Meet the golf club manager: Roger Hyder

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 13, 2020 09:05

The general manager of Canterbury Golf Club in Kent talks about dealing with the Covid-19 lockdown, how the club has grown exponentially since it bought its land six years ago and his role as a consultant to struggling golf clubs.

Roger Hyder

Can you tell us a bit about Canterbury Golf Club, including how and why the club bought the land on which the course resides in 2014?

The land on which the course is built on was originally owned by the War Department. In the mid-20s some of the officers stationed in the Howe barracks next door got together with some locals and leased the land and appointed a certain Harry Shapland Colt to design an 18-hole golf course which opened in 1927. The club continued to pay an annual rent to the War Department (now known as the Ministry of Defence (MoD)) which got a bit grating 50 odd years later. From the early 80s onwards the club would phone the MoD up on an almost annual basis enquiring as to whether the club could buy the freehold. Every year this was met with short shrift by the MoD until about seven years ago when the MoD actually phoned the club up and asked if they would like to buy the freehold!

Canterbury Golf Club. All course images by Andy Hiseman

Since that purchase the club has invested heavily in itself. How did you create the financial stability to do this after such a large expenditure and what has the club been investing in?

Well it was an interesting time for the club. Like so many private members’ clubs, for many years it never really struggled for money as it had a full membership and a long waiting list. Of course that all changed in the late 80s and early 90s when so many new golf courses came on line. When the MoD contacted the club regarding the freehold purchase, the club had minimal cash reserves so it had to raise the money with a combination of a mortgage and the issuing of a members’ bond. Fortunately the club got the course for an absolute steal but one of the conditions of the bank loan was the club had to become more commercially-minded in its outlook.

Two companies, including my own (Pin High), were asked to pitch for the consultancy role which we fortunately won. My business partner (Tony Healy) and I decided I would be the lead consultant on the project as, having worked in Kent off and on over many years, I probably knew the lie of the land better.

The thing that struck me right away was the quality of the course layout (after all it is a Harry Colt!) but how poorly known it was outside the local area. We immediately set about working with the club in improving the club’s commercial set-up, course conditions, PR and marketing and encouraging them to introduce a flexible membership to run alongside the current membership programme and bring the F&B operation back in-house.

We pushed the green fee prices up which increased revenue, but actually reduced rounds of golf which in turn freed the course up for its members. It was totally beyond us as to why the club considered some of the lesser local clubs as direct competition (and priced itself accordingly) instead of positioning itself alongside some for the better and well known clubs in Kent.

The club has managed to generate a decent annual profit since acquiring the property six years ago and has embarked heavily on reinvestment in the course, machinery, clubhouse and driving range. There is still a long way to go but the club’s reputation continues to build on the back of all this investment and a strong marketing drive.

The club recently also built a stunning new starters’ cabin – which you even got sponsorship for. Can you tell us about this?

One of Kent’s largest housebuilders, Pentland Homes, was very keen to work with the club along with one of our members, Chris Stock, who owns Reality Golf, which specialises in the design and build of these beautiful small buildings which normally include golf simulators in them.

The feedback we have had is tremendous and with the installation of the Wi-Fi it means the tee starter can now have a live tee sheet down there which feeds into the Intelligent Golf system that we use.

A couple of years ago Canterbury reintroduced its joining fee – how and why?

Membership had continued to grow year on year since the club owned the property and the board wanted to ensure that we didn’t end up having too many members, all wanting to play golf at the same time!

The board therefore agreed to reintroduce the joining fee on the understanding that it would be repaid back to the member, via their club account, after three years continual membership. The idea was that only golfers wishing to show real commitment to their new club would be interested (regardless of their ability) and be in it for the long haul. However, the Covid-19 issue has put an end to that for the time being as like many clubs we will lose a few members because of changes in their personal circumstances, caused by the knock-on effects of the pandemic.

You also brought in a new membership for less frequent golfers – has this been a success?

It was a massive success and is something that I have introduced at more than a dozen clubs over the years. If set up and managed correctly, it can be a fantastic source of income. From a zero base we rapidly reached 100 associates with a now fairly stable number of 140. An average of 14 associates upgrade to full membership each year and in addition, this category provides a way of retaining members who for many reasons can’t commit to playing much golf in the short to medium term.

