Ten Things Top Clubs Do

Competition isn't just on the course

May 03, 2017 |

In the golf world, competition isn't just on the course — it's going on between clubs as they compete for members and guests. What are the secrets to rising to the top? To find out, we talked to Phil Kiester, Chairman of the National Club Association, “Award for Excellence in Club Management” recipient in 2000, and General Manager of the Country Club of Virginia, which at 7,500 members, is one of the largest member-owned clubs in the United States.

Phil was kind enough to offer his thoughts on what top clubs do to achieve and preserve their position as leaders in the private club world. He also shared what has made Country Club of Virginia one of the best in the United States.

Take a look and compare it to what your club is currently doing. Above all, share it with others at your club to spark action or acknowledge a job well done.

Here's Phil's list:

1. Reinvest in Your Facilities

Staying relevant is the single most important thing clubs can do to keep their current members happy and to attract new ones. Top clubs know this and strategically reinvest in facilities and amenities. This doesn’t mean you have to add new amenities to stay relevant, but it’s just as much about keeping your existing amenities in top condition.

For example, Phil mentioned Baltusrol Golf Club, consistently recognized as one of the top golf clubs in the country. Baltusrol focuses on doing three things exceptionally well — golf, dining, and lodging. The club recently upgraded its practice facilities and overnight accommodations to state-of-the-art conditions. It’s a well-considered investment aligned with their tight focus on their offerings and emphasis on excellence.

2. Rethink Your Membership Development

Top clubs are confident that membership in their club will be sought after, but they are not passive about the membership process. Leaders of top clubs keep an eye out for individuals who would make great members — people who are prominent in business, respected socially, and who fit the culture of the club. Even when interest in a club is strong, club leaders keep club members aware of and engaged in the membership process. They look beyond a numbers-driven, reactive mindset to a proactive, quality-driven approach with the long view always in mind.

3. Fine Tune Your Radar, Monitor Key Performance Indicators

The clubs that set themselves apart know what members want and what their peer clubs are doing. It's a focus adjustment that requires not only listening to your members and being attuned to what they've seen and liked at other clubs, but also being aware of what trends are happening nationally.

For example, 25 years ago, Country Club of Virginia (CCV) created a Youth Department to provide babysitting, after-school programs, and youth-oriented activities. It has paid off. Today, the department has a full-time staff of eight that oversees programs which serve preschoolers through high school age students. Likewise, about seven years ago, the Club expanded their swim facilities to a five-pool complex spread over 3 ½ acres. Again, it's a differentiator and a key driver of member satisfaction and prospective member interest. Looking ahead, the Club has plans to expand their squash facilities as that sport continues to gain popularity, particularly among juniors, in the northeast.

The key is to keep your radar fine-tuned and monitor key performance indicators (KPI), such as member usage. CCV monitors member usage patterns carefully and uses that information as an important guide for scheduling, programming, and as input for facility master planning.

4. Focus on Your Budgeting Process, Keep Operations Flexible

Top clubs invest considerable time in their budgeting process. They compare performance against budget, using appropriate benchmarks, creating realistic projections, and involving key staff. It's a disciplined process with a focus on five to 10 key areas and the KPIs related to those areas.

Measure how performance deviates from your plan and make necessary adjustments. Note usage patterns. For instance, at CCV, they recently shifted resources from after-school activities to weekend activities that would keep kids entertained while allowing parents to golf or play tennis. The Club has also developed youth activity that coincides with casual dining options so that parents can enjoy dinner while their kids dine and play with other kids nearby.

5. Offer a Superior Experience

This may seem obvious, but top clubs offer not only the best facilities and playing conditions, but also deliver the most superior personal service. They strive to personalize the service experience and go beyond greeting club members by name. The staff works to get to know members’ habits, likes and dislikes, and provide service accordingly. That kind of personalization is a challenge at larger clubs, but it's a key differentiator and a goal worth working toward.

6. Pay Attention to the Big Three

These days, club members are looking for excellence in all aspects of their club experience. However, there are three key areas — golf, dining, and fitness — where no club can afford to disappoint. Make sure your club delivers on all three.

