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November 2017

Public‭, ‬Private Partnership

publicprivatepartnership.jpg‭Private courses in Massachusetts looking for membership growth have found an unexpected ally in the state’s golf association. Together, they’ve formed a Member Days program that’s proven successful from the start

The official mandate of the Massachusetts Golf Association is to promote and preserve amateur golf in the Commonwealth, but the association’s executive director, Jesse Menachem, describes it in much simpler terms: “We just try and get more people though the door.”

That’s a daunting enough task at the 216 public facilities that belong to the MGA. For the 128 private clubs, it’s downright herculean. “Obviously, the recession hit everybody pretty hard,” Menachem says. “The high-end clubs have done a nice job of getting back to where they were, but those mid-level ones are still really struggling.”

The organization’s former director had heard of a program put on by the state golf association in Rhode Island. “They  held one-day events at private clubs across the state, and it proved to be immensely popular.”

So in 2010, officials at the MGA reached out to private clubs all over Massachusetts, securing access at four in the first year. “To skeptical clubs, we just pitched it as an outing hosted by the MGA,” Menachem explains.

The program, branded as Member Days, was an immediate success. The first-come, first-served tee times were gobbled up almost instantly. As the program grew—there were 21 events on the 2017 schedule—organizers switched to a lottery system for tee times. “We have close to 87,000 members, so demand is pretty high,” Menachem says. The MGA has even had to hire a full-time staff member to coordinate the program. “It’s become a big component to our offering.”

MGA members pay just $80 to play in the events. They’re organized and run by staff from the association, too. “A lot of the guys have never played competitive golf in an organized environment like this, [so] they just love it.”

It’s no surprise the program has taken off for golfers; they get to play courses they could ordinarily never set foot on. What’s somewhat surprising, however, is the abundance of quality member-owned and privately-owned clubs that lined up to participate. “The days of turning their noses up at public play is long gone,” Menachem posits. “Smart clubs see the value in participating in something like this as a way of showcasing their clubs.”

Bill Ransom is one such pragmatic club official. As the director of membership sales at The Cape Club of Sharon, he jumped at the chance to host a Member Days event. “We’re looking to grow our membership, so I saw this as a chance to create cheerleaders who will go out and spread the word across the state.”

To achieve that kind of advocacy, Ransom knew his facility had to go all-in when hosting the MGA event. “Players got the full-service experience, right from the bag drop on,” he explains. Like many private clubs, The Cape Club of Sharon is closed on Mondays, giving the Geoffrey Cornish-designed course the flexibility it needs to accommodate the MGA without interfering with dues-paying members. When it came to hosting the Member Days event, however, Ransom had his full contingent of staff on hand to ensure the experience mirrored that of those dues-paying members, including senior staff like golf director Ryan Payne. “No doubt, we went all out to impress.”

Ransom says the event has resulted in a slight uptick in revenue, but knows it’s not just about the money. “This is about giving back to the golfing community and building up a bit of goodwill.”

Menachem says participating clubs are free to market to Member Days participants and try to convert them into members. “Most clubs will provide brochures the day of, and a few even follow up after the event.”

Ransom says he handed out a lot of business cards at his club’s iteration. He knows the potential of these MGA prospects. “If we can get two or three of them on board, the referrals will really start rolling in.”

This type of outreach is new for The Cape Club of Sharon. Previously known as Spring Valley Country Club, the facility kept an extremely low profile. “The members wanted to fly below the radar so they could have the freedom to book tee times whenever they wanted.” As membership numbers shrank, this isolation proved to be unsustainable.

Now, deep-pocketed and ambitious investors have the club poised for a dramatic rebirth. Beyond millions spent on course refurbishment and clubhouse amenities, Ransom says it’s a willingness to take innovative chances like opening its doors to MGA members that’s having the greatest impact. “We’ve gone from the Flintstone’s to the Jetsons in a matter of months,” he jokes.

The 100 full-time members that have joined the club since the 2016 purchase lend credence to Ransom’s praise. The MGA’s Menachem says the success at The Cape Club of Sharon is mirrored at many of the other participating facilities. “The feedback I get from both the players and the clubs is unanimously positive.” The MGA plans to grow to 25 events next year. “We’re looking at trying out some demo-specific play, targeting seniors, juniors and women.”

The experience working with the MGA has been so beneficial, Ransom says his club is looking at partnering with the association on other events outside Member Days. “It’s a solid organization, and we both want the same thing. We want to grow the game of golf.”

Kyle Darbyson is a Vancouver-based freelance writer.

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