The key though to any flexible membership is to make it affordable, justifiable and to ensure that it does not undermine the full membership programme. This can be done, by including just a few annoying little restrictions that will deter too many full members from downgrading.  Many golf clubs have got this type of membership so wrong over the years and have subsequently lost a valuable revenue stream and generator of membership leads through a lack of understanding, balance and structure.

Can you take us through your career history – your path to Canterbury general manager is a little different to most as you used to be a consultant to the club (and prior to that was a playing professional!)

Well, my playing career was a relatively short one as within five years and too may missed cuts, it was obvious to me that that wasn’t where my future lay. Having started out at Seaford Golf Club, I moved to Andover for a short while before moving back to Sussex and becoming senior assistant at Beauport Park GC which at the time was one of the busiest municipal courses in the south east. In 1990 I was asked to go to East Sussex National (ESN) as their first PGA head professional where I worked for three years. That was a fantastic learning curve where I worked for a north American management company whose approach to service levels, selling and marketing was completely new to me. Following ESN’s first European Open, I went to the brand new Nick Faldo-designed Chart Hills as director of golf and within a year was general manager.

I stayed there for a total of nine years before leaving and going to work for Kosaido at Old Thorns as director of golf. Even though I was there for only two years, I had a great time helping to turn the club and hotel round and getting to work with great friend, Peter Alliss, who was club president. Foxhills Club & Resort then approached me about becoming their golf operations manager which was an offer I couldn’t refuse. Again a great learning curve working for a private operator at the top end of the market in the golf, hotel and leisure industry. After seven years I left to run my own golf management company where I ran several venues for Playgolf and, along with my business partner, Tony Healy (former operations manager for American Golf / Crown Golf), we were actively involved at one stage with nine golf clubs / resorts.

Canterbury was a strange one really as after a couple of years of being involved as a consultant, the club decided it wanted to move away from having a traditional club secretary and approached the then incumbent to see if he would be interested in the upgraded role. He had originally gone to Canterbury for five years but after six years at the club decided it wouldn’t be fair to the club to take up the new role when he knew he didn’t want to commit to at least another three to four years at the club. Canterbury as a project had got right under my skin, was moving in the right direction and to be honest I was getting a little tired of driving all over the country virtually on a daily basis. Tony and I had projects in Kent, Sussex, Surrey, Essex, Oxford and Staffordshire so the travel was getting a little wearing.

I applied for the position when it was advertised and went through the interview process and was appointed general manager three years ago.

Does your golf consultancy still exist? How many clubs did you work with and what sort of issues had to be overcome?

Tony and I still do some bits together although he is now permanently at Ashford Manor Golf Club in Middlesex as director of golf. Although we both enjoy our consulting side of the business, we both missed the day to day social interaction with members and staff that you get when you are permanently based at one site. We are lucky in that our employers understand our need to have more than one finger in several pies and there are huge pluses for a club with regards to buying and marketing opportunities when you are acting for more than one venue.

At the moment my spare time is taken up running Beauport Park in Sussex which went bust in the summer of 2018. My two sons who work in the industry asked my wife and I to help them salvage it and get it back up and running as a going concern. It’s been an interesting time but I’ve enjoyed going back and teaching and working in a shop environment for the first time in about 20 years. Some people think I’m mad working six or seven days a week but it such a change for me it doesn’t seem like work when I’m at Beauport as it’s so different to what I do at Canterbury.

You’ve been working in managerial positions in the golf industry for more than two decades now – how do you think it has changed in that time?

It’s definitely become more professional in that time and golf club committees are slowly learning to ‘let go’ at long last. It’s worth investing in the right staff, giving them the right resources and clear direction and leaving them alone to get on with it. One of our favourite sayings when going into clubs was ‘directors direct, managers manage and staff facilitate’, in other words back off and let the professionals deliver you what you have asked for.

