Meet the golf manager: Craig Ferris

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 20, 2021 14:02

The golf manager of Luton Hoo Hotel Golf & Spa, in Bedfordshire talks about a working life managing a golf venue during a pandemic which has seen venues close, reopen to a surge in demand and then close again.

Could you tell us a bit about Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa?

Luton Hoo Hotel, Golf & Spa, is a beautiful Grade I-listed venue, boasting 1,065 acres of landscaped parklands, an 18-hole championship golf course, two award-winning restaurants and a luxury spa. Our 7,107 yard golf course, which has hosted the Bridgestone Challenge 2017 and 2018, and EuroPro Tour 2017 (all shown on Sky Sports), offers picturesque tee shots including six holes with water hazards. We are also a unique venue as we are built on Capability Brown land so our course doesn’t feature any bunkers. We have many great golfing facilities including a full-length driving range, a putting green and a short game area. We pride ourselves on being open to golf members, pay and play guests, residents of the hotel and corporate golf.

What were your, and Luton Hoo’s, experience of lockdown like from March 2020 to the venue reopening a couple of months later?

It was quite a surreal experience. We have always been a busy club so having golfers on the course everyday to nothing the next was quite a strange time for everyone. There was a lot of preparation that went into the closure in March and we saw a dramatic surge in tee times booked as golfers wanted to make the most of the course before it was shut. When the date was announced for the reopening, we were excited to see players on the course again and we saw an extreme rise of tee times booked. We spent a lot of time planning the reopening so that Luton Hoo was safe for guests to enjoy golf again.

Between reopening and the next lockdown in November, what was it like? How strong was the surge?

There was a huge rush in golf demand, probably the busiest time I have experienced in my golfing career. People’s excitement and enthusiasm was fantastic to see. We had golfing beginners who wanted to try something new, returning players who we see regularly as well as golfers taking up the game again. We also saw a dramatic rise in the demand for coaching and Andy (our PGA professional) and myself were very busy. Our membership numbers increased greatly and we saw a lot of membership renewals as well which was the same time as the reopening.

And what was it like going back into lockdown? What were your thoughts about closing the courses again?

I have a similar view as England Golf and other governing bodies which was that I was surprised with the decision that golf courses had to shut. Golf had proved during the summer that it could be played safely and in accordance to Covid-19 protocols. I believe that it may have stunted the development of golf and the momentum which we had created from May. Closure is a lengthy process which puts pressure on the team and like the first lockdown, we saw a dramatic increase in the tee times surrounding this lockdown.

Has the venue’s approach to marketing changed as a result of the pandemic? Have you increased marketing to ‘staycation’ golfers?

We changed our strategy because our demand levels were high so we felt we didn’t need to spend as much on our marketing avenues. The business grew on its own through word of mouth and other factors like the quarantine travel rules, people didn’t want to go abroad as much, which I am sure other clubs also experienced. Golf Travel and Golf Breaks also created great awareness of Luton Hoo, not just as a golf course but as a five-star hotel as well.

What social distancing measures have been put in place?

The main initiative which we put in place was the creation of the ‘Golf Shop Kiosk’. This is adjacent to the pro shop which let the team serve food and beverage and help guests with tee times and queries. We did this so that there was less traffic in our 19th Bar area and we could maintain Covid-19 procedures. We have also kept our changing rooms closed since the reopening in May. The creation of our Covid-19 safety protocol document is sent to guests via email and reiterated over the phone so when players are on the course, they are safe whilst enjoying the course. As well as this, Luton Hoo is considered a safe space as it is private land so the only people on the estate are guests and they are made aware of our new procedures.

As a venue with a hotel, how damaging has the pandemic been so far and how have you adapted?

The pandemic has been hugely damaging to the whole hospitality industry so everyone has struggled at certain times. Hotel life has changed greatly and we have adapted accordingly. We have many new systems, most notably an app which gives a paperless hotel experience, which guests really appreciate and enjoy using. We want everyone to feel reassured and that they’re in a safe and friendly environment. We have many new protocols and have been assessed by the AA and Visit England to ensure that we are of the highest safety standard.

You’re a PGA professional as well as the manager of Luton Hoo. How much of the role is coaching and playing, and how much is devoted to managing?

Naturally there is a split between the two. Coaching has always been a massive part of my golf journey and is a great passion of mine. I love bringing people into the game and coaching new clients. Managing a golf club has always been one of my goals and to reach it has been extremely rewarding. My time has altered throughout my career at Luton Hoo with managing now being the main focus rather than coaching. However I still do all the coaching I can and I have a strong clientele.

You’re the UK’s only Pelz Golf instructor. What does this involve?

I have worked with Dave Pelz for five years now. I am his UK representative and one of three coaches in Europe with there being 12 worldwide. I cover nine different countries in Europe. I specialise in short-game and putting methods and I run one-day clinics and three-day schools. Luton Hoo is one Dave Pelz’s venues and it is great to build our venue’s awareness globally. I am very proud of this affiliation and have developed it from The Grove.

Does Luton Hoo reach out to beginner golfers, including women and juniors?

Yes we definitely do. Developing the game of junior golfers is a big focus for us in 2021. I have recently become the Bedfordshire County junior coach and we had our first coaching session at Luton Hoo at the end of 2020. I will be teaching some of the best junior golfers in the county with a short-game and putting focus. We are always encouraging more young golfers and lady golfers to visit us and we aim to be running our clinics throughout 2021.

From The Grove to Luton Hoo, you’ve been working in the industry for nearly 15 years now, how do you think it and the role of manager has changed in that time?

I think it has changed radically. The 15 years have given me a well-rounded view of the customer journey and I was able to bring my experience to Luton Hoo. I am now more-hands-on in my managerial position and I am more involved in the day-to-day running and operational aspects of everything golf-related at Luton Hoo. I am passionate about my career and I want to be a manager who leads from the front and who has the best interests of the club at heart.

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

My predictions for the UK golf industry is that it will really thrive and only get better as time goes on. Over summer 2020 a new breed of golfers emerged and will boost the industry. New demographics are starting, or returning, to the game and it really is wonderful to see. People are often hesitant to pay money to join a club but it is now seen as a way to get healthy as well as being social. We are in a great position as a club and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for us.

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 20, 2021 14:02
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