More than a third of golf clubs saw a ‘dramatic’ rise in membership last year

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 25, 2021 09:59

A survey of more than 200 golf clubs has found that more than 80 percent saw an increase in membership revenue in 2020, and nearly half an increase in green fee revenue.

The BRS Golf research, by GolfNow, which looks at the impact of Covid-19 on golf clubs in the UK and Ireland, shows that membership retention is the number one priority for 2021.

The data finds that 40 percent of clubs reported an increase in green fee revenue, 55 percent saw double digit growth in rounds (proportionally twice as many in Scotland than in Wales) and 33 percent reported that rounds were up ‘significantly’ last year.

Despite a challenging and volatile year, golf club operators are optimistic about what lies ahead. Membership was by far the biggest growth area in 2020, with 80 percent of respondents reporting their membership revenues are up, and 35 percent reporting it has increased dramatically. In fact, 11 percent said they had surpassed their membership capacity and had to introduce a waiting list.

The adult male category made up 66 percent of all new members last year, while adult women were the third largest segment (13 percent). Clubs also reported increases among junior, juvenile, student and flexible / lifestyle members, together making up 21 percent of new memberships.

Clubs say the renewed interest in golf and club membership from new and returning golfers in 2020 following the spring lockdown is a huge opportunity for the game to diversify and appeal to young people and women.

When asked about critical elements in 2021 to ensure sustainability, the majority of clubs cited new membership retention as the number one priority. Many comments referenced the importance of member engagement in 2021, especially as life returns to normal and pre-Covid team sports participants decide where to spend their time and money.

A member-owned club in Midlothian, Scotland, said their key priority for 2021 was: “Maintaining membership of new members in 2020 who started golfing at the expense of football, rugby and other team games.”

This is against a backdrop of 60 percent of clubs stating they were closed to members for three months or more, 84 percent were closed to visitors for three months or more and 86 percent were closed to members’ guests for three months or more.

The move to digital happened quickly. It required generations of golfers to embrace online technologies and with it the benefit of knowing their next round was booked in a safe and convenient way.

It was the bottom 25 percent of courses which previously had the lowest usage of online bookings that made the biggest leaps into technology adoption. The lowest quartile of clubs saw just six percent of their 2019 rounds booked online – this leapt to 60 percent of rounds by autumn 2020.

The technologically proficient, or highest quartile clubs who were already fully committed to online booking pre-Covid, only saw slight changes in booking behaviours.

The vast majority, 76 percent of respondents, are anticipating pre-round contactless transactions are here to stay after Covid-19 has passed. The necessity of online booking has created a massive change in culture, moving mainly from walk-in bookings and cash / card payments to primarily online. This was a sea-change not only for the golfers, but for the staff as well.

The number of clubs placing a ‘very high priority’ or ‘high priority’ on technology almost doubled from just 37 percent in 2019 to 67 percent in 2020.

Unsurprisingly the wedding and events business, society and competitions and food and beverage segments were deemed hardest hit by respondents, with  81 percent saying clubhouse F&B was down dramatically, while 70 percent reported a dramatic decline in weddings and events and 64 percent said society and open competitions were down significantly over last year.

Clubs with a higher reliance on corporate and society business reported total revenues were down from June through to September. Sixteen percent of respondents had more than 100 bookings cancelled.

Only 26 percent of all clubs reported that travel and overseas visitors are moderately to extremely important to their club. Travel-focused courses that would traditionally see a larger income from overseas visitors are, understandably, not yet optimistic about the return of visitor rounds in the first half of 2021. Only 16 percent stated they were extremely or very optimistic that the travel business would return soon.

Working remotely received the highest agreement among golf club managers, with 71 percent identifying this as a key opportunity for the industry. Fewer days (if any) commuting to the office and no worries about sneaking past the boss when leaving early offer new-found flexibility for the office workforce.

“Golf in England has been handed a get out of jail free card – it is up to all of us to use it wisely and ensure that the benefits of golf: exercise, activity, camaraderie, competitiveness are promoted heavily by the governing bodies, courses and members. It is a fantastic opportunity for golf to shed its stuffy image and embrace change to maximise the interest in younger members and women in general. The stale, male and pale image could be a thing of the past within five years if we get it right,” said one operator from a privately-owned course in England.

Meanwhile, 67 percent highly agreed that future investments in technology will help courses capitalise on the consumer’s adoption of making pre-payments. If it is easy and convenient to get to the golf course, then golfer participation patterns will become more ingrained with new-found freedom.

Other critical elements for success in the coming year for club managers were: member retention, course maintenance, the delivery of the vaccine and the ability to open the clubhouse safely.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir February 25, 2021 09:59
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