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Can old-school private clubs become cool again?

In an era of WeWork and the Wing, country clubs and private clubs seek to regain relevance

A member’s event at the Collective, a new type of social club owned by ClubCorp, the nation’s largest collection of private member’s-only clubs.
Courtesy The Collective

Last summer, Alessandra Brescia needed a new place to work. The 44-year-old Seattle-based brand strategist, who lives in the Ballard neighborhood with her two kids, wanted an easier commute and more inspiring space. At first, all she found nearby were cubicle-style offices for rent or WeWork spaces, none of which appealed to her. She sought something that didn’t feel like an office, a more comfortable space with a diverse crowd.

Her solution ended up being an “urban basecamp for the mind, body, and soul.” That’s the tagline for Collective, a new private members-only club in Seattle’s South Lake Union that opened last summer with aspirations to reboot the stuffy, staid image of such institutions.

The brainchild of Tommy Trause and Alex Mondau, employees of ClubCorp, the nation’s largest operator of private clubs, Collective offers a decidedly on-trend spin on a concept many associate with dress codes, dining rooms, and frankly, dudes (or as Mondau described it, “pale, stale, and male”).

Inside, members can grab a coffee and find a laptop perch amid 8,000 square feet of workspace, which includes nooks and crannies to make calls, and even space to record music. The High Tide restaurant and bar serves grain bowls and grilled fish. And Alpenglow, a 7,000-square foot recreation area, includes an indoor campfire circle, space to play cornhole, couches, vintage ski lift chairs, and even a boutique bouldering gym.

Brescia feels at home, and says the cost—like the approximately 1,300 other members, she pays $100 a month, on top of the $100 fee to join—is worth it

“It’s comfortable enough for a creative person, but it has a great balance between quiet and noise,” she says.

“We want to say membership is a way to bring people in, not keep people out.”
Clay Hayner Photo
The Collective, which includes a bouldering wall and recreation area, bills itself as an “urban basecamp for the mind, body, and soul.”
Clay Hayner Photo

About a decade ago, when ClubCorp began an effort to remake its 200-plus clubs and resorts for contemporary consumers, it was facing declining, aging membership and a dying industry. But Trause and others believe that was due to execution, not irrelevance. Social clubs, and more importantly, the kind of third spaces that encourage socialization and networking, were as relevant as ever. Private clubs needed to step out of their perches in skyscrapers, Trause says, come down to the street, and reinvent themselves for today’s creative class. Private clubs need to step out of their perches in skyscrapers, Trause says, come down to the street, and reinvent themselves. But will today’s business leaders and creatives bite?

“We want to say membership is a way to bring people in, not keep people out,” says Trause.

Old-schools social clubs playing catch-up

Collective comes at a time when private clubs, far from being a relic, have become an uber-trendy aspect of urban life. At the same time the number of self-employed workers is growing and technology makes it ever easier to work remotely, a new generation of social clubs, from female-focused The Wing to the Soho House chain, have signed up thousands of new members, while coworking spaces like WeWork have created their own work-focused hangout spaces for freelancers. In business circles, especially tech, incubation hubs and startup spaces offer not just workspaces but places for random encounters and networking.

ClubCorp, as well as the nation’s constellation of country clubs and established private city clubs, which have struggled with declining memberships, revenue, and frankly, relevancy, have seen the rise of a new generation of social clubs as not just competition, but an inspiration and even opportunity.

Industry trends have been dispiriting. According to a CityLab article, the number of golf and country clubs in the nation dropped 20 percent from the ‘90s until now, from 5,000 to 4,000. A 2014 National Club Association study discovered membership had dropped 20 percent.

As a wholesale reimagining of the product from a long-time industry player, Collective is just one of many efforts being made to update old-school clubs for a new generation. According to a report from RSM, an international tax and consulting firm that works with the industry, private clubs in the U.S. spent $1.1 billion on capital improvements between 2015 and 2017.

In the same ways hotel chains in the Airbnb era have introduced products that blur the lines between old and new ways of business, established social clubs are trying to redesign their spaces and reconfigure their approach to outreach and programming.

“All of our clubs are experiments,” says Trause. “People want community. For us, the question becomes, how can you inject an accelerant into the community building process?”

Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia, which recently underwent a redesign to add more family- and kid-friendly facilities.
©2018 Francis Dzikowski/OTTO
The new child’s playroom at Farmington. “There are large demographic, generational, and lifestyle shifts at play,”
©2018 Francis Dzikowski/OTTO

Competing with a new generation of private clubs

For many of the posh private clubs in major U.S. cities, ensconced in decades-old, elegantly furnished spaces, membership decline came about due to a combination of factors. In addition to changing values—and the perception these places didn’t meet contemporary demands for a diverse and less stuffy social environment—decades of citydwellers moving to the suburbs, and the last recession, took a toll on membership and revenue.

“We don’t say a club should abandon its history, but they can’t just live on their histories alone,” says Henry Wallmeyer, president and CEO of the National Club Association. “People left the city and clubs were slow to change, but now they’re being more responsive. There’s a larger population in cities who want to be members and want to be engaged.”

Clubs want to again grab the mantle of being that third place, and have taken various measures to adopt to changing definitions of that type of location. Wallmeyer says clubs have long-ago relaxed dress codes and are trying to add more casual, informal dining options. They’re taking advantage of often prime downtown real estate to add more rooftop decks and outdoor patios, and adding more spas, saunas, and new fitness equipment.

Wallmeyer points to the Detroit Club, which has been able to thrive and grow its members after sinking tens of millions of dollars on restoration and construction, including a rooftop restaurant. Signifying the changing social mores and expectations of inclusivity, they’re redone the door once known as the “women’s entrance,” refurbishing it and turning it into an entrance to the new restaurant.

Rethinking the country club

Private clubs and country clubs, in addition to being perceived as out of touch, also need to confront the legacy of exclusive membership (myth number one, according to the National Club Association, since private clubs don’t discriminate like some have in the past, but rather are selective based on other interests such as common interest). As Larry Hirsh, president of Golf Property Analysts, told the Dallas Morning News, they’re traditionally known for not being welcoming to “the three M’s,” Millennials, minorities, and moms.

“There are large demographic, generational, and lifestyle shifts at play,” says John Kirk, an architect at Cooper Robertson who focuses on golf course design and redesign. “Getting members, attracting a younger demographic, and keeping them their as their families grow is key.

Kirk recently redesigned the Farmington Country Club in Charlottesville, Virginia, to accommodate a more diverse audience, especially families with kids. Renovated women’s locker rooms and lounges, as well as new children and teen centers, made the historic course and clubhouse more welcoming to a wider audience, turning spaces considered afterthoughts into something more appealing.

The landscaping team also redesigned the “East 9” section of holes to create a shorter, faster, course to allow busy members, especially parents, to have the option to play a complete game in 90 minutes instead of needing to devote an entire morning or afternoon to the links.

“There are large demographic, generational, and lifestyle shifts at play,” says Kirk. “Getting members, attracting a younger demographic, and keeping them their as their families grow is key.”

Other courses have tried similar tactics. In Boca Raton, Florida, Woodfield Country Club has a 3,000-square-foot kid’s clubhouse and teen game room. Brookhaven Country Club, a ClubCorp property in Dallas, Texas, just added a Drive Zone, an interactive driving range that utilizes ball-tracking technology shown on PGA Tour broadcasts.

Private clubs needed to step out of their perches in skyscrapers, Trause says, come down to the street, and reinvent themselves for today’s creative class.
Clay Hayner Photo
Lounge at the Collective. “It’s a strong industry because clubs are changing and providing what their members are looking for. They answer the question, ‘What can people do with that sliver of free time they have left?’”
Clay Hayner Photo

Fulfilling a need for socializing in a time-starved society

While Wallmeyer doesn’t dispute that the industry is still playing catch-up, he’s confident there’s always going to be a need for these kind of spaces. They’ll continue to evolve, and in many ways, may be even more important today then they were in their heyday. They can also speak to our values; Mondau and Trause created a “social impact fund” for the Collective, and believe it can help membership give back to the wider community, akin to the work of groups like the Elks.

Wallmeyer points to The Gathering Spot, a club that caters to people of color that was co-founded by Ryan Wilson in Atlanta in 2016, and plans to open new locations in Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. He sees venues like this, and the Wing, as great lessons; giving people the ability to interact and socialize with like-minded individuals, that’s a hallmark of what we believe in as an association. He says Wilson will be speaking at the National Club Association Conference later this year, passing on his own ideas on how others private clubs can perhaps engage more of the public.

At a moment when screen time and social media-fueled division are big concerns, anything that encourages in-person socialization seems like healthy community building. But do these clubs, even in newer, more egalitarian guises, still encourage people to creates and remain inside self-created social bubbles?

“It’s a strong industry because clubs are changing and providing what their members are looking for,” Wallmeyer says. “They answer the question, ‘What can people do with that sliver of free time they have left?’”