Surveying the scene

Surveying the scene

Larry Hirsh debates the merits of change in the private club world.

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June 1, 2017
Business Management Top Stories
Change is one of the most frequently used words in our society. Presidential and other elections are often won or lost on the promise of change (or none). We change clothes routinely each day. We change the sheets on our beds periodically. We change how we cook the same foods in order to add variety to our lives. Some people change the color of their hair on a regular basis.

In the golf world, there are some changes which happen quite rapidly. For instance, golf equipment has changed dramatically and quickly in recent years to allow golfers to hit shots farther, and some would argue with more consistency than previously possible. The golf ball has changed and now flies farther than the old balata-covered wound balls. These are generally considered examples of positive change, though, there is discussion about restricting the golf ball.

Change comes to clubs and golf courses very slowly. Golf is a sport steeped in tradition. At many clubs, the prospect of change can be frightening to members, some of whom have been at the club for many years. In other instances, the financial cost of change can grind even the best of intentions to a halt. There are situations where change is good and others where it’s bad.

In recent economic times, with the golf industry still struggling in many markets to absorb the course building boom of the 1990s, change at many clubs has come in the form of inclusive, rather than exclusive membership. In many cases, this is positive as clubs formerly restricted to certain groups have become more diverse in their membership. Change occurs at some clubs as capital reinvestment for facilities enhancements or renovations to keep up with competing clubs.  Again, if well-conceived, these are examples of good change.

One of the biggest changes we see today is the number of member-owned clubs selling out to for-profit management firms. This too can be good or bad.  For some clubs, it’s the right solution.  For others, maybe not.

The private club world is evolving.  However, change – technological change and otherwise – in the private club industry often lags behind other industries. Many clubs that resist necessary change, and in some cases, have been left behind – or even failed. In an environment where boards, members and management are skeptical of change, the “status quo” often carries the day, even if it leads to catastrophic failure.

Conversely, one thing we see far too often at clubs (just like the rest of society) is change for the sake of change. This is bad. Too often, clubs change general managers, golf pros or superintendents each time a new leadership regime is elected. At those clubs with frequent leadership changes (a new president every year or two), this can be deadly and lead to a lack of the stability that is so crucial to success. Often, this type of change is the result of what is known as “micro-management,” where club leaders end up obstructing the key management and staff from doing their jobs efficiently. At some clubs, in order to reduce spending, leadership eliminates the position of general manager and takes on that role themselves often leading to more “management by committee.” It often doesn’t end well.

We’ve observed many clubs that change when it’s not needed (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) and make “unforced errors” which can lead “downhill.”  More often than not, I see clubs that need change that are unwilling or unable to implement responsive policies or actions that will turn their fortunes before it’s too late.  I’ve observed many clubs fail for this reason, including my own, which resisted change simply because it was different.

The bottom line is that change is both good and bad. Each change has to be considered in the context of the impact it has on the club and the club’s goals and mission. Thorough (and often independent) evaluation and analysis is useful. Depending on the situation, change might be good or it might be ill-advised.

Larry Hirsh, CRE, MAI, SGA, FRICS is the president of Golf Property Analysts based in Philadelphia, and a frequent GCI contributor.