Issues of national importance

In June, GOLF RETAILING’s Thought Leadership programme headed west, to the Manor House Hotel and Golf Club in the stunningly well preserved medieval village of Castle Combe in Wiltshire. In the first part of our coverage of the discussions, our seven guests provide a thorough review of the British Golf Industry Association’s major new initiative, National Golf Month, which was held for the first time in May

Was your business involved in National Golf Month?

Andy Ryan: The Manor House was not involved because we had our own new membership campaign running at the time, and so we focused on that.

Richard Jewell: One of our promotions at PGA Collection is to offer beginners a customised seven iron, which a pro can order in advance of lessons, so that when a new golfer turns up for a lesson, there is a club ready to use that has been custom fit. That has worked very well for us although it is not a profit opportunity, because we sell the seven irons to the pros for £6.50 each. We hope the offer is a lead-in to further sales and we have found that once the golfer has the seven-iron, they will go back to buy more clubs from the pro.

With this promotion we backed onto NGM, and it has been very successful, to the point where we have run out of seven irons. So it backfired on us a bit!

If golfing beginners leave a golf course with their own club, they are more likely to practice and to play afterwards, and if golfers start out with a club that has been set-up for them, they have a better chance of reaching their potential as a golfer, whatever that might be.

I was the pro at Gloucester Country Club for 20 years, and what used to frustrate us was that we would give lots of lessons, and we would loan out clubs to beginners for the lessons, and then the next week they would turn up with a box set of clubs they had bought from the local sports shop that were ill-fitting and made with alloy heads, and then as a pro you have lost a potential sale.

A lot of pros miss out on that first equipment sale to a new golfer. If golfers start with our entry-level seven iron, then progress to a full set, and then later down the line they might move to one of the bigger brands.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 16.16.50Trudy Hills: American Golf did not get involved directly, although we did support it in some of our customer emails, including links to the NGM website.

We were planning to re-launch our Club Card with added benefits, and that coincided with NGM, and we launched it on May 1. One of the benefits we offered Club Card members was a free lesson with a PGA professional, and free club MOT, and at American Golf we offer free custom fitting anyway. Our initiative is really trying to get people back into golf, and it tied in with what NGM was trying to do.

About a third of American Golf’s estate is linked to golf facilities of some kind, such as a Top Golf venue, a nine-hole course or driving range, and the facilities that got behind the free lessons found it very successful.

Overall the promotion has been positive, but we have not seen a huge increase in footfall as a result, and we were hoping we would. We do a very good job of signing people up to the Club Card, and we have given over 200 free lessons already even though we have only just got going with the programme, and the number of free lessons is building each week. Over time it will prove very successful, but not as a big hit during NGM itself.

Mark Stewart: NGM is a fantastic initiative, and at Stewart Golf we sent an email out to our database with a link to the NGM website. The difference you can make to golf participation in the UK in the space of only one month is always going to be limited though, especially in year one, and if NGM is at least getting clubs to ask of themselves, ‘What are we doing to get lapsed golfers playing the game again?’ then that can only be a good thing.

Hopefully NGM can progress for 2015 and have more partnerships in support of what it is trying to achieve. Lapsed golfers are the easiest category of non-golfers to get into the game, so they are exactly the right people to be targeting.

Richard Payne: Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. supported NGM whole-heartedly, but during May, there was not a big ‘This is us’ event. I know the programme was run with very limited resources, but there was no sign of NGM at the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth for example. Some kind of big event could have really added some impetus.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 16.17.11Doug Poole: We don’t have the final numbers yet from NGM, but through this huge undertaking over a two-year period, we have learned that you can’t achieve anything on this scale standing on your own in the golf industry. There are so many associations in the sport, such as the unions in each country, and the golf course owners and driving range owners, and what was intended to be a simple process of attracting lapsed golfers back to the sport became a monster of a project.

The target was to get lapsed golfers playing golf again, because the industry has been losing the people that buy products. There are probably around 2.8 million people in the UK who have tried golf at some point and given it up, and wouldn’t it be great if those people who play six times a year, started to play 26 times a year?

