The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Slowcoach clubs
- Wanted: radical reform for busy but bleeding social hotspots

At your club: Swing to a perky cover of Clapton’s Cocaine on New Year’s Eve; gape at maverick Bibi Russell’s ramp razzmatazz; sip champagne at a chiffon and pearl celebrity evening; drive into the fairways for a special screening of The Day After Tomorrow…

The impression: The quintessential Calcutta institutions are rocking

The home truth: Beneath the glitter, it’s all quite grim. A cocktail of negatives like stagnant membership, spiralling overheads with an unwieldy labour baggage, too many committees deciding on too few issues, irrational duty structure on equipment, unreal subsidy on food and a pint-sized sponsorship pie threaten the future of today’s clubs frozen in yesterday.

A recent informal benchmark study initiated by Dalhousie Institute (DI) confirmed the common clubbing fear — almost all the golden oldies run at an operational loss. The usual suspect: high overheads.

“The biggest issue today is that 60 p of every Re 1 spent by a club is on salaries,” says Derek O’Brien, president, DI.

The simmering tension between a management struggling to balance outgo with income and a workforce not in sync with the changing times has triggered trouble at Saturday Club and Royal Calcutta Golf Club (RCGC), while a deadlock was averted by a whisker at Tollygunge Club.

Conventional club wisdom has it that these age-old addresses need to grow at 30 per cent to remain viable and for every lakh of expenditure, a new member should be inducted. But most clubs are saddled with a largely stagnant membership base with fresh recruitment down to a trickle. So, some of these now resemble legacy lairs being guarded by slowcoach geriatric battalions.

“Every year, revenue expenditure keeps rising and the clubs seek to meet the deficit through gimmicks and sponsorship since internal generation of funds is never enough to cover operational costs,” observes Asoke K. Dutt, former president of CC&FC and Tollygunge Club and ex-managing member of Calcutta Club.

“If these old institutions are to thrive, they must cater to the younger generation. Today’s kids have the spending power and if they get at the clubs what they do at the Tantras and Winning Streaks, there’s no reason why they won’t come here,” he feels.

That reinvention is the only way ahead is sinking in slowly, even if the activity on the ground is not exactly frenetic.

Reinvent or perish

“We have installed a solar heating system in our swimming pool and our solarium should be ready by our centenary year (2007). Improvement of services for our members is foremost on our agenda and all our efforts are geared to attract the younger crowd,” declares S.N. Banerjee, CEO and secretary, Calcutta Club Ltd, eager to shake off the ‘old boys’ tag with frequent ‘nites’.

At RCGC, the Friday Froth sponsored evenings and the Kebab Nites are what the management is banking on. “We want to make the club more of a family destination and bring in the youngsters more frequently,” explains captain Ashit Luthra.

Tolly takes in youngsters (“till 30 and gainfully employed”) as ‘gymkhana’ members and realises the need to reach out to GeNext.

The upgraded gym, the ayurveda centre, the heated pool, the Nice ’n’ Fresh supermarket, the L’Oreal salon are all efforts towards that end, points out A.K. Chowdhuri, managing member (golf), Tollygunge Club Ltd.

If broadening the activity base is one way of rationalising surplus labour, some of the old clubs have held out VRS offers to shed flab. Introduction of a minimum billing system (from Rs 300 per month at Tolly to Rs 3,000 per fiscal at Calcutta Rowing Club), raising tariff on F&B and cutting costs are gradually becoming vital survival tools for the traditional leisure stops.

Corporate lifeline

Still, the ends scarcely meet and sponsorship remains the lifeline for most. If the International Nite is the cash cow for Calcutta Club, the Merchants’ Cup five-a-side soccer keeps CC&FC afloat. And every dismal year ends with a bang with the Christmas-New Year week.

“There’s no denying the role corporate sponsors play in today’s club scenario. An event like the Merchants’ Cup keeps us going the year round and supports developmental activities at the club as well,” says CC&FC president Arabinda Bose.

Calcutta Club’s Banerjee agrees: “Events like the Bakery Carnival and the National Debate are all important dots on our calendar and the significance of corporate funding to keep the show running can hardly be over-emphasised.”

The sponsors’ moolah isn’t as welcome at 177-year-old Bengal Club, though. “Our members would rather fork out money from their pockets than have sponsors fund all the events at the club,” announces Amiya Gooptu, past president of the club.

Still famed for its style and souffle, the club has only about 300 “active” members from the “city and the mofussil” and maintains that its running costs “are more or less covered”.

Yet, with an eye on the future, musical evenings and fashion shows are proving to be flashy “money-spinners”.

With blue-chip corporates moving out of the city, liquor and tobacco majors limited by legalities and the sun yet to shine bright on business in Bengal, the sponsorship pie is shrinking all the time. “It’s a critical area for survival. Sponsors want returns, which calls for serious handholding, and going for excesses without knowing the business viability could prove disastrous,” warns M.J. Robertson, former club boss of Tolly and then Space Circle.

Go pro on management

Privately-owned Space, at some distance from the city-centre clubs, has illustrated the value of professional management in streamlining costs and optimising services.

“The time has come for all clubs to introduce professional administrators. The committees can take decisions, but implementation must be left to professional managers,” opines Gooptu.

DI president Derek O’Brien, who has now got a hi-tech sports complex off the blocks at the Jhowtolla Road club, is all for engaging pros when it comes to rolling out projects.

For that, points out Robertson, “we need to develop managers qualified in these new businesses to take charge” and there is, at present, “an acute shortage of trained personnel”.

So, the clubs remain in the clasp of committees that have neither the time nor the inclination to ring in reform.

Tomorrow’s tune

Boosting revenues — through membership, goods and services and sponsored activity — and lowering overheads is the obvious business trek to a turnaround, which is easier penned than practised.

The membership doors now are, however, more ajar than slammed shut, with Bengal Club taking in 25 new members each year, Calcutta Club 150-200 and DI inducting 400 new members to fund its multi-discipline air-conditioned sports complex.

Boosting membership is just the beginning of the battle for clubs, stresses O’Brien. “Each club must simultaneously upgrade facilities, evolve a revenue model to run these facilities, and yet retain its unique culture.”

Robertson sees “health and fitness” driving club business in the future. But for the Calcutta clubs to remain healthy and fit in tomorrow’s world, the power must pass on from the geriatrics to GenX and pussyfoot plans give way to radical reform.

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