David Copsey is Head Golf Professional at Poult Wood Golf Centre in Tonbridge Kent. This is the club where GR’s Publisher Miles Bossom first took up the game twenty years ago. He went back to find out how things have changed at the club.
Tell us about Poult Wood’s history?
We were a council run pay and play golf course which dates back to the early seventies. The course opened as an eighteen hole but has since added a nine hole par three course of around twelve hundred yards. We have never had a membership but that is now starting to change.
The Clubhouse has been built up in a number of stages and is now quite impressive.
Eight years ago I did a joint venture with the local authority to build a twelve bay driving range with six indoor and six outdoor bays. It was a buy operate and transfer arrangement where I put up the capital and I run the facility for a set period and then it reverts back to the authority. The authority moved the centre into a charitable trust on November the first.
A charitable trust – tell us more…
Local authorities are under huge pressure to find efficiencies. By transferring the business to a charitable trust in partnership with the Council it continues to achieve key corporate objectives such as health and wellbeing of residents, ensure the maintenance of the asset, quality and sustainability of the service and achieve financial savings.
Has this change affecting the way the centre is run?
Whilst the council still own the buildings and land the charitable trust manage the facility. My contract was transferred from the local authority to the trust and I run the driving range and the Pro Shop as my own business. The club house is run by Par 4 Catering so in essence nothing has really changed day to day.
Tell us about your new membership strategy
Like a lot of pay and play courses we had a self-run golf club which organised its own competitions and held handicaps but we resisted the lure of having a paid membership. We have had a rethink and are now launching a club membership on the first of April. We are signing up members now with a modest target of two hundred for the first year which we feel would be highly achievable. These will be a combination of five and seven day members with a fantastic price point of five hundred and ten pounds for five day and seven hundred and eighty for seven day.
What is your membership demographic?
We have two main types of visitor. These are regular golfers who play at set times through the week and are fairly senior. Then we have seasonal golfers who come to life around the Masters and then stop around September.
We do get a lot of students who play during holiday times and the par three course is very popular with them. We also get a good number of family visitors in the summer that use the par three and we see this as a great introduction to golf.
Do you offer any incentives to attract new golfers?
Yes we do have a discount card which costs twenty six pounds a year and that offers discount on green fees. We have around four hundred of these in circulation at any one time so this has proven popular. We record every time someone plays so we can track their habits and try to meet their future needs.
We have also offered vouchers for people to get a discounted return visit after 12 o’clock and also a scheme whereby each time the visitor plays they get a stamp and when they fill the card up they get a free round. I am not a big fan of this approach as we end up offering regulars to the course a free round unnecessarily and devaluing our product. This can reduce our potential sales by 10% which is not good.
Generally the course is booked up on week days up to lunchtime so it is afternoon tee times that we would look to fill. Interestingly it is the weekend business that is our weaker part and it is that part that we will be focussing on this year. Weekends always used to be the busy time for us so I don’t know why that has changed? It was always our strongest part so we need to get back to this.
Perhaps it has something to do with the first tee box being near to the pro shop and the balcony of the clubhouse looking straight onto it!
Possibly, it can be intimidating for people to tee off when there is a big crowd having breakfast and you are under scrutiny!
Participation is the single biggest issue for golf right now. What effect has the decline in numbers of golfers playing the sport had on your business?
At Poult Wood we are typical of the industry. We had a drop off of twenty to twenty five percent two years ago but we clawed back about four percent last year. Obviously this is far from a good situation. This is unfortunately the way it is in golf currently but we are encouraged that with our new membership packages and we have some strong marketing plans aimed at not only retaining our existing customers but also to get new people into the game.
How will you encourage new members?
We focus on getting new people to play the game in the first place.
We run what we call a ‘Get into Golf’ series of group lessons where we offer three one hour golf lessons for twenty four pounds. Basically you can turn up off the street with nothing and we provide the clubs, balls and other equipment and you can see if you like the game.
After the first three lessons if you want to continue we then offer three lessons on the long game, three on the short and then we take the groups out on the par three course to play nine holes. They go with a club pro who shows them what they should be doing, where they should be going and what is expected of them so that they feel comfortable on the golf course. They are then given a free par three round so that they can go out on their own.
What percentage of golfers that go through the programme go on to play golf regularly?
We do really well with this. We get about eighty percent will continue to play, maybe a few rounds on the par three course, sometimes more and then they move on to the eighteen hole course. We find this approach really encourages the progress of the student, they feel comfortable in the environment and they progress at a pace that suits them.
Do you think par three golf is under rated?
Yeah definitely… we have lots of visitors who are busy people and who want to play golf but can’t squeeze a full game into their busy lives. They can get around our par three course in about an hour and fifteen minutes and they get all the elements of golf without the long time commitment.
Our par three acts as a feeder for the main course although there are people that only even play the par three and they love it.
Does par three golf appeal more to youngsters?
Yes, it’s excellent for kids who don’t have the strength for the main course. It is not a slog and you can see the green from the tee box and you get there in two or three shots. Kids get a feel for the game without it being boring! Also we only charge students four pounds and ten pence for nine holes which is very appealing and offers fantastic value. On the main course we offer eighteen holes to students for nine pounds eighty so we really are doing our bit to encourage young golfers to the game.
Back to commercials… how is the facilities revenue distributed?
Well the catering is run by a catering company under a third party contract who manage that element and takes the revenue.
Green fees on both courses go one hundred percent to the trust and the pro shop is my business to manage and the revenue and profit is mine. I also keep all of the revenue generated by the driving range and through teaching.
All of the separate elements help each other and a busy course normally means a busy range and a busy bar so we all win.
What do you think about the changes in styles of golf clothing and what is acceptable on the course?
Styles have changed and our dress policy has changed to reflect that. We don’t allow denim jeans but there are jeans and there are jeans these days. There is a cross over area which is difficult to distinguish and ultimately our primary role is to get people to play golf so we have relaxed our dress code a bit. The one rule we are really firm on is that you must have golf shoes because otherwise there can be health and safety issues.
That’s an interesting point. A growth area last year was in footwear, in no small part driven by Ecco and Adidas who did very well with their hybrid summer type shoes. Did you ride that wave?
We found that that type of summer shoe was popular last year and the appeal that you can wear a shoe on the course and into the club house seemed to resonate with a lot of people.
Let’s talk about the pro sh
op… what equipment do you sell and how is it going?
A few years ago we made the decision to major on one hardware brand and to maximise our offering on that manufacturer. We settled on being a Benross outlet store and we stocked their whole range and feel that suits our demographic very well. Benross sales as a business have done really well and I believe are back to their 2007 levels which is great.
Clothing wise we stock Greg Norman which again suits our community well.
Are you not under pressure by other manufacturers to take on other product ranges?
Yes we are but you have to make the decision and decide how you can make a decent profit margin and it doesn’t make a lot of sense tying up a lot of capital.
Do you feel that other manufacturers launch product to often?
Yes some do but as a PLC you have shareholders to satisfy and targets to reach so I don’t think that will stop. I don’t think that there is huge innovation each time but these companies are very good at creating demand with the public.