January 31, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Rolling out the welcome mat

Clubs lower fees as membership sags

Server Shohel Ahmed carries food to members at The Grill, a restaurant inside the historic Detroit Athletic Club in Detroit. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)

Slashed prices. Mass mailings. Gift certificates.

To attract new members, the toniest country clubs and yacht clubs of Metro Detroit are borrowing the sales tactics of Wal-Mart.

The Detroit Athletic Club is temporarily dropping its entrance fee from $5,000 to $2,500 this year.

At the Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield, where the fee once was $55,000, it now is $15,000.

The Grosse Ile Yacht Club reduced dockage fees for small boats during the first two years of membership from $1,800 to $450.

"It's a different world," said Kathy Walker, finance director of the yacht club. "You have to reach out to new members. You have to make it happen."

Thus far, the entreaties have known only modest success. They've brought in some new folks but still have left the organizations way below capacity.

These playgrounds of the rich are reducing membership fees because not even would-be aristocrats are impervious to the vagaries of a crippled economy, the clubs say.

At places where exclusivity once was a selling point, it's now passe. These cash-strapped bastions of privilege want not only you, but also your family.

New times, new dynamics

The cheaper prices are boosting an evolution already under way at country clubs and yacht clubs.

Old image: Two old white guys in overstuffed chairs plotting to merge their companies over a snifter of brandy.

New image: A father and daughter rushing down a water slide into a pool of people of different races and religions.

Private clubs are trying to woo new members by offering amenities that interest families.

They feature spas and exercise rooms. They've expanded tennis courts and swimming pools. They have child care and summer camp.

The Lochmoor Club in Grosse Pointe Woods offers baby-sitting Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

"We try to create value as much as possible," said John Paul, Lochmoor general manager. "We want to make the club the place they choose to go."

The poor economy isn't the only thing spurring the changes, say sociologists. So is society.

Unlike earlier generations, baby boomers aren't interested in private clubs as refuges from family life. They want to spend time with their children.

With the advent of business groups and other venues, the clubs lost some of their cachet as critical places to meet clients or prospective employers.

As a result, country and yacht clubs have seen their memberships dwindle over the years.

The Knollwood Country Club in West Bloomfield fell from 400 members to 310 in the past decade, said its general manager, Randy Burgess.

The lower initiation fee attracted 20 new members last year, he said.

"It's no longer the focal point of life," he said. "This particular market at this particular time is real slim."

Burgess, who also is president of the Detroit Club Managers Association, said many of its 53 members have experienced membership drops of 30 percent over the past decade.

The Grosse Ile Yacht Club offers the owners of boats smaller than 30 feet just half the dockage fee during the first year of membership and nothing during the second year.

By making the offer, it hopes to entice a group that usually isn't interested in joining such an organization.

Small-boat owners don't need yacht clubs because they often keep their crafts in their yards.

Marketing a yacht club

But that's not the only tactic used by the 74-year-old organization. It's marketing itself in creative ways.

It distributes club hats and banners, tries to get mentioned in local papers and cable TV, sponsors the town's welcome sign, appears in a yearly parade and hosts themed parties on holidays.

"We'll do anything to stimulate interest," Walker, the club's finance director, said last week. "We'll use everything we can."

Earlier in the day, she was watching "The Martha Stewart Show" on TV when Stewart proposed the coupling of cupcake eating and wine tasting as a fun thing to do.

Walker immediately began planning to host such an event at the yacht club.

"We don't invent ideas, but we sure don't mind borrowing them," she said.

Other private clubs are turning to more imaginative ways to market themselves and getting more creative in the blandishments offered new members.

They dangle special rates for younger people and one-day visits so prospective members can see if they like the country club lifestyle.

They reach out to residents through gift certificates or fliers mailed to certain moneyed ZIP codes.

Offering a discount

The Grosse Pointe Yacht Club allows new members to pay just one-fourth of the entrance fee upon joining and defer the rest for three years.

Traditionally, membership drives begin in the spring, just before the start of golf season.

For some clubs, however, the membership drive never ends.

"You never want to sit back," said Ted Gillary, executive manager of the Detroit Athletic Club.

"No organization isn't affected by the economy."

You can reach Francis X. Donnelly at (313) 223-4186 or fdonnelly@detnews.com">fdonnelly@detnews.com.

Dan Kramer of Ionia plays piano for guests during a cocktail hour at ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
The ornate Detroit Athletic Club lobby features portraits of presidents ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Member Guy Rau of Grosse Pointe Farms bowls in the basement "bowling ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
DAC member Fred DeHaven of Grosse Pointe Farms swims in the club's ... (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
Guests enjoy hors d'oeuvres at a luncheon at Knollwood Country Club. ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)