Spokane Journal of Business

Q&A with Spokane Club CEO Stacie Harper: Charting the club’s course


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-—Linn Parish
Stacie Harper, the Spokane Club’s first female CEO, stands next to what once was the women’s separate entrance to the downtown club.

Earlier this year, Stacie Harper became the first female CEO in the Spokane Club’s 126-year-old history. Now, she’s hoping to become the first in recent years to be able to reverse the years-long slide in membership at the private athletic-and-social club. 

Harper comes to the position having spent a career in the hospitality industry, most recently overseeing the western U.S. for First Choice Hotels International. 

The Journal sat down with Harper at the downtown club recently to talk about the challenges she’s inherited and the opportunities she sees in the near future for a club that employs about 200 people and serves nearly 7,000 members. 

Journal: When did you come into this position, and what have you done so far?

Harper: I started with the organization in mid-February, so just a little less than three months, and I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing and observing. I’m someone who is very much about making sure I have a good understanding of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. 

With that said, I have made a lot of changes in three months, maybe more than many people would have, but I have gone through the process with a thoughtful approach. 

One of the first things that I knew I needed to accomplish is to ensure I have a very strong senior leadership team. You can never do anything by yourself. You need to surround yourself with the right people and have a strong team moving forward. 

I have brought on four new individuals to the senior leadership team. One of those is an added position. I recognized that we needed some additional focus within our food and beverage area, so I added a director of food and beverage a few weeks ago. 

Beyond food and beverage, I restructured our membership department for a deeper focus in areas I thought we needed to have. I brought in a new director of membership, and I have another one who is starting as well. In restructuring, we’ll have two directors that will report directly to me and have key focuses on their areas of expertise. We have two very different business units. One is athletics, and one is social. They’ll each have key focuses, so we can tailor our representation of the club to what each individual is looking for in the club and how it fits their lifestyle. 

Journal: Is that for member recruitment or member retention?

Harper: It’s actually both. A big portion of that is new membership, making sure we are speaking to our new members in the realm they are looking for us to fit in their lives. A lot of times, it’s about either athletics or social. Also, it’s about making sure they’re aware of everything that’s involved in the club. Sometimes, people think they want to join because of the wonderful athletic facility, and they don’t know everything we have from an activity standpoint or all of the things we have for their kids. 

From a retention standpoint, we’re making sure we have those relationships with our members in the areas they have the most interest. 

Journal: What is the trend in membership right now? The last time we wrote an extensive story on the Spokane Club, it was 2013 and membership had declined for 10 years in a row. 

Harper: Unfortunately, that trend has not changed. In the interview process, it was made clear to me that that had been a challenge of ours in the past. That really came on in 2008, after the decline in the economy, and people started looking at things differently. 

Membership, to me, is a big part of the puzzle. That’s why we needed to restructure the entire department. 

We’re also looking at some different approaches in terms of networking and sponsorships, the retention piece, and referral from our membership. 

It is very apparent that not everybody is aware of everything the Spokane Club has to offer. We have to make sure we are educating our membership in addition to educating prospective new members on everything the Spokane Club has to offer and how that can fit into their lives. 

I think it’s all going to help us move things in a very different direction. 

Journal: What is your membership at right now? 

Harper: We’re at about 2,600 memberships, which is about 7,000 people. 

Journal: When you talk about the athletics and the social aspects, are you saying you’re trying to appeal to different demographics or different personality types? 

Harper: I think it’s very much about personality types. We have every demographic utilizing the athletic facility. We’ve got every age, every gender, every ethnicity in that part of the club. The same goes for the social side. 

Journal: We’ve reported on changes in fitness trends, where people are going to fewer of the large fitness clubs and moving toward smaller, boot camp-type programs. I was curious to know if there was any effort or challenge to appeal to younger generations. 

Harper: Our targeted demographic is 30 to 50. That’s a new focus for us. That would be across the board in both social and fitness. We have a lot of younger-generation individuals who are using the entire club. They may use the fitness facility a little differently. They do really enjoy the group-fitness classes. 

