What does a golf club sales manager do?

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 17, 2019 08:02

In 2014 Littlestone Golf Club was losing members and money. It then created the role of ‘sales, membership and marketing manager’ and the club hasn’t looked back since.

Founded in 1888, Littlestone Golf Club is home to a classic championship links course laid out on naturally undulating land and its own range of sand dunes in between Romney Marsh and the English Channel. Today the course reflects design input by a host of great course architects such as Laidlaw Purves, James Braid and Alister MacKenzie and, throughout its long and distinguished history, the club has hosted many major championships and in 2020 will host The R&A Junior Open, before The 149th Open is staged down the road at Royal St George’s.

Just five years ago, Sarah Saunders arrived to take up the newly-created role of sales, membership and marketing manager at Littlestone, tasked with boosting membership and raising the profile of a club that was in financial disarray and losing members at an alarming rate. Today the club is thriving and going from strength to strength.

How prepared were you for the challenge of restoring Littlestone’s fortunes when you arrived at the club?

The club had elected a new board of directors in April 2014 and their first job was to hire a golf business consultant, Johnathan Callister, who in turn approached Adrian Simmons and me to head up the food and beverage operation. The board, chaired by Stuart Gremo, were keen to ensure Adrian and I understood the legacy, tradition and history of Littlestone but employed us to take the club forward in a commercial direction. The first year was really about cleansing the databases, reviewing costs, writing a solid marketing plan and getting out of some very peculiar contracts!

How easy was it as a female entering into such an established club?

I can honestly say it has never been a major issue. I think women in business have to have a level of assertion and not to be afraid of a level of confrontation and this can, by some, be construed as bossy or as levelled at me once: ‘too big for her boots’.

I am sure that some of the members were not keen on a woman coming into the management of their golf club but I actually think the fear was more to do with me coming from a proprietary club rather than being a woman.

I came here to help turn the club around and the board gave me that responsibility which I continue to take very seriously. Over the years there certainly has been the odd comment here and there but I respond quickly and positively should the need arise to deal with any unwanted behaviours, which I do in the knowledge that the board is 100 per cent committed to ensuring all of our staff are supported. Littlestone is in the process of signing up to The R&A Women in Golf Charter. A really positive action on their behalf and this will hopefully lead to a clear pathway for more women to work in and play golf.

What do you see as the key elements that helped turn the club around?

Primarily my brief was to ensure that Littlestone retained all of its historical tradition and legacy but to make it work commercially too. I confess my first impressions were that the club was slightly chaotic with a serious lack of cohesive systems or procedures to manage day-to-day business.

After careful reviewing, we bought in new software during my first few months so that all areas of the business could use one system and generate collaborative reporting among other things.

My philosophy is always to keep things as simple as possible. I immediately stopped selling the 29 categories of membership that were on offer and reduced this to just seven. Over the years a number of appeasing measures had been put in place to try increase retention but I don’t believe in selling the club for less than its worth. I reintroduced joining fees for the full categories of membership and reviewed all of the green fee and society prices to be more reflective of the course’s quality and standing.

An element of rebranding took place, including a new website (which relaunched again this November) and some control over brand guidelines in all areas. I came out of all sorts of advertising contracts and concentrated on marketing using effective PR and social media. I am a member of the Golf in Kent partnership programme and we are fortunate to have Helen Heady PR work with us. For me, it’s not just about promoting this club, but putting Kent on the world golfing map as a fantastic destination.

What are the particular challenges faced by the club in this corner of Kent?

Currently, lack of rain! We are really struggling from the lack of water and this is only going to get worse in the coming years. We are currently looking to build a reservoir to retain winter rainfall but we also need to update the irrigation as it is 30 years old. From a visitor prospective, getting to Littlestone isn’t too bad thanks to the high-speed link to Ashford and of course the Channel Tunnel is only 20 minutes away but with fish on one side of us and sheep on the other, attracting new members can be difficult as there are not a lot of chimney pots down here on the marsh. Having said that, when I introduced a simple second club membership we had a lot of new members from south London and north Kent apply.

What are the long-term aims of the club now that it is back on an even keel?

To ensure we don’t get back to the dark financial days of pre-2014! The club has commissioned a very robust five-year plan and this is very achievable if the funds are in place to act on it. Currently we have applied for planning to develop a plot of land that sits outside of the SSSI (which covers nearly all of our 311 acres) and the funds from this will see a reservoir and new irrigation system installed and an extension to the main clubhouse to house the members from both clubs (The Warren and Championship). This will ensure long-term cost saving and a far better facility all-round for our members and visitors.

What is the most enjoyable aspect of your job?

I spend far too long interviewing prospective members as I love talking to new people and learning more about existing members. I really enjoy learning about what people want from their club and working towards improving their enjoyment of it. I am slightly weird as I really do enjoy customer service; I find it very rewarding.

How does Littlestone market itself to the golfing audience?

Primarily via PR and e-campaigns plus social media. Print is expensive – I will run ads that coincide with editorial, but rarely. I have just invested in new course photography, some professional drone footage and therefore a new website and printed collateral. I will be concentrating very much on increasing video and interactive content in the next year or so.

Are you seeing many juniors come up through the ranks at Littlestone?

Not specifically through the ranks, as in from junior to intermediate to full membership, but our junior section is strong thanks to the teaching team and their relationship with local schools. The cost jump from junior to intermediate generically is a big leap and at a time when the junior is going on to further education or focussing on starting a career so the conversion rate is pretty small. I would like to see money spent not just on grass roots golfers but those young men and women in their early 20s who we can keep playing golf during this period of change.

Testament to the quality of the course, Littlestone has been chosen to host The R&A Junior Open. How will the club benefit from staging the event?

We are so very proud to host The R&A Junior Championship in 2020. It will highlight Littlestone across the world and although a huge amount of organisation is involved, all the staff and the members are really excited about being part of it. With The 149th Open at Royal St George’s a few days later, I can’ t think where else a golf fan would rather be than in Kent in July 2020. It gives you the chance to watch the world’s best and the world’s future champions all in a week.

What impact will the staging of The 149th Open at Royal St George’s have on the club?

Hosting The 149th Open at Sandwich will mean that the golfing spotlight will be on Kent for almost a full week and it will give us – and the other courses in the county – the chance to show an international golfing audience what an amazing place Kent it for golfers to head to for, not only for golf, but for the wide variety of off-course attractions that it possesses.

Not only that, but Kent is home to Britain’s oldest brewer and The Wine Garden of England and is gaining a name for itself as a gastronomic destination so golfers will eat and drink well when they come on tour here.

The Golf in Kent group will also be doing a lot of promotion in the next few months as we build up to staging the major to encourage golfers to come to Kent before The Open and then again, after The Open.

What does 2020 hold in store for Littlestone?

The club continues to grow from strength to strength in regard to increasing membership and green fees but our membership is extremely sensitive to the fact that they are caretakers for the future generations of members at Littlestone. A vast investment in the courses and clubhouse is on the cards to secure the future of the club for many generations to come and 2020 will see the start of that commitment to our future members.   A really exciting time.

For more information, visit www.littlestonegolfclub.org.uk


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir December 17, 2019 08:02
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