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

In a word – money!  Like so many similar clubs, the trend of falling membership crept up on Canterbury and it reacted by reducing expenditure which had an inevitable effect on quality. There was also no incentive to invest heavily in a site which it did not own. No one would install a new kitchen in a flat that was rented and the situation at Canterbury was no different.

Since purchasing the property the club has generated a healthy annual profit which has been invested straight back into the facility. We have been able to invest in the right expertise such as course architect, James Edwards, who has assisted us in getting the course back to the standard that was expected pre-1980s when the course was revered as one of the best inland courses in the south of England. We have reinstated a lot of the original Colt design features that were lost since the war. However we need to upgrade the irrigation system, renew the course maintenance facility, build proper paths on the course, upgrade the furniture in the clubhouse – all of which need to be done without inconveniencing our members.

The key to it all is money and whilst revenue has been growing at a good rate these last few years, we could easily spend it many times over on all the improvements we would like to put in place.

The potential at Canterbury is incredible, the problem is managing everyone’s expectations and that includes mine!

How do you communicate with existing members?

We have a constant stream of information going out to the membership depending on their personal preferences. They can decide to receive all information from the club, regardless of what section they are in, and if they so wish just from yours truly. I produce a manager’s update every two to three weeks which goes out via email. If the need arises then I’ll send them out more often. In fact during the first week of the pandemic I was sending them out daily!

We have a quarterly members’ forum where key members of the management team or board give a formal presentation to the membership which is followed by an open Q&A session.

On a daily basis I ensure that I am approachable and I will take time out to ‘work’ the room when walking the bar and lounge. I do think that too many young general managers don’t make themselves accessible enough to their members. It is a fine line between being too accessible such as the old stereotyped, gin-soaked club secretary who is always propping up the bar or being considered aloof and unapproachable.  One useful ploy is to clear the odd table of empty plates and glasses. It impresses the members who are sitting there and gives them the chance to engage for a few minutes. It also sends a message to the bar staff, who perhaps should have done it a bit earlier!

Always remember that your members can be you greatest advocates and supporters, or your biggest critics. The choice can often be down to you!

How does Canterbury fit in with the local community? Is it also trying to attract more women and juniors to the facility?

The club works with the local schools and universities, and five years ago introduced a scholarship programme where it gives free membership and coaching to four new junior golfers every year. We currently have 16 juniors under the guidance of our head teaching professional, Richard Wallis.

Gareth, another of our teaching professionals, is paid a small retainer by the club to go into local schools and colleges and give taster sessions to the kids.

We also run a ladies’ beginner course where the ladies get group coaching, six months membership and a current lady member assigned to them as a golf ‘buddy’. This in turn has proved to be very successful and Sarah, our current lady captain, is a past graduate!

We run several golf days for local charities and work closely with Kent Cricket (the Spitfire Ground is less than a mile away) and Canterbury Rugby Club who are in the National Leagues.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

We work very hard on our customer service and constantly focus on staff training. I’m very lucky in that I have colleagues with a very strong background in customer service. Ray Goodsall, our course manager, and Ellie Walton, our clubhouse manager, along with myself have worked at some of the best clubs and resorts in the UK and Europe and bring all that training and experience with us. The service that the club offers now is unrecognisable from six years ago.

Very early on we opened the club office seven days a week which was much appreciated by our seven-day members, especially as very often they can only play at the weekend and in the past saw nobody of real responsibility for most of the year!

In terms of food and beverage, what does the club offer members and visitors? Is this seeing growth?

The club has invested heavily in this area since taking the decision to bring everything in-house six years ago and is a valuable net contributor to the club’s bottom line. We have focussed very heavily on non-golf related revenue streams which include business networking breakfasts (we host two BNI chapters, a Business over Breakfast (BoB) chapter and Fore Golf amongst others), weddings, parties and conferencing. To accommodate these, we are in the process of extending the clubhouse to accommodate an expanded main function room and a new meeting room.

The idea was to make one of the club’s main assets, the clubhouse, ‘sweat’ during the down time. The more non-golf related functions and business meetings we can host in the early mornings and evenings the better. It means we need less green fee traffic on the course and allows us to keep a fully-staffed F&B operation functioning for longer hours which improves the service and experience for our members.

