In discussion: Is it time for clubs to scrap their joining fees?

Two members of our team weigh in on the issue of joining fees. Have your say by scrolling to the bottom of the page and leaving a comment...

James Tompkinson (JT): I understand that joining fees are designed to promote loyalty to a particular club, but surely they are now an antiquated thing of the past and should be scrapped if clubs want to encourage new people to join and boost their membership numbers?
Tom Irwin (TI): I don’t agree. When times are tough, the easiest thing to do is to cut prices. I can see why there is a temptation to remove what could be perceived as the most significant barrier to entry for potential new members, but this kind of short term thinking never endures, and while there may be a momentary surge in new members, the issues  that this radical change in policy would create in the medium to long term is not worth the trade off.
JT: I think that so many clubs have dropped their fees already that those which hang on to them are just left behind. If I’m looking to join a golf club and I can pick between two similar clubs where one has a joining fee and another doesn’t, I’ll pay to join the club which doesn’t have a joining fee. You can reward loyalty by offering a great golf experience to your members, and if you do that then people will pay their fees year after year.
TI: Let’s say that a joining fee is one year’s subs plus your first-year fee. If cash flow is the main driver then you have to attract twice as many members with no joining fee to stand still. So the starting point of your assumption is that 100% more people would join clubs if there was no joining fee.
JT: In a single year period yes, but obviously over a period of say 10 years then the impact on the club is lessened. If a year’s fee is £500 and the joining fee is the same, then I have to pay £1000 up front and the club makes more money in that year. Compare that with a club which charges £500 per year but has no joining fee. If I’m a member of these two clubs for 10 years, then the club with the joining fee will receive £5500 from me and the one without the fee will get £5000. But initially, I’m far more likely to join the one without the joining fee.

I don’t believe that golf clubs should effectively charge you to keep you as a member of their club, which is what a joining fee does.
TI: But if I have paid no joining fee where is the incentive to stay for 10 years? Your model is comparable to the membership policy that most gyms adopt, where there are incentives to join with little regard to usage thereafter. Gyms would rather have thousands of members who never use the facility, but in golf clubs an active, loyal, membership with predictable behaviour patterns is what really counts. A membership who play regularly, at the same time, and have incremental spend on club events and will spend money in the bar, shop and restaurant are worth far more than those that play infrequently at unpredictable times.
JT: I don’t believe that golf clubs should effectively charge you to keep you as a member of their club, which is what a joining fee does. If the course is good enough then people will want to keep playing it. If the off-course facilities are good then people will use them. Surely the need to retain members should be a driving force behind maintaining standards at your club?

I think the type of member you are describing is one that existed in golf clubs 20 years ago but one which is becoming increasingly rare in clubs now. The membership model is changing. A recent survey by England Golf showed that a high proportion of golf club members are over the age of 65, which means that in the next 20 years we will see a slide in numbers because the numbers in the 35-44 years category do not compare. We need to encourage different types of members and dropping joining fees would be a good start to doing that
TI: I totally agree that we need to encourage new members, but removing joining fees is a short-term fix to poach members who are dissatisfied with their current club.
Also according to England Golf, if we could convert 100,000 transient golfers to being club members, then clubs would be full. We should be focussed on the things that keep people away – such as antiquated off course dress codes, ensuring members can play when they want, providing good food and a welcoming family environment. If we make ‘the club’ a place where people can meet for a beer, or to eat, and a place where children can spend time, then enough people would pay joining fees so that everyone benefits.
What we need is robust change in mentality and the retention of joining fees. Your policy of cost reduction has destroyed and still is destroying enough industries. Don’t let it do the same to golf. 

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