Meet the golf club general manager: James Thomas

Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir September 19, 2021 11:15

The head of Oakdale Golf Club in Yorkshire talks about managing a major rise in membership in the last two years, dealing with staff self-isolating and why his club runs an innovative membership scheme.

James Thomas

Can you tell us a bit about Oakdale Golf Club?

Oakdale Golf Club enjoys an enviable position close to the centre of Harrogate, sitting adjacent to the affluent ‘Duchy Estate’. Set amidst tranquil and picturesque surroundings, it is the only 18-hole golf course lying within the town boundaries yet is famed for its rural atmosphere and peaceful position. It was designed by the world-renowned golf course architect Dr Alister MacKenzie in 1914; the course has two loops of nine holes with a par 71. We have a 50-strong team whose dedication to the club is unrivalled.

Oakdale’s clubhouse and putting green

What have your, and the club’s experiences been, since the pandemic started and up until the present day?

We weathered Covid very well as a business. We kept our staffing structure to a minimum during the pandemic and took advantage of the government furlough scheme. We received support from our bankers and our local authority, both of which eased the pressure and afforded us the opportunity to pilot our way through Covid somewhat unscathed.

From a personal standpoint, our second daughter was born in the middle of the pandemic. We kept our social engagements to a minimum; in addition we were undergoing major renovations of our property so we were certainly kept on our toes throughout!

Oakdale has a unique membership structure; can you tell us more about it?

Over the years we have introduced different membership categories in an attempt to support our recruitment. The result from this approach is Oakdale had a plethora of different membership options which weren’t coherent with our pricing strategy and corporate values. We took the decision to reduce our membership categories from 28 to five, in essence only offering ‘full’ membership plus the usual social, country, honorary and junior.

We saw a steady decline of full members over the last 10 years, as the cost rose north the total number of full members has gone south. In order to bring this line closer together we reduced full membership from £1,200 to £700 plus £5 per round. With the help of a firm of digital marketing strategists the membership has had a fantastic response from the market, precipitating nearly 30 new members four weeks since launch. This innovative and different approach to golf club membership allows each member to pay proportionally for their usage and creates more of a ‘club’ feeling around Oakdale as everyone is on a level footing.

Oakdale’s 7th hole

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

Capacity management. Our innovative membership structure has attracted over 200 new full members in the last two years. Access to the tee is on the verge of becoming a real problem. We have had to negate this issue by reducing time between flights, encouraging tee sharing and placing restrictions on the number of visitors. Two years ago golf was a declining market competing not only with other sports, but also other leisure pursuits such as computer games. The world is a different place now and golf has undoubtedly benefited from government lockdowns and people being furloughed. Our challenge now, is to keep these members engaged with the club in perpetuity, using whatever retention tools necessary.

In addition to capacity management, staff being told to self-isolate either by the NHS app or directly by NHS Track and Trace has proven extremely problematic for us. We have had events scheduled with over 200 attendees, with 24 hours’ notice we have had over 50 percent of our staff unable to work. Crisis management has been crucial and we have had to respond effectively.

You’ve been working in the golf industry for well over a decade now, how do you think it – and the role of the golf club manager – has changed in that time?

Looking back a decade, the role of golf club manager was far simpler. Prior to the pandemic the model of a golf club had become different as other income streams had to be explored and exploited to balance the decline in membership income. Oakdale achieved this through bringing the catering operation in-house and reaching a turnover of almost £500,000 per annum.

You went from assistant golf professional to club manager. How did that come about?

I never envisioned working in the professional side of golf. My skills have always been in business administration and leadership. I enjoy managing people and budgets so golf club management was a natural progression. My previous management experience at Rudding Park helped me to make the transition in 2015/16.

When my predecessor left I saw an opportunity to provide Oakdale with a firm direction for the future. I presented a proposal to the management board which set out a four-phase plan over 10 years, enumerating each step along the way. Two interviews later and I was offered the position of general manager.

What transferable skills to golf club management do you think a PGA professional typically has?