From the standpoint of the club offerings, it’s tailored to any age group. It’s just that we specifically are moving forward with a targeted demographic of 30 to 50, and that’s every demographic within that age group: single individuals, new families, business professionals. We’re targeting everybody in that age group and have activities for wherever they are in terms of stage of life. 

Journal: Your fee structure, is it where you want it to be?

Harper: I think we can make it a little more user friendly, if you will. We’ve got a lot of different categories. As I’m bringing in new leadership within the membership department, that will be one of the first things we’ll be looking at, to make sure that it’s easy to understand. I’m someone who believes very much in simplicity. 

As far as the actual pricing, I don’t think I’ll be changing that. 

Journal: I referred earlier to the 2013 story. In addition to membership, club leaders talked about financial stability. At the time, they were just getting ready to close on the sale of the Civic Building next door and they were considering selling the Valley facility. How would you describe the club’s fiscal health at this point?

Harper: Actually, it’s very good. There have been some enormously smart individuals, both serving on the board and serving as CEO, that took us through those very hard times. They had to make a lot of hard decisions, frankly, from a service standpoint and a standpoint of, how do we manage this membership downturn. When you’re lowering the revenue that’s coming into the facility, you can’t offer some of the things you could offer previously. 

They took us through that tough time. The Civic Building sale really helped us to get back on track, and we are very stable now from a financial standpoint. We’re working on our budget for this upcoming year—we run a fiscal year of July to June—so for the first time, we’re able to look at it and say, ‘OK, what kinds of things do we want to add back now?’ 

There were some things that were changed through the years, but now the conversation is about adding services and activities. The difficult position those folks were in was to do the opposite. I’m happy to be in this place. (laughs) But it also comes with enormous responsibility, knowing where we come from and the vision for where we want to get to and doing it the proper way. I don’t want to be looking at it in two years and realizing that now we need to take stuff away. It has to be that long-term vision. 

Journal: Can you give me some examples of things you might be expanding or adding? 

Harper: I can do it in general terms. We’re still working through financial implications. We’re looking at offerings that are focused toward the demographic we’re targeting: that 30-to-50 age group. One thing that’s important to many of them is child care. We have amazing day cares that are run by the same person at both clubs. We’re looking at expanding the hours and maybe running some additional camps. We are looking at expanding basketball and maybe volleyball from a youth standpoint. 

Those things would be important to a lot of age groups. I’m not a grandparent yet, but at some point in the future, I will be. As a grandparent, it can be very important to have those things for your grandchildren. 

Journal: Has there been any more talk of selling off the Valley facility? 

Harper: No, that’s resolved. We really recognize the value that that club brings from a membership standpoint and the value of being both downtown and in the Valley. 

Having that Valley representation is important to us, and we have been able to grow membership in the Valley specifically. We have an enormous tennis community there with the very best tennis pro, in my mind, so our plan is to definitely keep the Valley. 

We also want to make sure we continue to nurture the two clubs as one. During the time when the Valley was for sale, it had an effect that separated the two clubs, so we’re really trying to bring those back together. 

Journal: You came to this position from the hospitality industry. Tell me a little about that.

Harper: I’ve been in hospitality my entire career. Earlier on in my career, I was in the operations side, running restaurants, lounges. I moved over into sales and marketing, and I’ve been doing that for the past 18 years. 

Most recently, I worked for Choice Hotels International. I worked from a home office and traveled regularly. Every week. I oversaw their global sales for the West Coast, and I had everything west of Chicago. 

Prior to that, I was with Red Lion Hotels Corp. I was with them for 12 years and was their vice president of sales. 

I told the board (of the Spokane Club) in my first interview that I felt the job description was tailored to me and that everything I had done in my career brought me to this point. I have a background in operations, which is huge in a facility like this, and a background in sales and marketing is huge as well. It all comes together for this position, and it’s the first time in my career that I’ve drawn upon everything I’ve done for one position. I don’t think there are many people who can actually say that. Bringing my entire background together has been enormously important to me.

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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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