In a trend that began two or three years ago and shows no sign of slowing, Richmond’s private and semi-private clubs are offering steep discounts to attract new members: slashing initiation fees, lowering monthly dues and offering “young member” plans.
“Today is probably the least expensive it’s ever been to join a club,” said Jamie Conkling, executive director of the Virginia State Golf Association.
The drop in private club prices comes thanks to surplus of courses built amid a golf boom in the early 1990s, when Conkling said industry consultants suggested opening a new course each day to keep up with demand.
Maggy Magee, the Dominion Club’s membership development director since 2008, said the specials defy conventions.
“When I came here, no one had ever dreamt of a trial membership,” she said.
The Dominion Club in Glen Allen introduced a trial membership in 2009, Magee said. The one-year membership came without an initiation fee. Magee said 78 percent of the memberships were renewed at the end of the trial period, this time with a $13,000 initiation fee.
Now, the Club at Viniterra is following suit. Viniterra, which opened in New Kent County in 2009, is offering a one-year, full-family trial membership for $1,800 — again with no initiation fee.
Martin Thompson, general manager of Jefferson Lakeside Country Club, said high fees are becoming thing of the past.
“It’s not a status thing anymore. … You have to operate more like a business now,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to have that barrier to entry.”
Jefferson Lakeside and Hanover Golf Club are both offering an initiation-free deal to new members who sign a two-year membership agreement. Hanover is offering two free months to members who retain their membership after the two-year period.
Birkdale and Brandermill golf clubs have also waived their initiation fees. Mike Hatch, general manager of both clubs, said the change was a response to similar moves by competing clubs. Previously, Brandermill charged a $2,000 initiation fee, and Birkdale charged $1,000.
Clubs are also starting graduated membership programs, which offer lower rates to younger new members. The Foundry, Meadowbrook and Hanover golf clubs have cut rates for members younger than 35 in the past three years.
Kortlynd Risser, membership and marketing director at Meadowbrook, said that 85 percent of new members from the past three months are younger than 35 years old.
Private clubs are also competing with high-end public courses that have slashed rates by up to 50 percent from what developers thought they could fetch when the clubs where built. For example, at Pendelton, which opened in Caroline County in 2007, the weekend rate is about $50. The club said that it projected it could charge closer to $80 per round.
Greg Nathan, a senior vice president at the golf research institute National Golf Foundation, said a lot of clubs are struggling to stay afloat.
“It’s a golfer’s market, and golfers are spoiled today,” Nathan said. Courses are “competing very hard for the golfers and offering some of the best values ever available to players.”
According to the National Golf Foundation, 26 private courses closed last year nationally. Conkling said it was the fourth consecutive year with a net decrease.
This year, Virginia has lost two and a half 18-hole equivalent courses, including one private course, the NGF reports.
The oversupply of golf courses will eventually come back in line with demand, Nathan said, allowing private clubs to bring rates back up. But Nathan added that golfers have time to capitalize on great club deals.
“This won’t happen overnight,” he said. “But the demand for private golf is alive and well.”