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Posh City Clubs Loosen Their Ties to Stay Alive

Culture: As membership drops in elite institutions, new enticements are offered.

July 28, 2002|REBECCA COOK | ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

SEATTLE — The banquet room boasts a fireplace big enough to hold an SUV. Hallways are decorated with sepia-toned prints by the renowned photographer Edward Curtis, who used them to pay his membership bills a century ago. Even the sunlight filtering through the tall windows seems elegant and refined.

You know you've made it in Seattle society when you're invited to join the exclusive Rainier Club. Local legend says more business deals have been struck behind the club's stately brick walls than in any office in the city.

So, the pony in the lobby stuck out a bit.

This spring's Easter egg hunt required some special entertainment for the children, and that's why a pony was brought in.

"And everything that comes with a pony," Michael Troyer, chief operating officer of the 114-year-old club said, arching one eyebrow.

The scene would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, when children and barn animals were equally unwelcome.

But changes are brewing at America's posh private city clubs, the urban cousins of country clubs in the suburbs. Struggling to stay alive in a business-casual world, exclusive city clubs are loosening their ties, slashing fees and shaking up traditions.

"It took a while for a lot of clubs to wake up that they really need to be competitive," said James Burns, general manager of the Union Club of Boston.

"Membership just sort of happened" in the old days, Burns said. "Now it's a whole different ballgame."

Private city clubs offer fine dining in luxurious settings to those who can afford the $1,000 to $2,000 initiation fee, plus hundreds of dollars in monthly dues, plus meal expenses. Most important, they offer members the warm feeling of belonging to an exclusive club where the staff always knows who you are, what you drink and how you like your steak.

About 500,000 people are members at city clubs, according to the Club Managers Assn. of America.

But despite the perks they offer, city clubs are losing 12% of members annually, according to Dallas-based club consultant Rick Coyne. Older members are dying off, and prospective new members often forgo city club membership in favor of country clubs, expensive vacations or a host of other amusements.

"Young people today don't see private clubs the same way their fathers did, or certainly as their grandfathers did," Coyne said.

Clubs still want to preserve traditions, he said, "but unless you listen to what the market is telling you, you're not going to be around."

These days, clubs know they must provide fun for the whole family if they want to keep dues-payers happy. Which explains the pony in Seattle.

"That's the kind of thing that seems to click these days--everyone's so busy," explained Rainier Club President Jay Rockey, a member for 30 years.

Change started knocking on private club doors during the 1970s, when lawsuits challenged long-standing policies that prevented many people from joining. Many clubs excluded women and nonwhites from membership. The doors opened for good in 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York law banning discrimination by private clubs. (Though no industry group offers race and gender breakdowns, observers say clubs remain largely white and male.)

Club managers recall the 1980s fondly. Business was good, and the opulent image of private clubs meshed with the style of the status-conscious decade. City club fortunes reversed in the 1990s. Even as the surging popularity of golf boosted private country club membership in the last decade , city clubs suffered one blow after another.

Tax laws changed in the mid-1990s so that club dues and many club expenses are no longer tax deductible. At the same time, companies cut back on club memberships. Corporations paid for most club memberships two decades ago, but now only 20% of memberships are corporate-held, according to Kathy O'Neal, senior vice president of Dallas-based Club Corp., which owns 200 private clubs worldwide.

Now that members are spending their own money, clubs must work harder than ever to woo and keep them.

That's why R.J. Ballanca, manager of San Francisco's City Club, tracks his members with a computer database--women business leaders, wine buffs, architecture aficionados--and he tailors events accordingly.

After Sept. 11, he waived the usual $1,000 initiation fee in favor of a $100 donation to charity--one of many clubs offering similar deals. Ballanca said his biggest obstacle in recruiting new members is overcoming the "martini-swilling, cigar-smoking geezers" image left over from the club's previous incarnation as the old Pacific Stock Exchange Lunch Club.

Some clubs have taken radical steps to shed their old-geezer image.

When Dave Rosen became general manager of the downtown Denver Club in 1998, employees usually outnumbered members in the dining room. The club dumped its formal dining rooms and ballrooms and reopened as a stripped-down, yet still posh, athletic club.

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