England Golf reckons its affiliated clubs bagged an extra 20,000 members in 2020, when fresh air and exercise became more of a necessity than an option. Like everybody else involved in the sport, these new players were bitterly disappointed at the game being shut down by the 2021 national lockdown.
But we are where we are, with the country’s golf clubs reduced to no more than maintaining their courses and facilities. At least this allows more time to plan not only how to retain such an encouraging 2020 influx as golf club members this year, but also to ensure they enjoy the customer experience enough to recommend the sport to family, friends and work colleagues.
Let’s look for inspiration from the most recent winners of the England Golf “Most Welcoming Club in the Country” award. That was the accolade bestowed on Exeter Golf & Country Club in 2019 and because the awards night was wiped off the 2020 calendar by the pandemic, Exeter remains the gold standard.
They won in 2019 partly on the back of establishing an 18-month waiting list for anybody wanting to join their 540 male golfers. They had 160 female golfers signed up, over twice the national average of 70, with their Saturday competitions attracting entries from around 180 players. That waiting list for male golf membership is now nearer three years.
Although Exeter are at the high end of the market, this is not so much a story about how much money you have to invest in your facilities, but more about how much you really care about creating a welcoming club atmosphere. Also, does your club think marketing is something to do with fruit and veg?
Do you agree customer service is everything or is your club is so old school, it’s simply a case of: “This is our club. These are our rules. Take it or leave it.”
It is certainly inaccurate to describe Exeter as just a golf club. Situated a few minutes from the M5, they cater for tennis and squash plus indoor and outdoor swimming. They have a gym and an award-winning spa and restaurant.
They are one of over 700 clubs who use the services of the Golf Management Group, a purchasing alliance created by highly skilled club operators to enhance the profitability of clubs all over the UK.
One of the GMG regional directors, Mark Stancer, covers the Midlands and South West and possesses over 40 years of professional management experience at the highest level within the golf and hospitality sector.
He says about Exeter: “When you think of the professional skills and experience a golf club alone usually needs – greenkeeping, the pro’s shop and clubhouse facilities etc – the thought anybody could take on all they do and still give our sport enough TLC to win a national golf award is mind-boggling.
“A vital key to their success is that they regard marketing as of equal importance to the course, the clubhouse and the pro’s shop and fail to see how any golf club can possibly prosper without recruiting a marketing professional – even if only on a part-time basis – rather than leaving it to volunteers.
“The driving forces are their general manager Chris Jones, director of golf Darren Everett and marketing manager Jenni Ashford. All three are as one in insisting the key to progress is change, to keep driving forward with new approaches and fresh initiatives plus devotion to the three Cs . . . Communication, Communication and Communication.”
Mark is no more than cautiously optimistic English golf clubs in general will build on the growth achieved in 2020. He said: “It is heartening many new people now realise golf in particular is a sport which can still be enjoyed in the harsh environment such as we experienced in 2020 and at the turn of the year.
“But this is still a tough pandemic situation and nobody will be thinking of popping champagne corks just yet. The long term question is whether golf will be here to stay in the hearts and minds of the newcomers when things get back to normal.
“For a family for example, there is a lot of competition for disposable income and £900 or thereabouts for a golf club membership is something which will not easily be spared from the family budget in many cases. It will have to be justified. Customer satisfaction is everything.
“Ensuring that customer journey is the best it can be is exactly where it is at. It is not really about membership because we can all play golf whether we are a member or not. It is about the customer experience.
“It is not always easy for traditionalists to like or understand this but golf has to fight to justify its appeal just the same as any other business. Only if that is achieved then, whenever it is when we finally get on top of this dreadful virus, we shall need the customer to feel the sport will still be as appealing.
“Understanding the customer journey is ever more important today than it has ever been in terms of getting newcomers to stay with the sport.”
To return to the specific subject of Exeter, there are more reasons for their success. They enjoy welcoming visitors and societies but do not chase them. There’s a members’ app, buddies to help newcomers settle in – both on and off the course – and free membership for over-85s.
As well as promoting the sport to non-golfers through Get Into Golf, free taster sessions and a growing junior section, Exeter launched a women’s golf initiative in 2018 with the focus on fun and friendship. This grew female membership by 20%.
It all ran in conjunction with the England Golf ‘Women In Golf’ national campaign, the club creating a series of videos and putting on a variety of newcomer friendly competitions with the rookies playing alongside experienced golfers.
Year 2021 brings a Ladies Pro-am, a unique event in the South West and Exeter are close to being awarded their Safe Golf and Women in Golf Charter accreditations.
They place huge emphasis on making the club open, accessible and friendly. With members ranging from babies to golfers in their 90s, they have a wide appeal across generations and some senior members have been members since childhood.
Subtle touches help them to stand out from the crowd. Whenever England Golf visit a function or meeting, the chefs produce homemade biscuits with the England Golf logo.
Marketing wise, Facebook is no longer Exeter’s social media of choice, partly because of what they regard as excessively intrusive advertising. They feel the highly photogenic fun nature of golf tends to lend itself to the better illustrated and snappier ways of getting the club’s messages across on Instagram and Twitter.
Crucially, a contented team of staff leads to happy golfers. Exeter invest in staff development and incentives and open themselves up to the scrutiny of mystery shopping.
Elsewhere, if you are one of those golf clubs unlucky enough to have a small but forbidding minority whose attitude makes newcomers or visitors feel unwelcome in any way whatsoever, then you may need to be brave if any of those new 20,000 members enticed to our sport this year are not to be driven away.
Most clubs need revenue from visitors and golf societies to keep subscription costs down, and that helps to keep members happy. You can alter rules relatively easily, but it is harder to change attitudes.
If these undesirable characters ignore warnings, your golf club rules should contain a provision for getting rid of them. The loss of a few subs will be outweighed by the financial benefit of your club becoming more welcoming as a result of their departure.
To prove there is usually more than one way to skin a cat, a Cheshire club found an ingenious way to quieten a married couple who were consistently disagreeable members bombarding the secretary’s office with a barrage of pompous, unhelpful and unjustified complaints. One of their moans, believe it or not, was about the length of ankle socks.
At a time when the club’s finances were low and its continued existence uncertain, the club needed all the assistance, creativity and positivity it could inspire among the membership. Glum and Glummer were not just a nuisance, they were a danger.
The club initiated a formal meeting involving the couple, the chairman and the secretary. The officials feigned concern and handed the couple a letter apologising for the club not having a high enough standard plus an application form to a well heeled neighbouring golf club fully filled out with all the necessary seconding and recommendations.
While managing to keep their faces straight the officials conveyed their opinion that this other club would indeed meet the high standards of which these members were so worthy.
The couple did not make the move. The club did not hear another peep out of either of them and survived a rough patch to see their finances improve considerably.