A lot of associations in the UK have been putting plans into action that are really very good, but no-one hears about them. These bodies don’t do much marketing and they don’t do any advertising but the programmes were in place, and what NGM brought to the table were, through Bauer, advertising hits to reach around 22 million people in the UK. Bauer’s radio exposure reached 18 million people alone. More people responded to the 30-second radio ads than they did to the print advertising, which reached 4.2 million people. Without Bauer, NGM was a non-starter, because the value of that advertising was probably between £300,000 to £400,000. It was also amazing that Padraig Harrington, Sir Nick Faldo, Darren Clarke and Charley Hull supported NGM for free. Faldo even wrote his own letter of support, which was quite impressive. The European Tour helped by publicising NGM through its own database.

We wanted to get 100,000 lapsed golfers back onto the game in May.

One of the issues we faced was a lot of out-of-date email addresses on databases provided to us by different associations, so we lost some traction there, and while we wanted to work with American Golf, and I would like to in the future, that is a decision that would have to be made via a board meeting.

Trudy: We were very interested in getting involved, and I was told there were other BGIA partnerships that made it difficult.

Doug: We could not partner American Golf because Foremost and TGI are BGIA members. I think in future, we need everybody who is interested to be involved, and on that note, the PGA declined to join in. Access to the PGA database would have helped enormously in registering PGA professionals and it would have been great to have the PGA on board. I believe there was sensitivity to PGA members giving away golf lessons, and also to the PGA releasing its database to Bauer.

Trudy: The PGA would not have had to give up its database. There are third-party companies that take a database from one party, information from another, and send the information to the database without confidentiality being compromised. At American Golf we do this all the time

Doug: Instead, pros who wanted to register had to do it through their clubs. Foremost did come in with a lot of PGA pros who supported NGM. I spent an awful lot of my time cleaning up databases in the final weeks leading up to NGM. I am a database expert now!

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 16.16.58Writing on the wall

Doug: We have created a good brand in National Golf Month, and while I went into it as a one-year project, I think it is a three-year project, and the second year will be better than the first.

We hoped to get Chris Evans involved, as a keen golfer, but it didn’t happen, although NGM was mentioned on Five Live twice. So we got some big publicity hits, but we needed someone like Chris Evans to front the campaign.

In terms of big events, we had the idea of Red Nose Golf Day, with entrants buying a red golf ball and playing in a scramble, but we needed £200,000 to buy into Red Nose, and we didn’t have that level of funding.

The NGM website had 38,700 hits, and of 3,051 potential golf outlets in the UK – that’s golf courses and ranges – we had around 18 percent supporting NGM with offers and events. The events that were organised had a total capacity to satisfy around 280,000 people had they booked, so we had enough events to reach our target.

Quite a few golf clubs offered free green fees, and I know one club that attracted 134 people during the month, because the club got out of its box and placed its own advertising. This is a proprietary golf course with a hotel and gym, and three golf courses of 18, nine and six holes, and the club saw NGM as a big opportunity to grow its membership.

I do know that whatever we do to bring new people into the game, any increase is too slow. We have to target those people who have already played the game, because they can bring a faster return to the industry. We do want existing golfers to play more too, but of the estimated 3.5 million golfers in the UK, the average age of members at a lot of clubs is 63 or 64, and that does not bode well for any business involved in golf. We wanted to get the 35-50 year olds playing quickly, as well as new golfers and kids.

The demographic that clubs are moving into is a problem. I do some work for NatWest Bank, looking at their golf courses, and the first thing you look at with golf clubs is their age demographic, and then you know where the problem is and you can identify where the edge of the cliff is. In some cases it is only seven years away. If the average age of a club membership is 64, the golf club has not got a chance. One club membership I looked at had 17 members aged between 25 and 40.

Richard J: That is frightening.

Doug: That was the reason for starting out with NGM, to get more of those 30-40 year olds playing again.

The difficulty we are faced with is reaching non-golfers, and that is why we need Bauer – and in an ideal world IPC Media – and support from radio, television and celebrities. It is much easier to reach existing golfers, so this project was about stepping outside golf’s existing population. Of those 22 million people Bauer could reach with its advertising, at least 19 million had to be non-golfers.

Maybe the legacy of National Golf Month will be realised after the month of May, and not just during it. We are still pulling numbers in to work out how many people actually came into the game as a result of NGM.

If I told you how much money we spent through the Grow Golf Fund on NGM you would be amazed that we achieved what we did.

Richard J: Might it work to hold events at shopping centres? That is the kind of place where new golfers can be picked up.

