order to attract a younger clientele, Henry Wallmeyer, president and CEO of the National Club Association, told Business Insider.
- They're taking the focus off golf, offering more family-friendly activities, loosening dress codes, boosting health and wellness amenities, and making casual and diverse food options a priority.
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Millennials aren't interested in joining country clubs like their baby boomer parents.
Country club membership dropped 20% from 1990 to 2014. And the number of clubs in the US is diminishing. In the mid- to late 1990s, there were more than 5,000 member-owned, full-service golf and country clubs in the US, Frank Vain, president of St. Louis-based consulting firm McMahon Group, told The Roanoak Times. By 2017, that number had fallen to about 3,900, he said.
As Kelsey Lawrence reported last year for CityLab, country clubs have had trouble attracting millennials for several reasons: The "brokest" and "most indebted" generation can't afford the thousands-of-dollars-per-year membership dues and they don't love playing golf. Another problem is country clubs' reputation for being stuffy and not particularly diverse, according to Lawrence.
To appeal to a younger generation, country clubs are moving away from their traditional mainstays - including golf
Henry Wallmeyer, the president and CEO of the National Club Association, says country clubs are evolving to appeal to a younger and more diverse clientele.
"Clubs have transformed dramatically over the last 10 years - especially coming out of the recession in 2008 and 2009 - because their members have changed, and the old model of the club just does not work anymore," Wallmeyer said.
The National Club Association, a trade association and advocacy group for private clubs, represents about 700 private clubs across the US. The majority - about 80% - of its member clubs are golf country clubs, while the rest include city clubs, athletic clubs, yacht clubs, and military clubs.
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post/Getty Images
Traditionally, golf was the primary factor that drove people to join country clubs, Wallmeyer said.
In the 1990s, about 9 million adults aged 18 to 34 played golf, according to the National Golf Foundation. Today, that's down to 6.1 million.
"We're now seeing that golf is probably maybe the fourth most important thing at a club," Wallmeyer said.
Family-friendly activities, casual dining options, and health and wellness amenities are becoming the new focus of country clubs
Country clubs today are becoming more family-centric and offering a wider range of activities and amenities, according to Wallmeyer.
Whereas traditionally the father in the family was the primary clubgoer, only occasionally joined at the club by his family for a meal, clubs today are trying to be more inclusive of families.
Tennis, for example, is becoming more popular because it's not as time-consuming as golf and a family of four can play together, Wallmeyer says.
Clubs are also loosening restrictions on dress codes. While jeans used to be forbidden in most country clubs, about 87% of clubs now allow denim in some part of the clubhouse, according to Wallmeyer.
The move toward more casual clothing means more casual dining, as well, Wallmeyer says. Many clubs are offering sports-bar type eateries, as well as grab-and-go food options.
"They're just trying to mimic what is out there in society that people are using, like Panera type of offerings or Starbucks, those type of things," Wallmeyer said.
Country clubs are all about community - but what community is that exactly?
People belong to private clubs first and foremost for a sense of community, Wallmeyer says.
"They want to be with their friends, be with people who are of a like mind," he said.
But while private clubs that have most successfully appealed to millennials such as Soho House and The Wing have distinct target communities - young urban creatives and urban professional women, respectively - what makes up a country club community today is less clear.
Country clubs have traditionally been geared toward affluent white men.
"Really, that golf problem is a big one, but also clubs' history of not being open to certain groups," MaryLeigh Bliss of Ypulse, a millennial-focused research firm, told Lawrence at CityLab. "Country clubs have that long-term history of being only for high-income white families, and that's not something millennials are really looking for."
According to Wallmeyer, "it's good when clubs have a varied membership base," but what sets them apart is essentially the multiple amenities that can be found all in one place.
"I think the thing that country clubs have, in terms of their niche - it's that facility, whether it's a top 100 golf course or outstanding fitness facilities or tennis or the food and beverage or whatever that might be," Wallmeyer said. "... I think clubs have great opportunities because they have so many different things that they can offer."
But for a generation that's stuck paying off mountains of student debt and has to go into debt just to attend a music festival, paying thousands of dollars a year for what is essentially access to a restaurant and a golf course may not be enough of a draw.