Private Club Marketing: Developing a Successful Media Relations Program

Chef Zouhair Bellout teaches a cooking class to media at Richland Pointe restaurant at Reynolds Lake Oconee, Greensboro, Georgia.
(Left): Zouhair Bellout. (Right): Angela English Hansberger, Stephen Fries, Michael Bowler, Chris Bartlett, Taylor Bowler, and Chef Z.

While country clubs have long been safe havens and establishments of choice for members to dine, the last few years have enhanced their reputations for exclusivity and outstanding experiences. Accordingly, many chefs have upped their games, improving their culinary skills and offerings, honing their managerial skills, and taking on extra responsibilities for the delivery of world-class dining, from banquets and grand celebrations to day-to-day club meals. 

But there’s another skill smart chefs are acquiring: marketing. To enhance the club’s reputation as well as their own, there’s nothing like public relations. Responding to the demands and daily challenges of delivering exceptional experiences and creative culinary journeys to a membership of upscale, sophisticated palates is certain to produce fascinating, even important, stories that can prove inspiring, educational, and in the right hands, beneficial. 

I recently sat down with Karen Moraghan, President of Hunter Public Relations, who is a golf and private club industry media relations specialist, to discuss marketing. Karen has a robust client list that includes private clubs, communities, and resorts and extensive experience working with chefs and their culinary teams.

Why would a private club need a public relations initiative?

Maintaining or growing name recognition and visibility is important at any time.  Establishing the club’s market position and reinforcing it with specific and relevant examples helps build brand value and equity. 

What value does a public relations program bring to a club, particularly if it has a full membership?

Member pride is certainly a factor. Additionally, if your club and/or its programming, personnel, and amenities are held up as superior examples, it lends to the cachet and reputation of the facility. And a full membership today doesn’t mean a full membership tomorrow; things change, and quickly, as the last few years have proven. You always want to be the club others are talking about and aspire to. 

Furthermore, club life and amenities are changing. Even before the pandemic, clubs were emphasizing lifestyle and family, looking to expand beyond the traditional attractions like golf. Not that golf is going away, but clubs want people staying longer, eating there, bringing friends and family, using the banquet space, and so on. Clubs want members to think of them as extensions of their own home, and nothing says that like food.  

What are some tactics that chefs can use to build their personal brand while working for a private club?

There are many tools and tactics for chefs to employ that showcase their efforts, creations and to build their own name brand.

First, if the club already employs someone to handle marketing, reach out and establish a relationship. Ask how you can assist them in the production of content—for newsletters, website, social media channels, and other forms of internal and external communication.  

If media inquiries or leads come your way, be responsive. Most media outlets are always on some sort of deadline, and by responding within 24-48 hours (unless told otherwise) you become a good, trusted resource. Responsiveness leads to getting coverage, and to building a reputation as someone easy to work with. That’s sort of a dirty little secret in the media business: You become the go-to expert by answering quickly and competently.

If asked to provide recipes, convert to consumer quantities and measurements. Not many at-home cooks are used to cracking 32 egg or serving 25 people. Yields and portion sizes need to be adjusted.

Speaking of recipes, if asked to give one, go the extra step. For example, suggest the right wine to go with it. Or a serving suggestion that makes the cook look better. It can be hard for the professional chef, but try to think what you’d do if you were serving the same dish at home—not at work.

Consider starting your own Instagram page, with the blessing of the club, of course.  This becomes your destination to post photos, videos, and content, and will follow your career path wherever it takes you.

What are a few best practices clubs can use to showcase their food and beverage operation?

Always have a camera (current-model phone quality is fine) ready to photograph finished dishes or to videotape your team in action. Short, snappy videos—anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds—are perfectly acceptable for social media. You may want to assign one of your assistants to handle this.

Volunteer for charity or philanthropic events to gain local/regional/national name recognition and to expand your network.

Be visible in the dining room or at club events. Get to know your members—learn and remember their names! —their likes/dislikes, as well as their businesses and backgrounds. And if you see that they’re at the club with guests, make it a point to come over and say hello. Nothing impresses an outsider quite like meeting the chef.

If possible, host an internship program. Training and mentoring the next generation of chefs not only pays it forward but may yield some positive media coverage.

How do you work with vendors to drive publicity?

Forging relationships with local farmers and growers can lead to regional publicity opportunities. Say you purchase honey from a local apiary. Showcase honey-based recipes in the newsletter, on the website, and on menus to help their visibility. Likewise, having the beekeeper come to the club and share their knowledge with members adds another dimension to the culinary experience.  

The same holds true for micro-brew masters, vintners, and other food or beverage specialists. 

What is story worthy?

Writers are always looking for content and story angles. A good public relations firm will have a network of media outlets with which they are in continual communication. 

Some examples of recent story leads received by our firm include:

  • Herb and vegetable gardens/farm to table: Planting, cultivating, picking, sharing (on the property, on the rooftop, hydroponic, honey, maple syrup, chickens, eggs)
  • Food trucks, mobile cooking units, creative outdoor cooking methods
  • Specialty food or beverage products (private labels, secret sauces, proprietary products)
  • Identifying trends (root vegetables, foods for wellness)
  • Farmer’s market finds
  • Seasonal ingredients
  • Mocktails
  • Wellness foods and smoothies

Any chef worth their salt knows that food is a very big story right now. If they can’t find things of interest to share with the world outside their clubs, they’re not trying. Which means they’re hurting both their clubs and themselves.

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