Positive thinking on the Front Nine

For this latest Thought Leadership event GOLF RETAILING sought out the views of the Front Nine Network (www.frontninenetwork.com), a group of like-minded young guys working in golf. Around the table they discussed the issues facing the game and the challenges they are finding in their own career paths. Our thanks go to Brocket Hall Golf Club for their hospitality in hosting the event.

Screen Shot 2015-09-30 at 16.48.56How do you see the current state of the golf industry?

Adam Keable: I think it’s very positive. There’s been gloomy talk about falling participation, but a lot of people still play golf and that isn’t going to end. The problem is communicating with the wider public to explain how to access golf and that facilities are changing, becoming less intimidating and more user friendly. For example, Topgolf is reaching a new broader market by appealing to golfers from a different perspective. They are making golf a group social experience in a different environment to traditional golf clubs. The established clubs must find a balance between preserving their traditions and appealing to the under 35s.

Mike Hyde: To make those changes there is a need to ‘professionalise’ golf club management. A head greenkeeper and club pro will have professional qualifications, but the secretary or general manager may just be someone with an interest in golf, but no business experience or qualifications. This means progressive, commercially minded ideas are lacking. At the GCMA we are introducing qualifications to raise standards. We have to break down dogmas that insist on doing things the same way, because that’s the way they have always been done. You need enterprise and fresh thinking like introducing nine-hole club competitions.

Harry Boyd: The messages are getting through and clubs are not as blinkered about the need to change. But they need guidance on how to reach new potential members. Part of Front Nine’s mission is to provide that help on how to strategically plan and clubs are now more receptive to advice.

Chris Fitt: That’s right; over the last five years we’ve seen a huge growth in flexible membership schemes, as clubs recognise the need to adapt. It’s happening and moving in the right direction, but slowly. It’s the completely unreformed clubs that are holding the industry back. But I think the elitist image of golf is fading with dress codes becoming more relaxed. Golf on TV with players like Rory and Ricky showing a more friendly style helps.

Adam-Keable

Adam Keable

Why do so many talented young individuals leave the golf industry?

Chris Fitt: Most young people come into golf because they are passionate about the game, so it’s a lifestyle career. But for people with degree level qualifications, salaries are very poor. I think that if employers cannot offer better remuneration they should provide more career fulfilment by investing in staff with training and CPD courses. They need to lay out a career path so people know how to progress.

Adam Keable: It’s the good people that are tempted to leave because they are not offered a career roadmap. Once out of their twenties they hit a wall. As a recruiter I see it a lot.

Simon Jones: Out of twelve people on my degree course in golf management at Kingston University, only three of us are left in the golf business. When they applied for jobs in golf management nobody was prepare to give the others a chance. Graduates can offer skills that cannot be found elsewhere but it seems the only way to get a foot in the door is to start working part time in a pro shop. But few people who have spent thousands on their degree courses can do that.

Harry Boyd: When you graduate you want to apply what you’ve learnt and if you can’t do that you branch out away from golf. They have made an investment of time and money in their education and when they can’t get a job where the employer is offering career development and progression, they naturally get frustrated.

Adam Keable: One of the reasons why we set up Front Nine Network was to break down the barriers a lot of us felt. The golf industry tends to be very silo based and when you’re working at a venue there’s very little chance to communicate with your contemporaries at other venues, to share ideas and experience. The Front Nine Network brings together individuals that have faced the, “do I stay in the industry” dilemma – it’s a kind of mutual support group, but it also allows the cross fertilisation of ideas by breaking down the barriers.

So it keeps people enthused and reinforces the fact that this is a great industry to work in that’s worth the marginally lower rewards because it feeds your passion for the game. But those that lose that passion leave.

Simon Jones: We’re all doing something that we love. We want to grow the game and have fun. I could never commute to a city on the train. Everyone always looks so miserable!

Chris Fitt

Chris Fitt

Chris Fitt: Employers and senior managers need to look at the whole remuneration package they offer and career development so it provides job satisfaction. However, I know half a dozen people that have left the business and they have all regretted it. I advised them to stick it out, make a plan, spend some time investing in your own professional development, but they took the short-term view.

Mike Hyde: I think a challenge in many clubs is that members want to involve themselves in operational matters. Someone will say “I know a bit about IT, I’ll design the website”. They mean well but it’s a mess. We need to professionalise the industry to raise standards and eliminate the amateur approach. Golf clubs are large turnover businesses and need more than one generalist ‘jack-of-all-trades’ to manage it. As professionalisation increases, salaries should rise.

