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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Club working to stem tide of defections and reinvent itself

It’s reinvention time at the Spokane Club. Short of dressing up its stately façade on West Riverside Avenue with tie-dyed tarp and a “free coffee” banner, the long-established social and athletic club wants to shake up people’s notions of what goes on there.

In the late 1960s the club’s directors expanded from a social-dining club to one that included athletics and fitness. Like similar clubs at the time, it adapted to the shift by families and members who became more mobile and health-focused, said John Pilcher, the Spokane Club’s interim general manager.

Now dealing with declining membership and its first-ever yearly loss, board President Jan Quintrall says the club’s overriding challenge is altering the perception that the member-owned and -operated club is stodgy, male-centric and elitist.

Its acquisition in 2000 of the Central Park Racquet Club in Spokane Valley counts as one of its solid recent successes. The club’s Valley center, at 5900 E. Fourth, has 10 tennis courts seeing heavy use, and the board wishes it had money lying around to expand that facility, Quintrall said.

But the club’s first goal is halting the exodus of members, she added.

Inside the club’s Kirtland Cutter-designed building at 1002 W. Riverside, Quintrall points at the front door. “We have this invisible barrier at our door that keeps people out. It keeps out women. It keeps out young families,” she added. “We have to remove that barrier” and emphasize the varied benefits the club offers, Quintrall said.

Before she joined in 2001, Quintrall said she had the same preconception. Only after she took a tour and saw the range of options, she said it made sense for her to join. Quintrall is also executive director of the Better Business Bureau serving Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Montana and writes a column for The Spokesman-Review.

During its 120 years in operation, the club has evolved into a central gathering spot offering dining, business meeting rooms, fitness facilities and a hotel for guests.

Its banquet and catering office hosts weddings, celebrations and company events. Members can also schedule massage, personal training and tennis lessons. Members pay for meals, special classes and fitness training; the monthly member fee provides access to all other services.

Around the country, similar private clubs that provide social, dining and athletic services are losing members. The general trend has been affected by the economy, but the decline goes beyond penny-pinching, reflecting another shift in American habits, say some observers.

Economy or not, members are leaving the Spokane Club. Since 2007 it has lost 649 paying members, leaving it with 2,803, said Jon Fine, the club’s marketing director.

This past fiscal year, which ended Wednesday, the club expects to rack up a loss of $250,000 out of a budget of roughly $4 million, Pilcher said.

The club’s reserves will cover this year’s red ink, Pilcher said. Through most of the past five years the nonprofit club has produced positive cash flow of more than $200,000 per year.

Its income derives from membership fees, some training fees and revenue from hotel, dining and catering.

Based on recent focus groups with residents who are not club members, its managers keep hearing the same concern — the club is seen as pricey or not attractive for families, Quintrall said.

Later this year the club plans to hire a new general manager or CEO. That job will be to reinvent the club while explaining its advantages in a compelling way, Quintrall said.

“Frankly we’ve done a lousy job of explaining what we do to the world,” Quintrall said.

“This is a place with a very strong focus on wellness for the whole family.”

Last year the club modified some membership initiation and monthly fees to appeal to younger residents. At the same time the club now sees a defection of some members to the year-old Central Spokane YMCA facility several blocks away. The new Y has the latest fitness gear, a full-sized pool and a host of programs for children and adults.

Stefanie Collins, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor, said she left the Spokane Club because it was cheaper to join the Y. She added she found more activities at the new Y.

Collins takes her two children to the Y while she works out. “I can watch my kids swimming while I exercise,” she said.

She also said the Y’s workout equipment is better than what she found at the Spokane Club.

A two-adult family earning more than $55,000 per year that joined the Spokane Y would pay $75 as initiation fees and $74 per month. It offers discounts for low-income members.

The Spokane Club membership varies with the age of the parents. Families with adults 35 and over pay a $495 initiation fee and $151.73 per month. Parents under 35 pay initiation fees of $295 and monthly fees of $81.24 or $137.65, depending on their age. An individual pays a $295 initiation fee and $115.73 per month.

Quintrall said surveys of club members found a strong sentiment for better staff service and more activities for families. The club has been adding activities for younger kids, such as the Penguin Swim Team, a group of nearly 50 swimmers who practice at the downtown pool three times a week.

“But we don’t offer nearly enough for kids from age 10 years old and up,” Quintrall said. “We need to address that and find out what we can do to give them more.”

What that emphasis will look like will be another job for the new GM, whom the board expects to have in place by September, Quintrall said.

She said that person has to be a “visionary” leader who is prepared to change old methods and find new ways to engage with existing and potential new members. The salary range is $130,000 to $160,000, she said.

Among options already discussed and sure to be considered, Quintrall and Pilcher listed these:

• Changing membership rates and initiation fees. Quintrall said she’s told the board to consider cutting fees, something the club has resisted doing.

She also said the club needs to study the option of splitting services for a smaller monthly cost. For less money, a Spokane Club member would get to use the athletic facility, but not dining or hospitality, for instance.

Another option would be a part-time membership for “snowbirds” who don’t live in Spokane during winter, Quintrall said.

• Adding more entertainment. The club experimented this past year with a comedy night. It also has begun a concert series in the downstairs Georgian Ballroom at the downtown club.

• Focusing on helping busy families and workers manage their lives. Pilcher suggested the club could add a take-out laundry service, or start offering take-out meals.

• Upgrading the downtown building’s audio-video equipment to attract more weddings and parties. Quintrall said many bridal parties now want updated technology so that the celebrations can include high-definition video and music.

It may do modest good to compare what other private clubs are doing, added Quintrall. “But in a way that’s like people in the cancer ward looking at each other for cures,” she said.

“We need to look at organizations here that are healthy. We need to compare ourselves to restaurants and hotels that attract people. Where are people going to have that social need fulfilled? “Because our real competition is everywhere,” she said.