A PGA professional on completion of the professional golf studies degree should be strategic in everything they approach, from delivering a golf lesson to buying stock for the forthcoming year. Taking this approach with golf club management is paramount. As the role is so vast and incorporates a variety of challenges, each task needs to be well thought out, evaluated and then executed in line with the business plan.

You studied professional golf studies at Birmingham University. What did the course entail and how has it helped you?

The course was over three years and covered four subject areas: business management, golf coaching, sports science and custom fitting and repairs. Having studied each module in depth and completed numerous exams in each area it helped me identify which direction I wanted to take my career in. Being a PGA professional allows me to look at golf through both ends of the spectrum (amateur and professional). I understand exactly what a PGA professional needs to do to succeed and what a golf club requires from a PGA professional in order to stay relevant in the market place and be attractive to new members.

Your clubhouse is large and impressive! Do you have many functions and have you invested in the food and beverage offering in recent years? And can you tell us about the tribute acts the club sometimes offers?

In February 2017 we invested £250,000 in modernising the clubhouse and its facilities. The aim was to increase the utilisation of the clubhouse and in turn increase the food and beverage turnover. Prior to Covid we had numerous functions taking place throughout the year, ranging from ‘Tina Turner’ to Gambia vs India curry night! As we all know, investments take time to bed in and grow and taking a long term view resulted in a 43 percent growth in our food and beverage revenue for 2019.

Oakdale’s professional shop

How does Oakdale fit in with its local community?

We try to be a good corporate citizen and member of the local community. We host various events throughout the year where members can invite their friends and guests. We are keen on having good green credentials and ensure this is considered when exploring any business case.

How do you communicate with existing members?

Finding the balance between giving the members enough information or too much is a fine line. We communicate through a variety of different media platforms, email, website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Each method of communication targets a different sector of the market. It’s important to maintain a constant channel of communication in order to keep members abreast of developments within the club and to inform the visitors / members of the public what Oakdale has to offer. Our golf club is continually evolving and a clear, concise communication strategy is vital for success.

What is the club’s approach to customer service?

It is of the utmost importance to us. We strive to achieve and deliver first class customer service. We do this by setting procedures for each department to follow, resulting in a consistently positive experience for our members and guests. We go by the mantra ‘each visit to Oakdale makes you want to come again’.

How do you stay abreast of golf industry news?

I read almost all the golf publications; I am a member of three golf associations (PGA, GCMA and Golf Club Secretary). I enjoy researching different trends in golf and thinking how these could be applied at Oakdale in order to enhance the experience for our members and their guests.

Yorkshire has a number of leading golf clubs. Do you ever find yourself in competition with fellow Yorkshire golf club managers?

We are always in competition with other clubs. The market is challenging and there is so much competition in the Harrogate area; however, swimming upstream has certainly helped us get ahead of the field. Our revolutionary membership structure has made golf at Oakdale more accessible than at other clubs. We are a very inclusive club that has a unique membership offering, our social scene is vibrant and these components have seen us increase our number of full members by over 200 in the last two years.

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

This is partly dependent on the governing bodies that influence the golf industry and partly dependent on golf clubs themselves. The PGA needs to work on producing better quality professionals who can specialise in certain areas. This would help golf clubs recruit the right fit for their business plan and help retain and recruit members. BIGGA needs to drive recruitment into an apprenticeship scheme. As a company, we have found it very difficult to recruit green staff despite paying above market rates. I am sure we are not alone.

If access to apprentice greenkeepers were to improve, the golf industry would be able to give the members (customers) what they want – this will encourage them to stay and we should have financially healthier clubs. England Golf and The R&A need to think about what the industry will look like in 10 to 15 years’ time. I don’t know all the answers, but I can envisage shorter games, reduced number of holes, a further relaxed dress code and improved technology. The rules need to anticipate and reflect these changes.

Ultimately, the golf industry now has the opportunity afforded by Covid to build for the future. Each and every club needs to work towards giving their members what they want, creating an environment that’s welcoming and inclusive and then everything else should fall into place.


Alistair Dunsmuir
By Alistair Dunsmuir September 19, 2021 11:15
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1 Comment

  1. Jacob72 September 21, 07:46

    I highly recommend this golf club – it is one of the best.

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