EAU CLAIRE, Wis.-The Bible Belt has loosened a little. At the Eau Claire Athletic Club, a new membership option provides a discounted rate for same-sex couples and members of other nontraditional households.
It all began in early 1999. A club member asked owner Jeff Sauter to sell a family membership to two friends-specifically, two women who have been in a relationship together for 25 years. After some deliberation, his answer was no.
In an interview with Club Industry, Sauter pointed out that his refusal was within legal rights. In the state of Wisconsin, you can't discriminate against same-sex relationships, so if the club sold couple memberships to men and women, it would have to do the same for same-sex couples. However, this was an issue of a family membership, and Wisconsin doesn't recognize a same-sex marriage as a legal family, according to Sauter.
Still, Sauter didn't dismiss the request completely. New circumstances even led him to explore the issue further. The first circumstance occurred while he was having a conversation with a marketing professor. The professor told him that 20 years ago there were seven household segments that could be sold to. Today there are more than 20. That's how much society has changed.
While thinking about how his market had broadened, Sauter received other membership requests that technically didn't fall under the family plan. In two cases, parents with deceased spouses had moved back in with their children, and in another case, a grown child had come back to live with parents. The family membership option didn't cover these people either.
Taking all of this into account, Sauter made a membership change early this year. On Jan. 1, the club began to offer a new household membership plan. Household members, defined by the same address on a driver's license, pay full price for the first membership, with a 25 percent discount on each membership after that.
This new plan provides a discount membership for a variety of households-including same-sex couples. Since Eau Claire is "very Midwestern and conservative," the membership plan was a controversial move, according to Sauter. However, he defends his decision, explaining that the plan isn't just for same-sex couples. It covers a broader household market, including non-married men and women who live together, children who return home to live with their parents and parents who move in with their children.
Still, when a local newspaper reported that the membership change accommodated same-sex couples, Sauter received angry calls minutes after the story hit the stands. Fortunately, for every complaint, he's heard nine compliments.
"I have gotten calls from some people who have said that [homosexuality] is not following the Bible," he noted, "but I've had far more people, even people who aren't members, who have taken the time to call and say it's nice to see something progressive happening in Eau Claire."
Although the household membership is open to same-sex couples, at press time, no same-sex couples have taken advantage of the deal. Even the women who were the impetus for the change haven't joined yet. Sauter feels confident they will. Even if they don't, the new rate has been a boon for the club. Sauter noted that the Eau Claire Athletic Club has sold 20 household memberships since introducing the plan-pretty significant for a club that has gotten the bulk of its business from single memberships.
Not only has the household plan brought in new members, the controversy surrounding it has not driven away existing ones. February was an excellent month for attrition, according to Sauter. But not everyone is happy. Sauter admitted that he takes an occasional call from someone arguing that his club promotes an immoral lifestyle. His retort? He doesn't agree with the lifestyle choice of homosexuals, but he believes people should have the right to make their own decisions. In the end, a higher authority than he will determine what's right and wrong.
"I'm not the final judge here," he said.