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Baltimore's private dining clubs aim to attract new, younger members

Bars and ClubsRestaurant and Catering IndustryDining and DrinkingLinkedIn Corp.Mount Vernon Place

Baltimore's private dining clubs, longtime bastions of business networking and deal-making, are loosening up in an effort to attract a younger generation to keep their doors open.

Dress codes are easing and lower dues are offered for young members at the Engineers Club of Baltimore in Mount Vernon and the Center Club downtown on the 16th floor of the Transamerica tower. Both have invested millions of dollars over the last five years to revamp aging facilities and maintain the appeal of exclusivity to attract those with money to spend.

Membership in clubs nationwide fell significantly during the recent recession, and neither club was an exception. Both have seen an uptick in membership since, but such city clubs still face intense competition not only from the more numerous high-end restaurants but also other leisure and networking options, even the Internet.

A recent report from the National Club Association suggests that the growth prospects for city dining clubs are meager — 47 percent can expect declines, and 45 percent may see little or no growth. The report estimated that 10 percent of all 4,000 U.S. clubs — including country clubs with golf and swimming amenities — will close by 2020.

Attracting new and younger members is key to any club's survival.

"The way you make sure you're here for another 50 years is to find a bunch of 30-year-olds," said David Nevins, president of the Center Club's board of governors.

Founded for Baltimore's elite, the clubs aim to expand their reach by recruiting younger professionals. The Center Club and the Engineers Club both recently rolled out less expensive junior rates for those in their 20s — starting at $400 per year for the downtown club, $420 for the one in Mount Vernon, not counting one-time initiation fees, which also are reduced.

Neither the Maryland Club nor the Mount Vernon Club returned calls seeking comment about their membership recruiting.

At the Center Club, members under 40 as a percent of its membership have more than doubled in the last five years, according to John Pastalow, 37, chair of the club's growing Young Member Committee.

"Having the ability to touch base and talk with someone much more senior than you and get to talk with them as though you're a peer — I find that a bit invaluable," said Pastalow, an Ameriprise financial adviser.

Virtual means of making business connections such as the online social network LinkedIn are no substitute for a bought beer and steady handshake, he added.

Juggling the decades-old traditions of members who have frequented the Center Club since its founding in 1962 with the more casual, iPhone-glued emerging leaders of Baltimore business is a fine line, said Nevins, who runs the public relations firm Nevins & Associates.

"We needed to promote the club a little more aggressively and not just make it for Baltimore's current leaders, but also aspiring leaders," he said.

Aside from offering lower dues for new members, the Engineers Club — located since 1963 in the historic Garrett-Jacobs mansion on West Mount Vernon Place — recently eased the dress code. Business casual wear now is allowed throughout the building at all times of the year and even shorts in the summer.

The Center Club also permits business casual in the summer months and in select areas of the establishment in the winter.

"It's not like this has all changed overnight," said Dale Whitehead, executive director of the Engineers Club. "But it's in transition. Things have changed here for both people's comfort and for strategy — to retain members."

The club has completed significant renovations in the last 10 years, including installing faster Internet access, ballrooms with computerized lighting and other amenities to "make business a little less boring."

The club's membership, now at 556, is on the rise again after 18 percent of members left the club in 2008 and 2009.

"We want to attract younger people to be members," Whitehead said. "Our membership is aging, and we've known that to survive and thrive, we need younger members."

The clubs also are working on changing their event programming to make it more attractive to younger members.

Programming has become "much more malleable and flexible," said Kevin Bonner, general manager of the Center Club, to meet the needs of the roughly one-third of members who are under 40.

Bonner said new club offerings such as wine education sessions, happy hours before Orioles' home games and beer-and-burger nights have been popular among newer young members.

"All clubs have to be looking for their future members, and right now those are the millennials," said Cindy Vizza, publisher of the National Club Association. "There is going to be some give and take as far as the needs and desires of the newer members versus existing and longtime members, so clubs are making adjustments."

In Baltimore, fierce competition downtown from eateries such as the Capital Grille and Morton's the Steakhouse and the rise of casual dining in general has pushed the Center Club and others to relax longtime traditions, said Philip Newman, a consultant with Chicago-based McGladrey, an industry leader for private clubs.

"Are you really going to bring a jacket and a tie just to have a cocktail at a bar on a Friday afternoon?" said Newman, who has studied Baltimore private clubs. "Absolutely not. You're going to go to the Capital Grille. Branding is a term that all private clubs never really thought about until the recession kicked in, and suddenly the clubs have to think like businesses."

mbodley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/michael_bodley

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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