Stuart Phipps: How to convert ‘nomads’ into golf club members

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 09:34

The ‘membership crisis’ is probably more crucial than any other facing clubs today. So here are a few more thoughts on the subject.

It is no use existing clubs fighting each other for members: unattached golfers – ‘nomads’ – have to be converted into members – and that means clubs must provide what they want. So, let’s look at it from the point of view of the nomad.

The nomad’s dilemma: How to choose a golf club

Dick is 40 years old, has a wife and two kids, earns £50,000 p.a. in a time-demanding job, and would like to play golf. He also travels about regularly on business and he tries to spend as much of his leisure time with his family as possible. And, despite only moving into the area last year, he’s expecting to move again within five years. Because of these restrictions on his time, he cannot commit to a golfing routine.

However, he decides to investigate the various golf courses and clubs in the district, and this is the choice facing him.

1 – Royal Doulton Golf Club (founded 1923)

This is a traditional members’ club, with a championship course, laid out by H S Colt. It has an impressive history, and he knows several local dignitaries who are members. While its dress rules are more relaxed than five years ago, and members would not now openly criticise him for wearing jeans at the bar, he senses that he’d be the only person thus clad. There’s a good social life: many members build their leisure time around the club and fellow members. Golf competitions are frequent, and the trophy cabinet is bursting with solid-silver cups. The staff are polite and self-effacing. He would be required to book a start-time at the weekend, but not during the week.

2 – New Century GC (opened 2000, the latest addition to the company’s flotilla of clubs)

Designed by a modern course architect, it has a mass of water-hazards, a luxuriously-appointed clubhouse, and a busy fitness centre. It glistens and gleams, and is ideal for the itinerant player (for instance, you can use a locker whilst you play, but you must clear it when you leave). The glass and chrome bar has a bewildering selection of bottles on optic, and a special menu of cocktails. There’s no ‘real ale’, but some Czech beer is available. Players arrive on the tee in their groups – and stay together after their game. The staff are exceptionally attentive and make you feel you ought to buy something extra.

The management concentrates on making you feel a part of their group of clubs: everywhere notices proclaim “By joining this club, you’ve joined 50 other clubs as well!”, and “Your Benefits List” tells you how much discount you receive on food and beverage, on golf equipment, and so on (but warns you that you must use your club card for everything you buy).

The uniformed staff are everywhere, always smiling broadly, and keep on telling you about extra ways in which they can help you – especially if you are a corporate member.

3 – Steep Valley Hotel, G & CC (opened 1932)

Based on a hotel, this offers a wide choice of leisure and fitness activities, the golf course being aimed at casual players who are not highly skilled – whilst, from the back tees, par is a stiff challenge. Use of the course is dominated by the hotel guests, who have preference on the tee (which can lead to frustrating rounds when they have never played before). There is no golfers’ bar: wherever you go, hotel users are always in a majority. However, accommodation standards are high, and there’s plenty of ways for all the family to enjoy themselves away from the course. A legion of staff provide service (but all are liable to be transferred to another department – or even hotel – at a day’s notice).

4 – High Hills G C (opened 1989)

Having passed through the hands of three different owners, its character is difficult to define – neither conspicuously modern nor overly traditional. The clubhouse is comfortably equipped, and the catering is simple but tasty. With the trees now fully grown, the course layout is satisfying, no matter what your handicap. But what appears startling at first sight is that it claims to have 1,500 members – yet, according to hearsay, the course is not over-crowded.

The cost of Dick’s golf

Earning a decent salary, cost is not a major consideration for Dick: however, without time to play at his club twice a week, he needs to justify the subscription.

Royal Doulton charges an entrance fee of £1,000 and an annual subscription of £1,000,  but provides unlimited golf.

New Century does not have an entrance fee, and the annual subscription is charged at £100 per month for unlimited golf. Payment must be by direct debit.

Steep Valley also has no entrance fee, and the subscription is £250 p.a., with a 50 per cent green fee payable as each round is played.

High Hills offers two distinct memberships: annual (at £800) or executive membership. To join as an executive member, you buy units, and you spend units on golf, on food and drink in the clubhouse, on buggy hire – even on lessons from the pro!

To become an executive member, you pay £150, and you receive 60 units: the deduction for a weekend round is 10 units/ player, whilst for a weekday round it is eight units/player.

A discount arrangement applies when you buy a greater number of units; thus £300 would buy you 180 units. But, if you expect to play twice a week, it would be cheaper to join as an annual member (£800).

What will Dick decide to do?

That’s for you, dear reader, to decide!

(And don’t forget that he may decide to remain a ‘nomad’ – which doesn’t help ANY club!)

Dick would be a valuable member for any club, so being able to attract him and his like is important.

I suggest you add the basic details of your club to my list and see how it compares; then ask yourself these questions:

1 – are we attracting enough new members?

2 – are we prepared to change to attract golfers with different tastes?

If you answer ‘No’ to question 1 and ‘No’ to question 2, how do you expect to survive?

Notes on the executive membership scheme (used at High Hills)

It is unusual these days to find a clutch of clubs saying how well they are doing – and when they’re all using the same formula, it’s well worth exploring.

High Hills GC’s novel membership scheme represents a form of ‘rationing by price’. This allows the club to control the use of the course more closely, and, by spreading play more evenly throughout the week, make better use of the primary asset. It was first tried out at Hemsted Forest GC, in Kent, where owner Peter Wilcock introduced it in 1998, and today is in use at several different clubs, with very different membership philosophies.

From the point of view of the golfers – particularly nomads – the benefit of the scheme is the flexibility offered, which will appeal to anyone who does not wish to spend their leisure time on just one activity. They would like a handicap, and access to competitions, and possibly to a ‘home’ club – yet the time they can devote to golf does not justify the cost of an annual subscription.

The ‘two for one’ beckons…

As a rough guide, it seems that the executive scheme allows the club to recruit twice as many members without overcrowding course or clubhouse.

Take a simple example:

Conventional subscription income:

650 members at £500 per person = £325,000;

Executive subscription income:

1,300 members at £250 (average) = £325,000.

If the annual member plays one round per week, it costs the member £10 per round (that is, £500 per 50).

If the executive member receives 250 units for a payment of £250 and spends them at 10 units per round, then he can play 25 rounds in the year – at £10 per round.

Both methods result in 32,5000 rounds per year.

However, the club can exercise better control over the use of the course by varying the unit charge according to the popularity of the day, or time of day, and            thus play can be spread more evenly.

There are various questions to ask before considering whether this scheme is appropriate for your club:

• How many rounds will your course stand annually before wear and tear becomes unacceptable?

• Can you ‘police’ access to your course? (Every player MUST report to the pro shop / starter before playing).

• Do your have sufficient financial reserves (or support) to withstand a fluctuation in income whilst the income pattern settles down?

If you are satisfied on these points, then I suggest the scheme warrants careful consideration. Watching membership decline is a great incentive to try something new!

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 19, 2011 09:34
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