By DOUGLAS YOUNG
Fitness trainers never would have been a welcome sight in years past at the posh California Club, where downtown fat cats have sipped brandy and puffed fine cigars for decades.
Likewise, Jonathan Club members would have scoffed at the idea of participating in a focus group.
And a Sadie Hawkins dance at the venerable Los Angeles Athletic Club?
All right, maybe the Sadie Hawkins dance never really happened. But it was only due to a lack of interest from club members after management suggested the idea.
L.A.’s three most famous downtown clubs are all embracing new strategies and programs to keep up with the times. If they don’t, they’ll almost surely be mowed under by the bumper crop of upscale downtown restaurants and health clubs that have sprung up over the last 20 years.
Times have indeed changed.
“Our bar used to be three-deep with people drinking all afternoon,” says Jonathan Club General Manager Paul Astbury, pointing to the bar room which is empty on this particular afternoon. “We’ll probably convert it to a smoking room.”
To this day, wood-paneled formal dining halls, sitting rooms with brass lamps and leather chairs and discreet meeting rooms of all sizes remain the hallmark of the Jonathan, Athletic and California clubs.
But while those facilities would be filled to capacity during the long-lunch days of the 1940s and ’50s, now they’re only half-full for weekday lunches and are virtual ghost towns in the afternoon.
The spacious California Club formal dining hall was only half-full with a jacketed, mostly male crowd during a recent weekday lunch. Meanwhile the Athletic Club has shut down its main dining room for all but special occasions its members preferring the casual comfort of the new sport and health bars.
A drop in corporate-sponsored memberships, elimination of club fees as a federal tax deduction, and the movement of downtown businesses from L.A.’s traditional core (where the clubs are located) to Bunker Hill have also taken their toll on the venerable establishments.
All those factors, coupled with hefty initiation fees of up to $10,000 and monthly dues of $250, have posed a major challenge for the Jonathan and California clubs. (The Athletic Club is a better bargain, with an initiation fee of $300 and monthly dues of $130.)
In the face of those challenges, the clubs have built newer, more-casual restaurants, upgraded hotel and sports facilities and added a slew of new programs from guest lectures by authors and sports personalities to wine tasting sessions, dance classes and day care to attract new members and keep the old ones coming back.
All three clubs have also opened their doors to women in recent years, as they work to avoid the fate of the prestigous University Club, which closed its doors in 1993.
“I don’t think clubs are any different from any part of the hospitality industry,” said Astbury. “Any restaurant or hotel has to re-engineer itself every five years.”
The desire to please is a dramatic departure from the clubs’ exclusionary policies of the past, when membership generally was restricted to white protestant males, and minorities and women were prohibited.
The Athletic, Jonathan and California Clubs are three of downtown L.A.’s oldest institutions, with histories dating back to the late 1800s.
As the city grew, the three clubs prospered, providing an elite group of members with elegant, hassle-free places to dine with friends, family and business associates.
The California Club drew on a core membership of lawyers, accountants and senior corporate executives, while the Jonathan Club catered to the elite from real estate, banking and law. The Athletic Club has always been open to all, officially, though its primary membership consisted of businessmen with the time and money to engage in athletic activities.
But with the changing times, each of the three clubs has had to market themselves to maintain its membership and stay relevant.
The L.A. Athletic Club has been the most aggressive, embarking on a major marketing drive to reverse several years of declining membership.
The drive has included everything from radio ads to promotional video, direct mail campaigns, and member surveys.
“In the ’50s and ’60s, they didn’t need to do surveys because business was booming. Now, with competition, you’ve got to turn around and pay more attention to your customers,” said Athletic Club General Manager Steven Hathaway.
Another change at the Athletic Club is a shift to more family-oriented activities, Hathaway said.
“We’re seeing the baby boomers have more kids and more families, so we’ve developed both athletic and social programs for people with young kids. It’s seen a resurgence,” he said.
Likewise, family-oriented activities have taken a front seat in recent years at the Jonathan Club, said Astbury.
“The biggest change is you’re no longer catering to a single member anymore,” he said. “Now you have spouses, children, teenagers you’re catering to a bigger audience.”
Some of the biggest changes at the California Club in recent years have been aimed at making the organization less “stuffy” and more appealing to a younger set that makes up a growing slice of its membership, said club spokesman Cliff Miller.
He said the California Club has made a concerted effort to recruit people at a younger age in recent years, as part of an effort to cultivate a longer-term membership for the organization.
While the California, Jonathan and L.A. Athletic clubs are weathering changes in the downtown landscape, those same changes were too much for another of downtown’s older institutions, the now-defunct University Club.
Like the three surviving clubs, the University Club made a number of changes in the late 1980s, such as reducing membership fees, to try to stay afloat, according to Catherine Lepone, a former member of the club’s board of directors.
“Despite those moves, we were still losing people faster than we could keep them,” Lepone said. “People were coming in the front door and going out the back. We went for a younger crowd, but we found that even they weren’t using the club,” she said, adding that the University Club is still in the final stages of liquidating its last remaining assets.
Meanwhile, the three remaining downtown clubs could well be poised for a prosperous future in the 21st century, if feedback from their current membership is any indication.
Jonathan Club member Steve Marcussen said he’s impressed by the changes there and considers the club in its current form a good place to take both business associates and his own family.
Likewise, a California Club member who did not want to be named praised the club for reaching out to younger members while making a “concerted effort” to maintain the integrity of its member base.
“The bottom line is, people who are making the decisions (at the club) are doing it in a tasteful way. They’re doing the things they need to do to create a balanced membership in wake of the changes downtown,” he said.