The retirement dream of many — joining a country club — is becoming more attainable and affordable.
With the economy wreaking havoc, golf clubs are hacking fees like a 30-handicaper in a sand trap. The Daily News surveyed more than 30 golf clubs in Southwest Florida — from communities with mandatory memberships to public facilities — and found bargains are as bountiful as birdies and bogeys.
From slashing initiations fees by 60 percent to eliminating them altogether, local golf clubs are going to extreme measures to attract business.
“I definitely think if anybody is interested in golf it is now more affordable than what it used to be and I think that trend is going to continue,” said Hilda Gilbert, membership director at the Club at the Strand, a private club which once hosted an LPGA Tour event and has decreased family initiation fees to $32,000 from $55,000 in the past five years.
Discounted country club memberships and attracting new members is becoming a national trend.
Clubs have increased membership marketing by 69 percent and 60 percent of clubs have a greater focus on member retention, according to the National Club Association’s 2009 Private Club Operations Report Executive Summary. The survey also found that 31 percent of clubs have discounted initiation fees and 23 percent have offered trial memberships.
“We also have seen that 50 percent (of clubs) are offering special financial offers,” said Cindy Vizza, director of communications and knowledge management of the National Club Association. “Clubs have had to take action to remain viable and a place where their members are hoping to come during this time.”
Supply and demand
Golf courses are aplenty in Southwest Florida, causing plenty of competition amongst each other. To attract members, the Country Club of Naples, a private golf club in East Naples, has discounted its membership prices by 60 percent.
During a promotion that lasted until Nov. 30, a full golf membership cost about $15,000 at the Country Club of Naples. Today, its costs $20,000 plus tax compared to as high as $50,000 five years ago, said Ian Coleman, director of membership and marketing. Even though annual dues are $7,960, plus an annual $1,200 food minimum per member, golfing privileges have never been cheaper.
“It’s a trend where everything is going,” Coleman said.
With the price drop and a $2 million renovation, Country Club of Naples has attracted 27 new club memberships for the year, Coleman said. To promote new memberships, existing members are even receiving a monetary initiative for referring their friends to join the club.
Keeping golfers on the courses and the clubs operating is a growing dilemma across the country. At least 500 clubs nationwide are reporting serious financial challenges, according to a recent survey by the National Golf Foundation. Memberships at at-risk clubs, as the foundation defined them, is down 29 percent.
One trend that is hurting clubs is that Tiger Woods isn’t the only person not playing golf these days.
“Golf is affected by the economy like any other business,” said Tom Stine, a co-founder of Golf Datatech, which monitors many golf industry statistics.
Overall, golf rounds played in the nation are down 1 percent, Stine said. In Florida, golf rounds were down 0.8 percent and in the Naples-Fort Myers area, it was down 0.4 percent.
Staying on course
In a fight for survival, members are scrambling to buy their clubs from developers. Cash strapped, some developers have been forced to shut down their golf courses.
Developer-owned clubs face more uncertainty. That uncertainty has forced some to drop their initiation fees during the past year.
Trouble with its former developer and owner, Ginn Cos., and the bad economy led Quail West in North Naples to start offering one-year trial memberships in February that don’t require initiation fees. A new developer has stepped in to resurrect the development and members recently purchased their club. Still, initiation fees have been kept low to try to draw new members in during hard economic times.
At one time, the joining fee for a golf membership at Quail West was $175,000. It dropped to $125,000 and now there’s a discounted rate of $75,000, said John Gamba, a board member of the Quail West Foundation. For those who can’t pay $75,000, there are other less expensive options under different terms.
“We felt we had to change,” Gamba said. “We are trying to vary our offerings to match the different requirements in our marketplace.”
Now there’s a clubhouse-only membership with a joining fee of $25,000. The club is also open to nonresidents.
In a battle to avoid bankruptcy, Bonita Bay Group has been looking to sell off its golf and other recreational clubs in several communities. Last week, it sold the Club at Mediterra in North Naples to members for $6.8 million in cash. Members also assumed $15 million in debt for a Community Development District, which was created to pay for roads and other basic services needed at start-up.
The club lowered its initiation fee to $50,000 in late August as its future seemed more questionable under the control of Bonita Bay Group. Now that the club is member-owned joining fees are expected to increase to $70,000 in January, said Richard Schmidt, president of the Mediterra Board of Governors. By June, the fees are expected to grow to $85,000.
“The biggest problem most of the clubs are having now is most of them don’t have enough members,” Schmidt said. “Southwest Florida is overbuilt for golf clubs. You have too many clubs chasing too few members.”
His club hopes to reach the break-even point in two years. Over the next few years, he expects to see other golf clubs fail in Southwest Florida.
“No one has ever seen an economy like this one,” Schmidt said. “Everyone has had to readjust. There is going to be a shakeout. There has to be. It’s inevitable.”
At the Shadow Wood Country Club, another golf club owned by Bonita Bay Group in Estero, the joining fee for a golf club member dropped from $35,000 to $32,000 this year. Members recently struck an agreement with the developer to buy the club. After turnover, the initiation fee will rise to $40,000.
The fees are market driven, said Dave English, president of the Shadow Wood Country Club’s member board.
“If nobody pays $40,000 then you’ve got to adjust it. If a lot of people do you can hold it. All the clubs are going through the same thing,” he said.
Despite the failure and sale of some clubs creating difficulty in the real estate market, John R. Wood Realtors President Phil Wood said sales in golf communities have improved.
“Through all the golf communities we are seeing an increased demand,” Wood said.
The Daily News called 82 golf clubs in the area. Not all of them responded or commented for the report. But many were reporting the trend of dropping prices.
In what could be described as a test drive, some clubs are delaying initiation fees to attract members.
Eagle Creek Country Club, a private golf bundle community in East Naples where membership is mandatory, is offering a 12-month introductory rate of $5,000. The golfer will have to decide whether to remain and pay the full fee of $60,000 — or $25,000 for non-residents — or to resign from the club.
The promotion has been going on for about a year, marketing director Jennifer Johnson said.
And one local club has eliminated the initiation fee altogether as part of a promotion.
This month only, Windstar on Naples Bay, a private golf club in East Naples, has waived its $65,000 initiation fee, General Manager and CEO Lonnie Eberhard said. Even though golfers will have to pay $10,400 in annual dues and food and beverage allowances, the Windstar on Naples Bay price would be the shopping equivalent to the day after Thanksgiving.
Melinda Sullivan is Realtor specializing in luxury property in the Naples, Bonita Springs & Estero areas. She updates this blog on a weekly basis and writes about anything and everything to do with buying or selling property in Southwest Florida. You will find regular blog posts on her website at, http://www.bonitanaplesrealestate.com/blog/