Meet the manager: Jonathan Webb

Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire March 15, 2020 13:57

The general manager of Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club talks about the club’s extraordinary location on top of the White Cliffs of Dover and the transferrable golf club management skills he learned at NATO commanding over 1,000 international troops.

Can you tell us a bit about Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club, including its course and history?

The James Braid course opened in 1909 and measures 6,471 yards off the white tees. Perched on top of the world-famous White Cliffs of Dover, with sea views from every hole, it is not only the closest course to Europe, separated by the world’s busiest stretch of water, but one of only a few in the world where golfers can see another country while enjoying a game, as the coast of France is clearly visible on a fine day.

The chalk base to the course delivers exceptional drainage, making it a year-round course in excellent playing condition.

The course was severely damaged during World War II and looked beyond salvation. However the determination and generosity of club chairman, Theodore Instone, and vice chairman, Harry Weedon, ensured the club exists today. Together they purchased it and tasked the greenkeepers with repairing the devastating war damage. By December 1948 the two benefactors registered it as a members’ club and handed ownership to the members, to be run as a club for the community. It re-opened on June 11, 1949 and has thrived ever since.

For a club in such a spectacular location, what marketing do you (need to) do?

The club began a new marketing initiative in 2017. As a small club with limited resources we have had to be smart rather than throw money at the task. Our clifftop location, with its spectacular views, is one of our major assets, so this led to the introduction of a tagline to our club name – ‘The Club on the Cliffs’. Everyone has heard of the White Cliffs of Dover so this has helped position us in people’s minds as well as hinting at the beautiful scenery. Our close proximity to Royal St George’s, the venue for The 149th Open this year, is also a key point in helping us to establish just where we are.

In 2018 we erected a special signpost at the highest point of the course, alongside the tee box of our signature 7th, a hole which heads downhill towards the edge of the cliffs and looks across The English Channel and over to France. We call this a ‘selfie signpost’ as it’s a great position for visitors to photograph themselves. It not only displays the distances to St Andrews and Augusta but states that it is just seven miles to Royal St George’s. Images of members and visitors standing by this sign have been widely shared on social media, which helps us to establish that we are just down the road from Sandwich and this year’s Open.

Jonathan Webb

Being so close to France, do you have many French visitors?

We regularly have visitors from across The English Channel – mainly from The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and France. It’s very easy for visitors from mainland Europe to get to us via the cross-channel ferries into Dover and the Channel Tunnel. Currently, the ability to access the UK through Dover is essential to our overseas business and golfers can literally be on the tee half an hour after docking at Dover or disembarking from the Eurotunnel.

The clubhouse

You’ve been a golf club manager for several years now, how have you found the running of the club, and generally the role of a UK golf club manager, has changed in that time? What has your career path been?

I have only been employed in golf club management for about nine years, having had careers in the army and railway management. Just in that short period of time, I have seen changes in the role of the golf club manager. Some clubs were slow to embrace the changes from secretary to general manager, providing a role which fulfils the business demands of running a small and medium-sized enterprise. The roles and responsibilities have expanded quickly to cover the essential areas of running a competitive business in the leisure sector. The key areas of food and beverage and course management are now governed by strict legislation and any club that does not have the ability to stay current and compliant will not survive.

The advent of our digital age and the exponential rise in a reliance on IT technology in an ever-demanding world did catch a few clubs sleeping and those ‘behind the curve’ are now struggling to catch up. Now that club members have constant access to tablets and mobile phones, they expect to be communicated with using these formats and the need for instant information must be provided for.

I feel that there is now much more support and advice available to golf club managers and I have personally benefited from working with England Golf through the Kent Golf Union, the Golf Club Managers’ Association, The R&A, The PGA, the British and International Golf Greenkeeping Association and the National Golf Clubs Advisory Association. These organisations are also working more closely with each other to benefit the golf industry in general.

I was employed as the general manager by Canterbury Golf Club before moving to Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club in 2017. They are two very similar clubs in that the members are extremely friendly and welcoming to new members and visitors alike and both have the ability to plan strategically for the future.

Did you play much golf in the army? Did you learn any skills in the army that have been applicable to being a golf club manager?

Since joining the army at 16 and a half years old, I had always been deployed in operational roles but, at the age of 32, I was posted to a unit where my role was primarily sedentary and decided to use golf to fill some of my downtime. I learned to play at Catterick Golf Club, which at the time was still owned and run by the Ministry of Defence.

I enjoyed playing golf there for about a year, following which I was promoted and – you guessed it! – posted to a fully operational role which did not allow me any time for golf.

All the services have an active golf scene for both serving and retired servicemen and women; I am still an active member of the Royal Military Police Golf Society.

As for skills learnt that are applicable to golf club management, they cover the full gambit of skills required to manage a very busy environment and daily business needs.

The skills that I would place at the top of the pile would be diplomacy (learned at a NATO HQ commanding over 1,000 international troops), ability to communicate calmly in a potentially volatile environment (learned commanding a platoon on operations in Northern Ireland) and compliance with complicated and complex regulations (learned managing a busy police office supervising investigations). In addition, the need to influence and advise committees so that the right decisions are made for the success of the golf club in long term strategies.

What do you find are the biggest challenges managing the club today?

I alluded to one of them earlier and this relates to managing the conflicts that sometime occur between the needs and wants of the members and the needs of the business.

I am lucky in the fact that I am serving a forward-thinking club with the vision to see where it needs to be in the future to serve both the members and meet the business needs. Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club has made significant improvements just in the two years I have been there.

They have an active sales and marketing strategy, have adopted technology, made improvements to the clubhouse bar and restaurant and the course is in excellent playing condition. This is driven by the directors directing and allowing the manager to manage, which is an essential recipe for a successful club.

