Younger people less likely to join

TOUGH TIMES AT BUSINESS CLUBS

December 23, 1992|By Ellen James Martin | Ellen James Martin,Staff Writer

Fearing for its survival, Baltimore's Engineering Society is launching a full-scale marketing drive in an attempt to stop the decline in its membership rolls. The 87-year-old club has hired a public relations firm, laid plans for corporate advertising, begun a direct-mail drive and cut fees for a membership drive that began recently.

Those are only the latest moves. The club restructured its rules last summer to allow up to 49 percent of its membership to consist of non-engineers. Still, its membership has slipped to 1,200 -- down from 1,500 five years ago.

"I will not deny this economy has been difficult -- it's been difficult for everyone," said Donald Blum, executive director of the club, based in the ornate Garrett-Jacobs Mansion on Mount Vernon Place north of downtown.

Changes at the Engineering Society are mirrored among Baltimore's other business clubs. Corporate downsizing and cost-cutting -- combined with changes in lifestyles -- mean that fewer professionals will pay for a membership to conduct expense-account lunches in a gilt-edged setting.

"We have lost some younger members, who were the first to be cut by the corporations in the recession," said Alvin Wolpoff, president of the Center Club and retired managing partner of the Baltimore accounting firm Wolpoff & Co. The Center Club is housed in luxurious contemporary quarters on the 15th and 16th floors of the USF&G tower.

Although the Center Club has reached a record membership of 2,300 -- a 100-member increase since 1990 -- it isn't immune to fears about an eroding base of younger members.

It held a "younger members campaign" last summer and fall, exempting applicants under 40 from an initiation fee of up to $1,250. The campaign picked up 241 younger members, said Russell LaGreca, the club's general manager.

The demise in September of the University Club, which had made a hopeful reappearance near the University of Maryland at Baltimore campus in 1986 and signed up 2,000 members before closing, was one sign of the troubles facing Baltimore's business clubs. Another came three years ago, with the closure of the Merchants Club.

"There probably is a limit to the number of business clubs that our economy can sustain," said Geoffrey Mitchell, a partner at the Baltimore-based law firm of Semmes Bowen & Semmes, who headed the Merchants Club when it closed. A major factor in that club's demise, Mr. Mitchell believes, was the ascension of the Center Club.

And Baltimore's old-line clubs face plenty of competition. Fitness centers, such as the Downtown Athletic Club, are taking time and money that might otherwise have been spent at a business club.

Meanwhile, the newest club -- the Camden Club, at the B&O Warehouse next to the Orioles' new stadium -- has grabbed 450 members, including many business leaders who have paid a $1,000 initiation fee.

Unlike traditional business clubs that require a candidate for membership to be nominated and screened, the Camden Club has no illusion of exclusivity. Anyone can join. And the 9-month-old club -- with its plush gold carpeting and overstuffed purple sofas -- is attracting business meetings that might otherwise have been held in traditional club quarters.

The problems facing Baltimore's old-line business clubs are grounded in broader trends of American society, said Judith Waldrop, research editor of American Demographics magazine.

"The elitism of the old clubs is definitely a turn-off for a lot of baby boomers," she said. In addition, many male baby boomers are married to professional women and are taking a more active role in raising children, creating more demands on their time.

An active lunch time -- spent on a motorized treadmill or stair-climbing machine -- has become a favored option for many professionals. "Health clubs -- especially for urban boomers -- are a very important part of this trend toward health," Ms. Waldrop said. "And I believe a lot of business does take place in health clubs. People are very chatty there."

To try to halt its membership decline, the society hired William Amelia & Associates Inc., a Baltimore public relations and corporate advertising firm. It sent letters to members, encouraging them to recruit family and friends for the club. And it offered former members of the University Club, which closed in July, the chance to join without paying an initiation fee. Others who join can obtain 18 months' membership for 12 months' dues, Mr. Blum said.

The Engineering Society expects to operate in the black this year, but there have been recent times when it lost money, Mr. Blum said.

The situation is not dire, he added, but there is reason for concern -- especially at a time when it's tough to raise dues. "I'm concerned with rising costs and circumstances that might possibly be beyond our control," he said.

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