Monday, 25 August 2014

Sustainable Golf

Someone recently asked me on the golf monthly forum why I do a golfing blog. An interesting question and in the early days, as well as a chance to chart Homer's Odyssey towards single figures, it was also a vehicle to discuss different things, review courses and products and look at things that have shaped my golf over the years. I've lost my way a little in recent times and I seem to have got too focused on the single figure pursuit. As I promised recently this is changing and I want to start by looking at how golf clubs might remain sustainable.

These have been tough times for golf clubs across the UK and sadly many have gone to the wall for many reasons. It does beg the question, how do clubs remain sustainable? It's difficult being an outsider, not serving on any committee or having any real input other that at the AGM at my own club Royal Ascot, and so these are generic rather than specific thoughts but I hope it will at least provide some food for thought amongst those working at clubs and provoke a degree of debate. Here goes!

The biggest single stigma that has been associated with golf clubs for as long as I've been playing, and I started in 1976, is that being a member of a golf club has always been seen as elitist. Even in the modern day, if you tell someone in conversation you're a member of so and so golf club, they will normally give you a wry look and thing you're trying to be snobbish. It really isn't the case. Most golf clubs have worked hard to attract members for many years and these days, people from all walks of life share membership of clubs. There are some who still insist on the full proposer and seconder, interview, sometimes by panel, and impose huge joining fees but still have waiting lists. These are the more recognisable names in the world of golf and have no trouble attracting the type of member they want but for most clubs, this isn't an option.

Many golf clubs, including my own, are trying many new ways of introducing prospective members. Royal Ascot Golf Club has held open days regularly over the last few years which gives those interested in joining a chance to come along, play nine holes in the company of of one of the directors to get a feel for the course, a tour of the facilities and a chance to discuss things like flexible payments and other issues. It has been a positive initiative and one that has seen a regular influx of members.

It has also introduced Golf Academy Membership. In simple terms it offers new golfers a chance to develop their skills through a personalised tuition package. One of the biggest factors many people cite for not wanting to play is that golf is seen as too difficult. This scheme has been designed to teach golfers the basics through a series of lessons with the club professional, and at the same time giving them social membership of the club allowing them to enjoy the facilities such as the restaurant and bar areas and upon completion of the course they are guaranteed playing membership of the club.

Speak to many non-golfers and indeed many nomadic players who aren't members anywhere and another huge issue surrounds that thorny subject of dress codes. We probably all have our own horror stories of playing at pay and play courses, or even some private ones, and being behind a four ball that have no idea of the etiquette for the game, are far from suitably dressed and generally have no idea. Their behaviour ruins the experience for everyone else.

I think most have seen this type of poster. Nothing on here that should really preclude anyone from playing and dressing in a manner acceptable at most clubs without a throwback to golf's stuffy dress code era, or the need for funky "Rupert Bear" checks or other crimes against fashion golf has seen over the years

 I am a believer in having suitable dress codes both on and off the course, but let me make it very clear, if golf clubs are to be sustainable, there has to be a movement with the times. When I first started, most clubs would insist on jacket and ties for the men to use the bar after 7.00pm. Thankfully we've moved on from that a long time ago. However, many golf clubs could do more.

The famous critic AA Gill said in his Sunday Times column not so long ago, that most top end, Michelin star restaurants are no longer insisting on rigid dress codes for its patrons and argued that perhaps those still doing so are perhaps not worth eating in with so much quality and choice available. The basic gist of the argument, and it's one that applies equally well to golf clubs is that nowadays, what you wear is no real indication of social status or affluence. He said that imposed dress codes were usually enforced by old men to conform to the uniformity of blandness.

It is an issue though. Many golf clubs do not attract enough people through the door regularly enough or have members stopping and eating. I fully accept that playing golf and then spending several hours after is not possible for many members with busy work and family life schedules. However, were clubs to be more flexible in their dress code policy, would it not attract more people to come up socially, either for a bite eat in the evening or for a few social drinks? One word, one item of clothing seems to spark as much debate as anything on this subject. Jeans. How can a pair of denim trousers cause such apoplectic reactions? I know clubs where they have relaxed the dress code policy to let members and their families come into the clubhouse in jeans (they call them "smart" but I guess the argument here is where do you draw that particular line?) and have seen an increase in bar and restaurant takings as more members and their family the club.