Doug: I will recommend that we run NGM again next year, but we need the partners to step up and contribute more, and we need a few more people to understand what we need to achieve and how to do it. Some BGIA members put an awful lot of effort into NGM this year, while others were too busy just trying to sell their goods and looking after their businesses, and you can understand that.

Trudy: One of the frustrations at American Golf was that there seemed to be a view that had we been involved, we would have simply tried to exploit National Golf Month as a sales opportunity, when actually, all of us within the industry need to take the attitude that it doesn’t matter if we sell a thing during National Golf Month – and that as long as it does not cost too much, we in fact need to give stuff away. Bringing more people through the door and re-energising golfers is what will ultimately bring more sales to all of our businesses, whether you are a pro, a club, a retailer or supplier, and it will keep us all in business in the long term. That is why we are giving away lessons with PGA professionals.

Rise of the golfing nomads

Richard P: Is there more we can do to encourage students to play golf? The Golf Foundation is doing a lot to get youngsters into the game, but then apart from those who get into university golf teams, I don’t think most students bother. I remember fellow students of mine who were decent golfers but did not pick up a club while they were at university, and then they had lost the impetus to play once they graduated.

Mark: The membership culture is part of this problem. I am not a golf club member – what do I need a membership for? I have friends who have been club members, but then have found that in a busy year they have paid something like a £1,000 subs yet only played twice. Then they think, “I don’t need this”.

Doug: England Golf is working on this issue in a very positive way, and they are trying to change membership structures. The traditional club membership is a dying animal. I am part-owner of a golf course, and if I had my way I would charge all members £300, give them something like 10 rounds of golf for that, and then they would pay discounted green fees after that. Golfers don’t want to spend £1,000 for membership any more.

The problem with a lot of clubs is that if their year end is December 31, they have no money – they probably have a working overdraft – so on January 1 they need that £300,000 or £400,000 to come in. It is a big gamble for a golf club to modernise its membership structure if it means that January 1 income will be reduced to £100,000, in the hope of generating the rest of the income through the year. The bank would not allow it. In fact, the banks own more golf courses than you would imagine. That re-structuring is a really big bullet for the club to bite, when the gamble is whether the club can grow its membership.

Miles Bossom (GOLF RETAILING publisher): Dale Hill has introduced flexible five and seven-day memberships in addition to the full membership, which is £1,200. The seven-day membership is roughly half the annual fee of full membership, and for that golfers still get their handicap and they can play seven days a week, but they receive a limited number of rounds, and rounds at different times have different values.

Mark: Are there simply too many golf clubs in the UK?

Richard J: Yes.

Mark: There seems to be too much supply and not enough demand.

Doug: As a club goes bankrupt, it will be bought up by group who will turn it from a failing business into a successful one. Then what will happen is that the club down the road, which was performing a bit better than the first club, but still struggling, will take the hit. If you shut down 100 golf clubs in the UK, probably 60 to 70 of them would be bought up by corporate groups. I think over 50 percent of clubs in the UK are now proprietary owned, and the industry is moving in that direction.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 16.16.38Richard J: And the problem is not just in this country. In the United States, TaylorMade’s figures are down, and so are they at retail chain Dick’s Sporting Goods. They are now downsizing their golf department and branching out into other sports.

This age group we are talking about, aged between 25 and 45, they are all going to the gym and riding bikes. Halfords is enjoying record sales. I don’t believe the problem with golf participation is cost. The cost of golf equipment has actually come down and so has the cost of playing golf.

Trudy: Leisure time is a big issue. Some of the research we have done has asked people why they have left golf, and one of the most frequent answers is that people have not got enough time. This is probably partly due to family commitments. If you go to the gym or go cycling, you don’t need other people to do it with and it does not have to take all day.

Mark: You don’t have to book your time, and these other activities are more convenient.

Trudy: You don’t have to pay expensive memberships either. There is greater flexibility with these activities, so I wonder if nine-hole rounds and par-three golf will help bring people back to golf. Golf needs to be faster and more fun.

Mark: Reserved parking spaces for club captains are one of my pet hates. If you want to park near the door, turn up first.

Next month…

Coverage from GOLF RETAILING’s event at the Manor House Hotel will continue in the August issue, when the focus will be on the importance of excellent customer service at golf clubs and in the pro shop, with some suggestions of how it can be achieved.