Meet the golf club manager: Geoff Johnson MBE

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir June 7, 2020 07:40 Updated

The new manager of Clandeboye Golf Club in Northern Ireland talks about moving clubs during a pandemic, attracting membership renewals during a lockdown, clubhouses in a social distancing world and why local golf clubs should now work more together.

On the one hand the industry lost millions in revenues due to the lockdown, on the other golf has never been in such demand. What has the experience for Clandeboye been so far?

I have been in constant communication with Clandeboye and the various members on council so I have picked up the trends. Part of this was the protocols set out by the Golfing Union of Ireland (GUI) and that clubs should only open for members. This has had a positive impact for the club, they marketed early membership schemes, easy to pay options and the benefits of being a member. This generated more than 80 new members to the club by the end of May, which has helped gap the income loss from visitors and societies.

Geoff Johnson MBE

What were your experiences like during the lockdown? Did you, for example, introduce an emergency membership renewal scheme or initiative?

I was still the general manager of Tidworth Garrison Golf Club in Wiltshire when lockdown started on March 23, and the renewal period was due to take place in April. We did ask members to support the club and in the main they did, which resulted in approximately 85 percent of renewals before the end of April. This enabled us with the forecast that we needed to achieve plus where we needed to make savings in order to keep the club financially sound for the remainder of the year. The club introduced vouchers for those who paid early and again this really helped show the members that they were valued.

How much does the club rely on non-golfing additional revenue streams such as the bar and restaurant, and how much of a problem is this for you given the need for social distancing?

Here at Clandeboye the club do rely on additional revenue streams as the club is a very sociable club and the members like to enjoy a bit of the ‘craic’ after their round. The size of the clubhouse is such that two metre distancing could be achieved but would reduce the capacity by at least 50 percent. The restrictions on the hospitality part of our club have had a huge impact on income, especially with the fantastic weather we are having. With tee sheets on both courses very much full we, like most clubs, are watching the additional funds driving back out of the club after golf.

You recently moved to Clandeboye. What encouraged you to make the move?

The size of the club, 900 members, two courses and the ability to put something back into the community that I left back in 1984 was the attraction. It’s a fantastic area and not having worked here for a long time I felt it would be the right place to improve my knowledge and try to get the club the recognition that it fully deserves.

How would you describe the golf club?

The club is an extremely friendly club with a family atmosphere. The members are polite and enjoy chatting, they (the members) want to be involved, it’s their club and they have a sense of belonging, that is clear, which helps to create so much positivity to improve the club. There are a lot of good golfers at the club and they love their competitions so to compete in inter club events and closed club events is a big part of the make up of Clandeboye. If I was asked to summarise: family friendly with a competitive spirit.

Is it more difficult to bring in modern initiatives such as online tee times given that Clandeboye is nearly 100 years old?

Not at all, the members seem open to change, in fact they have a booking system in place and have a council of mixed ages from young business people and retired gentlemen and ladies. It is great to get ideas from the council who are looking to take the club forward, adapt to the current climate and continue to look at processes that will benefit the members.

The club has a connection with Galway and Harewood Downs. Can you tell us about this?

The connection with Galway has been long standing and I am led to believe is enjoyed by both sets of members. I know the club manager at Galway, David Kelly, through Club Manager Association of Europe (CMAE) training that we have undertaken and I know Galway only too well both as a golfer and socially and I won’t go into that aspect lest to say it’s a fantastic city.

The connection with Harewood Downs was arranged by one of the members from Clandeboye moving across to that area. It started out in a similar manner that normal reciprocal visits are managed but I believe now that there is an annual match between the two clubs alternating each year between the home club.


Can you tell us about your career – and how you ended up managing such a prestigious golf club?

I stepped into golf management after a career of 29 years in the Irish Guards, a career which I thoroughly enjoyed. I had been running the Infantry Golf part of the Army Golf Association for a number of years and thought that going into the administration side of golf would be the best way that I could continue to enjoy working. I completed the Golf Club Managers’ Association (GCMA) introduction training, then took on the year-long study with New Bucks University to gain a certificate in golf management. This enabled me to take up my first post at Tidworth Garrison Golf Club where I went on a huge learning curve and as a team we took the club from seventh to third  best club in Wiltshire as rated by the ‘top 100’ golf course reviews.

I have recently embarked on the CMAE training programme and so far have achieved level 1 and 2 of their MDP programme. It has been a combination of both experience and current education that has enabled me to secure this outstanding position.

Away from coronavirus, what do you find are the biggest challenges managing the club today?

Before coronavirus, the challenge was definitely recruitment and retention. The restrictions imposed on clubs for play to be members only has helped a little with new members. The challenges in managing a club today, away from coronavirus, are keeping expenditure down and at the same time providing the members with a high level of service. Trying not to increase membership fees beyond the affordability of the members is a huge challenge as costs rise. The retention of members for the future and the ability to bring in junior golfers, boys and girls, to drag them away from other sports such as football, mountain biking and cycling to name a few is the biggest challenge I believe clubs will face.

What would you normally do to entice new members to join the club? And to ensure existing ones keep renewing?

A good marketing plan to show off the benefits of the club are essential to attract new members, involving them in events, introducing them to like-minded groups to participate in a round of golf and building a welcome for them with new member evenings is always a good start. Retaining members can be difficult, there will be some, who for various reasons, finances, moving away and so on, will leave but providing them with a sense of belonging, giving a service that meets their expectation, meeting them, chatting and listening all helps massively to retaining members and ensuring they renew and of course the quality of the golf course is key. Happy golfers, happy members!

How do you market the club to visitors?

The club is currently marketed via social media and we have a great team here working on the various platforms to highlight the club. The local newspapers are a good source of advertising especially for external events away from golf such as weddings and private dinners.

You mentioned the club is family friendly – is this reflected in any membership offerings?

Definitely, the club has a developed family / spouse membership. At weekends, families with juniors are encouraged to play and have set tee times in the afternoons for juniors and parents to play, overseen by the junior convenor. Sunday lunches were, before Covid-19, a very popular family affair with grandparents, parents and children and being looked after which is great for the club atmosphere.

Back to Covid-19, what are your predictions for the next few years for the golf industry?

My predictions, certainly in the short term, there may be clubs who will struggle financially and this may cause them to close. Those who are proactive and look to make positive changes to make the club a welcoming environment for all ages will see a growth in membership. I can see clubs trying to undercut each other in order to get that extra pound and possibly undervalue their product and clubs within close proximity to each other may need to work smarter and maybe pool resources in the present, including bulk buying products to save money. Golf will be around for many years to come however memberships need to be reflective of society and adapt to the changes in which this brings, a lot of thought from governing bodies, and clubs, will be required in order to ensure golf is maintained.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir June 7, 2020 07:40 Updated
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