Behind The Counter: Winchester Golf Academy

    Modern golf retail is much broader than just the traditional golf club pro shop. Winchester Golf Academy is a great example of a modern golf facility. Head Professional and Co-Manager Gary Booth gave us the back-story on the driving range.

    “The range opened in May 2015. My wife Emma and I are both golf pros who had trained and were working at Royal Winchester Golf Club. We were approached by Simon and Katie Browne with the idea to create a golf practice facility in Winchester. We had built up a good coaching reputation in the area, and while there were good courses in the area, there wasn’t a standalone driving range.

    “It’s a 28 bay Toptracer facility, with a great short game area. We’ve got a great retail area including custom fitting, and a bistro that sits 60 people and is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s fair to say it’s exceeded all our expectations hugely. We’ve exceeded revenue target’s, customer numbers, and balls hit by substantial margins.

    “We were a touch apprehensive when we opened. It’s about a mile out of town, it’s not a built-up area. From day one we’ve gone from strength to strength. This year we’re on target for 5.5 million balls hits, which put us as one of the busier ranges in the country, if not quite at the level of a Silvermere or World of Golf. We started with 4 members of staff, and we now have 14, with 5 full-time coaches. I coach a small amount now, but mainly I like to be front of house. I think it’s important to be the face of the business, and someone familiar that the customers know and trust.”

    Despite the success of the range, the team at Winchester Golf Academy aren’t afraid to switch it up to improve the business. Gary explained how they have made dramatic changes to their retail area this season.

    “We’ve made a big change to our store this year, that I’ve not seen it done anywhere else. We had always had a traditional pro shop. All our pre-orders arrive in March and then you’re sat on a certain level of stock throughout the year. You are custom fitting clubs throughout the year but also trying to sell through your stock at the same time.

    “This year we’ve changed our retail area to focus on custom fitting. Rather than seeing lots of golf clubs in stock, we’ve got all of the components hung up around the store. Everything is geared towards custom fitting.

    “The shop and bistro is open plan. Sometimes we could have a full lunch sitting of 60 people including kids, side by side to thousands of pounds worth of retail stock. You would get kids running around the retail store, burger in hand, picking up a £400 driver and it just wasn’t working. We now stock practically nothing in the store. Because of lockdown it’s difficult to track if it’s working yet, however early indications are really positive. People are aware they are buying a service, and not expecting to take stuff away there and then.

    “We were already using a Foresight GC2, but it was hidden away. I’ve made our two custom fitting bays much more obvious, customers can see what is going on. We’ve marketed it differently and customers are now much more aware of what offer. Before customers could have totally missed the fact we had custom fitting bays, now its front and centre.

    “This year we are stocking TaylorMade, Callaway, and Wilson. We’ve got a very good relationship with TaylorMade, we are the closet modern driving range to their HQ. We work with them on regular custom fit days, and they do a lot of their staff training here. They are our biggest selling product, but I think that’s partly down to our belief in the product, its easy to fit when it’s that good. The reaction to SIM has been fantastic, and we are having our best year with TaylorMade in the five years we’ve been open.

    “TaylorMade have been excellent through lockdown. Our ASM Tom Brewer has been fantastic in training our staff, especially sharing his knowledge about custom fit components. We’ve got three custom fitters, but with the change in the store, my other staff had to learn how to sell a custom fit. All of our staff have gone through TaylorMade’s Certification Program for Spring 2020 and completed both levels which is around 3 hours of study with an exam at the end. None of the other brands seem to be offering anything similar, and this has helped them improve their knowledge no end. I’m confident you could ask any of my staff a question about custom fitting now and they would know the answer.

    “Footwear, we specialise in Skechers, and I’m an ambassador. I like keeping my footwear prices below £100 and they offer a lot of choice below that price point. A lot of the older generation ask for them because of the comfort. Unusually because of the store layout we don’t offer clothing. It just doesn’t work with the open-plan store. It’s something we may look at going forward.”

    While the store improvement are making an impact, it’s the addition of Toptracer that has revolutionised the business. “Toptracer has been a game-changer for the business. We were the eighth site in the UK, and it was very much an unknown quantity when we installed it. Now there are 100 sites across the UK.”

    “It’s a huge investment, you don’t ever own the product, but it’s made such a difference. When we installed it, 2.8million balls were being hit per year, at around 60% of the current bucket price. Now we have 5.5 million balls hit at 100% of that price. It’s a huge difference to the business.

    “Where it has really helped is attracting a new market to the range. Golfers will come anyway, but this attracts the bowling alley crowd, who love the gamification element. It’s become much more of an entertainment business rather than golf practice facility. Customers having a laugh and a beer with their mates, rather than just hardcore golfers. Yet golfers get all the detailed information they need if they want it.

    “It’s changed the focus of our business, from being based around practice and coaching to focusing our marketing around Toptracer. The more people we can get through the doors due to Toptracer, the more people we will be coaching and selling hardware to.”

    Part of that marketing success Gary attributes to Foremost. “We’re a member of Foremost, and that has been really beneficial. I think an easy way to describe what they do is taking the stress and worry out of the everyday. They simplify a lot of stuff for us. Obviously with the buying and the invoicing. But the digital marketing and newsletters drive traffic, while the click and collect web store has been great for us especially in helping us supply other brands for our customers. Their ticketing solution gives our pricing a uniform look. And they’ve been great with staff training days.”

    To wrap up my time with Gary I asked if there were any issues to being at a site without a course and he had this to say. “Not being based at a golf course has disadvantages, and we’re always being asked if we’re going to add one. But the positives really outweigh the negatives. The perception of a golf club to a non-golfer can be quite intimidating. Knowing what to wear, or how to act. And we have so many customers who wouldn’t come here if we were at a club. Parents and kids, guys on stag dos. We are a really inclusive facility and I think that is our biggest strength.” GR

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    As an avid golfer since the age of eleven Dan lives and breathes all things golf.  With a current handicap of eleven he gets out and plays as often as his work life (and girlfriend) allows. Dan confesses to still being like a kid at Christmas when it comes to seeing the latest golf equipment. Having served as GolfPunk’s Deputy Editor, and resident golf geek for the past 13 years and working for golf's oldest brand, John Letters Dan brings to GOLF RETAILING an excellent understanding of the sector.