MANATEE -- Even the community’s elite have become more cost-conscious in today’s economy and nothing reflects that more vividly than changes undertaken by local country clubs since 2008.
Initiation fees have dropped by the thousands. Sunday brunches that used to offer major lunch and dinner-like entrees have been downscaled to breakfast spreads. Different types of memberships geared toward recruiting younger members, as well as those interested in lower monthly dues, are being created. And staff members are being asked to take on more responsibilities as some clubs have trimmed their workforces.
“This economy requires a whole lot more management technique,” says Jim Brand, general manager of the Bradenton Country Club. “You really have to get down and look at everything. Because we’re not only fighting the economy in general; we’re also being hit with ever-increasing costs, in food, beverages, fuel, transportation ... all of that is kicking us right in the back and we can’t just turn around and raise our prices to our members.”
Prior to the economic recession that started in late 2008, the Bradenton Country Club regularly had a waiting list of 60 to 80 each month. Its full membership was about 350. The club charged an initiation fee of $17,500 and employed almost 150 people.
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Today, there is no waiting list. The club has 289 full members and has drastically expanded its less costly social and tennis memberships. Its initiation fee is only $5,000, and 30 percent fewer people tend to the club’s golf courses, dining rooms, tennis facilities, swimming pool and fitness room.
A Sunday brunch that used to include fish, chicken and prime rib will be scaled back starting June 26 to focus on waffles, pancakes, bacon, sausage, blintzes and other breakfast favorites. It also will cost half as much.
Bradenton Country Club isn’t the only club that has needed to adjust its operation to handle the economic recession. At the Palm Aire Country Club, where membership has dropped to just over 500 from 735 in 2007, a new “pre-retirement program” allows people to pay their $2,500 initiation fee and then enjoy the club without monthly dues for five years, said Manager John Costello.
Palm Aire also began a “junior executive” membership program last year, which offers reduced dues for people under the age of 50. “We’re really trying to get more young families into the club,” Costello said. “We really need to embrace the next generation.”
The club down-sized its Sunday brunch back in 2009 to a breakfast bar and also opened the brunch to residents of the Palm Aire community. Its staff of 105 is 16 percent smaller than it was in 2008.
The University Park Country Club also has downsized its Sunday buffet -- from a full brunch to a breakfast spread and from a cost of $27 to $17 -- but for reasons beyond the economy, says General Manager Laurie Evans.
“People are more calorie-conscious today,” she says. “They’re more into portion control, eating healthier and those types of things. As people are working hard to stay fit, they’re not really interested in going in on a Sunday to eat a huge brunch.”
For some clubs, significant changes are only partly due to the economic recession. University Park, for example, reduced its initiation fee from $30,000 to $5,000 in 2007 largely because it was transitioning from fully private to semi-private, Evans said.
A transition from private to semi-private also is behind many of the changes enacted by IMG when it took over the former El Conquistador Country Club, said General Manager Jeff Parsons. IMG doesn’t charge any initiation fee and offers one of the lowest monthly dues in the area: $400 a month.
At least one country club hasn’t had to change a thing to cope with the economy. The Lakewood Ranch Country Club still has a $50,000 initiation fee -- one of the area’s highest -- and its membership is still at its 2007 level of around 940, said General Manager Wayne Piazza. The club has added several amenities including an upgraded driving range facility and a short-range practice facility and it will be adding nine more holes later this year.
“When you look at what goes on here on ‘the Ranch,’ we say, ‘What recession?’“ Piazza said. “2008 was a tough year for everybody but once that year’s fourth-quarter was over, it’s been out of the gates ever since. One year has been better than the other.”
Many clubs, coincidentally, undertook major renovations just before the economic recession hit. They include University Park, Bradenton and Palm Aire.
The need for changes also has led to new opportunities at many clubs. University Park has increased its summertime memberships by more than two-fold by reaching out to the general public, Evans said. And the Bradenton Country Club, which used to be closed on Saturdays, will start June 25 offering an “all you can eat” prime rib dinner featuring two-for-one drinks and free meals for kids under 12.
Christine Hawes, business writer, can be reached at (941) 745-7081.