Golf operators have been on a wild ride over the past decade. After a building boom that spawned over 4,000 courses in two decades, the market has since experienced a correction, with more courses closing than opening every year since 2006, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF).
Prior to the pandemic, the number of golfers was likewise in decline, with 6.8 million fewer golfers in 2018 than in 2003, per the National Parks and Recreation Association. But the last two years have offered encouraging signs of improvement. During the pandemic, golf saw a resurgence in popularity. The wide-open nature of the sport allowed more people to safely gather and play. In 2021, 25.1 million Americans played on a golf course – a net increase of about 300,000 golfers year over year, according to the NGF. That year also marked a major slowdown in golf course closures.
So, where does that leave golf club and course operators looking ahead to the coming years? Eager to take advantage of renewed interest in the sport and create a more sustainable revenue stream following years of market volatility, many operators are looking to reimagine their clubhouses and amenities to capture those new golf fans and expand their club’s appeal to new audiences.
As a firm that specializes in resort and hospitality design, OZ Architecture is engaged with a number of operators nationwide in various efforts to revamp and reposition their offerings. One of the most interesting models to come out of this work over the last several years has been the concept of tiered membership.
Capturing New Audiences with Expanded Options
Taking cues from high-end resort design as well as the more traditional country club model, the idea is to position the clubhouse, in particular, for year-round activation through compelling, flexible programming and design, with amenities curated for different experiences. The first step in this process is understanding what the intended target audience wants from their club experience.
Sonnenalp Golf Club, the sister property of the iconic Sonnenalp in Vail, Colorado, for example, has long been recognized for its award-winning dining, golf, fitness, outdoor activities, and wellness programming. However, despite an international reputation, after more than 30 years of family ownership in the Vail Valley, the club was due for a renovation to better reflect the mountain resort community’s growth and changing population. Their members wanted more.
The goal was to modernize and bring new life into the club, bringing in more family-oriented programming while maintaining the sense of luxury, intimacy, and adventure for which the club had always been known. OZ initially developed a master plan to add 5,225 square feet of space and renovate 27,000 square feet of their current space, which included the club’s fitness center, wellness center, pool area, a reimagined restaurant and bar concept, childcare center, golf club locker rooms, office and back of house spaces.
As part of this effort, Sonnenalp Golf Club implemented a tiered membership system with social amenities to supplement golf options, including a new tier geared toward young families and a sports tier that would provide access to the restaurant, gym and pool, but not the golf or golf practice facilities. Membership spiked with these more flexible options, creating a more vibrant club atmosphere almost immediately and spurring on Phase II of the repositioning, which recently wrapped and included the expansion of the pool and fitness locker rooms, renovations to the kids’ center, renovation and expansion of the wellness club, and further updates to the office and back-of-house spaces.
Reimagining Programming & Amenities
At Morgan Run, a premier country club located just north of San Diego, California, we took a different approach to the application of the tiered membership as we developed a masterplan concept for this property. Through the design process, we learned that members were interested in hosting friends and family from out of town. With that in mind, the concept we developed proposed repositioning the club, adding a hospitality wing to offer the option of overnight stays, adding a water park and plenty of other onsite activities to appeal to golfers and non-golfers alike. There’s even onsite summer camp for children to explore golf and other modes of activity while adults are free to venture off to the golf course or enjoy pickleball, fitness classes or services.
Given the work-anywhere nature of many modern workplaces, we also heard that the membership at Morgan Run wanted a place to briefly dock for work or to take a meeting, so we added in dedicated coworking space in addition to the more traditional club amenities. An elevated home-away-from home, this environment is designed as a comfortable, living room-style space with flexible meeting and hospitality areas, along with modern tech features. We anticipate a continued move toward blending spaces for work and play in club environments as more workplaces adopt hybrid models.
The food and beverage program offers perhaps the most impactful opportunity to expand the appeal of the club and bring in new revenue streams. The modern diner is more sophisticated today than ever and is looking for fresh, exciting food and beverage options. For Harvest, a communal restaurant within the Sonnenalp Club, we envisioned a gathering place that provides comfort to club members and engages with locals and – importantly – visitors alike. Opening food and beverage offerings up to the public can, in the right circumstances, help the restaurant to thrive and become a destination in the community, especially coupled with high-quality experiences like tastings with local distilleries, cocktail classes, premium coffee bars, cooking classes and chef-in-residence programs.
The enhancement of food and beverage and the addition of amenities geared towards the tiered system creates a resort feel that gives members variation on the golf club grounds and ensures the club is seen as a destination all year long.
What’s Next: Expanding the Tiered System to Multiple Clubs
While there is significant opportunity in reimagining a single club to appeal to many different audiences, the ultimate expression of the tiered membership concept is tailored clubs. For operators with multiple clubs in a regional system, we are seeing increased interest in repositioning several clubs for different audiences and experiences. Operators know that their members often to belonging to multiple clubs. They have a club they attend with their family and one for golf, for example. We are seeing more club owners seizing this opportunity and tailoring several clubs to allow their members to explore – all while under the umbrella of the operator’s system.
For example, in a concept we recently worked on with a large national operator, one club would be repositioned to appeal more to families with young children, with a bigger focus on aquatic amenities and family-friendly dining and social opportunities for parents. Another club would be designed to appeal to the elite golfer, with a focus on facilitating truly exceptional experiences on the links and opportunities for respite and socialization in the clubhouse. As a member of the system, you could choose your level of access and move from club to club.
We have one client who has taken a more international approach to the multi-club concept. They have an elite membership and maintain clubs in both Ireland and the United States. Each club’s design takes cues from the location and provides unique experiences for their members to immerse in the culture, the food, the golf, the spa treatments and the design aesthetic of the ‘place’.
Repositioning often represents a significant investment, but offering membership tiers continues to be a game-changer for so many golf clubs that are now feeling reinvigorated with modern amenities, flexible programming and a much better understanding of the audience demographic. As the entire industry continues to shift and redefine itself, golf club operators have a huge opportunity to capitalize on the golf boom and create a sustainable growth model by way of the tier system, attracting a membership base that is sure to only grow and evolve as the sport continues to expand its reach.
Rebecca Stone, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a principal at Denver-based OZ Architecture and the leader of the Resort + Hospitality Practice. Her work on hundreds of hospitality, resort and mixed use projects around the world reflects her guiding principle — to design dynamic environments that enrich communities and set the highest of standards for experiencing architecture.