The ‘selfie signpost’ on the 7th hole

The club joined the Golf in Kent Partnership featuring other golf clubs in Kent and accommodation providers, especially with the 2020 Open Championship in mind. Can you tell us a bit about that?

The ability to tap into the greater marketing and PR resources of the partnership has been crucial for us; we have been included on press visits to Kent by media from major UK golf publications plus several from continental Europe and even the USA, generating publicity that has directly led to additional green fees. These media visitors to Kent always want to play at our more prestigious neighbouring links courses – Royal St George’s, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s, but our membership of the Golf in Kent Partnership means they have also discovered an interesting, scenic and affordable addition to the appeal of Kent’s golf coast.

The quirky ‘pimple’ on the 8th hole

How do you communicate with existing members?

Digital communication is obviously the fastest and most efficient means of communication nowadays so information and notices are distributed via bulk email through the Club Systems package.

Daily updates on the weather, course information, competitions and so on is also communicated via a closed Facebook group for members. We have recently adopted use of the mobile phone app which provides members up to date information on competitions, diary of events, news and swipe card spend.

How does Walmer & Kingsdown Golf Club fit in with the local community? Is it also trying to attract more women and juniors to the facility?

When the club was created over 100 years ago it was with a desire to encourage more families and ladies to take up golf.

The club still upholds that ethos and there is a real community spirit and atmosphere.

We have a thriving ladies’ section and the professional team run a ‘Junior Academy’ section, with special coaching sessions on Saturday mornings, aimed at attracting youngsters into the sport. We also participated in last year’s Walmer Sports Spectacular (organised by the local parish council), which was an opportunity for local sports clubs to attract new members from the community.

Due to its excellent location, a number of organisations in the local community also hold their annual dinner events at the golf club and this includes a thriving ex-services community.

The 10th green

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

Most clubs will tell you they are friendly and deliver a warm welcome. Since I came here I discovered that Walmer & Kingsdown really does live up to that claim. Visitors regularly tell me how much they have enjoyed their visit because members have welcomed them freely and chatted to them on the course, in the clubhouse and in the car park. That warmth is something that permeates the club and is reflected in the way members and visitors are respected and treated.

The 6th green and 7th tee

In terms of food and beverage, what does the club offer?

The club is going through an exciting period of change with regards to our food and beverage service.

We have recently refurbished the clubhouse to give the bar and restaurant a bright, fresh, contemporary look and we are in the process of introducing new catering services and new dining choices, including the introduction of healthy dining options in addition to the traditional fare.

Our long-serving steward and her family retired last autumn and we appointed a highly-rated local catering company to provide an interim service as we planned, advertised and recruited the team that will take our catering offering forward.

The captain’s table

Is coastal erosion a concern for you?

No, not at all. There is a disused military firing range at the foot of the cliffs, surrounded by a sea wall, which means the sea does not reach the foot of the cliffs in the area where the clubhouse and course are closest to the cliffs.

Further along the coast, beyond the sea wall, where the sea can reach the foot of the cliffs, the course is further inland, so any erosion there, based on historical evidence, would take many hundreds of years before there would be any concern for the club.

The club is hosting the 2020 World One-Armed Golf Championships. Can you tell us more about this?

One of our members, Rob Paul, who plays off a six handicap, has cerebral palsy, which restricts the use of one arm. He therefore plays one-handed and in fact became 2016 one-armed world champion.

He has been a member of Europe’s Fightmaster Cup team for several years. This is a Ryder Cup-style competition between Europe and North America for one-armed golfers, staged every two years just before the Ryder Cup.

Through Rob we offered to stage the 2018 Fightmaster Cup event, which was a wonderful occasion. The success of that event led to our club being offered the 2020 World One-Armed Championship – the first time it will have been staged in England.

With up to 50 of the world’s best one-armed golfers competing just a month before The Open Championship is staged just down the coast in Sandwich, it will be a marvellous opportunity for us to demonstrate that a small club with a big heart can play an important part in showcasing the sport.

The club hosts wedding receptions. How important a revenue stream is this, what work have you had to do to be able to offer this and how do you market this?

Wedding receptions have featured among a range of external functions that the club has typically staged over the years but we will be looking to capitalise further on such opportunities this year to generate increased revenue.

Functions such as wedding receptions have been handled reactively if the club has been approached but the refurbishment of the clubhouse and a new approach to our catering services will enable us to enhance the offering and be pro-active in promoting this locally.

The location is not just scenic for such events but lends itself to some beautiful photography, which adds to the appeal.

Kent has a number of world famous golf clubs and is one of the top counties in England for its number of leading venues. Do you find yourself in competition with fellow Kent managers?

We are perhaps in the shadow of our ‘royal’ neighbours – Royal St George’s and Royal Cinque Ports – but we do not compete with them.

We all have different offerings and in fact we benefit from being close to them, as many golf breaks arranged by specialist golf travel operators bring golfers to the area to play the top courses but also offer them our club as an affordable addition where they can experience a different type of challenge – which the clifftop wind can deliver – in scenic surroundings. The prime example of this will come in July; we’ve been taking tee time bookings for months from visitors who are coming to Kent for The Open Championship and want to play various local courses.

For more on Walmer & Kingdown Golf Club go to www.kingsdowngolfclub.co.uk and for more on the premier Kent courses, www.golfinkent.co.uk

 

Tania Longmire
By Tania Longmire March 15, 2020 13:57
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1 Comment

  1. Kenneth March 14, 13:37

    Hello Mr. Webb
    Have a nice weekend!

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