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Baltimore's graying Center Club reaches out to younger members

The Center Club in Baltimore was founded by city business leaders 56 years ago, making it close in age to its average jacket-and-tie-wearing member. But club officials are working hard to skew the demographics, as well as relax the attire, and give more up-and-comers a place alongside already-made-its.

“Young people make up about 15-16 percent of the total membership, but they are probably the fastest growing group,” said P.J. Mitchell, the Center Club president. “They’re finding value here.”

The average member age at the Center Club is closer to 54, even with the number of members under 40 growing by 50 percent in the last five years. They still make up only a few hundred of the 2,100-member roster — a 10-year high but below its early 1990’s peak of 2,300.

Attracting younger members has become a survival strategy for the club and others across the nation that face an aging membership, lost members to the recession and a general movement away from the martini lunches of the past. But it’s also in keeping with the club’s founding mission of inclusion — it was established as a place to meet and do business regardless of race, creed, color or gender.

And the Center Club is making headway. Its median age is five years younger than the national median of 59 for such clubs, according to the National Club Association.

Once a business club, it’s more of a business and social club now, Mitchell said. It recently renewed its lease for 10 years and is in the midst of a $2 million renovation designed to make the club’s space in downtown Baltimore’s Transamerica Tower more event-friendly and welcoming.

Aung Arkar joined the club about four years ago as an alternative to city sports leagues and beer drinking. The 33-year-old contracts consultant for Becton, Dickinson and Co. said he normally works from home but spends two weekdays in the club’s business center and then has lunch with people he’s met there.

“The food here is great and the views are great for Instagram photos,” he said of the skyline that includes sports stadiums and the harbor from the 15th and 16th floors where the club rents space.

He said friends have been doubtful about what they’d find inside the club walls, which were indeed once mahogany paneled (and some still are). But he’s brought many as guests. A couple have joined.

Mitchell said she’s relying on young members like Arkar to sell the place to those who might not see themselves as the club type, or may scoff at the cost. There are discounts and a monthly payment plan, but it still may not seem cheap compared to other entertainment: The one-time initiation fee ranges from $600 for those age 21-29 to $1,500 for those over age 40. The annual dues range from $530 to $1,550.

Clubs across the country are having varying success targeting younger people. The National Club Association can’t yet provide numbers, but officials plan a survey next year.

A 2016 assessment by the club association found that millennials, age 18 to 34, would be good growth targets because there are 70 million of them and they have an “interest in experiences over possessions.” They like being in cities. And while business lunches and corporate functions remain the bread and butter of club dining rooms, younger members may shift the clubs’ reason to exist.

The assessment says they would socialize in casual dining rooms, game rooms, gyms and meeting spaces. Clubs should seek to reach them through social media.

In recent years, the Center Club added a sports bar and embraced Facebook. It’s also launched book, craft beer and whisky clubs and a Spanish roundtable, as well as networking events for those in real estate and health care.

Frank Vain, president of McMahon Group, a private club planning and consultancy firm, said attracting younger members has always been important, but more so now.

Clubs that once had 2,000-3,000 members needed 125 new members a year just to break even, as current members moved on or died, Vain said. Many also saw their ranks depleted during the recession, numbers that did not rebound all the way.

Clubs no longer can rely on the business class to automatically sign up as they did pre-1990s when there was more of a culture of — and better tax advantages in — business entertaining.

Vain said those that are successful in luring younger people to join will provide good opportunities in settings comfortable for them, though they need not relax the rules so much that they put off older members. (No ripped jeans and backward baseball caps.)

The club association has noted a trend of clubs opening sports pubs, relaxing dress codes in once-formal dining rooms, and allowing and even encouraging use of mobile devices and social media. The Genesee Valley Club in Rochester, N.Y., for example, has added a pub that offers beer tastings and happy hours, networking opportunities and wellness classes.

John Corey, that club’s general manager and chief operating officer, said the club still needs to boost its social media presence.

“In our small city with many clubs to choose from, we need to do a better job getting the word out about us,” he said.

But it won’t be easy, Vain said. Some clubs won’t have money for improvements and others won’t have space for new services. Another challenge is understanding the community enough to know what to offer.

Some, like the Center Club, may have natural advantages, including a location central to jobs and a downtown where some millennials and baby boomers are now choosing to live.

“What we typically preach to those those facilities is the need to invest and offer people a modern experience,” Vain said. “A new marketing plan is great, but what you really need is a product to sell.”

That’s why the Baltimore club is renovating, to invest in its future. The upgrades not only stripped the brown color palette and limits on denim, but added WiFi and networking through social media. There’s even an app.

Arkar said he follows club events through the app on his phone and particularly likes the club’s wine tastings.

Kelly Drnec, a 34-year-old sales manager for a Mount Vernon hotel, said the club offers the opportunity to hobnob in a more natural way with professionals that people like her would like to know, or have know them. More senior members often don’t mind sharing professional wisdom with younger versions of themselves.

She has gotten the chance to join charity events and moderate a panel with prominent business figures.

Another member is Joey Price, 31, the CEO of Jumpstart:HR, a human resources outsourcing and consulting firm. He represents young members on the board, where he said his suggestions are welcomed.

He’s developed such a sense of belonging, he got married in the club.

“There’s a place for us here,” he said.

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