What does the club do in terms of marketing?

We took the decision to invest in the Golf in Kent initiative a couple of years ago and the amount of press coverage and visits we have received since then has really helped to increase the profile of the club both locally and internationally.

We publish a quarterly newsletter that goes out to our entire database. We increasingly use social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and we have just commissioned a revamp of our club website.

We work heavily with our partners such as Kent Cricket, Canterbury Rugby Club, Visit Kent, BNI, BoB and many others where we try to help them build their business as they do ours.

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

Not really as we believe we have a unique offering. We are situated in one of the most famous cities in Europe, have a Harry Colt-designed course as well as a floodlit driving range and for many UK visitors we are a convenient stop off either on the way down to, or on the way back from, the famous links courses on the coast.

Through our association with Golf in Kent we have found ourselves working closely with many of the higher profile clubs in the county such as Royal St George’s, Royal Cinque Ports, Prince’s, Littlestone and the London Club.

What are your predictions for the UK golf industry in the next 10 to 15 years?

Ooh, if I’m not careful I could end up getting stuck on my soapbox with this question. To my mind the golf club business is recalibrating following years of under supply to one of over supply since the early to mid 90s. Kent alone has seen something like seven or eight courses close for good in the last five or so years, and there are more to follow.

Over the next decade the strong will get stronger and the weak will simply disappear. Clubs like Canterbury have made a real effort to reposition themselves as a premier members’ club that is operated as a business with its stakeholders (the members) always in mind. All clubs need to look very carefully at their current business model, work out what their USP is and work out what their short, medium and long term goals are and not deviate drastically from them.

The strength and weaknesses of most members’ clubs are their committees and boards which can sometimes change like the wind. The clubs that go for consistency with their management team, hire the right people and adapt to current market forces and demands will succeed.

I am encouraged with how The PGA is starting to adapt and change and I feel that they could become the go-to body with everything to do with golf club management and operations.

The smaller clubs that survive through the next decade will do so by working more closely with other local clubs and pooling resources as well as finding other sources of revenue streams (without losing sight of what they truly are, a golf club).

You’re also a qualified tournament referee. Any memorable moments from any events you’ve officiated at?

I did Tour School a few times and that was fascinating seeing it through the eyes of an official rather than a player. My best memory was refereeing at the Solheim Cup in 2000 at Loch Lomond. What an experience.

My worst memory was refereeing at the Southern Professional Championship and having to penalise the head professional of the club I was running at the time, two shots with two holes to go for an honest mistake. He missed the cut by one!

Can you detail for us Canterbury’s experience with the coronavirus, both in the lead up to the lockdown, and then the lockdown itself?

Like most general managers I found it a very strenuous run up to the golf ban and for the next couple of weeks following it. The lack of clear direction from the government down in the run up to the lockdown made clear decision making very difficult. The day before everything closed down I ended up sending out three emails to the membership first of all saying we might have to shut down, followed by no we won’t and then following a late in the day call by England Golf, we are closed!

The hardest thing was having to furlough staff at a time when everyone was starting to get upbeat about the coming season, The Masters and Easter and following a long and difficult winter period.

We have tried to rotate the staff on furlough in order to keep moral at a decent level and ensure that the team are fully abreast of what is going on at the club and what steps we are trying to take to hopefully secure their long term futures at the club (virus permitting).

How has this has affected the club in the short term?

In several ways the impact on the club has been significant. We had started to extend the clubhouse over the winter to accommodate our growing function and conferencing business, when the call to down tools came and work, temporarily, had to stop.

We had also taken the golf shop in-house and had shopfitters, Miller Brown, all booked in to install the new fittings when again we had to postpone them. Both were due to be opened by now and we are having to re-evaluate the situation on a weekly basis.

The lockdown also came just before the annual renewal of subscriptions which, following the worst winter for 20 years, has been a little testing to say the least. However, I am pleased to say that the initial renewal figures are coming through in excess of an 80 per cent take up which I’m very happy with. We have introduced some different forms of membership to enable those members, through no fault of their own, are totally strapped at the moment and can’t justify the cost of annual membership. My board wanted to ensure that these members were kept involved at the club so that it is easy for them to upgrade again once their personal circumstances have improved. All this had to be done in a way that doesn’t undermine the membership that had already renewed in the preceeding months.

