Peninsular Club to mark its re-opening

November 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The venerable Peninsular Club is down but not out, which should be evident at its grand re-opening event Dec. 10.

Founded in 1881 and located on Ottawa Avenue in downtown Grand Rapids for more than 90 years, several years of financial stress forced the club to sell its property last year. In January, the Pen Club announced it would take up new quarters at Louis Benton Steak House, 77 Monroe Center NW, in downtown Grand Rapids. The space, which was formerly the public bar at the steak house, was revamped for the club late this summer and will be the scene of a ribbon-cutting ceremony that will include representatives of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Annie Hudson, who has been director of marketing and membership at the Pen Club for a little more than a year, said the organization is still dedicated to being a private club where members can meet with friends or business associates over lunch or dinner.

"We are the oldest social club in Grand Rapids," she said.

Louis Benton Steak House has "been incredibly accommodating to us and our members," said Hudson. The Pen Club’s food will be prepared by the restaurant’s kitchen, but it has its own menu and dedicated servers.

The new space will feature the art work with which generations of Pen Club members were familiar at the Ottawa Avenue location. Some members have been with the club for 50 years or more, she noted, and will appreciate that consistency in the new space. The interior was designed by Melanie Rogers of Think Design. She is a member of the Pen Club.

The new club quarters are "a nice blend of the past and the future," said Hudson.

The Pen Club, which had 114 members as of early November, had more than a thousand members in 1997. Hudson said at one time in its history, there were as many as 1,400 members — "with a waiting list."

She said the club is working hard to increase membership and has created a new membership category for "young professionals," which entails dues of $300 a year plus a minimum annual expenditure of $400 for food and beverages. Regular memberships entail annual dues of $600 plus $800 for food and beverages.

Another tactic to recruit new members is diversity in membership and new programs for members. Women are "a key target demographic" for the membership drive, she said.

To accommodate members who only live in West Michigan part of the year, there is also a seasonal membership category.

"We're trying to make it affordable for everyone to be a part of this great legacy," said Hudson.

This month and next, the club is experimenting with breakfast service on Monday mornings from 7:30 a.m., said Hudson.

In the past, the Pen Club included private athletic facilities for its members' use, including basketball, racquetball and squash courts, a pool and exercise equipment.

"All the private clubs have had to make concessions to the economy. We've done that," said Hudson, who is now the club's only full-time employee. She has one part-time assistant.

Indeed, many private clubs across the nation have been suffering financially for several years. One of the largest and best known private clubs in Michigan, the Detroit Athletic Club, just announced that it has a tentative agreement to purchase the Forest Lake County Club in Bloomfield Hills. A DAC executive said the merger will provide its members with access to golf, swimming and tennis at Forest Lake. Many DAC members live in fairly close proximity to the country club.

The McMahon Group, a St. Louis-based planning and consulting firm that serves private clubs across America, recently estimated that the national club market is over-supplied by 20 to 25 percent. There are about 5,000 member-owned private clubs in the U.S., according to Frank Vain, president of the McMahon Group.

Vain said about 75 percent of private clubs have a golf course. The remaining 25 percent are dining clubs — as the Pen Club now is — or athletic clubs, such as the DAC.

Vain said many clubs have been struggling for years, and the recession combined with that makes "sort of the perfect storm."

Over the long term, said Vain, the "suburbanization of America" has changed many downtown environments for the worse. There are also lifestyle changes that accompanied that, including the fact that many people now live and work in the suburbs with little need to go downtown.

"You used to have these downtown clubs where a lot of business was done" over lunch, he said — but many businesspeople don't even go to lunch anymore.

At one time, many companies routinely paid for its executives' memberships at clubs, but that is no longer as common as it once was, said Vain.

There is more competition with clubs today, too. Vain said when the Pen Club was founded, there were fewer hotels and restaurants and far fewer places for people to meet in a private setting. Now many hotels have meeting rooms that can be rented, and of course, they also have restaurants.

Vain, who lives in St. Louis, said that at one time that city had nine private clubs: Now it is down to three and they each try to be distinctly different.

Vain, who visited the Pen Club about 10 years ago, said there may be room in Grand Rapids for such a club "if they can carve out a little niche that is special and different. There are people who continue to enjoy the association with others in a private club setting." But, he said, with all the alternatives now available, a club membership has to "offer something that has a real value proposition."

Vain noted how Cascade Hills Country Club has increased its offerings to members beyond golf and dining. "I can go to Cascade Hills and I can get great dining, I can get athletic facilities, I can play some golf.

"People who are club-oriented have a range of alternatives, depending on where you live and want to socialize and how you spend your day. The choice, increasingly, is for something out of the urban area, rather than in the city," he said.

The Pen Club also has a different sort of challenge to overcome: a lawsuit filed this year by nine former members who claim the club owes them more than $25,000 in promissory notes issued several years ago.

"The Peninsular Club will continue to use every means possible to pursue a reconciling of this matter," said Hudson.

The Pen Club is led by Russ Manz, president; Dan Abraham, vice president; Melissa Brown, secretary; Jim Horman, treasurer; and directors Ken Fortier, Kerri McCabe, Gary McAleenan, Jeff Evans and Fred Cook.

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