22 Feb

Are Private Clubs Still Relevant?

The New Role of Private Clubs in Today’s Society

It’s hard to believe it’s been ten years since the United States was in the midst of the Great Recession. Many industries were impacted by the financial crisis—and the private club industry was no exception. Clubs across the country suffered and some were forced to close their doors forever. At the time, the industry faced much uncertainty and many were fearful for what it all meant for the future of private clubs.

Today, the energy in the industry is vastly different—much more upbeat. For many, the recession was an unfortunate wake-up call leading to the realization that this isn’t our grandfather’s private club any longer. Today’s memberships are diverse, complex and have different priorities than those from decades past. Still, with questions surrounding the future of golf and the club industry itself, some are left wondering: Are private clubs still relevant in today’s society? We certainly think so—at least, they can be.

Then and Now

The private club industry is abuzz with talk of changing demographics and evolving lifestyles. Gone are the days of frequent formal events with evening-long dinners and dancing. Corporate memberships are becoming fewer and fewer; business deals are being closed on the golf course less and less; male-dominated households are no longer the norm. Instead, we see dual-income households, increasingly led by career-driven women, with parents who are equal in decision-making and looking for a comfortable environment for the entire family.

With the aging of the Baby Boomer generation comes the dominance of the even larger Millennial population—a generation which, according to Charles Schwab, is very conscious of their finances and committed to financial planning. For these members, value is key. They are looking for activities that fit their time-constrained social lifestyle—a place that welcomes spontaneity and embraces a more casual, unrehearsed routine, yet still makes sense in their family finances.

Since many club memberships have four generations of members under one roof, it can be challenging for clubs to successfully cater to such a wide variety of interests. Such an ambition requires striking a balance among programs and services to appeal to the younger generation without alienating lifelong members. But many forward-thinking clubs gladly accept this challenge and see it as more of an opportunity—a chance to reinvent themselves to provide what members are really looking for: an unparalleled experience. In actuality, it’s really more of a necessity than an opportunity if private clubs wish to continue to play a significant role in members’ lives.


In corporate life, savvy business men and women often discuss the potential return on investment (ROI) as part of their decision-making process. Private clubs, however, are a bit different than for-profit businesses and can’t always rely on these dollars-and-cents analyses. Chambers’ Executive Vice President Skip Avery has over 30 years of experience in managing private clubs. “If club leaders made every decision based on our ROI, we’d never get anything done,” he jokes. “Instead, I like to think of it in terms of ROE—return on experience.”

Members are looking for purpose in their lives and a sense of belonging. There isn’t much a parent or grandparent wouldn’t do to see their children or grandchildren filled with joy and excitement. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It’s difficult to put a price on a feeling… It makes sense, then, that members are more than willing to pay for incredible experiences that create wonderful memories to last a lifetime. The goal is to provide an environment that helps them do just that.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

— Maya Angelou

At its core, a club’s experience is its brand. While this “brand” has a little to do with logos, colors and typefaces, it has much more to do with every aspect of how a member engages with the club and a lot to do with creating a unique culture that fosters a sense of community. Clubs compete with members for their time. By investing dollars and resources into enhancing the overall club experience, clubs can create a vibrant and energetic atmosphere where members want to spend their time—and invite their friends to join them! Soon, the club becomes a pillar of their social lifestyle and club activities are easily woven into a member’s daily or weekly routine.

Creating this experience begins with defining a club’s mission and vision—deciding who/what you are as a club and where you want to be in the future. These values should then be embraced by infusing them into every facet of the club experience—from programs to services to the very structure of the facilities themselves.

The Power of Design

Architectural design responds to the uniqueness and complexity of individual cultures. All around the world, we see buildings and structures that speak to the cities and neighborhoods in which they reside, and tell a story about those who utilize them—the same can be said for clubhouses. Whether a private club has been around for 50 years or 150 years, each one has its own history—and with that history comes countless memories and traditions that are an essential part of a club’s culture.

As clubs evolve and adapt to modern times, it is imperative that this history is not neglected or forgotten. “The planning and design process for private clubs is one that is incredibly delicate and uniquely personal,” notes Chambers’ President and CEO Rick Snellinger. “It’s about bringing your brand to life and creating a new environment with a sense of purpose—transforming a message into a shared vision that members can support.” With proper planning and attention to detail, clubs have an opportunity to reinforce—or perhaps, reinvent—their brand by modifying their facilities to better respond to ever-changing member needs.

Celebrating Brand

There are few greater examples of this than the recent new Riverside Clubhouse at Greenville Country Club (GCC) in Greenville, SC. As one of the South’s most historic country clubs, GCC has provided its members with outstanding amenities, exceptional service, and countless memories for over 120 years—a true home away from home for generations of members. In 2009, the Club leadership recognized the need to take action and began making plans for clubhouse renovations of their existing building, only to find these plans were not resonating well with the membership. “We knew our facilities needed to respond to the needs of our members—both past and present—but we couldn’t properly define those needs until we fully understood our direction,” says Greg Hobbs, GCC’s general manager. “We needed to take a step back and think about the bigger picture from a broader, strategic perspective.”

Two years later, Chambers worked with GCC to develop a Strategic Plan that would establish a road map for future success. The goal was to develop a vision for the future that embraced changing lifestyle trends and a multi-generational membership with a wide range of interests—without losing its storied history. After a year-long discovery period and strategic analysis, followed by an extensive period of facility master planning, this vision was in clear focus and it was time for the design team to bring the vision to fruition.

