Members on the move: multi-club memberships
There will come a point when lockdown can stand down and when it does, golfers will appreciate time on the golf course more than ever. Golfers will still want to sign up to memberships, yet they have become more discerning and expect a greater return
Arnold Palmer looked back to the future when he laid out ArborLinks in Nebraska City two decades ago, before it opened in 2002. The rolling prairie lay as nature had intended and the beauty of establishing a golf course there was that hardly any earth needed shifting.
This course on the Great Plains was a throwback to 19th century Scotland, when Old Tom Morris would survey a tract of linksland, locate the greens, work backwards to the tees, clear some foliage in-between (but usually not very much) and, more or less, that was it. The creation of ArborLinks was Old World golf during an era when so many developers were busily carving out golfing drama at the expense of the indigenous character of a property, punching in over-sized, high-maintenance bunkering and forcing rude relocations on wildlife with no means of protest or resistance.
Palmer eschewed such convention, and this more natural design approach is now in vogue as development has become more environmentally responsible. It meant that ArborLinks looked old when it was new, and was the golf challenge compromised by leaving out the bulldozers? Not for a single shot.
The Arnold Palmer Signature design was just the beginning of the innovation at ArborLinks, as it became the inaugural club in the now acclaimed Dormie Network, which charges members dues for a single country club membership, yet offers full membership to an impressive half-dozen clubs. All six clubs offer not only first-class golf like ArborLinks, but beautifully finished accommodation, hospitality and concierge service to create a network of exceptional all-encompassing destinations.
The six clubs are wholly owned by the Dormie Network—a company which is also debt-free.
“Our model is that members do not join an individual club but they join the network. You are full members at each club,” explains David Plaster, Chief Marketing Officer at Dormie Network. “We want to maintain a level of expectation across our membership, and we want our national members to turn up to a property and receive the same quality of experience as the members who live around the corner and play there more regularly.
“We limit play at every club to 72 golfers a day. We have 15-minute tee time intervals because when our members are out on the golf course we want them to feel like it is all theirs. We don’t want our members to be waiting to take their shots or to feel pressured by the group behind them. It is a very relaxed atmosphere on all of our properties. When our members stay on property we want them to enjoy the best experience they possibly can.”
And the numbers might surprise you: the one-off initiation fee to join the Dormie Network is $10,000, with annual dues of $6,000 or $500 a month. After that, members do not pay for green fees or cart hire and there is no minimum spend on food and beverage to worry about. In fact, the Dormie Network model is built around minimizing members’ worries altogether as the concierge service ensures hassle-free visits for all members and guests, whether visiting with family, friends or clients.
With a healthy geographic spread of clubs across the United States, each of the properties in the Dormie Network is being developed with a view to offering first-class stay-and-play options through four-bedroom cottages.
“We are looking to add cottages to all of our facilities,” adds Plaster. “The goal is to have 60 beds on every property and the theme for us this year is really building and renovating accommodations.”
A club without walls
Taking multi-club membership to a different scale is Palmer Advantage, which does not own golf properties outright like the Dormie Network, but offers its members special access and preferred rates at around 1,000 great golf properties worldwide.
“Within North America we have over 300 championship private country clubs and public golf clubs, with another 650 golf courses across 40 countries worldwide,” states George Gdovin, Senior Director at Palmer Advantage. “We are close to having 1,000 properties around the world.”
The Palmer Advantage program is only available to members of affiliate private clubs, of which there are around 80 in the United States, with a total Palmer Advantage membership of approximately 15,000 golfers. To members of the affiliate clubs, Palmer Advantage membership only adds $15 a month to a golfer’s dues, yet the return is tee time access to hundreds of private clubs in the U.S. and incredible golf experiences around the world.
“Palmer Advantage delivers additional value to private club members that individually opt in to participate, and offers a strong membership retention tool for our individual clubs,” adds Gdovin. “As golfers start to use their new benefits it usually only takes one experience for them to receive a very strong return on what is only a marginal investment, so it is a powerful incentive.
“Our research has shown over the last year that our members really value, first and foremost, the reciprocal private club access. The second most valued benefit is our concierge travel service and the third category is lifestyle benefits which includes sports and entertainment experiences such as if our members want to go to the Ryder Cup, the British Open or the Super Bowl, those types of bucket-list sports experiences. Those are the membership benefits that resonate most with our membership.
“If a member wants to play Le Golf National in Paris, where the last Ryder Cup was played, our concierge can book the tee time, flights, accommodation and transfers. It’s a one-stop shop and members can also book online.”
Palmer Advantage can grant members special access to famous golf clubs and resorts such as Arnold Palmer’s own Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando, PGA West in La Quinta, Anthem Country Club near Las Vegas, The Club at Wynstone near Chicago, Palm Valley Country Club in Palm Desert and many others, so it is easy to appreciate how such a modest subscription fee for golfers converts into a fantastic return.
This new decade, the Twenties, could become a strong era for multi-club golf memberships. Other multi-club programmes include ClubCorp and Golfpass, while National Golf Foundation research shows that US golf numbers have stabilized (24 million on-course golfers in the US in 2018). An estimated 2.6 million people played golf for the first time in the US in 2018, matching the record mark set in 2017, so golf’s numbers are looking strong, with new golfers considering membership options that are much more diverse today than they were a generation ago, while the game’s demographic is shifting towards the mainstream.
“Participation in Palmer Advantage is by invitation only. Once approved, there is no cost for a private club to participate in Palmer Advantage,” adds Gdovin. “Our most active members are golfers that like to travel and who enjoy golf and travel lifestyle benefits for themselves and family members.”
Says Dormie Network’s Plaster: “We can see the Dormie Network growing to between 10 and 15 properties. If we continue to have success then perhaps we could continue beyond that but the sweetspot for our business model is probably between 10 and 15.”
Palmer Advantage continues to grow too.
“We have grown every year since we started, 10 years ago, in terms of both membership and the number of reciprocal clubs,” states Gdovin. “An individually operated private club cannot offer its membership these kinds of benefits, all of which provide a participating private club a competitive advantage and world-class benefits when club members are away from their home club.
“We believe this concept of a network, like a virtual membership—a club without walls—is a trend for the future and it matches a more mobile lifestyle.”