Engaging the next generation

James Ibbetson, Director of Golf and PGA Professional at Tudor Park Marriott Hotel and Country Club is passionate about engaging the next generation of golf and ensuring that his membership base is well catered for. He met with Andy Brown to tell him how he plans to do both and how a restructuring of his pro shop brought in more revenue.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 16.55.32After only spending five minutes talking to James Ibbetson, it is clear that he’s got his eye on the big picture in terms of ensuring the game of golf – and specifically his club – remain healthy. As Ibbetson points out, there are some clubs up and down the country which have good membership numbers now, but if the age demographics of their members’ are towards the older age range of the spectrum then where will they be in ten or twenty years time? It is this drive to appeal to the younger demographic and to create different pathways to full membership that is behind the club’s launch of different memberships.

“We are trying to drive a younger age category in and so have introduced two intermediate golf categories: 18-24 and 25-29 and they are at a reduced rate,” he explains. “In the past it was full rate when someone was 18. We’ve tried to ease those people in, and create a pathway between junior and full memberships. We launched last year and that has been fairly successful. What we are doing isn’t ground-breaking, but it’s really important to target the younger audience – these guys are going to be the future of golf clubs and if you don’t do something now then in 15 years time clubs are going to struggle.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 16.57.53As well of offering new membership options for those who are younger, the club is also targeting casual players by launching a twilight membership package at a reduced rate which offers golf after 3.00 PM Monday to Sunday, “It fits in well with people that work full time as well as those with family commitments, so they can perhaps squeeze in nine holes on an evening,” says Ibbetson. “It’s a pathway membership to show what we have to offer and if people use it and start to play a bit more they can progress to full membership. We do see a lot of pay and play guests come in around the 4.00 PM mark, so we are trying to incentivise them to bring them into the club.”

One of the biggest issues facing golf is how to get those relatively new to the game from going to the driving range to hit a few balls into actually playing on a course, an issue that Tudor Park are also seeking to address. The club have introduced ‘academy tees’ so the holes range from 250 yards to 80 yards. “It’s about getting that enjoyment at an early age, it can be demoralising playing a golf course for the very first time and facing 400 yard holes and taking 25 shots,” states Ibbetson. “If you can halve the distance and the number of shots then that will hopefully engage the juniors and the beginners a little bit more.”

Ibbetson started his golfing career in 2010 when he turned pro and initially worked at the Forest of Arden for five years, starting as an assistant pro before progressing to golf operations supervisor and then golf operations manager. He says that he always saw his future in the operational side of the business, and in December 2014 became Director of Golf at Tudor Park. The club is part of the Marriot Group and membership for the golf course is sold with membership to the leisure facilities and Ibbetson also has the hotel’s guests as potential clients to target. The membership base for the golf club stands at around 440, with set tee times during the week for societies and members’ only times on Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 16.58.00The Director of Golf wants the course be busier, but one way he won’t be doing this is by reducing green fees. “If you look at the internet people are throwing away tee times for next to nothing and I don’t want to get into that. Locally there are a lot of courses selling tee times for £10 or £15 but how as a club can you expect to drive memberships if you can pick up a tee time for that price? Anyone can sell golf for a tenner – it’s not hard,” he says. The club have actually increased green fees, which he says was bold but has had a positive impact on their membership base, as it has added value to being a member.

The internet has affected golf clubs in terms of tee times and prices, but also in the retail shop. With so much online competition now, does he check what price some of their items are being offered for online? “We do have a look when we initially price something up so we have an idea,” he admits. “In the past here perhaps there has been a move to sell at the same price but we’ve gone away from that now, and will sell for more. If American Golf are selling at £30 I won’t price at £50, but we will be a bit more expensive and I also have to take into account the fact that our members get a 10 per cent discount.” The club also have promotions in place in the form of tiered incentives in place depending on how much money is spent; for example a free two ball or stay in the hotel.

The retail side of Tudor Park is an area that Ibbetson has specifically focused on to ensure that there is an offering to suit everyone. “Before I started there wasn’t really a tiered pricing structure in place – every brand we stocked carried the same kind of price point so there was no entry level or high end for the golfers that want to be dressed the best,” he confirms. “We looked at the options that we had and picked a few new brands: we put in J.Lindeberg as our top end, Callaway and Adidas as more entry level and stuck with the brands that were selling well, FootJoy, Calvin Klein and Under Armour. We want to try and offer something for everyone so there are more affordable products. That was implemented in the middle of last year and the shop has been doing well.”

Screen Shot 2016-04-06 at 16.57.48As well as focusing on the retail side of the business, Ibbetson has also placed a strong emphasis on customer satisfaction, saying that this is, “at the top level of our priorities.” As he quite rightly points out, whether a customer returns to your golf club is only partially down to the quality of the golf course. “The golf course can only take you so far; if the course is brilliant but the service is rubbish then people will have second thoughts about going there. The more you engage with a customer and make them feel comfortable then, ultimately, the more money they will spend with you.”

To help him and his staff they work with the 59club closely, to the extent that the basis of their monthly departmental meetings are around the latest results that they receive from the benchmarking company. While Tudor Park is part of the Marriot Group and so one would expect customer service to be a high priority, this approach is one that most of, if not all, golf clubs would benefit from. This customer service is about welcoming people when they enter the club and being able to answer their questions, but it is also about regular communication with members. To this end he says they send out a newsletter several times a week and have even started to do videos to send to members, for example on the importance of repairing pitch marks on the greens, as well as having an active presence of social media.

With my time with Ibbetson drawing to a close I ask him about his plans for the future and the article comes full circle – the focus on a healthy membership base and the need to draw the next generation into golf. “We as an industry need to be more proactive and need to make sure that the younger age generation doesn’t get forgotten, as although you might not need them now, in ten years time we do,” he says. “Membership is key for us: it is 45 per cent of our overall revenues, so if we neglect that area then we are struggling.

“As an industry we are very good at taking people’s money, but we need to make sure that we look after them and they have everything that they need, especially in that first 90 days which is a daunting period for a new member. We’ve put in more regular follow up calls, a new members’ evening, a letter from each of the appropriate captains and then if they do have any issues hopefully we will know and can rectify it.”

Tudor Park Marriott is part of the Golf in Kent Partnership Programme that promotes Kent as one of England’s premier golf destinations www.golfinkent.co.uk