- Associated Press - Sunday, October 12, 2014

BALTIMORE (AP) - At a time when entry-level employees can connect with top executives online, private business and dining clubs are fighting to remain a relevant option for business networking opportunities.

From new membership discounts to facility renovations and menu upgrades, these clubs have been actively targeting the young professional community to reinvigorate interest in this decades-old business tradition. So far, the effort appears to be paying off, and local clubs say membership has rebounded after they began focusing on the under-40 crowd.

“We are probably stronger than we’ve been in many years financially, and our membership is near an all-time high,” said David Nevins, president of the Center Club’s board of governors. Nevins said the downtown Baltimore club has about 2,000 members, compared to about 1,400 during the depths of the 2008 recession and 2,200 more than a decade ago.

At the Tower Club Tysons Corner in Vienna, Virginia, membership is surging after a period of ebbs and flows, general manager Kara Carmichael said. The City Club of Washington did not disclose any figures, but manager Tom Bannwart said “a lot of young, executive-type” people were joining.

The key to building and maintaining membership, managers found, is to adapt with the evolving culture of the local business community.

“In the old days, we were more of a two-martini lunch,” Bannwart said. “Now, we’re more of a working business club where people come to conduct business.”

About 50 years ago, many of Baltimore’s top business and civic leaders already knew each other and looked for a place where they could discuss ventures over lunch, Nevins said. Now, workers can engage with each other on social media, but some club members say this online networking won’t replace the need for in-person communication.

“A lot of members are in influential positions, and it’s likely that they don’t have LinkedIn or Facebook. If they do, they’re not checking it,” said Thomasina Poirot, a member of the Center Club. “It’s not a substitute for meeting them in person.”

In recent years, clubs have increased the number of network-building and social events for current members. And to entice younger, often digitally-minded members, clubs made a few modifications: The Center Club completed a $2.7 million face-lift in 2009, and the Tower Club will begin a $2 million technology renovation in September. And clubs are relaxing their dress codes and diversifying their menus.

“We have to be creative on a weekly basis,” said Kevin Bonner, general manager of the Center Club. “Dining has become more casual over the years. We’re evolving as dining evolves.”

The under-40 crowd is the fastest growing demographic at the Tower Club, general manager Kara Carmichael said. Members under age 40 make up 12 percent of the Center Club’s membership, compared to about 6 percent in 2009, said John Pastalow, chair of the club’s Young Members Committee.

At the City Club, Bannwart said young entrepreneurs have turned the club into an incubator for startups. They often use the facility as an office during the day, take a break for breakfast or lunch, and attend social events at night.

“So many innovative people run their offices off their laptops,” Bonner said. “We want to have a place that’s a backdrop for their office, so to speak, and to meet and connect with like-minded people that they eventually could be doing business with.”

While a place for business and socializing might sound enticing, Poirot said some of her peers have expressed negative perceptions of private dining clubs.

“A lot of people might think it’s a stuffy older club that has no place for younger people,” Poirot said. “It’s an interesting experience when you take someone who has a prior perception.”

Pastalow discovered the Center Club in 2005 and found it to be a step up from the city nightlife surrounding him. Since joining, he has dined with CEOs of hospitals and nonprofits.

“I have some friends out there who are still into Federal Hill bar-hopping,” Pastalow said. “I don’t want to do that anymore. That’s not where my career is. I want to be with people who get it.”

Nationally, private clubs of different types and in various regions still feel the effects from the latest recession. A report from the National Club Association estimates that about 10 percent of the 4,000 clubs in the U.S. will close by 2020. And as the dining scene continues expanding, local clubs feel the pressure to compete with neighboring restaurants and banquet halls.

In Washington, competition from restaurants and other private clubs surrounds the City Club “on all four sides,” Bannwart said.

“We compete with restaurants, but we’re not a restaurant,” Bannwart said. “We have members here, not customers. We want to take the time to learn our members’ wants and needs, to know your favorite food and drink.”

The Tower Club, meanwhile, has partnered with nearby restaurants for certain events, Carmichael said. The club also offers private events to nonmembers, so it looks at what other banquet spaces are doing to book more events.

Looking forward, managers expect their clubs to continue playing a role in the local professional community. People may connect online, Nevins said, but cocktail hours and dinners foster connections beyond swapping basic resume and profile information.

“You might be sitting in our lounge, next to or across from one of Baltimore’s brand-new leaders or one of Baltimore’s very famed leaders, sharing stories of career success and giving advice and counsel,” Nevins said. “I will project that it will be a long, long time before the online world replaces the person world.”

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com

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