Meet the estate manager: Jonathan Illingworth

Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 15, 2021 10:58

The head of Whittlebury Park golf resort in Northamptonshire talks about the uplift in participation at the facility since the pandemic started, how a venue with both a golf course and hotel has had to adapt in the last 18 months and the work his club does to make the game as welcoming as possible.

Hello Jonathan, can you give us some information about Whittlebury Park?

Nestled in hundreds of acres of ancient parkland and just a 10-minute drive from junction 15a of the M1 and 20 minutes from central Milton Keynes, Whittlebury offers an award-winning 254-bedroom four-star hotel, conference and training centre, a 3 AA Rosette fine-dining restaurant, 62 meeting and event rooms catering for up to 3,000 delegates, as well as a luxurious spa and first-class golf facilities.

Whittlebury’s first-class golf facilities include a 36-hole championship course, a driving range, simulators, PGA professional coaches, a Callaway fitting centre and an award-winning atrium clubhouse within its grounds.

The Leisure Club at Whittlebury offers superior facilities to make getting and keeping fit a more pleasurable and enjoyable experience. Facilities include a gym fully kitted out with the latest Artis by Technogym equipment, a 19-metre swimming pool with bubble jets, a salt sauna, a steam room, a jacuzzi, a ‘Body & Mind’ studio and The Terrace Cafe for light meals and snacks poolside.

Your role is estate manager, what does that involve?        

As estate manager I am essentially responsible for everything of an outdoor operational nature within the resort, which includes overseeing various teams including the greenkeeping, pro shop, maintenance and estates teams.

What have been your, and Whittlebury Park’s, experiences of the pandemic from March 2020 to today? Has there been a surge in golf participation and membership?

For me the pandemic has been a bit like a strange dream in many ways. The time seems to have passed with no ‘real life bookmarks’ so to speak. Now we are coming back to a more ‘normal’ way of life. We are starting to get the usual ‘bookmarks’ back, like a family birthday get together, a comedy night out, a holiday and so on. I was lucky enough to continue working throughout the pandemic as part of the core team keeping Whittlebury Park safe including preparing the resort for reopening.

When the initial lockdown was eased, and golf was permitted again from May 18, 2020 we did see a surge in golf participation. Naturally with so many still on furlough people could play more often and this meant that tee time usage was certainly up on previous years and very noticeably, weekday golf was much more popular. Membership has continued to perform well with a good number of new members and a strong retention of existing members.

Many golf venues in the UK have experienced a boom in the last 18 months, but some with hotels or with significant food and beverage operations have struggled – has this been an issue for Whittlebury Park?

I think it is fair to say that most hospitality businesses have struggled over the last 18 months due to the restrictions placed on the industry. As previously mentioned, golf has performed well since its reopening however the hotel and food and beverage side of the business has been more difficult to kick start. The restrictions have been hard, but we’ve had to live by these regardless of the additional precautions we put in place, or the size of our function rooms.

With the restrictions in place for so long, we found that once we were able to open fully, our task was then recruiting the staff required to service the demand. This was a challenge that we couldn’t foresee but is something that is the case across the industry.

Has the venue’s approach to marketing changed as a result of the pandemic?

Our approach to marketing has shifted since the pandemic started in a number of ways. To begin with we had to be reactionary, we weren’t really sure what was happening from one week to the next, so we had to be completely adaptable and responsive. Once the business started to open, we began to communicate our safety procedures and changes to ensure our guests felt safe and secure. Now we are fully open we’re delighted to be back with our full marketing plan in place.

What social distancing measures have been put in place?

We wanted both our visitors and team to feel as safe and secure as possible whilst visiting Whittlebury Park, and so we implemented a whole host of measures to ensure a Covid-secure venue. We invested in temperature check cameras at the entrance to the venues and the rear staff entrance. We had an abundance of hand sanitiser stations installed and instigated one-way systems. We reduced capacities in various areas and started using a room clean procedure which included UV-C lights and fogging. The feedback from guests has been fantastic with people saying their time spent here has made them feel incredibly safe.

How have you adapted to the new World Handicap System?

We have adapted well to the new system with a huge thanks to our handicap secretary Paul Wikeley. I think once people finally understood the difference between their old handicap and their new handicap index it has been fairly easy going. New systems always take a little time to bed in and for everyone to get used to them, but the principle behind the system makes perfect sense and will mean that golfers travelling to other courses have a fair handicap for the course they are playing.

Does Whittlebury Park reach out to women and children in order to attract them to golf?

Whittlebury Park reaches out to anyone who would like to take up golf. We have a brilliant PGA golf professional called Richard Cartwright who is very approachable and holds various classes including summer camps over the school holidays. We are extremely lucky here as we have brilliant practice facilities with a 300-yard driving range and a very good short game area. We also have a nine-hole short course (six par threes and three par fours) called the Wedgewood course which is a fantastic way to play and practice the game before heading out onto the championship course.

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

I think golf is generally in a good place and the hesitance for overseas travel means that people are looking for golfing breaks in the UK which is great for us. Membership is by far the most cost-effective way to play the game if you decide it’s a pastime you want to pursue, so with the increased participation levels we hope to bring more people under our wing and give them a great home to play the game we love.


Seamus Rotherick
By Seamus Rotherick October 15, 2021 10:58
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