Downtown Miami social clubs making adjustments in tough economy
By Yudislaidy Fernandez
Miami's two remaining downtown social and business clubs are making management changes and pursuing profit-making opportunities to retain members and ride out the economic downturn.
Miami City Club is taking back the reins after bringing in Havana Club Enterprises to manage the club. The new concept didn't fit well with existing members and membership suffered, a club leader says.
Nearby, the Bankers Club is working to adapt to a fast-moving downtown with a 30-minute lunch and is offering more catering services and event hostings, the club manager says.
The Bankers Club occupies the 14th floor of office building One Biscayne Tower, 2 S Biscayne Blvd. A block away sits the Miami City Club on the 55th level of office tower Wachovia Financial Center, 200 S Biscayne Blvd.
Long-standing Miami City Club last month regained management of the facility after a failed partnership.
In 2006, the club's board decided to bring in Havana Club Enterprises, which introduced new programs and members and renovated the space, dressing it with a tropical theme. But the changes weren't well-received by all members, said Ruth Shack, the club's board chair.
"It became apparent the Miami City Club was what members wanted where they could get together versus a nightclub, which is what the Havana Club turned into," she said.
Havana Club's contract was ended in late June.
With the Miami City Club regaining management, Ms. Shack said plans are to bring back some of its specialty, low-priced breakfast and lunch menus in hopes of attracting old and new members.
The staff now works to get membership files up-to-date to get an accurate count of current members and reach out to those who have left, Ms. Shack said.
"Many left because they felt the club was not responsive to them; we want to change that perception," she said.
As part of the overhaul, the board has also brought in as interim general manager John Collier, former general manager at the Bankers Club, because of his experience running clubs, she said.
Miami City Club was originally two separate clubs, the Miami Club and the City Club.
But a tax reform in the mid-1980s and a transformed downtown drove membership down and the two clubs merged into Miami City Club in 1994.
Before they were one, the Miami Club, founded in 1921, was housed in what is now the SunTrust Building and the City Club, opened in 1984, occupied the present Wachovia Financial Center, Ms. Shack said.
She was a member since the City Club's inception and helped bring the two operations together.
When the two clubs joined, the newly formed Miami City Club moved from the 26th floor to the top level of the Wachovia office high-rise.
The Bankers Club has been around since 1972, but over the years it's had to adapt to a growing urban core to maintain its strong membership, said Ken Henson, general manager for the past three years.
Today, the club offers deli and lunch menus and takeout service and is heavily involved in the catering business, he said.
"Catering has gotten bigger over time," he said, adding that the club does as much catering now as membership dining.
The Bankers Club also hosts community organizations and charities to do workshops and seminars and to host big speakers such as "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell, who did a book signing at the club, he said.
This Tuesday the club was to host an event for downtown law firms to help them build business in the tough economy.
More than 80 people were expected to attend the seminar hosted by the Bankers Club and were to receive a free sit-down lunch and 60 days of complimentary membership.
"Society has changed, and the reason why Bankers Club has survived is because it's changed with the times," Mr. Henson said.
The club now offers faster service, healthier foods and lunch specials to meet the changing needs of area customers, he said.
The Bankers Club has about 450 members. Regular membership costs $125 a month.
For the surviving social clubs, it's not just about competing with the restaurants, shows, concerts and sporting events taking place in downtown today — but complementing them.
For example, Miami City Club hosts dinners for members who enjoy going to the nearby American Airlines Arena to watch Miami Heat games.
"We try to be flexible to meet what's happening in downtown," Ms. Shack said.
Both clubs also host business gatherings, weddings and other private functions to generate money.
Ms. Shack, a longtime social club member, said the business club scene in Miami began to change as clubs lost their membership base.
Other social and business clubs such as the Standard Club, the University Club and the Brickell Club closed as members found other places to go, she said.
Mr. Henson of the Bankers Club recalls that at one time about six clubs operated in the area and had far more members than the remaining clubs have today.
But the Reagan administration's tax reform hindered business for the clubs, he said, with the elimination of the three-martini business lunch.
The provision killed the full tax deduction for business lunches.
Establishment of more restaurants in the central business district and nearby downtown neighborhoods also represented new competition, he said.
For the office towers that house these long-standing clubs, the venues offer an added amenity for current tenants and a tool to attract new ones, leasing agents say.
The 15,524-square-foot Miami City Club is a valued asset in marketing the office tower, said Don Cartwright, leasing director at Cushman & Wakefield of Florida, the leasing agent for Wachovia Financial Center.
"My perspective is that a well-run club that delivers well on the food and décor and has great views is definitely an amenity that tenants appreciate in a building," he said.
Mr. Cartwright said club members bring their clients and prospective companies looking to move to downtown to the club, where they can get a panoramic view of the city.
Brian Gale, managing director of Taylor & Mathis, leasing agent for One Biscayne Tower, agrees that a social club is a pure amenity for an office building.
Mr. Gale says when walking into the Bankers Club, the networking is visible, with bankers and attorneys mingling while enjoying lunch and an unobstructed view of downtown's bayfront.
That's something he shares with potential tenants, he said, and those who decide to lease get a free year's club membership.
Local associations and organizations also use the space for business and private functions, he said, a way for local business and community leaders to get familiar with the office tower.