Burhill Golf and Leisure (BGL) is ultimately owned by members of the Guinness family and has three operating divisions for golf, leisure and estates. Founded in 1907, Burhill Golf Club near Walton on Thames, was the first golf course in the group. Glyn Pritchard talked to Colin Mayes, Group CEO and Scott McKittrick, Group retail manager about their operation.
The golf division of BGL has an annual turnover in excess of £20 million, with £9 million generated directly from golf related fees. Another £7.6 million comes from food and beverage (F&B) sales. The company employs around 500 people rising to about 650 in peak season.
“Essentially golf courses are an occupancy business and we keep a close eye on yield because that is critical to the business model”, says Colin Mayes of BGL which now includes seven golf centres and three golf clubs, with 22 courses at the ten venues. The distinction between golf centres and golf clubs is an important one as Mayes explains. “We have memberships at all our venues, but those at the golf centres are smaller at about 350 with the focus on pay-and-play facilities. They also support other activities such as adventure golf and footgolf. The golf clubs are structured more traditionally.”
The distinction was brought home forcefully to Mayes in what he describes as “a light bulb moment” three years ago when BGL opened its first adventure golf attraction at Abbey Hill Golf Centre in Milton Keynes. “We’d done a lot of local radio advertising for the launch and I was shocked by the number of families that arrived, saying they had never considered visiting previously, because they thought it was a private club and they wouldn’t be welcome. Now Abbey Hill has always been a public golf course owned by the council and we took over the operations management. That’s when I realised that we have to reach out to families and take golf to them as entertainment.”
Mayes’ background is in hotels, restaurants, bars and managing multi sites hospitality businesses. He was formally managing director of the Green King Pub Company. In fact his introduction to BGL was when he negotiated the sale of Green King’s golf interests to the company in the nineties. At 59 he is still a phenomenally driven athlete, swimming over an hour each day. Last year he raised more than £4,000 for Help for Heroes by taking part in the Big Battlefield Bike Ride, covering 335 miles in the five day ride from Brussels to Paris. He also finds time to chair the UK Golf Course Owners Association and is deputy chairman of a Leisure Trust that runs sports facilities in his home town.
At BGL Mayes has been a keen to draw in new members and players, appealing to juniors and women. “At each venue we emphasise that we are a club for everybody, offering golf for all. Every one of our venues is targeted with involvement for local schools by taking golf to the schools. We provide basic tuition with a free introductory lesson to get juniors started. For those that want to take it further, we will enrol them in our Saturday morning teaching programmes. We have also run introduction programmes in the school holidays, when anyone can roll up.”
Female membership is strong with women only teaching groups. At BGL’s Redbourn Golf Club, near St Albans, 20 percent of retail sales are now to women players. To stimulate interest from all beginner groups BGL has par three courses at nine out of its ten venues.
BGL has also opened adventure golf courses at three venues to attract more families into golf. The Pirate Island themed courses are more elaborate versions of crazy golf with 18 holes costing £22 for a family of four. “It’s a big draw for our venues and it gets families involved. They are also spending money on F&B and having a great time”, Mayes confirms.
At three locations BGL is offering footgolf. “Hoebridge has a dedicated nine-hole footgolf course which is proving very popular and at Abbey Hill the nine-hole course is used for footgolf after 3.00pm. It does need careful management because play tends to be louder and more boisterous, so we have to ensure that does not impact on other users.”
All of these developments are designed to engage with potential new players and members as Mayes is keen to emphasise. “Golf needs to move on. Kids want instant gratification and golf takes a long time to learn and to play. We have to draw people into golf venues if they are going to develop any sort of interest. The challenge for us is doing it appropriately, providing good family fun that does not disturb established members. But ultimately this is a commercially driven business and we’re here to make a profit.”
Maintaining high service and facility standards are very important to BGL and the group has formal processes in place to maintain quality levels. “We audit our courses twice a year and we also audit the pro shops, food and beverage, and the two health clubs. We use a mystery shopper service and we conduct surprise visits. We work hard to maximise usage by offering high standards that represent value for money.”
It is bad management leading to poor standards which Mayes believes lay at the heart of golf’s problems as an industry. “Frankly there are too many golf courses and not enough golfers. The market peaked in 2006 when we had our highest number of rounds played, then the recession hit and while there are signs of recovery, there is still an oversupply. That drives down standards which is bad for the reputation of the game as a whole.”
Mayes thinks a drastic thinning off the industry is inevitable. “From my experience with the pub trade I would say that 30 percent of courses need to close, in the same way that a lot of pubs closed which were just scraping by. I don’t think we will ever return to the days of waiting lists for club membership, but I do think fewer courses would see a general rise in standards.”
In regard to BGL, Mayes says, “We are growing in every way: turnover, profit, the number of courses and the scope of our facilities. To succeed you have to motivate your people to constantly improve standards, get the pricing right and keep the customers happy. It really is that simple!”
Retail is about the detail
Scott McKittrick joined BGL nearly five years ago as retail manager for the group. He asserts, “Retail is about the detail – it’s about getting the stock range right. When I arrived we had ten head pros all buying stock based on their own personal preferences without any particular logic behind it.”
McKittrick rationalised the process and centralised the purchasing so retail now generates over £3 million in annual sales for the group. “For each product category we now stock an entry level brand, a middle brand and a prestige brand so we cover every price point in every sales category. At our pay-and-play golf centres it tends to be the entry level product that sells best.” The exception is equipment. “With clubs the teaching pro will have a large influence on the purchase, and if they recommend that the player uses better equipment, that usually makes the difference.”
Tuition benefits BGL as well as the players. “We gave a free introductory lesson to about 1,700 people last year, but that pays off with additional paid tuition.” For the same reason BGL does not charge for custom fitting. “There will be a proportion of players that go through the process and then decide not to purchase, but I believe we get significantly more bookings by not charging, so it’s an investment that’s worth making.”