Comment: Research into golf club memberships

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps December 3, 2011 17:02

Comment: Research into golf club memberships

In the business world, inter-company comparisons are an essential management tool, so it is fitting that clubs should use the same aids.

An impressive document I have obtained is prepared by Hillier Hopkins, a firm of accountants with several offices in the home counties, and a whole host of golf clubs on its books. Naturally, golf club managers away from the prosperous south east of England will view the figures with caution – but economic problems face every club, and, whilst the effects may be less extreme in the London area, the need for action is universal.

Hillier Hopkins produces a detailed and absorbing set of data, and adds its interpretation of what clubs could do to improve the situation.

(Individual clubs are not named, so no confidential information is released, and data from commercial clubs is included.)

The report is divided into proprietary clubs and private members’ clubs – and the differences are small indeed, despite the ultimate objectives of the two (profit versus members’ wishes) being so distinct.

Some of those differences are worth comment:

➢ green fee income: the emphasis at members’ clubs is on providing golf for the members; visitors can impede this, and so are generally granted limited access to the course. The total green fee income collected by private members’ clubs is significantly less than that taken by proprietary clubs and represents a far smaller percentage of the club’s total income. This is, of course, due in part to the discount available to members’ guests, who represent a high percentage of the visitors in many traditional clubs.

➢ role of the pro: there seems to be a move in members’ clubs towards increasing the responsibilities of the pro outside coaching and running the shop. He / she is taking on more responsibility for running competitions, the control and condition of the course, and the satisfaction of visitors. This brings the role more into line with that in the proprietary club, where the director of golf is one of the team charged with the financial success of the club.

➢ mix of members: surprisingly, members’ clubs have a higher proportion of junior members than proprietary clubs (11 versus seven per cent) but a smaller proportion of women golfers (19 versus 16 per cent). Perhaps this is due to the traditional family loyalties and habits, and the ‘closed shop’ reputation this engenders, which puts off women in particular from joining.

➢ future growth: a majority of clubs are undaunted by the future. For members’ clubs, 42 per cent believe their club is growing, 45 per cent believe it is standing still and 13 per cent believe it is declining. For proprietary clubs, 50 per cent believe their club is growing, 30 per cent believe it is standing still and 20 per cent believe it is declining.

Unlike what’s happening elsewhere in the UK, waiting lists and entrance fees – two historic towers of strength – still exist in the south east, though they are nowhere near as secure as a decade ago.

In fact, the author of the report remarked that ‘there is a trend to make entrance fees more affordable and entry requirements less onerous’ – a sure sign that the strain is showing.

I would have liked to see a comparison of vacancies / waiting lists, but, since proprietary clubs seldom have a limit to membership numbers, any such comparison would be invalid.

So there you have it: a chance to ponder where your club stands, and what to do to make it better.

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If in doubt, commission some research by a university

With commendable earnestness in pursuit of the truth, the EGU, in conjunction with The R&A, has commissioned research by the University of Lincoln into what ‘deters people from certain backgrounds from taking up golf’. For Richard Flint (EGU / EWGA development manager): “this study will put anecdotal perceptions to one side”.

I heartily applaud this endeavour to establish why ‘nomads’ don’t join: it should clear the air, even if the answer may not be welcomed by clubs. But what concerns me a smidgen is the emphasis in the announcement on ‘demographic groups’. The latest Active People Survey done in 2009 by SportEngland found that 69 per cent (of golf club members) came from the top four socio-economic groups, compared with 55 per cent across all sports – and the university has been specifically asked to investigate why this is so, the implication being that this is wrong.

But WHY should this be wrong, and WHY should ‘the authorities’ try to change it?

The long-held definition of a golf club – or any other kind of club for that matter – is ‘a gathering of like-minded people’: perhaps they consider this inherently wrong and that all clubs should all represent a cross-section of the local population. I’m afraid, for me, that smacks of the Red Revolution!

There should be – indeed, I think there already are – clubs of every style, and it is surely up to the golfer to seek out one where he / she will feel comfortable. No good comes if the new member joins ‘to make a point’, and fails to enjoy the environment.

Clubs should not erect barriers to keep people out – but neither should they be pressurised into accepting new members simply because they are from socio-economic group five or below!

The university is also asked to determine ‘the actual effect of our GolfMark initiative’ – a curious investigation to pay for, since we are constantly being told how successful it is!

There is, I find, widespread acceptance that GolfMark is a valuable award for any club because people familiar with the threat to children are satisfied the club’s procedures will keep juniors safe. (A few moans about GolfMark remain, but they invariably focus on the ritualistic practices that need to be demonstrated, not the underlying principles.) Today, sadly, parents have good reason to worry about the perils their children face outside their home, and so any independent check is a plus that will influence their choice of golf club.

Stuart Phipps
By Stuart Phipps December 3, 2011 17:02
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1 Comment

  1. Gina Alexander March 31, 03:02

    That’s exactly what I think. Absolutely.

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