Meet the LET golfer turned golf club manager

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 21, 2017 11:59

Sarah Heath explains how the skills she learnt both on tour and at major golf groups can be used for managing a golf facility, plus how to attract members in an area densely populated with golf clubs


Tell us about your career from LET golfer to manager of a prestigious Surrey golf club.

I started playing golf at the age of nine and went on to represent England at amateur level before turning professional at 21, where I played on the Ladies European Tour (LET) for seven years. Golf has always been my passion, so I knew that when I left the tour that I wanted to continue my career in the golf industry.

In the off-season during my playing career, alongside practicing and training, I worked part-time at The Belfry to get as much exposure to the business side of the industry as I could. My first full-time role after leaving the LET was as membership advisor with De Vere at Wokefield Park and from there I was promoted to golf and leisure assistant manager. I then moved to Crown Golf as sales manager, progressing to assistant general manager, at Pine Ridge GC. While at Crown Golf, a position opened at Oak Park, one of the clubs in the group, and I took on my first general manager position there. I was exposed to a lot of sales and management training with both De Vere and Crown Golf, as well as working with some truly talented managers, which gave me the skills to develop quickly. I found that I was learning every day about running a golf club, which is extremely varied and covers much more than golf itself, and I have been very lucky to have had dedicated and passionate people to learn from within those organisations, from events and banqueting managers to finance and greenkeeping teams.

For the past 18 months, I have been in my current position as general manager for Chobham GC. Again, I am extremely lucky to have a team of people who are outstanding at what they do and a membership base who give the club a fantastic, friendly atmosphere.


You spent seven years on the Ladies European Tour. What were the highlights for you, what were the lessons you took from this experience and how do you think these have helped you in your current position?

I loved playing on the LET and playing in the British Open was a special highlight, a true ‘I can’t believe this’ moment.

Travelling around the world, visiting so many clubs and meeting so many different people has not only been enjoyable but has also been extremely beneficial in what I do now. I had the opportunity to play alongside some of the best lady golfers in the world at many of the top courses and this has given me a lot of experience dealing with people from many different backgrounds and nationalities.

The business and organisational side of playing on tour also gave me fully transferable skills such as event organisation, sales, marketing and negotiating which all helps when you’re managing a golf club. Many people don’t realise that when you are playing on tour you are running your own business. There is a lot of organisation to do in terms of travel, flights and accommodation, as well as securing sponsorship – and that’s before you have even picked up a club.

There’s also the added pressure that comes with playing for money, which quickly teaches you to budget well and perform to the best you can at all times!

Your time at De Vere and Crown Golf exposed you to various important facets of the business side of golf. What skill sets did you learn, what areas fascinated you most and how has this benefitted you in your current daily business life?

I have learnt so much and I am still learning every day and it’s so much more than just having a fantastic golf venue. For example, the events and functions side of the business is wildly varied and caters for a range of activities such as weddings, functions, proms and so on. No two days are ever the same.

I’ve always found sales enjoyable and, as a former professional sports person, I am naturally competitive and driven to achieve the best results I possibly can, so whether signing up a new member or securing a wedding I get a real buzz out of it. I think in a service industry this is also vitally important as it drives high standards. My team and I want our members and customers to have a great experience each time they come to our club and we must make sure we’re always on our ‘A game’.

What would you say are the biggest challenges you currently face and how does this impact on the daily running of the club?  

Chobham is a private members’ club so, naturally, membership subscriptions are very important to us. The biggest challenge is to ensure we can attract new members to the club along with maintaining our current members and, as a business, we are in competition with many other courses in the area. I want to make sure that our members see positive things happening around the club and on the course, that they can be proud of the club they belong to and that we deliver things that make their experience of being a member better year on year. You can never lose sight of who your customer is and retaining them, it is absolutely key.

How big is your team at Chobham, what is the current departmental / management structure and how well does this serve the needs of the club members?

We have a team of 28 staff in total with seven heads of department consisting of clubhouse manager, course manager, head professional, finance manager, membership secretary, head chef and maintenance manager.

Our structure ensures that there are people responsible across all key areas of our business and we have good communication.

I am very lucky that every one of our team has the mindset that our members come first and they will always go the extra mile to ensure we deliver the very best service. It’s easy to see that everybody working at Chobham is proud of the club and I am extremely proud of what the team achieves week in, week out. Most of the team have been here for many years too, which is a great testament to our positive working environment and how much we enjoy working with our members.

Food and beverage plays an important role by way of revenue generation for the club. How do you market your offering to those outside the membership?

We have a fantastic function room and over the years have built up a great reputation for delivering events and occasions with great quality food. Our catering and events team are a joy to watch, it’s a real strength of ours. We enjoy a lot of repeat business and take many bookings on word of mouth but we do also advertise in local lifestyle and wedding magazines.

Where are you currently looking for growth in the business and what sales and marketing methods are you using to achieve this?

Subscriptions, green fees and bar and catering are our main revenue generation areas and we’re currently enjoying growth across all three areas.

The key is to get the balance right. Our members come first, so we would never want to grow something like green fees to a point where it affects our members’ tee times but, at the same time, the revenue generated is pumped back into the club to ensure a better membership experience and we want new people to come and try the course because they could be our next new members. The same goes for bar and catering. We are limited to the number of functions we can put on so we look to maximise higher revenue functions, such as weddings, wherever we can.

