Meet the golf club general manager: Ben Driver

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick December 31, 2020 10:10

The general manager of Chigwell Golf Club in Essex talks about his role during the pandemic, the surge in demand to play the game and how being a qualified PGA professional and golf club general manager in his 20s has shaped what’s followed so far in his career.

Ben Driver

Can you tell us a bit about Chigwell Golf Club?

Founded in 1925, Chigwell Golf Club is soon approaching its centenary and as a private members’ club we work hard to maintain the core traditions of the sport. But we’re committed to ensuring we keep pace with the times and stay ahead of the curve, improving our product and offering to our members and visitors. As an example, in 2014 the club made significant investment in the refurbishment of the clubhouse and we’re currently approaching three years into our ‘five-year course plan’, which is all about further developing and taking our renowned course to the next level. We have 18 holes set on undulating parkland and the par 71, measuring 6,309 yards, presents a fun test for every level of golfer. As demonstrated by our slope rating of 138, the course has a unique set of challenges and obstacles making it an interesting and challenging layout that offers variety from one game to the next. I can’t wait for members and visitors to see the end result of the development plan as I’m confident it will further establish our course as one of the best in the county. Speaking of location, we’re lucky in that Chigwell is accessible for so many with it being just 10 miles north-east of central London, close to the A13, M11 and within easy reach of the M25. Chigwell train station is on the central line of the London underground and within walking distance from the club.

Chigwell members are unique – I genuinely have not come across a more inclusive and friendly membership. They love to welcome and get to know new members and everyone plays with everyone; there are no groups or cliques, which I think speaks volumes about our club culture. So, in a nutshell, I would describe Chigwell Golf Club as a contemporary, progressive and inclusive club, with its heritage at heart.

The 10th hole

What were yours, and the club’s, experiences of lockdown like from March to it reopening a couple of months later?

Where to start! First and foremost, the safety and well-being of staff, members and visitors is and always will be our absolute priority. At the beginning of the pandemic back in March, there were so many unknowns about the virus and what it could mean for everyone on a personal level and of course the golf industry as a whole. Things developed and moved so quickly and we were reacting on a day-by-day basis to the news, making and implementing decisions quickly in line with government and industry guidance. We also worked around the clock to communicate clearly and regularly with our members on the changes we were having to implement to keep everyone safe and ultimately help keep our club open.

Despite our efforts, Monday 23rd March was a day I’ll never forget as a general manager; being told to close the club was completely unchartered territory for us all. As you can imagine, working from home wasn’t something my team or I had ever experienced before so we all had to adapt quickly.

What’s more, like for many clubs, our membership renewal date was 1st April which of course couldn’t have come at a more challenging time this year! As a result, my time spent working from home in the early days was largely focused on communicating and liaising with our members about their decision to renew which took many different forms – from phone calls, emails, texts, social media and of course Zoom! Being mindful of the worry and uncertainty our membership were experiencing, whilst also ensuring our club could financially survive the pandemic was a difficult balance to strike, but we did everything we possibly could to be flexible to individual circumstances. On top of this, I was very aware and committed to ensuring team morale didn’t slip and in addition to regular one-to-one check-ins, we even held a weekly quiz on Zoom to help lift spirits.

It goes without saying that the pandemic has – and continues to be – a huge and moving beast. With advice and restrictions constantly changing, it’s naturally a challenging and new situation for us to navigate our way through. There is still a long road ahead but that said, I’m incredibly proud of how we’ve pulled together and thrived as a team and club, and also the sense of ‘togetherness’ I’ve felt from all sectors of the industry. Everyone has been collaborative and flexible during these unprecedented times.

A new tee on the 11th hole

Since reopening, what has it been like? Have you experienced the surge in demand that’s been seen elsewhere?

Wednesday 13th May was the day we were allowed to reopen for two-balls playing nine holes and after weeks of staying at home with the club closed, watching the first shot that morning was an unforgettable moment. The cheerful, uplifting atmosphere felt on the course that day was contagious and it made all the hard work that we put into reopening the course with ‘Covid-safe’ measures in place so worth it. It was also the first time we had operated a booking system for our members (historically we’d only operated one for competitions) and after just seven minutes of tee times going live, we were fully booked. It was like watching tickets sell out for Glastonbury in record time!

Whilst it was apparent that day how eager and pleased everyone was to be back outside in the fresh air, playing the game and seeing friends, what I wasn’t quite prepared for was the huge demand that was to follow. The phone wouldn’t stop ringing, hundreds of emails were flying in every day and it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t just demand for the first week or two coming out of lockdown; we experienced an unprecedented surge in membership enquiries which since May has resulted in over 100 new members across all membership categories.

