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Published: Thursday, 5/14/2009

Country clubs swing into action to stem loss

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
One of the two new swimming pools at Stone Oak Country Club is part of $2 million in improvements made at the Springfield Township facility to help stem diminishing membership. One of the two new swimming pools at Stone Oak Country Club is part of $2 million in improvements made at the Springfield Township facility to help stem diminishing membership.
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At Stone Oak County Club in Springfield Township this summer, members will be lifting more than nine irons and martinis.

A fitness center, the facility's first, will open in July. It's part of $2 million in improvements, including two new swimming pools.

"It's adding another amenity," General Manager Keith Olander said of the fitness center. "Country clubs have to do that if they're going to survive."

It is just one of the ways that country clubs in the Toledo region and across the nation are dealing with an economic crisis that has forced many members to put their memberships on hold or to resign outright.

The recession has added to the woes of private golf and tennis clubs, whose rosters have been declining for years because of dual-income households, deaths of longtime members, and disinterest among many young adults.

"There are a lot of country clubs hanging on by a thread," said Bay Paul, a country club consultant in the Detroit suburb of Clarkston, Mich. "This year will really tell the story."

Chef Greg Curtland prepares steaks at Stone Oak, which, like other clubs, has lost some members because of the poor economy. Chef Greg Curtland prepares steaks at Stone Oak, which, like other clubs, has lost some members because of the poor economy.
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In metro Detroit, which like Toledo has been hard-hit by the auto industry downturn, two clubs have closed, said Mr. Paul, vice president of Courselogix, which sets up Web sites and electronic marketing campaigns for clubs.

Many clubs don't know how to respond to problems, the consultant said.

Others are hiring sales personnel, slashing dues and fees, and coming up with less expensive hybrid membership categories that allow users to sign up for individual benefits such as dining or golf.

In metro Toledo, Belmont Country Club has signed up 130 new members through such measures. About 35 are traditional members, said Bill Behe, Belmont president. Others have purchased family swim packages for $500 each and golf packages ranging from $1,500 to $5,500.

The Perrysburg Township club promoted the program in brochures sent to homes in surrounding suburbs.

"We're hoping at the end of the year, if things turn around, a lot of these people will become members," Mr. Behe said.

The club lost about 20 members at the end of last year, primarily because of the economy. He was unsure of current membership.

But in response, officers came up with the new membership categories, cut initiation fees to $1,000 from $6,000, and reduced monthly dues to $350 from $500.

At Stone Oak, the general manager hopes that new amenities will eventually restore membership to 400 from about 325 now.

"We've had some departure of members and attrition based on the economy," Mr. Olander added.

Some members who left are too focused on saving their businesses to attend country club functions, he added.

He is hoping that the new pool and other amenities, promoted in post cards sent to surrounding households, will lure residents of the 600-household Stone Oak residential development and adjacent areas.

They are part of a renewed emphasis on family activities, he explained.

It's business as usual, though, at Toledo Country Club on River Road.

About 35 of the club's 385 members have taken leaves of absence. Erwin Effler, club president, blames the losses on tough times. Club officials don't expect membership to return for three years to the desired 400.

In the meantime, the club is encouraging existing members to convince friends to join. The club charges $7,500 for initiation and dues of $450 a month.

"I wouldn't say we're doing well, but we're sustaining," Mr. Effler said.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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