The private club industry is abuzz with talk of the continuous need to evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of members. New programs, reimagined spaces, inventive services—there are numerous ways to brighten the appeal of a club membership for today’s modern member while continuing to respect history and traditions of the past.
But where are we going, exactly? What is the purpose or driving force behind these decisions? As clubs continue to brainstorm new activities and reinvent the traditional private club experience, club leaders must first take pause to think about the bigger picture. What is our mission as a club? What do we hope the club will “be” in the future? And how do we get there?
Many would say there is a clear-cut answer: strategic planning. But isn’t that for businesses and corporate entities? Can clubs really benefit from applying the same practices to the Chef’s dining program or the club’s membership categories? Keep reading to find out!
Defining Strategic Planning
By definition, strategic planning is the process of defining an organization’s strategy and making decisions on how to allocate resources to pursue this direction. Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” One wouldn’t host Thanksgiving dinner without planning how to cook the turkey or coach a football team without planning a strategy for the big game. So why attempt to run a business without first establishing a plan?
Just as any successful business needs to define a purpose and direction, so too do private clubs. And while many do not think of their private clubs as “businesses” per say, they require similar strategies and management tactics to be successful. Strategic planning helps divide larger goals into smaller, more manageable pieces. Each piece then becomes a smaller goal that is easier to accomplish, yet still stays true to the bigger picture.
Before we delve into how to define goals and execute strategy in a private club, let’s first break down strategic planning to understand the pieces. There are six key elements of a private club’s strategic plan.
The first three elements establish the general direction and create the foundation:
- Mission – A mission statement is a concise explanation of an organization’s reason for existence. It answers the questions of Who are we? and Why do we exist? to define its purpose and overall intention.
- Vision – A vision statement describes who or what an organization strives to be in the future. It establishes an overall direction or aspirational goal to work towards.
- Values – An organization establishes a set of guiding principles to help define its culture and guide the perspective of its leadership and employees.
The second three elements help create a tangible plan to achieve the Mission and Vision:
- Tenets – Sometimes referred to as strategies or pillars; these are the major objectives an organization intends to achieve in order to reach its vision.
- Goals – These items convert the strategic tenets into specific and measurable performance targets corresponding to each overarching objective.
- Action Items – These specific statements describe operational tasks that explain how to achieve each goal.
In order for club leaders to be successful in strategic planning, the club experience must be evaluated holistically. Some of the most common tenets in private club strategic plans encompass topics such as governance, finances, membership, staff development, communications, facilities, and social/recreational activities. Club leaders must then establish specific goals for how each aspect of the club experience can be addressed or enhanced—keeping the overall mission and vision in mind at all times. To achieve these goals, clubs must develop a series of clear and actionable tactics grounded in the club’s core values.
Synthesizing Leadership Goals
There are two key ways strategic planning impact clubs. First—from a leadership and strategic thinking standpoint. “Each year, Boards change, committees change, and club Presidents change,” says Rick Snellinger, President and CEO of Chambers. “Though well intentioned, these groups often end up implementing a series of ‘projects’ year after year that address immediate needs without necessarily considering the bigger picture. A strategic plan can help establish a strategic mindset for club leadership to be sure decisions are always goal-driven rather than agenda-driven.”
Jim Avato, Strategic Planning Chair at Rolling Green Golf Club (RGGC) in Philadelphia, is all too familiar with this concept. “Our Board and committees are comprised of very dedicated and hard-working members who really have the best interests of the club at heart, but we were dealing with projects, ideas, and needs as they arose,” he recalls. “While that was alright for the short-term, we realized we really needed a planning process that could help us focus our efforts. It’s easy to get sidetracked when dealing with unexpected issues that arise and pull you away from your strategic vision.”
By trade, Avato has significant experience in strategic and tactical planning from his own experiences in senior management in the property and casualty insurance industry. In fact, one of the benefits of private club strategic planning is that it draws close parallels from best practices in business, so many club members and leaders are already familiar with the concept. “We gathered a small group of individuals to form a Strategic Planning Committee and started brainstorming all of the things we were wrestling with,” says Avato. “We began grouping them into ‘buckets’ that ranged from short-term maintenance projects to long-term capital projects to club governance to membership structure—and soon realized we could really use some guidance.”
To assist, RGGC hired Chambers in 2013 to facilitate the strategic planning process, which began with re-evaluating the Club’s existing mission and vision statements. “At the time, we were working with an 85-year old mission statement,” Avato recalls. “As we have evolved as a club, we realized we needed to revisit both statements. We have always been committed to providing the finest golf experience, but we needed to take a look at our strategic vision for future market conditions and update accordingly.” Since a club’s mission and vision establish the foundation for its overall strategic direction, it is important to take time to make sure these elements accurately reflect the current—and future—culture of the club.
Once club leaders have established priorities and are working toward common goals, the benefits quickly trickle down into the member experience. In the case of RGGC, for example, the strategic plan is now a reference for how the club interacts with members, hires and trains staff, treats the facilities, and more. In essence, the strategic plan becomes the guiding light for all decision-making to ensure everyone is working toward a shared vision.