We also maintained our joining process during this time which involves meeting the membership committee (albeit virtually!) and playing in rounds.

With the time involved in this process, this presented its own set of challenges but the club is fortunate to have an outstanding membership committee who continue to give up their own time to help Chigwell GC grow and succeed.

In addition to managing the surge in membership we’ve witnessed, there has been a constant stream of tasks and new challenges to work through, including the return of competitive golf, the upgrade to four-balls, the ‘rule of six’, test and trace requirements and then most recently the county of Essex moving into tier 2 restrictions, just before the new national restrictions came into play in November 2020.

Things are constantly changing and whilst we don’t know what’s ahead, we’re committed to being flexible and adapting quickly however we need to.

The 15th hole

What social distancing measures have been put in place?

Thankfully, the industry really pulled together and provided multiple sources of information to help us understand how to become ‘Covid-secure’. England Golf issued their ‘Play Safe, Stay Safe’ guidance and our health and safety advisors Xact provided useful resources and advice. I’m also a member of the GCMA and the East Anglia region is a great support network of managers to bounce ideas around with. At Chigwell Golf Club, beyond the essentials of hand sanitiser, two metre furniture spacing, staff PPE and removal of touch points, we’ve also tried to be creative with it. Everyone is very familiar with the standard Covid-19 warning signs they see when going about their daily lives, so I felt it was important where possible to inject our brand into new measures we were implementing, to ensure we stood out but also to maintain our identity as a club. For example, we’ve installed pull-up banners, carpet stickers, floor mats, hand sanitising stations and even hole inserts, all printed with our club logo on.

Has your approach to marketing the club changed because of the pandemic?

Having operated throughout the pandemic, I think every business has been forced to at the very least review their strategy, marketing or otherwise. We are all in a very different place to what we could have imagined 12 months ago and have to react and respond accordingly in the months and years ahead. At Chigwell our approach to marketing has been consistent over recent years – we keep our messaging simple whilst highlighting the club’s core values. To that point, we’ve always taken a stance of working to better the product rather than discounting the price. For example, we have and will continue to charge an entrance fee as this promotes that members are committing to our club and in turn, the club is committed to their fulfilment and enjoyment as a member. I’m pleased to have seen clubs with entrance fees benefit during this period of high demand for the sport as there has been growing pressure for some time to remove them and also offer free months or discounted subscriptions. We’ll continue to follow the same approach in our marketing activity but with the pandemic bringing an increased demand for golf, we’ll also focus on nurturing the renewed passion for the sport and promoting the health benefits of the game, both mentally and physically. We’re also very active on social media to keep our membership and followers regularly in touch with what’s going on around the club.

The entrance foyer to the bar at Chigwell GC

Did you find the transition from club pro to club manager difficult? Is there anything you know now that you wish you’d known when you started?

I am so grateful for my experience as a PGA professional from the age of 20 and strongly believe the hard work, graft and dedication that the role requires had a huge part to play in securing my first general manager position at the age of 27. Being a pro requires dedication, hard work and resilience, whilst providing first-hand experience in customer engagement and service. These are all skills imperative for effective club management and which have shaped the manager I am today.

Such experience alone isn’t enough of course and I’d be lying if I said the transition to being fully responsible for a club’s P&L alongside the pressure of leading a team of staff and the health and safety responsibilities that come with it, hasn’t at times been challenging. Club management is tough going and I’ve had to work incredibly hard in every one of my roles to get to the point I’m at now. But it’s diverse and rewarding and I wouldn’t change anything about my career to date.

Before you worked in golf you studied applied golf management studies at the University of Birmingham. What did this course entail, what did you learn and do you recommend it to others who might want to manage golf clubs?

It’s a three-year degree that covers modules such as sports science, equipment technology, coaching theory and business management. It combines all of this with the opportunity to become a member of the PGA. I can’t recommend the course enough for anyone wanting to manage a club – but it also provides a fantastic and diverse platform to pursue a career in any sector within the industry. The degree is well established and has been running for approximately 20 years, with many graduates of the course now enjoying very successful careers.

The club’s restaurant

You’ve managed multiple Crown Golf clubs. How did you find this experience and how different is it being the manager of a private members’ club compared to managing them?

I’m extremely grateful for my experience working at Crown Golf. Managing clubs within the Crown group offered a completely different set of commercial challenges and experiences to the ones I face now. It was a large group of courses so there was great camaraderie and I met and learnt from many talented colleagues and managers along the way. What managing Chigwell over the last three years has taught me is there can be a huge misconception about members’ clubs. Contrary to some beliefs, they aren’t about excluding anyone and the overarching goal is to create and maintain an environment that people want to join and be a part of for many years. For me, what makes a members’ club unique is that it’s a group of focused individuals that share agreed common goals and are all pulling in the same direction to achieve them. That is something I’m really passionate about and I’ll take with me throughout my career. I want to dispel any myths of all members’ clubs being overbearing or with opinionated committee members as this couldn’t be further from my experience.