Can footgolf draw in new golfers?

Adam Keable: It’s another commercial activity that can generate revenue for clubs and there will be opportunities to ‘upsell’ footgolfers into golf, but I don’t think it’s a strong driver for participation. It does get people along to golf clubs that would otherwise never have visited one and golf clubs can be intimidating places. But footgolfers need to be segregated from normal members for it to work. Essentially it’s a different sport with a different mentality so it’s not a natural pathway into real golf.

Simon Jones: I think that opposition to footgolf can be a symptom of resistance to change generally.

Harry Boyd: Social media is a far more effective means of interesting young people in golf than footgolf. By putting more stuff online clubs can reach out to the wider community. Most clubs have lots of activities going on but fail to communicate what’s happening to younger people in their locality.

How can more juniors be attracted to the sport?

Mike Hyde

Mike Hyde

Simon Jones: You need structured junior developments programmes. That’s the way I got into golf. But the club has to have a pro that wants to coach kids.

Chris Fitt: I think that’s the point. It should be a structured approach to avoid it coming down to one individual. If the structures and processes are institutionalised, it’s not so vulnerable to one individual’s enthusiasm.

Clubs need to reach out to schools. Only a few private schools have golf on the curriculum. The cost of golf equipment is often the excuse in state schools, but cricket gear is just as expensive. To get kids started you just need one club so why not invest in ten seven-irons, which is cheaper than providing cricket gear for a whole class. They even give Tri-Golf equipment away!

Mike Hyde: Schools could find a sponsor for golf equipment and school trips to golf tournaments. I think the game would also benefit from shorter professional tournaments with different scoring systems, in the same way that cricket’s popularity with kids has increased because of the Twenty20 game.

Harry Boyd

Harry Boyd

Could the professional game do more to boost junior participation?

Simon Jones: I think it’s a good thing that the LET now makes players walk through the tented village to the practice grounds and tee. When players like Charley Hull walk through they interact with the galleries and pose for selfies. But at the BMW PGA at Wentworth, on the men’s European Tour, the players are now segregated with their own bridge. They need to be more accessible, to excite the crowds and inspire the kids.

The pro tours attract a lot of sponsorship because they raise the profile of the sponsors, so they need to be conscious of that and not isolate themselves. Without interest from the next generation, sponsorship money will fall.

How can we keep golfers in the game after their teens?

Adam Keable: I know a lot of my teenage friends who either stopped playing golf in their twenties or play now and again but don’t belong to a club. That’s because of inflexible membership packages that don’t fit with their lifestyles. Another problem is that social media has ended the need for a social hub like a golf club.

We need shorter playing formats with flexible membership packages. Flat annual fees and 18-hole golf that take you away from home for over five hours won’t work.

What can we do to attract more women to golf?

Simon Jones: At the London Golf Show we’re offering a free lesson for women visitors and we have a dedicated women’s zone. By holding the event at the Bluewater Shopping Centre we benefit from the 800,000 women that visit Bluewater. That allows golf clubs which exhibit at the show to target a large number of prospective women members

We are also working with Fore! Women on ways to create a pathway into the game that isn’t intimidating for women.

Chris Fitt: Young mothers would benefit from a crèche at golf clubs. They would also prefer areas like a coffee shop to a traditional bar. These are facilities they find at other venues they use such as gyms.

Simon Jones

Simon Jones

Mike Hyde: Syngenta produced an excellent report, The Opportunity to Grow Golf: Female Participation (www.greencast.co.uk/uk/growing-golf/female-participation-the-opportunity-to-grow-golf.aspx) which is free and full of great recommendations.

My own club, Gaudet Luce near Droitwich, has a crèche, a nine-hole course and even a hairdressers, all of which attracts women and with them come their kids. Women and juniors literally go hand in hand. Because they involve women and children golf is seen as a family game in Scandinavia and not as a male only elitist sport.

Are there just too many golf courses for the market to sustain?

Chris Fitt: There are probably more venues than the market needs but I would be very reluctant to see any of them close. Fewer golf clubs would obviously lead to fewer golf industry jobs.

Simon Jones: Golf courses could group themselves to offer reciprocal memberships to offer better value.

Mike Hyde: Merging nearby clubs so that services are rationalised can create more viable economic businesses.

Adam Keable: Clubs need to listen to their staff and use their knowledge and experience to come up with solutions to the challenges that face them.