I have a monthly sales and marketing plan and have targets and budgets for these three areas so everything is planned well in advance, from golf days to Christmas events. I present the return on investment at my monthly board meetings to the directors so they can see we are managing and measuring the activity and campaigns. The activity can range from Facebook adverts, magazine adverts, emails to our database, phone calls and flyer drops. As mentioned before, we also have fantastic word of mouth referrals, which is great to see.

Training and development is something you have benefitted from throughout your career. How do you identify and implement training needs for the business and individual team members who work with you?

When I joined Chobham I introduced monthly ‘one-to-ones’ with all of heads of department and yearly appraisals where we discuss the business and any training requirement for them and their teams.

We have three planned staff nights out a year so we can go and enjoy ourselves, with the most recent ones taking place at the races. It’s great to get everybody together and a good opportunity for people to mix with colleagues they don’t always see on a daily basis.

What is the current membership of the club in terms of number, age and sex profile. Who do you look to target for future membership, what growth in membership are you looking to achieve and over what timeframe?

We currently have just short of 650 members with an impressive membership of 145 ladies. We have membership of all ages but an overall lower average age than many other member clubs in the area. We don’t have a specific demographic for our target membership and I really like the mix of young and senior members at our club and the mix of men and lady golfers.

We have a cap of 750 members and we are currently actively growing our membership base but the real-world number does need to be carefully managed so as not to affect the experience for existing members.

You’ve had a good in-take of members this year. How was this achieved and what specific marketing activity do you think contributed to this success?

We have had a great year on joining new members so far, one of the best for Chobham in recent times. Between my membership secretary, Gill Norman, and me, we ensure any enquiries are responded to within 24 hours and we always invite prospects into the club to meet us. It’s much better to recruit members in person, especially when you can show them a fantastic clubhouse overlooking an amazing course! We get far better take up face-to-face than over the phone.

We have used local and national golf magazines and our own visitor database to market our membership, which has given us great results. I have a planned and measured marketing plan every month that I stick to which keeps me focused on the sales of membership. You have to wear a lot of hats as a general manager and it is easy to get distracted, so planning definitely works for me.

Competitions are run by the members. How did this come about?

The members here have always run the members’ competitions and it works very well. We have a competition committee of 12 members from various sections of the club who give up their own time to organise and administer every aspect of the competitions, with the pro shop team in support if anything is required. I think member-run competitions for the members is a fantastic thing to see, they do an excellent job, they go very smoothly and everybody has a brilliant time!


What do you think are the qualities now needed to meet the demands of members by someone in your position?

Investing in the team is important, be it through formal training or spending time discussing the needs of the business, sharing ideas on how we can improve, setting goals and then supporting to achieve those goals. The better we do as a team and as individuals within our business, the better the business does. At Chobham, we always make sure that we are proactively working towards our goals because, even when things are going well, you need to make sure that things stay that way, that standards don’t slip and are built upon, and that you continue to deliver the best experience for members.

Good communication is also important. For example, we introduced a quarterly course newsletter at Chobham and this has gone down very well amongst the membership as this helps to keep the members in the know with what is happening and future works on the course.

We naturally need our members to be actively involved in the club so you must never lose sight of who your customer is or what your main product is.

It’s essential to speak to members about the club and make sure you listen to their thoughts, ideas and suggestions and use them to shape your future plans and also invest in the club and golf course to improve your product year on year.

What currently gives you the greatest satisfaction from your job?

Receiving positive feedback because of all the hard work put in from the team gives me the greatest reward; I get a real buzz from making the members and visitors happy and proud of their club. I feel very proud to be the general manager of Chobham Golf Club and very proud of the clubhouse and course we have on offer.

I have a great rapport with our course manager, Mark Bugler, which is so important as the main product of any golf club is the golf course. He is an outstanding course manager and is very knowledgeable. We have fortnightly course walks to talk about any member comments, what the team are currently working on and what plans we have for the future of the club which allows me to feedback when speaking to members. I also enjoy extending my knowledge about the agronomy side of the business. The course has been in fantastic condition all year which is down to Mark and his team.

What advice would you give to youngsters starting out and wanting to pursue a career in golf club management?

Learn as much as you can about the business whenever you can and keep learning. I can’t go into a golf club, hotel, leisure facility or restaurant now without noticing something that may be good for my business. Make sure you work with great people straight away from your early career and if there are formal management training programmes, take full advantage of them!

Set goals for what you want to achieve, have a daily plan of what you want to accomplish and take time to reflect on what you have done. I highly recommend reading 7 habits of highly effective people by Steven Covey, which has helped me a lot.

I have also found my network in the golf industry to be of great support. I regularly meet up with people from other clubs to talk about the wider industry trends and so on.

What changes do you think need to be made to benefit the industry sector and profession of the golf club manager?

I think golf club management is in a much better place compared to a few years ago and it’s certainly become a lot more competitive, which is driving up the quality within the industry. There is a lot more support from the Golf Club Managers’ Association, the Club Managers of Europe and England Golf, and there are more formal qualifications available in golf club management to help get people started and on the right track.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir October 21, 2017 11:59
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1 Comment

  1. Golflady45 October 23, 23:28

    Congratulations on your success. Innovative managers with unique skill sets are making great gains in the industry and are changing the way the golf business runs. Kudos!

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