A view across the 18th and 10th holes

TopGolf still only has three venues in the UK, but one is very near you in Chigwell – do you find you’re in competition with this venue?

Not at all, I think it’s great that they’re nearby and it’s a positive for the sport when there are facilities offering a different version of the game. As a members’ club, our objectives are different to TopGolf but we share the common goal of attracting as many new golfers to the game as possible. If they are providing a fun environment for beginner, novice or even experienced golfers then that’s fantastic and only serves to benefit Chigwell. Naturally, I keep one eye on clubs that are similar to us and within the same area! But I know many of the managers well and we all have a great relationship whereby we share knowledge and experiences.

The main lounge

You were a golf operations manager for two years in Saudi Arabia. How did this come about and what was the experience like?

I first heard of the opportunity through friends that had graduated on the same degree as me. The prospect was really exciting, especially the club itself which was a brand new, state of the art facility within a university complex. That said, living abroad in the country did bring a number of challenges, such as its temperatures of over 40 degrees at times and the fact I was leaving all my friends and family behind. It was only after careful consideration that I decided to go for it. I’m so pleased I did as my experience working in Saudi was unforgettable and continues to shape me as a general manager to this day. The customer’s experience at the club I worked in was best-in-class and learning to communicate with over 15 nationalities on the job was such valuable experience.

The clubhouse patio

Chigwell has a five-year golf course plan. Can you tell us about this?

Sure! I touched on this earlier but being a membership club, investment in the course and making sure it’s always in the best condition it can be is at the centre of achieving our goals and vision. Initially, the club undertook a major course review along with the original designers of the course, who in turn made recommendations for improvements whilst ensuring we were retaining the fundamental character. We’re now three years into making these improvements and with the help of F.J. Lovell, they include a professional redesign and redevelopment of all bunkers around the course as well as re-shaping of some holes.

Our 10th hole is probably the pick of the bunch and is now described by many as a stunning par three and one of our most memorable holes. DJUKE Ltd has installed PC drainage into the greens and we continue to upgrade the path network to improve access through the winter months. Other notable works include the clearing of existing ditches and the creation of new ones to help course drainage and with the help of ‘Trendy Landscapes’ we’ve built impressive new features on the third and 12th holes. We have and continue to add length with new tees on seven of the holes and most recently we’ve commissioned a borehole project, such that we can be self-sufficient from a water perspective and we are in the planning stages of a full course irrigation installation. The five-year course plan is a huge and complex project and we’ve achieved so much already but there’s lots more still to come. We have a very experienced course manager and his team of greenkeepers and apprentices work alongside our greens committee who represent the best interests of our members. We’re a young management team that share the same enthusiasm, energy and work ethic and I’m excited for what we can achieve in 2021.

What are your predictions for the next few years for the UK golf industry?

Well, it’s not easy to predict where we’ll be next week in the current climate(!), but I think the UK golf industry has such an amazing opportunity, with the increased footfall and membership bases we’ve seen. The worst thing any club could do is be complacent and expect these members to renew next year; we now have to work hard to nurture the influx we’ve benefited from in recent months, which is a new challenge for us all to work through.

Whilst I think it’s important that clubs look at how they can expand their offering, personally, I don’t like the blanket phrase of ‘golf needs to modernise’. ‘That phrase will mean different things to different clubs and each one needs to look at making effective improvements which work for their business model. I’ve seen many different ways of doing things with my career to date and I’m a firm believer that facilities with differing modern approaches can co-exist together. Looking ahead, I think clubs need to look at how they can become more than a golf club to their customers. We do this already at Chigwell and will continue to work on this over the coming years; golf clubs need to be places where you don’t just play the game, have a drink and head home. They should make you want to stay and socialise. They should attract families and couples for lunch, dinners, leisure and events. This is easier said than done of course and might require some expenditure but I’d really like to see clubs focus on their clubhouses a bit more if they can. Time and time again I speak to non-golfers who say to me how golf clubhouses are “old fashioned”, “unwelcoming” or “dreary”, which we’ve got to try and get away from.

 

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick December 31, 2020 10:10
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1 Comment

  1. Craig January 3, 23:04

    Ben talks such sense, he’s exactly right that modernising will mean different things to different clubs. It’s refreshing to hear of a club that has a five year plan and looking to improve on the course layout and creating a family environment. Good luck!

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