The evolution of Tattersalls – riding the wave of change

The Tattersalls Club in Brisbane’s bustling Queen Street Mall has long been a retreat for its exclusive male-only membership, but times change. For Tattersalls, this means listening to members and adapting to modern lifestyles, while preserving the Club’s iconic heritage environment. 

Brisbane’s Tattersalls Club has a proud heritage and strong history, but as times change, so too has the club with a historic vote last year which saw the introduction of a family membership model including women as members.

This means that for the first time in the 154-year history of the club – one of the last remaining male only clubs in Queensland - is now open to female membership. 

Women have had access to the club as Partner cardholders for more than 25 years, but the change to a family membership model reflects the generational commitment families make to the club.

The evolution of Tattersalls could well serve as a case study in how a club must evolve to meet the demands of its membership and in doing so, improve its chances of longevity. 

And while the issue of female membership may have attracted the most external attention, internally members are also passionate about crafting a new dress code and casual dining precinct. 

“Members have to lead the change in the club and our greatest deterrent to members was that they couldn’t visit the club in their work attire and couldn’t have a quick lunch and a coffee,” Honorary President Stuart Fraser said.

“While these changes are important in attracting new members, clubs must also respond to existing members’ needs so they can become more regular patrons and get greater value from their membership.”

Tattersalls, founded in 1865 ‘by a group of gentlemen who were prominent in both business and in the thoroughbred horse racing industry in Queensland,’ has long been known as an exclusive haven for men.

But for all its proud history, membership and member engagement at the club had been steadily declining for the past year 20 years with more than 50 per cent of its current membership aged over 60 and the average age of new members around 41 years of age.

Fraser, a fourth generation Tattersalls member, said to arrest the declining membership base, which at its height in the 1980s and 90s had been 8,000 with a decade-long waiting list, had fallen to 4,800 in 2018, he instigated an extensive consultation process with members to identify why.

“When we looked at the trends and our projected performance of the club of the next five years, we said if we keep doing the same things we will keep getting the same results so we needed a member-led change,” Fraser said. “That meant asking why members were coming in less and why membership was dropping.”

The club engaged in a three month consultation period with members including holding information nights, sending out weekly updates to inform members of progress and opening three feedback lines where members could voice their concerns, ideas and issues.

This information was then used to compile a survey with almost half of the membership (over 1,600) responding and generating more than 3,000 comments from members.

“When we went to the members and asked them what the barriers were to using the club more they came back with three key things,” Fraser said.

“The first was changing our dress code to reflect what people are now wearing to work in the CBD, the second was allowing women to hold membership and the third was providing casual dining options.”

While the conversation with members focussed on these three changes, the public was very much focused on the decision to allow women to finally hold membership at the club.

The path to female membership

Tattersalls has a partner card system in place - akin to an associate membership - under which 3,500 men and women who are partners of current members have enjoyed access to the club.

“Our members were very clear that they would visit the club more often if women were made to feel more welcome,” Fraser said. “Members were voting with their feet and the only one area of the club which remained men only (the members’ dining room) has seen patronage halve while the mixed dining room patronage increased simultaneously. 

“Members love the dining room, but were choosing somewhere they could bring family, friends or work colleagues including the women in their lives.

“This behaviour reinforced what we were hearing, so in the survey we asked about female membership. Members told us there was very high support for family members to join (81 per cent in favour of daughters, 74 per cent in favour of wives), and 57 per cent in favour of women. 

“With these results in hand we put it to a vote,” Fraser said. “Our members’ support for our male only model was declining and so was the support of our community, sponsors and customers.” 

The December 2018 vote was not the first time members had considered allowing female members.  A plebiscite held in 1997 surprised everyone when members indicated they were open to considering women as members. A show of hands vote following the plebiscite was unsuccessful. 

A postal ballot vote in early 2005 was defeated by a margin of 13 as was a postal vote in late 2006 by a margin of 90 votes.

The 2018 vote drew the highest number of votes in a ballot conducted by the club with 62 per cent of members taking part - average member voting figures for the club typically sit around 35-40 per cent. The vote passed by a margin of 37 votes.

“We wanted the vote to be as high as possible to best reflect the sentiments of all of our members,” Fraser said. “If the members had said they were not happy with having women as members, we would have accepted that choice and planned for the future accordingly.

“In terms of the day-to-day operations of the club, we have had 3,500 women using the club for nearly 30 years now so I don’t really think  we will see a disruptive change, particularly given most women joining already come here as family members.”  

Fraser said there had long been a misperception in the community that Tattersalls was a domain just for men.