When it comes to your club's golf experience, offer members and guests a well-maintained, interesting, and fair golf course. It doesn't have to be extremely difficult, but it should keep your members sufficiently challenged.

Go for selection and quality with your dining offerings. There's no magic formula here; it varies by location and membership tastes. You want to create a dining atmosphere that's busy enough to have energy, but not so busy that members have to wait in line for a table. It's a fine line, but manage it carefully.

Finally, invest in your fitness facilities and keep group classes current. Five years ago, classes such as core barre were not on the radar, but they are now. Make sure your club is attuned to the market and what’s current because your members more than likely are.

7. Hire Well

Your talent represents your club. Top clubs know this and with many clubs spending 55 percent or more of revenues going to payroll, they understand that the investment they make in hiring exceptional people will pay off by creating an exceptional experience for members. To that end, the best clubs view staff as an investment rather than expense. They have a clear sense of what they're looking for in employees, are committed to their standards, and recognize their investment will pay off over time.

8. Communicate Well

Maintaining a steady dialogue among your club's staff, management, board, and members at large is critical. Given the broad and ever-growing methods of communication, it is important to be strategic. The best clubs have learned what mix of newsletter, email, and website communication works for their members. Communication should go beyond schedules, tournaments, and events. The use of excellent and interesting photography assures members will pay attention. The use of video is growing. Specialty electronic newsletters from the golf pro and tennis pro create engagement and help personalize the club.

9. Keep Your Eye on the Horizon

Most clubs have a tendency to react to yesterday's problem or the loudest voice in the room, but top clubs keep their focus on the 10-year horizon. Sure they fix problems if and when they arise, but they don't let smaller problems interrupt their focus on the big picture.

Top clubs spend wisely for the long term. This takes strategy and a commitment to planning. The best clubs concentrate on the balance sheet and avoid becoming consumed by monthly variances in the income statement. The point is to look to the future.

To that end, when members join Virginia Country Club — a step that requires an initiation fee in the tens of thousands — the Club’s Board and executive staff lead them through an in-depth orientation process. The orientation stresses two concepts, ownership and stewardship, and strives to answer every frequently asked question before it is asked. Phil stresses to new members that they are owners of the club, not “customers,” “guests,” or “patrons,” and that ownership involves both privilege and responsibility. He also says that they are stewards and asks them to think of the true owners as their grandchildren. He suggests that they have a duty to preserve the Club for future generations and to make decisions that will protect and honor this valuable asset for many years to come. That's the mindset at top clubs.

10. Set High Expectations, Create Key Goals

The prevailing question at top clubs is "how can we do this better?" Adopt that attitude and your club will invariably succeed. Manage to these high expectations and make this part of your culture. Develop a program to convert ideas to actions and build clear accountability into the equation.

At CCV, the Board and staff focus on six key goals for the year and create action plans for each goal for each area of the club, including deadlines. So if one of the key goals is “increase member utilization,” the Athletics Committee and department might adopt the goal of adding more social components in the mix for the year to stimulate usage. The Food and Beverage Committee and department might develop a different plan to stimulate member usage. Once goals are set and communicated, it’s up to club leadership to check back to ensure those new programs are executed and planned results achieved.

The Final Word: Cultivate a Strong Identity and Strong Leadership

Finally, top clubs have a strong, well-defined identity. They know who they are and whom they serve and every investment is made with that in mind. CCV has a strong commitment to its legacy members and every important decision is made to preserve the legacy of the club for its current members and generations to follow. Top clubs define what its vision is and invest in it.

Top clubs invest in their governance. They take care to identify and groom the future leaders of the club. They have customs and structure to ensure that there is a sustained vision and culture over time. Governance is a team sport, so look for people who want to support the club's common goals. This means looking beyond the people who speak loudest or maybe those who are smartest, and instead opting for smart, open-minded people who are willing to learn and look beyond their own perceptions and interests. Go for people who can see the big picture, use facts and information, and have a structured way of making decisions. Cultivate these people and the culture of your club.

There's a lot that goes into being a top club, but pay attention to this list and you'll be well on your way.

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