On a slight tangent, with social dining on the increase, many golf clubs do not seem to be doing enough. Some clubs offer a carvery on a Sunday. Why not advertise locally and extend this to the public. I accept that kitchen costs are one of the highest outgoings in a clubhouse budget, but if you can get a reputation for fine dining, good prices and a nice sociable atmosphere, then customers will return and maybe, just maybe, a few of those will be encouraged to join as members.

Royal Ascot introduced a supper club a few years ago. This is a nine hole social game on a Wednesday evening with a number of meal options available afterwards. It has grown from strength to strength and has proved immensely popular and is now a great way for new members to turn up, get a regular game and meet a lot of other members. It isn't a new concept by any stretch and others have been doing the same thing. It's a simple thing, costs little to organise and is a great way to get a full clubhouse one evening a week in the height of summer. It only cost £3.50 to enter, the food is offered at a discount with our membership cards and with the drinks bought after is a great earner for the club.

Personally I don't think it's as simple as relaxing the dress code and suddenly the place will be full with people eating and dining. It has to be come down to customer service and this is perhaps one area above others where golf clubs have let themselves down. First impressions count. We're taught this from a very young age. Despite this I still turn up at many golf courses and the first thing I see as a visitor, either in the locker room, reception area or pro shop is a big long list of do's and dont's. I'm someone coming along to spend some money at your facility. I don't want to feel as though I'm on trial.

The warm and inviting welcome many golf clubs give to visitors. I've played golf for years and I know how to dress and behave thank you. 

Of course many, many clubs are very good. Lots, particularly chains like Crown Golf or hotel brands like the Marriott have reception areas where you are made to feel very welcome and usually given all the information about where locker rooms etc are. Even at private clubs, many have a steward or stewardess in the bar who will happily help a visitor and many professional shops I've graced over the years will make a visitor feel at ease. There are still those however that treat visitors as an inconvenience. Green fees are a significant revenue stream. Members won't like it, but golf clubs rely on visitors, especially society golfers to bring in much needed money to be invested on the upkeep of the course. Without them, keeping the course in good nick will inevitably come at a price and that's increased fees. You can't have your cake and eat it. Green keeper salaries and equipment doesn't come cheap.

It goes deeper than that though. We are in the era of social media and so clubs need to do more. Websites are now a first port of call for many people looking to play somewhere different. If you log on and the site in question is poorly designed, out of date and doesn't entice you, chances are you'll need some pretty good reason to go there. Whether clubs like it or not, we are a Twitter and Facebook generation and these need to be utilised. Why not run a simple competition offering two free green fees. It sparks interest. It really doesn't take much but I think a lot of clubs are still scared of embracing this new fangled technology. There are clubs which have jumped right in and are reaping the benefits. There are others, my own included, that have taken the first steps, but don't really seem certain about what to do with it.

Demographically, golf is changing too. Whilst the average age of golf club membership remains at 58 and most running golf clubs falling into that sort of age bracket they need to be acutely aware that they aren't running it just for the current membership. They need to accept that because things have been done certain ways in the past they should continue to do so. They need to be brave and try new things. Some may work and others will fail but unless they experiment and have brave leaders prepared to move the club forward in the modern era, golf clubs will stagnate and ultimately remain unsustainable longer term.

I would argue that one area that golf clubs need to focus much closer attention to is the 30-40 year old bracket. Historically, this is the time when those that have played other sports such as football and rugby, find that time catches up with them and they tend to stop playing and look for other pursuits. Of course, though this is the time people are also thinking about starting a family and so money can be an issue. This is where the progressive clubs can really score an advantage and become sustainable for the future by encouraging junior golfers and offering some forms of flexible memberships schemes. Again, Royal Ascot has been very good on this front and is now running a junior academy to get youngsters into golf which has proved hugely successful and has children from as young as three right up to teens coming along regularly for safe and controlled tuition and hopefully this will translate into junior members.

