American Golf promotes participation in strategy change

    American Golf has a new marketing strategy focused more on growing the game, with less emphasis on product promotions. Daniel Gathercole, head of marketing at American Golf explained the details and reasons behind the change to Glyn Pritchard.

    We want to help and support moves to drive the game forward. We are looking to forge industry partnerships and to play our part in growing the game”, states Gathercole. As evidence he points to the company’s active engagement with industry bodies. “At the start of the year we became an associate member of The British Golf Industry Association and I recently attended the England Golf conference. We’re also working with the Golf Foundation to get more juniors into the game. That’s a change from our position a couple of years ago where our focus was almost exclusively on product promotions and offers.”

    Daniel Gathercole
    Daniel Gathercole

    For confirmation of this change of emphasis Gathercole lists three initiatives American Golf is running this year to promote participation, starting with a Longest Drive Championship running over the spring bank holiday weekend at the end of May. “You don’t have to be a member of a golf club, it’s open to absolutely anyone”, he says. There is also the American Golf Junior Golf Championship running for the second year in August and a Nine Hole Club Championship with regional events culminating in a Grand Final at a premier UK venue in September. The Nine Hole Club Championship is backed by the English Golf Union with other partners (for full details see panel).

    “We want to help promote participation as a long-term goal. These events are about making golf accessible and fun.” Gathercole thinks American Golf is well placed to assist in developing the game. “We have ten million people a year visiting our 103 stores and we have 1.5 million registered on our database. We also get eleven million visits to our website a year. We want to put that reach to good use by promoting positive messages about the health of the game and that it’s fun. As an industry we have to counter the negative images and messages that seem to dominate media coverage outside of the specialised golf press.”

    Certainly the company is moving forward with its own growth plans. “We will open two or three new stores before the year-end. Increasingly we are seeking to partner with golf ranges and golf academies to provide retail facilities at those types of venues. We’re making a big investment in our existing operations and put 15 Foresight GC2 simulators into stores recently.” The company is also benefiting from some new faces in the senior management team. “Alan Fort, who has a lot of retail experience, has been confirmed as our permanent CEO. Helen Cowing has joined us as chief financial officer and she was formerly CFO at the fashion retailer Fat Face.”

    After the shock dismissal of 500 PGA pros by Dicks Sporting Goods in the States last year, Gathercole says American Golf is firmly committed to employing PGA pros in its stores. “We are the biggest employer of PGA pros in the UK and probably in Europe. We pay all the training fees for our PGA pros and we even pay the fees for those that want to enter qualifying for The Open Championship. Our American Golf Club members are entitled to one lesson a year with our PGA pro staff and when we participate in industry events we will offer free lessons provided by our teaching staff. PGA professional teachers are integral to our stores.”

    While the Foresight ball flight analysis can assist with custom fitting, Gathercole says the company does not necessarily offer this to every customer. “Our focus is more on allowing customers to try equipment rather than leading with custom fitting. That can be appropriate for avid golfers who know a lot about hardware and swing mechanics. But it can be a bit overwhelming and even intimidating for the beginner and the casual golfer. We want them to experience the difference between what they are using currently and what we have on offer in a less intense interaction, using language and an approach that’s more low-key and not so confusing for the casual player.”

    AG's-City-of-London-flagship-storeAmerican Golf staff have sales training emphasising customer satisfaction, says Gathercole. “We would rather the customer walk out with nothing than end up dissatisfied with their purchase. So the focus is on doing what’s right for the customer, because in the long-term that benefits us as well as them.”

    Regarding product replacement cycles, Gathercole believes the market provides its own corrective to frequent product turns. “As long as a new product shows a definite improvement against the equipment it’s replacing, we do not have a problem with it. We have to recognise that the pace of technological advance is accelerating in every aspect of life and golf is no different. I think we’ve seen that the brands which do ensure their latest releases offer real improvement are the ones which have prospered in the market.”

    After trialling sales of racket sports equipment at its store in Eastleigh, Hampshire last year, Gathercole also confirms that the company’s focus is firmly on golf equipment and apparel. “We’re a golf specialist and we have no further plans to introduce racket sports equipment.”

    Coming back to the theme of growing the game, Gathercole is keen to emphasise that American Golf wants to support and work with all the interested parties involved in the wellbeing of golf. “We want to play our part and we’re working with England Golf, the Golf Foundation, the European Tour and many other industry bodies. We’re working on a series of initiatives in support of the Sport England ‘This Girl Can’ campaign.  The campaign aims to get women aged between 14 to 40 more active and we’re trying to make golf more accessible for them during National Golf Month. Picking up a club for the first time can be a daunting experience. We want to give girls and women the chance to come in store with their friends and get a taste for the game in a relaxed environment with our PGA professionals.”

    Challenged on how participation can be increased, Gathercole says, “My personal view is that we have to promote a shorter nine-hole format, but without modifying the rules. We also have to improve the image of the game making it more female and family friendly. Golf centres that offer mini-golf, driving range, café and perhaps a nine-hole par three course have been enormously successful, precisely because they are seen as venues for a family outing. But we need to get those families to take the next step, going to a proper course and becoming members of a club.”

    To help change negative and out of date perceptions of golf Gathercole thinks golf would benefit from the involvement of a major media partner. “If you look at what Sky TV has done for cycling participation, I think golf would definitely gain from a major media group taking a lead role in promoting a positive image of the game.”

    Gathercole sees American Golf’s new marketing approach as a necessary investment in the game’s future wellbeing. “Our message is that we are here to help. We have to work together to grow the game consistently, because more people playing golf means more people joining golf clubs and coming to our stores. Everybody wins if we do what’s right for the game.”

    Summer of golfing fun

    American Golf is organising three participation events with partners this summer:

    Longest Drive Competition Run in partnership with Garmin, there will be one winner per store, who will receive a Garmin vivoactive prize. The regional category winners will win a Garmin watch from the Approach Series as well as an invitation to the Grand Final this autumn. There the 15 finalists will battle it out to be crowned Long Drive Champion and win an all expenses trip to take part in a 2016 Remax World Long Drive qualifying event in America.

    Junior Golf Championship In partnership with Ping and The Golf Foundation, five regional events held during the week of 27 July leading to a Grand Final at Ping’s HQ in Gainsborough on 19 August. Event format will be an 18 hole stableford but kept very informal. Parents will be allowed to walk round with their children and players of all ages and abilities will be encouraged to participate. Instead of an entry fee, competitors will be encouraged to make a minimum donation of £5 to the Golf Foundation.

    Nine Hole Club Championship In Partnership with English Golf Union, Sports Publications, Golf Club Owners Association and The Golf Foundation with 20 regional events held in July and August leading to a Grand Final at a premier UK venue in September 2015. A pairs stableford competition teeing off at 5pm, to allow people to compete after work. No entry fee, but competitors will be encouraged to make a minimum donation of £5 to the Golf Foundation.

    For more information about American Golf click here.