“The perception that we weren’t welcoming women was perpetrated by people who weren’t members and didn’t know much about us at all,” he added. “But all of our events have been mixed for decades and while we had male focussed events we also had female focussed events like Mercedes Fashion Week.

“None of our events have been exclusively for men or women for many years. That is all a part of the gradual evolution of the club.”

Fraser admitted there had been a ‘well-funded and active’ group of members who opposed the decision to allow women fearing that ‘the club would become unrecognisable and people would leave in droves.’

However, the opposite was the case with the club website crashing twice on the night the result was announced with over 3000 people accessing the site. 

“While the past decade has seen a trend in declining membership 2019 looks to be the first year where Tattersalls will see a net increase in members, both male and female, validating the member led changes are heading the club in the right direction for the future,” Fraser said. 

“Clubs need to reflect the community they sit within and our club sits in the CBD. We will continue to listen to members in regional areas and overseas, but we also must reflect the Brisbane community,” Fraser continued. 

“This community use us more than any other member group and they want casual dining options (as well as formal), a dress code that reflects modern work attire and the ability to bring their family, friends and peers – including women. 

“If we don’t change to reflect our community, we are not serving our community.”

Other changes

Members were very vocal in driving change to the Tattersalls dress code, which Fraser says has been amended to reflect the community the membership base is drawn from.

In the same way the Tattersalls dress code, which required hats for men and gloves for women, was changed years ago, so too has the ban on jeans.

“We had a policy of no jeans in the club with members expected to wear a jacket and tie in winter and dress pants and shirt in summer,” Fraser said. “But we are finding that a lot of professionals are wearing jeans to work these days, especially on Fridays.

“We started trialing jeans in the bar on a Friday night after 5pm. There was some resistance to that with some worrying we were lowering the standards. But instead of having nine people in the bar with our members, we had 90 people and turnover increased from $300 to $3,000. You can’t argue with the numbers; members were coming and bringing their friends.”

To meet the needs of long-term members and in deference to their requests to maintain the heritage of the club, Tattersalls will maintain a strict dress code with no jeans in what he terms the “historical precinct” of the club with restricted casual areas where patrons may wear jeans.

The third major change to be instituted as a result of engagement with club members is a change in dining to provide casual offerings for members and patrons.

“Members told us we were more set up for long lunches with beer and wine and, while they enjoyed that occasionally, they wanted to come in weekly, or even daily, for light meals and a coffee in our heritage surrounds,” Fraser said. 

“We needed to offer a refined casual option within the footprint of the club that reflects the way our members use us as a base in the CBD. 

“We will still have a more formal and traditional area where no jeans will be allowed and which respects the heritage of the club.

“We are already seeing more members gravitate to the casualised areas and we expect that will become very popular.”

Want to become a member - stand in line

Fraser explained that membership will now be opened up with first preferences for female membership being offered to partners and female family members of current members until April of this year, before being opened up to non-family members. 

Current membership fees of $1,100 can now be extended to a family membership for $1,220 (couple) with children added on with rates reflecting their age.

“When the website crashed with interest it re-iterated the need to give member’s families the first opportunity for membership before we go out to the public,” Fraser said. “They have supported us as patrons and volunteers, even as sponsors. 

“They know the club; they use the club and are loyal to us. They are already existing customers so why wouldn't you preference them first?”

Fraser said while the club had only recently reopened for the year they had already received over 100 applications from partners for membership. These would be processed in coming months with any remaining memberships to be opened to the public from around April. 

Membership processes for male applicants remain unchanged and all new applicants will follow the same process as previous years.

Tattersalls has a membership cap of 6,000 to ensure service standards are not diminished.

“If we could have a waiting list of 1,000 out of 6,000 members, that would be the ideal outcome out of all of this,” Fraser said. “That would be a tremendous indication of success and our obvious evolution.”

Key takeaways from the process

For Fraser, the process of expanding member engagement and trying to guide the club into the 21st century has been a testing one, but he believes the long-term success of Tattersalls will be worth it.

“My key focus for this year will be trying to reunite our member base,” he said. “There had been a lot of division and different opinions over this, but the club has always followed the wishes of the majority and this member led approach should ensure the future of the club.

“For me the obvious takeaway from this process is the importance of consulting with your members. We thought a two month consultation period would be enough, but we had to extend that by another eight weeks and still could have gone longer.

“And you have to keep the feedback going as well. People are incredibly busy, so it is helpful to open your communication and bring people back into the conversation using as many different mediums as possible to engage as many members as you can.

“I love Tattersalls. It has an emotional connection for me. I'm certainly proud of being President and leading a team that helps the club evolve over time. 

“Someone shared the quote with me that “tradition is the preservation of fire, not the worship of ashes and I think we have preserved the fire for another 150 years of future.”