Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Clubs and Associations and Networking Groups

Columbia Club woos companies to boost membership

June 16, 2008

The 119-year-old Columbia Club downtown is offering corporate discounts for the first time in an effort to boost revenue and curb declining memberships.

Previously, the Monument Circle institution sold memberships only on an individual basis. Under the new plan, corporations will receive a significant discount, on a sliding scale, if five or more employees join.

Club officials hope the deal will attract as many as 500 new members to the exclusive walnut-paneled business network and social society.

"If we target 15 to 20 corporations, and they collectively will be good for 500 members, then I think mission accomplished," said Maarten van Wijk, the club's general manager and chief operating officer.

The move comes at a time membership is on the decline. The club has about 1,800 dues-paying members and another 200 honorary members--down more than a third from 1998, when it had about 2,800 on its rolls.

The dwindling numbers are reflective of the challenges many urban clubs face, said Cindy Vizza, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Club Association.

"The competition for the types of luxury amenities that a city club may have offered is a lot steeper than it was in the past," she said.

Club leaders hired van Wijk, a third-generation hotelier, in May 2007 to bring the club back to life.

He has made some drastic changes. Van Wijk moved the club's main dining room from the third floor to the street-level lobby, dropping menu prices in the process. He enacted a policy that limits smoking to only two rooms in the facility. And, in an effort to increase guest-room occupancy, he made hotel rooms available to state legislators for as little as $25 a night while the General Assembly was in session.

Those changes have paid off so far, he said. Revenue is up in the new restaurant, Harrison Bistro 121, and the former dining space on the third floor is being used for more catering functions. Overall, food and beverage sales are up 10 percent.

The smoking ban has lowered maintenance costs, and the legislative program brought an unexpected result: More lobbyists have joined the club to be closer to legislators.

Starbucks or the club?

Now van Wijk wants to sell area businesses on the idea of corporate memberships.

"We have a very prestigious building here on the Circle and everyone wonders what's inside," he said. "There is a great history here and people should know about it."

To that end, he and his staff plan to market the club and its new membership category to corporations, not-for-profits, and nearby law and accounting firms.

Corporate members get all the same benefits as individual members, such as access to the fitness center and restaurants, plus discounted rates in the club's 97 guest-rooms. Those who work in the adjacent Chase Tower building also can use the club's valet parking service for their guests and clients.

The new corporate members will pay between $70 and $135 a month to use the club, depending on how many of their co-workers enroll. Individual members normally pay as much as $140 in monthly dues plus a $1,500 initiation fee. The initiation fee will be waived for corporations with more than five members.

The club plans to bill corporate members individually, unless employers specify otherwise. If corporate members leave their company, the membership will automatically transfer to their successor.

Lisa Dellinger, the club's director of membership and public relations, said it makes sense for businesspeople to join so they can entertain clients.

"Is it more prestigious to say, 'I'll meet you at Starbucks' or 'I'll meet you for lunch at the club?'" she asked. "I think this is an excellent place to conduct business."

Even so, the Columbia Club's latest push for members may reflect the state of the industry, National Club Association's Vizza said.

In the past, clubs didn't have to sell themselves, she said, since they always had waiting lists full of people clamoring to get in. That's not the case anymore.

"One of the things that clubs never really did in the past was marketing, and certainly that's a huge push now for membership," she said. "Their history has gotten them this far, but there's a lot of competing factors that they need to deal with today, so [clubs] certainly are changing their tactics."

Around the Midwest, urban clubs have struggled in recent years as a result of suburban growth and a general shift in lifestyles, said Frank J. Vain, president of the St. Louis-based McMahon Group, a club consultancy.

Last year, the Cleveland Athletic Club, the University Club in St. Louis and the storied Chicago Athletic Association all closed their doors. The Indianapolis Athletic Club was shuttered in 2004.

'What's in it for me?'

To stay successful, clubs today have to adapt to meet the needs of their members, Vain said. That means offering more casual dining options, quicker service and upgraded facilities that can compete with the top hotels and restaurants in town.

Clubs also need to offer programs--such as wine tastings or a lecture series--to add value to members' lives, since the membership itself no longer stands as the sole symbol of success.

"In this day and age, membership is not sort of some badge of honor," he said. "Your judgment of whether you want to be a member is ... what's in it for me?"

Columbia Club officials realize that, van Wijk said, which is why they're planning to make dramatic changes to the club's aging infrastructure. No definitive plans have been made, but he said he hopes to gut and renovate three floors of guest-rooms, update and restore the meeting and ballroom space, and possibly move the fitness center out of the windowless basement.

He's also opening the club doors periodically to show it off to nonmembers.

This month, the club participated in the Indiana Restaurant Association's Devour Downtown event, which gave the general public a chance to nibble on Chesapeake Bay bass and braised short ribs in the street-level dining room.

"We're trying to focus on being a clubhouse for the community first and being a place that is particularly welcoming to business, to community leaders and to people in the community," said David Certo, a local judge who sits on the club's board of directors. But offering a corporate-membership structure isn't a sure path to success, some say.

The club's former general manager, Ed Albany, supports the idea but said it may be difficult to offer corporate discounts, especially when a company already has members enrolled in the club who are paying full price.

"If you lessen the dues to those people who already have a large amount of members there, your dues line drops," said Albany, now a consultant with Indianapolis-based R.H. Marlin crane rental. "You have to weigh it very carefully on how this decision is going to affect the bottom line."

Van Wijk, for his part, says the club is doing well financially. It posted a profit of $120,000 in 2007 on revenue of $7.5 million. The club should earn a similar amount in the fiscal year that ends June 30, he said.

"In terms of member count, we are a little bit behind where we want to be," he said. "But from a revenue standpoint, we are ahead of the curve."

Source: XMLAr00303.xml
ADVERTISEMENT

Recent Articles by Chip Cutter

Comments powered by Disqus