My club, along with a host of others, does also offer membership costs based on age brackets, but it like many others could perhaps do more. There are clubs, both under ownership umbrellas and on their own that offer a points based membership scheme whereby members on a limited budget, as per the 30-40 bracket I alluded to can become a member, obtain a valid handicap and pay a set amount, for arguments sake £750. For that he can play a set number of competitions per year, perhaps not the main honour board events, but monthly medals and stablefords. For this the member could get a set number of rounds, again for argument sake 30 per annum, of which say 20 are peak time (weekends) and the rest are off peak (weekdays). Once the member has used these rounds, he can purchase more at say member's guest rates. Tie in the junior academy route for the burgeoning family, along with an inviting and accommodating clubhouse and golf membership can and should be a family affair.

So what about current membership? It takes input and desire from the members themselves. Golf clubs tend to think in binary terms in that men want "x" and the women want "y" and I would argue that it needs younger blood involved. As I said right at the beginning golf is still seen by many as a stuffy pursuit but the rise and rise of McIlroy along with trendsetters like Ricky Fowler and Ian Poulter give a chance to change this. I'm not advocating the seniors all dress in bright orange or strange tartan, but, fresher thinking, especially the use of social media and marketing has to be utilised and for many clubs, sooner rather than later.

Reading this, it may sound a tirade of doom and gloom and a litany of what clubs do wrong. It isn't. Many, many clubs are doing well and have increased membership in recent years. With so much competition for people to spend their money on social activities, some clubs will always disappear. Add in those that get sold, mainly for housing and the number reduces further. That's always been the case. There was a great article on the Golf Monthly Forum and a fabulous site tracking the demise of clubs that have disappeared. It isn't a current trend.

A lot of golf clubs give a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and will continue to do so. I hope they go from strength to strength. There's still a lot of work to do across the board. Many people view Royal Ascot as "posh" in golfing terms but don't let the Royal moniker fool you. It's as friendly and welcoming a course as you can find (we're always looking for members, so if you're in the area..........). It does a lot of things right, some things I don't agree with and has room to improve. I'm sure each of you will have similar feelings about your own club. Perhaps you're not a member and play and play as a nomadic golfer and perhaps if clubs were doing more you'd join. Perhaps maybe you're a member and not happy with life at your club. Without input and a will to change nothing moves forward.

As with a lot of things in golf, and golf administration in particular, there are no easy answers. As I said, without any direct input personally at my club or any other, I can only put down my thoughts, my views and my opinions as to sustainable golf clubs, the problems, perhaps some answers, or at least suggestions. I hope some of these at least prompt you to think about your own, maybe suggest some changes and maybe prompt some discussion. Feel free to leave your own comments. Am I way off the mark? Am I unrealistic? Is the problem not as bad these days? Is it worse? Whichever way you cut it I hope it's something to make you think. Homer out

As a footnote, it seems that numbers are dropping and so it makes the need for golf clubs to offer a sustainable model all the more important and

1 comment:

  1. “Someone recently asked me on the golf monthly forum why I do a golfing blog” That was me!

    There are some interesting points you’ve raised. Someone made the point that more people take up golf mid life, when they get too old for other sports, than those who start golf as juniors. As a junior, in addition to golf, I played rugby, cricket & tennis and I’ve lost count of the number of people from these sports I’ve seen at the golf club, having come to the end of their playing days in their other sport. What my club hasn’t tried is to offer “taster” sessions to local sports clubs where members can come along and be provided with equipment and instruction and try golf. We’ve done this in conjunction with the local authority and it brought us a few members. It’s a case of once a sportsman, always a sportsman and if we get someone at the age of 35 we could have a member for 40 years or more.

    Like lots of local clubs our membership has been slowly reducing while green fees increase and I think marketing effort needs to go into attracting and encouraging itinerant golfers as well as attracting new members. The local pay as you play courses seem to be doing OK and as a business model it seems to work. It’s what all clubs are drifting towards so it’s best to be prepared for the trend to continue and focus efforts accordingly.

    The key is getting people interested and I’m convinced that retired sportsmen are a rich source of potential new members.

    I agree about the dress code too. I contacted the local Hilton & Marriott hotels and asked them what their dress code was for their hotel dining rooms. I relayed the information to our committee and, give them their due, after a while the rules were relaxed. We really can’t do anything to drive people away.

    The one thing clubs cannot do in the current climate is nothing and the more proactive are the ones which will survive.