Involving the Membership
In addition to helping club leaders embrace a strategic mindset, strategic planning is also extremely impactful for the membership. “There are two key strategic drivers in club planning—member retention and member recruitment,” says Snellinger. “Every decision that is made in a private club should ultimately be made with the member experience in mind.” While member retention focuses on encouraging members to increase their current utilization of the club, member recruitment focuses on making sure clubs have the program and amenities necessary to attract new members. “If a policy change or facility improvement will not positively impact one of these two strategic drivers, club leaders should question if it is really appropriate or necessary,” Snellinger advises.
And what is the best way to understand what members are looking for in their private club experience? Just ask them! As part of the strategic planning process, it is often beneficial to conduct member focus groups or a targeted membership survey to determine how satisfied members are with various aspects of their experience, as well as what they feel could be improved in the future. “When you realize all of the information that you can gather from members via the survey,” Avato says, “it becomes much easier to understand priorities, focus your thoughts, and create tactics to accomplish them.”
Surveys also provide detailed information regarding various demographics like age, length of membership, and club usage. “This enables clubs to drill down and really understand the membership—by category and as a whole,” says Snellinger. Quantitative data can help clubs glean important information and help make data-driven decisions rather than acting emotionally or listening to a vocal minority. “Surveys are one of the best ways clubs can be sure they are developing a plan that is in line with member wishes and expectations.” After all, it is their club!
Membership surveys function as a valuable point-in-time benchmark for the clubs as well. “Clubs should consider surveying their membership every five years,” Snellinger advises. “This helps club leadership understand how the club has progressed, what goals have been achieved, and what new elements may need to be addressed.” As such, Chambers recently helped RGGC issue another membership survey—five years after instituting the strategic plan. “We’ve been able to see where we’ve done really well, as well as areas we still need to work on,” Avato notes. “It gives you a realistic perspective so you don’t sit back and start coasting again after you accomplish a few tangible things.”
Avoiding Common Pitfalls
Strategic planning can (and should) be an exciting process for private clubs, but it isn’t a task to be taken lightly. Though there are many similarities to strategic planning in business, there is one critical difference—it’s personal. “The club is a member’s home away from home,” says Snellinger. “Members make multi-million dollar decisions every day in their professional careers, but it is different when Boards and committee members are making decisions that directly affect their family and friends.”
Because of this, club leaders are often very passionate individuals, which can be challenging when trying to establish a lofty strategic vision for a club they each hold near and dear. “Just getting started was challenging enough,” Avato recalls. “First, gathering the right people and trying to reach a common understanding that strategic planning is an important thing, and then getting everyone thinking in the same direction—those were the hardest parts.”
Remember—private club members come from a variety of career backgrounds. Some emerge from corporate fields and are very knowledgeable about strategic planning, while others ascend from fields like law or medicine and may have less experience with business planning. To get started on the right foot, be sure to educate not only the Board and committee members who will be involved in the process, but the membership as well. Communication is key and members want to stay informed and know they have input, so it is important to communicate the process with members and provide frequent updates on progress that is made.
As clubs define their goals and gather member input, it can be daunting to think about aspirational future goals and the long ‘to-do’ list that corresponds with achieving them. But strategic planning is about breaking those ambitions down into smaller, more manageable pieces—understanding where the focus lies and tackling each element, one at a time. It is also important to remember that strategic planning is always a work in progress. “It’s tough and it’s demanding,” Avato remarks. “Some of it you get right and some of it you don’t, so you may have to change course along the way. But that’s okay as long as you keep working at it—together—knowing you have the best interest of the club at heart.”
In fact, a strategic plan should be a living document that is monitored regularly and updated annually. “A plan that sits in the drawer and collects dusts is no help,” Snellinger notes. “Boards and committees must commit to institutionalizing the Strategic Plan as part of all decision-making processes and follow through with each action item and individual goal. Then, as certain goals are achieved, new ones can be established for the future.”
So… Is it worth it? Absolutely. Avato discussed the profound impact strategic planning has had on the complete experience at RGGC. Since the 2013 Strategic Plan was adopted, the club has also completed a rebalancing of club dining spaces and an expansion of its outdoor dining terrace as a result of the goals set forth under the facilities tenet. “We are, first and foremost, a golf club with a classic William Flynn course,” Avato notes. “Our facility improvements have been incredible and are a great complement to our member’s golf experience. We’ve had a significant increase in membership and both existing and new members love our new Clubhouse. Utilization is increasing month by month, especially with regard to private events and outings.”
“But it’s more than that,” he adds. “We have started to change our mindset about governance here at the club. This process is a lot of hard work, but very rewarding. It’s become more the norm for us to consult with each other and confirm that our plans and actions, big and small, are in concert with our mission and vision. Doing so should keep us on track going forward.” And that’s exactly how it should be.
From a business perspective, strategic plans are highly regarded as a critical component for achieving success—and clubs should feel the same way. Strategic planning is an opportunity for club leaders to be forward-thinking—proactive rather than reactive. By embarking on this process, club leaders can establish clear goals for the future and define a road map to guide future leaders to success for years to come.
How has strategic planning impacted your club? Comment below!