New Columbia Club general manager trying to reverse membership slide

September 12, 2009

For 120 years, the historic Columbia Club has cultivated an aristocratic atmosphere, where doormen guard access to Indianapolis’ elite. But that reputation has shrunk along with its membership.

The not-for-profit on Monument Circle now has just 1,600 members—24 percent fewer than two years ago, and about half its peak count in the late 1990s.

New General Manager James Rentschler, 52, hopes to restore some of the Columbia Club’s luster by returning to its gilded roots. Reinstating a long-standing but loosely enforced dress code, for example, should keep T-shirts and flip-flops out. Meanwhile, a steady schedule of creative networking events might draw new members in.

“The club is such a gem,” Rentschler said. “It just needs a little bit of polishing.”

Rentschler replaces Maarten van Wijk, who spent 19 months at the helm. He left in January to become general manager of the four-star Hotel Hershey in Hershey, Pa.—the same post he held before leading the Columbia Club.

Rentschler has 22 years of experience in club management and most recently ran the University Club of Cincinnati. His plan for the Columbia Club is simple: Do more with less.

Internal Revenue Service tax records suggest he has little choice. They show the club lost $108,756 on $7.5 million in revenue in 2007, the most recent year available.

The Columbia Club is still a substantial organization. Rentschler, whose first management decision was to move his office from the fifth floor to a more-visible spot near the lobby, commands 144 employees.

He plans to keep them busy with an endless list of small projects aimed at conveying platinum club status. Rentschler prides himself on constantly patrolling a club’s corridors, looking for scuffed paint, dark light bulbs or inattentive employees.

Rentschler also has high hopes for a mentoring program he wants to launch that matches club veterans with newcomers. Club industry experts say the first few months of membership are key for clubs. Younger people in particular drift away if their visions of career-building social connections don’t quickly materialize.

“I don’t want to reinvent the wheel for things that work,” Rentschler said. “We just need to implement them.”

Rentschler also will attempt to boost the Columbia Club’s ranks by steeply discounting initiation fees, which can soar as high as $1,500, depending on the applicant’s age. For the month of October, they’ll be rolled back to just $120, in honor of the club’s anniversary.

Clubs across the country originally developed such fees to burnish their exclusive status while keeping the riffraff out. Ironically, they’ve done the job too well. U.S. city and country clubs have lost 1.7 million members in the last decade, mainly as older members retired and moved to the Sunbelt, or died off without replacement.

Initiation discounts can pay off, if they attract new lifelong members, said Gretchen Schroeder, marketing and membership director for the Washington, D.C.-based National Club Association. But they have a downside.

“Many clubs are discounting or eliminating initiation fees and reducing their dues, trying to get people who thought they couldn’t afford a club in,” she said. “The risk is dulling … perception as a high-level club. It may make a club look desperate.”

Another cornerstone of Rentschler’s strategy involves persuading the Columbia Club’s members to visit more frequently, and to bring guests. Expect a steady calendar of networking breakfasts, intimate lunches featuring speeches by local leaders, and after-work single-malt-scotch tastings.

Some members may even invite their guests to stay the night. In June, occupancy for the Columbia Club’s hotel rooms stood at 52 percent, compared to 63 percent for all of downtown.

The Columbia Club has been fighting declining membership and usage for years. In 2006, it hired Frank Vain, president of St. Louis-based McMahon Group Inc., a consulting firm specializing in private clubs, to develop a strategy. Vain said Rentschler has a good reputation and “knows the business as well as anyone.”

But he’ll have to work fast. It’s important for the Columbia Club to stop the bleeding soon on membership count, Vain said. If losses continue much longer, they may become impossible to reverse.

“[Declining membership] can cause a downward spiral … where costs go up and services are cut for remaining members,” Vain said. “Each round could trigger another round of accelerated attrition, until it becomes difficult to turn around.”

Vain recommends the Columbia Club put Rentschler’s platinum goal on the back burner until membership is stable and growing again.

“We’ve had good success with a number of clubs where management rolls up its sleeves and says, ‘We’re going to make the place busy. Then we’ll figure out how to make it perfect,’” he said.•


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