Given GCC’s strong presence in the community since its inception in 1895, it was important that the design of the new clubhouse incorporated elements of the local area and architecture. An impressive sight, the new 45,000 SF clubhouse boasts a Southern Georgian-style structure with a scenic arrival sequence and breathtaking golf course views. A covered outdoor terrace spans the length of the back of the clubhouse. With seating for up to 95 members, this feature provides the perfect atmosphere for member socialization and camaraderie.

GCC’s interiors celebrate tradition while balancing progressive design. Characterized by versatility and elegance, the interior spaces blend existing furniture, decorative lighting and artwork with renewable flooring and natural products to create a nostalgic, collected look. “Great clubhouse design must combine functionality and aesthetics, both inside and out,” says Chambers’ VP/Director of Interior Design Charlie Turner. “It must be flexible, yet remain durable and timeless, all while responding to lifestyle shifts of today’s membership itself.”

The club’s new Pub with a horse-shoe shaped, cross-talk bar has become the epicenter of the clubhouse and encourages members to come together to dine, socialize, and make memories all throughout the week. The building is also designed to offer a wide variety of dining venues carefully arranged around a centralized kitchen to optimize operational efficiencies. This enables GCC’s staff to provide exceptional service for members, their families and their friends—creating a dining experience that can’t be found anywhere else.

To incorporate other private club design trends, numerous cutting-edge amenities have also been incorporated into the new building, including wine locker displays, dedicated youth rooms and childcare areas, a café/turn area, and a 2,500 SF fitness center with indoor/outdoor group exercise areas.

Greenville Country Club embarked on a journey to uphold its 120-year old history while redefining its future through vision, style and brand. This exciting process captured the club’s long-standing legacy, while adapting its purpose to remain relevant in members’ lives for generations to come.

Transforming Spaces

While reinventing sometimes means rebuilding, moving forward and helping your club evolve doesn’t mean you need to start from scratch. In fact, making targeted improvements to specific areas of the club can be incredibly impactful—and help your ROI (well…ROE) soar exponentially. Here again, the key is to recognize where you are now and understand where you want to be in the future—carefully selecting areas of focus that will help achieve the club’s vision. “It’s about ‘getting the wind behind your sails,’ so to speak,” says Rick Snellinger. “This purposeful process can help clubs bite off a little bit at a time and help generate excitement among the members and the community, leaving them eager for planned future enhancements yet to come.”

In 2014, Chambers helped Baton Rouge Country Club (BRCC) do just that. At the time, BRCC was battling challenges with membership growth and age diversity. Located in the heart of Louisiana with nearly a century of countless memories, rich history and deep-seated traditions upon which to build, club leadership knew they must begin reevaluating the club’s programs and facilities in order to prepare for the next 100 years of memories and experiences. Certain areas of the clubhouse, such as the centralized Versailles Ballroom, were reminiscent of a bygone era that celebrated formal evenings of dinners and dancing. Now, members were looking for a place that welcomed spontaneity and embraced today’s casual, unrehearsed way of life. The solution? Give the members what they want.

Chambers guided BRCC through a process that helped evaluate the club’s facilities and develop an improvement plan that would not only address the club’s urgent infrastructural issues and maintenance deficiencies, but also enhance member spaces to elevate the member experience. In addition to replacing outdated MEP systems to avoid costly emergency shutdowns, the kitchen was completed gutted and reconfigured into a state-of-the-art facility. These upgraded food service capabilities are complemented by an enhanced member dining experience that reimagined the Versailles Ballroom to create the new Terrace Room—an adult casual dining space that replaced the central dance floor with a large, circular bar.

“Renovation and investment in member dining has helped bring our stockholding membership back to capacity.”

—Michael Masson, CCM, General Manager, Baton Rouge Country Club

The Terrace Room features a variety of dining, bar and lounge seating, as well as large floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the golf course. A new gallery nestled between the kitchen and Terrace Room features a built-in buffet with permanent induction elements under a granite slab top, providing remarkable convenience and flexibility for the club’s various dining and social events.

The club’s outdoor patio was also updated to create an expansive covered outdoor terrace with TVs, overhead fans, and an outdoor kitchen, creating a unique social experience for members. Even in the heat of the Louisiana summer, the new terrace is always full. “The members are incredibly happy and the Terrace Room’s reputation has expanded far beyond the club’s walls,” says BRCC’s General Manager Michael Masson, CCM. “It’s the most talked about bar in Baton Rouge. Everyone wants to be here!”

In the last few years since implementation, BRCC has seen an enormous increase in utilization—member dining F&B sales alone have increased 31%. “Renovation and investment in member dining has helped bring our stockholding membership back to capacity,” Masson adds. And though the Terrace Room’s bar-style atmosphere was originally intended to appeal to the younger generations, the club’s older members simply can’t get enough. By focusing design efforts and financial resources on a specific area that impacts all members, regardless of individual interests or recreational activities, the new spaces have created a notably more vibrant atmosphere that encourages socialization of members of all ages and enhances the club’s sense of community overall.

Where Do We Go from Here?

So…are clubs still relevant in today’s society? Some could argue they are more important now than ever before! Forward-thinking clubs have an opportunity to reinvent themselves to fit the modern needs of its members—making private clubs not only relevant, but essential to the innerworkings of a members’ lives and family activities. With a great understanding of the industry’s past and present, and exciting visions for the future, architecture and design can become a powerful tool for celebrating a club’s history and defining—or re-defining—a club’s brand, experience and culture for generations to come.

How has your club experience changed in the last decade—or how can we help you achieve this? Email us or comment below. We’d love to hear from you!

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