‘No Textbook for This': What to Do About Membership Dues in a Pandemic?

The San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club reopened for partial use this week but has dealt with mixed reactions from members on prices

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If closing down during the coronavirus pandemic was the hard part, re-opening is the complicated part.

Membership-based businesses are trying to stay afloat while, at the same time, attempting to give fair deals to members who aren't getting as much in return for their dues as is normally the case..

"There is no textbook for this" said Scott Slade, San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club's general manager.

The club, which is in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego, reopened on a limited basis Monday after being closed for two months due to COVID-19 precautions.

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Like all restaurants and retail shops in San Diego County, the club must follow strict government rules, which in its case means social distancing measures and limiting courts. Doubles partners must be from the same household, the pool and spa are off limits, the gym and health club areas are dark, and the bar is closed off with caution tape.

While state and local rules mandate what can be allowed, there is no rule book for how to fairly charge members. After collecting full dues in March, when it shut down mid-month, the club chose to cut them in half for April.

Not knowing how long the closure would last, the club decided not to collect any dues in May. When they found out they could reopen earlier than expected, though, they opted to charge a $10 per-use fee.

"We didn't complain about March, we didn't complain about April -- we want to support the club, but I think this is a little absurd to make us pay when we've already paid for a full month without services" said Michelle Foster, one of the club's members.

While Foster isn't alone in her complaints about the fee structure, other members said they're just happy to be able to play tennis again and have no problems with the decisions.

"I mean, it's an emergency, and we have to do really weird things in an emergency, and it's all temporary" said another member, John Wilson.

The mixed reactions from members are only part of the fine line that athletic clubs are walking as they try to forecast budgets in an atmosphere where the rules of business are changing on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

"We tried to make what we felt was the fairest decision for our members, to also keep our employees and to also keep the facility maintained during these times" Slade said.

The San Diego Tennis & Racquet Club did receive funding through the second round of the federal government's "PPP," program which helped it to keep all 54 employees, including instructors who work on a commission basis, employed.

Slade said that protecting his workers has been his top priority. He added that insurance, utilities, improvement projects, tree trimming and pest-control services (to name just a few) didn't go away when the facility closed.

The club's management team still hasn't decided on whether to allow customers to freeze their accounts, which historically has been off-limits, if they're having trouble paying monthly dues, Slade said.

Foster, despite her beef with the current pricing decisions, said the club has a "family atmosphere," which she hopes will return sooner rather than later.

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