I have a virtual meeting, via Skype, every Wednesday at the moment as we look to support the members and staff and get through this hopefully short-term crisis.

The club needs to extend its borrowing to ensure that there are enough funds in place to get the club through the current financial year and without impacting on next year’s operating costs. We are very fortunate that we have a good, profitable business with a good market value and also own the freehold of our course. As a result, members are happy to invest in a members’ bond to help cover any potential shortfalls.

Do you have any plans for the next year or so as a result of what’s happened?

We are currently looking very hard at how the club will operate for the remainder of this year and going on from there. We are constantly reviewing our budget for this year with different scenarios starting from June, August and October all of which have different levels of course and clubhouse access built in.

Our long-term business plan revolved around an expanding function and conferencing business which has obviously, like the rest of the hospitality business, taken a real hit in the short term. Having some clarity on when the clubhouse will be open again would help tremendously but the government does have slightly more pressing matters to deal with at the moment, like keeping people alive!

It will have an impact on our capital expenditure over the next couple of years as the board of directors see the paying back on any debt incurred during the pandemic, as the immediate priority. Having said that there is still an ambition to continue investing in the course improvements.

Do you have any other concerns about the club at the moment?

One of my current major concerns is that Canterbury is under the threat of being sued for discrimination by one of its members with regards to its buggy policy. This is in spite of the fact that we follow all England Golf guidelines to the letter and indeed were once asked by England Golf if they could use our buggy policy wording as an example for other clubs to follow. Sadly, however, we have one member who seemingly thinks that good health and safety practice and the need to avoid excessive damage to the course in extreme conditions, are secondary issues compared to the access requirements of a golfer with mobility issues.

To make matters worse he is using the services of the local university law clinic which carries no cost to him as it undoubtedly considers this to be a valuable education exercise for its students. We, however, have to treat this complaint very seriously, as failure to do so could have serious implications for golf clubs across the UK. As a result we are having to employ a good specialist lawyer, at considerable cost to the club and to make matters worse, our legal expenses insurers, DAS, are trying to avoid our claim on the grounds that their policy does not cover ‘discrimination’.

The member involved is acting on his own with no support from the rest of the members who, fully support the club’s stance, even those who have to use buggies themselves.

It is sad that someone who has been a member of the club for over 35 years will ultimately leave such a legacy.

The simple fact is that, with a golf course designed nearly  100 years ago, which sits on some fairly heavy soil in places, it is not always possible to allow a buggy out to be driven around all 18 holes when the ground conditions are extremely wet. This is for health and safety reasons as well as concern over course damage.

The club takes its responsibilities very seriously in this matter and in recent years has spent heavily on path extensions to allow as much buggy access as possible throughout the year. In recognition of our duty to mobility-impaired golfers, we never operate a blanket buggy ban, but this means that we actually have to close the course entirely at times when it would be safely accessible to golfers on foot.

Not surprisingly, we have plenty of able-bodied members who complain about that, which is particularly frustrating for the board and myself!

 

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick May 13, 2020 09:05
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5 Comments

  1. Ellie May 14, 16:08

    Excellent interview, Roger has all round golf and hospitality experience. He is a good person and awesome to work with.

    Reply to this comment
  2. MarkG May 14, 10:02

    Very interesting interview – wishing you continued success Roger!
    Kind regards MarkG

    Reply to this comment
  3. Enzo May 13, 13:12

    Exciting times ahead for Canterbury golf club! I have no doubt that the club will come out the other side of this stronger! Excited to see how the new professional shop looks too!

    Reply to this comment
  4. Michael J May 13, 10:49

    Nice interview. Not only is Roger knowledgeable in many areas of golf (including rules!) he is also good man.

    Reply to this comment
  5. Matt Nicholson May 12, 16:48

    Nice interview….all round nice guy!

    Reply to this comment
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