Is Hiring a Membership Director Worth The Money?

It is impossible to ignore the vast utilization shifts occurring in private clubs around the world. Once acknowledged, however, club leaders can find themselves feeling overwhelmed or struggling to know how best to welcome these changes with an appropriate strategy.

Holding tight to processes and techniques of years past aren’t going to help see your club through the coming years. A proper communication plan and brand image within your club is critical in relation to member engagement, retention, culture and overall satisfaction. Which leads many to an important question—who is the best person to help set these efforts in motion? Is hiring a Membership Director the answer?

To find out more, we spoke with Rick Coyne, chief executive officer of the Professional Club Marketing Association (PCMA)—an association geared toward educating, accrediting and representing the professional men and women who, as Membership Directors, make a significant difference in member relations and club experience.

Coyne reflects on the days when “membership secretaries” were the norm in private clubs. “These volunteer positions had a primary purpose of scrutinizing candidates being considered for membership,” says Coyne. “Today, this has evolved into an important role that sets the entire state for a club’s brand significance, ultimately leading to the very perception of the club itself.” And of course, perception is everything when it comes to the health and longevity of a private club.

“Successful clubs have recognized that by managing every message and every contact, they will enhance membership growth, value, retention, usage, and satisfaction…”

—Rick Coyne, Chief Executive Officer, Private Club Marketing Association

“Successful clubs have recognized that by managing every message and every contact, they will enhance membership growth, value, retention, usage and satisfaction, each of which is an integral part of club sustainability,” Coyne remarks. He goes on to highlight that every successful business hires a Chief Financial Officer to oversee finances within the club to ensure consistent and uniform interdepartmental accounting in regard to spending, revenue and taxes. Therefore, it is just as important to hire a professional in charge of supervising the club’s brand, programs, events and messaging.

And even more importantly, the right professional needs to be hired—someone who understands their audience and can accurately reflect the clubs varied needs based on culture, gender, age and interests. Coyne believes strongly that this should not be left in the hands of the administrative assistant, general manager or various departmental managers, but rather someone who is hands-on, full-time, and has the right experience, voice and expertise.


Retention vs. Recruitment

In practice, this seems to hold true. We also spoke with Shawn Wilkes, general manager/COO of Cherokee Country Club in Knoxville, Tennessee, regarding his experience with the club’s recent membership growth. From 2006 to 2012, Cherokee faced a slight, annual decline in membership numbers. Around that time, the club hired a dedicated Membership Director, which led them to gain an average of 50 members in both 2016 and 2017, leading to an average growth of 20 net members in each of those years. The increase in member retention, however, has been even more impressive.

In private clubs, two key strategic drivers for success are membership recruitment and membership retention. “Every year, clubs can expect attrition,” says Chambers’ President and CEO Rick Snellinger. “Members will either move away, lose interest in the club because they no longer see the value, or unfortunately pass away. Clubs must continue to seek out new members to keep membership levels stable from year to year.” On the other hand, it is equally important—if not more important—to put considerable efforts into retaining a club’s existing members. After all, this is how clubs create the experience that yields their brand.

Though Cherokee has experienced membership growth in recent years, Wilkes was quick to point out that member retention is key at Cherokee. “While there is certainly a benefit in recruiting new members,” says Wilkes, “our primary focus lies on better engaging current members through onboarding, integrating new members into our culture, and maintaining a connection with our senior members.” On average, Cherokee has lost 34 members per year. This past year, the club only experienced 13 resignations. Wilkes attributes the decline in resignations to the club’s member engagement efforts.

“Our primary focus lies on better engaging current members… There is a positive energy that is created from developing positive relationships between members and staff.”

—Shawn Wilkes, General Manager, Cherokee Country Club, TV

In fact, Cherokee’s onboarding program is a year-long series of targeted efforts, including hand written letters, emails, and personal phone calls from department heads; a 90-day sit down with the Membership Director, and a one-year sit down with the General Manager. The club also has an Ambassador Committee—a sub-committee of the Membership Committee—which personally invites new members to three club events throughout the year to integrate them into the club’s culture. This results in a better educated membership that understands all aspects of the club. “Educated members make good members,” says Wilkes. “There is a positive energy that is created from developing positive relationships between members and staff.”


Value in Team Work

Coyne advises that clubs can benefit tremendously by taking a holistic approach to marketing by having a department of creative and research-driven professionals working together to determine the best collective ways to articulate the club’s brand. He says, “Clubs that recognize the necessity of change in accordance with a changing culture have seen the necessity to hire a professional marketing director, often times augmenting the position with a communications director, activities director and even youth directors.”

This was certainly the case for Cherokee. “We had a ‘Membership Director’ years ago, but it was mostly just by title,” says Wilkes. “At the time, that position did very little in terms of managing current membership and focused more on developing the newsletter and maintaining the website.” Today, that position is now the club’s Communication Director, which focuses on internal communications, engaging members using the club’s mobile app, etc. “Our current Membership Director is responsible for energizing existing members, while also aiding in new member recruitment.”

Of course, there is no “one size fits all” approach. Every club is different and should evaluate their needs and resources accordingly. Hiring more than one person may not always be necessary and depends on the size of your membership and club objectives. It is important to take a closer look into the current departments within your club to see what can be done to best utilize everyone’s strengths, while also analyzing areas that could be improved by creating new roles. Working together, regardless of individual roles and responsibilities, is the key to success.

“Much credit for our success in this area goes to our supportive and visionary Board who encouraged the creation of appropriate positions and their effective implementation”

—Shawn Wilkes, General Manager, Cherokee Country Club, TV

“A club is fundamentally a place where like-minded people can come together in a social environment conducive to building camaraderie and friendships,” Coyne states. Everyone should have a clear understanding of the club’s culture, voice and demographic, and should work together to bring it to fruition. In Cherokee’s case, Wilkes stressed, “Much credit for our success in this area goes to our supportive and visionary Board who encouraged the creation of appropriate positions and their effective implementation.” Coyne agrees with the importance of the Board’s involvement. “It starts with the Board recognizing the gravity and importance of brand and market share,” Coyne says, “then mandating the development of a process. Without conformity to a marketing plan by the entire team, nothing will ever change.”

In short—the benefits of hiring a Membership Director far outweigh the cost to employ one. However, regardless of the size of your club or financial resources, member engagement and marketing are crucial to the sustainability of private clubs and should be a top priority for your staff. And with the help of a forward-thinking Board and able-bodied staff, your club can expect to thrive for years to come.

Do you have membership marketing tactics that have been successful at your club? Comment below and let us know!

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