Mr Vannan is the chief executive at Coogee Diggers, an RSL Club that has been supporting war veterans since 1935. But in recent decades it has struggled to remain relevant, as older members died and younger locals resisted the charms of cheap schooners, soggy burgers and spartan sporting facilities.
So the Diggers has been reinventing itself. On Monday, the pool and steam room will reopen after a $700,000 renovation. And the Bunker, an intimate bar tucked into a downstairs area formerly devoted to pool, darts and dodgy carpet, has been trading since last weekend. “There was a high demand from a 30-plus clientele who wanted a more intelligent alternative,” Mr Vannan said.
“I hope it taps into some of the current trends, with all the small bars in the city. We want to be a more relaxed version of that, a local secret that’s a small personal bar.”
Nationwide, clubs are throwing out the rule book. Spooked by talk of poker machine reform and challenged by subtle social changes, RSLs, bowling and other clubs are trying to decrease their reliance on gaming and connect with their communities in novel ways.
Bowling greens are being converted into mini-football pitches, poker halls into music venues and bain-maries are making way for fine dining and high teas. Morning drinkers are sharing premises with mothers’ groups. Wedding expos are bringing love and cash.
The statistics are telling. Clubs in NSW used to be a blokey bastion but since 2009 female members have outnumbered men. Ten years ago, the average NSW club member was 52 and male, now she is 37 and female. Clubs NSW boasts that 51 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds are members of a club, whereas in 1997 it was 38 per cent.
“The keyword in the clubs industry is diversification,” a Clubs NSW spokesman, Jeremy Bath, said. “Five years ago, 75 per cent of a club’s income came from pokies. Today that figure is 62 per cent.”
Food is crucial to the transformation. “The largest rise in membership was during the [global financial crisis],” Mr Bath said. “Club industry food sales hit all-time highs. People were seeking out more affordable dining experiences.”
Clubs have an edge in making their food affordable: they are exempt from paying company tax on food and drink served to members. But their menus have changed dramatically. In the age of MasterChef clubs have discarded deep fryers and hired top chefs.
At Bankstown Sports Club, eateries range from simple to refined. The club also hosts high-tea service in Platform One, a converted train carriage decked out with dark wood, velvet curtains and white table cloths. On the menu are salmon sandwiches, coconut jellies and sparkling wine.
Another trend is futsal, a game of mini-football. Mr Bath said no NSW club had a futsal pitch three years ago; now 30 do. They are led by Pittwater RSL, which has 900 players. Some clubs have abandoned poker machines altogether. One is Middle Harbour Yacht Club, which holds twilight regattas and children’s discos.
Another is Petersham Bowling Club, which has been pokie-free since 2007.
“It’s been pretty tough,” Petersham Bowling Club’s president, Mark Lucas, said. “To keep the doors open the club was being run by a board of eight or nine volunteers, none of whom had experience running a club. It was a severe learning curve.”
Gradually, Mr Lucas has expanded the number of live events. On Sunday afternoons, children run around the green accompanied by music from a DJ.
“We got to the end of this winter and were in the black for the first time, so I’m feeling confident,” he said.
Mr Bath said 171 clubs in NSW are without pokies, compared with 1240 with them.
Most pokie-free venues are sports clubs whose facilities allow them to generate enough income to survive. For Mr Lucas, the struggle is worthwhile.
At Coogee Diggers, 30 per cent of the revenue is derived from gaming, compared with the industry average of 62 per cent. Most of it comes from the gym, pool, bar and kitchen.