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Are Private Golf Clubs Re-Branding Prestige?

At the turn of the century, approximately 85% of all U.S. golf clubs were private, and mainly exclusive for wealthy families to join and enjoy the sport. One of those families were the Roosevelts, who’s son Franklin became Secretary/Treasurer of the Campobello Golf Club by age 17, and played for Harvard, but unfortunately became stricken with polio. Although debilitated by the disease, his passion for the game continued. As President, following World War 1 and the Great Depression, FDR’s New Deal WPA Program put America back to work building hundreds of municipal golf courses throughout the country. By mid-century, golf dominated by the masses, left only 35% of golf clubs private. In the late 1980’s the National Golf Foundation released a report suggesting that in order to meet the demand of the sport, a golf course would have to be built every day over the next several years. By 2000, competition for leisure spending increased along with the commodification of time. Following the 2009 recession, the NGF released another report requiring a golf course close every 48 hours in the US for the supply and demand to correct itself. According to the National Golf Foundation following 2012, the number of golfers who play public courses has risen above 90%.

The draw for most private golf clubs remain; speed of play, sense of community, and quality experiences. However, a recent Wall Street Journal article, titled Americans Want to Play Golf – Until They Try It, refers to a recent National Golf Foundation participation report that states how the number of people trying golf has gone up, but the overall participation continues to decline. Upon viewing the video version of the article (click image below), it is apparent that the clash with rules, etiquette and learning curve are the major deterrent factors. Along with the social shifts of family-centricity, golf is finding itself losing its relativity to the masses.

Combining the word “mass” with “prestige,” Michael Silverstein of the Boston Consulting Group created the word masstige. Masstige represents prestigious products and services that are not essential, but highly associated with exclusivity and affluence. They are purchased to increase status and social currency and consist of high quality. Masstige thinking for private clubs is not about adopting the semi-private model. It’s more of a shift in efforts and results. The strategy to attract new members today is very different. Before considering another enhancement to the course, club leaders are considering alternatives to broaden their appeal with additions such as pickle ball or bocce ball. When considering the course, some clubs are following the lead from the most recently developed private golf club, BlackJack National. Tiger Woods designed this course to be more enjoyable with only one cut of grass around the greens, minimal trees and numerous golf alternatives.

Along with changes in programming, successful clubs are changing perceptions within the radius of the potential members surrounding them. They strategically measure the brand sentiment in the community. Brand sentiment is what non-members perceive about your club in the context of positive and negative associations. The research focuses on measuring external markers such as conversations and social media comments. Internally, it asks probing questions about brand perception that usually go unexpressed. Through the process, in which advocates are identified, new models are explored to create highly valued experiences. A member is more likely to share the experience about a Glowball tournament with martini stations than about yet another pair of Ray-Bans.

Embracing brand relevance, as it pertains to new members, perpetuates interest from potential members. The rise of new media, such as social networking sites and mobile applications, has led to a revolution with golf clubs. Potential members do not want to take the time to find out about you. As the acronym, TLTR (too long to read), becomes the new communication standard, clubs are already building visual content with a video and photography library. This allows club administration to keep the website current and relevant with the changing pace of technology. Experts recommend removing anything on your website that represents what you were two years ago and replace it with what you are going to be in two years.

By emphasizing the fun of camaraderie in golf, clubs may be able to win back the masses that once exceeded the supply by demanding a shared enjoyable experience when on the course.

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