Tradition and change at Littlestone Golf Club

    Founded in 1888, Littlestone Golf Club is a classic English links on the Kent coast. Last year members elected Stuart Gremo as chairman of directors, with a brief to improve organisation and management of the club. Sarah Saunders, sales and marketing manager at the club explained the details to Glyn Pritchard.

    Making changes to any institution 127 years old will always present challenges so Littlestone Golf Club has adapted to changes in management structure with remarkable ease. When Stuart Gremo, a Kent businessman involved in the construction industry, became chairman of the club’s board of directors last year, he decided to review the operational management of the club with a view to reducing costs and improving efficiency.

    Sarah Saunders and Adrian SimmondsSarah Saunders recounts the process which followed. “Stuart engaged a very experienced golf management consultant to review operations here. The consultant recommended doing away with the traditional club secretary role and engaging a food and beverage manager and sales and marketing manager with professional experience in the golf industry. He also recommended that the golf professional staff and the pro shop should be more closely integrated into the club structure.”

    At the heart of the challenge was a lack of joined-up operational management says Saunders. “Things worked, but in an ad-hoc way. Suppliers and contractors had been engaged without close scrutiny of costs and any overall strategic direction. The Warren, our second course, operated as almost a completely separate entity which wasn’t efficient. In a long established club like this it is easy to become inward looking, doing things because that’s the way they have always been done. What Stuart brought was a more professional and commercial approach to a traditional members club.”

    Following the consultants recommendations, Saunders joined the club from Chart Hills GC closely followed by Adrian Simmonds as F&B manager, having worked previously at the Buckinghamshire GC and the London Golf Club. One of Saunders first improvements was to implement the Intelligent Golf software system.

    “We had six disparate software systems for various aspects of club operations and The Warren had a completely different system. Intelligent Golf gives us one integrated system across both sites covering F&B sales; competitions and society management; tee booking; handicaps; membership management including club cards; and the website. Now if we make an entry on part of the system it automatically updates the other parts affected without duplicate manual intervention. The only aspect it doesn’t link with is the accounts system, but we’re working on that”, Saunders confirms.

    Asked why they chose Intelligent Golf, Saunders replies, “There are other systems that are better at this or that, but Intelligent Golf offers the best overall performance in my opinion. It’s also web browser based so it’s very easy and intuitive to learn. We just don’t have time to train all the staff on something that may have more bells and whistles but is too complex to pick up quickly.”

    There are now four operational managers across the two courses. In addition to Saunders and Simmonds, Malcolm Grand is the longstanding course manager and Andrew Jones is director of golf. “We meet once a week to discuss what is going on at an operational level. It ensures we are proactive in controlling events and not reacting as events unfold.”

    The new structure entailed a change in role for Andrew Jones, the pro at Littlestone for the last 15 years. “Andrew had his shop and staff over at The Warren which meant he was rather remote from the heart of operations. He also owned the stock and ran his own shop. It was decided to make him director of golf and integrate the golf professional staff more fully into the club. So now the club has taken over the stock and Andrew and his staff manage tee bookings and competitions for the championship course as well as The Warren.”

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    The pro shop now occupies a room in a building adjacent to the main clubhouse. “It’s a temporary measure, until we can get a purpose built shop constructed. At the moment because of restrictions on space we don’t focus very much on hardware and we offer top-end apparel brands such as Glenbrae and Oscar Jacobson. Crested apparel is very popular and of course it’s exclusive to the club.”

    In terms of her own role, responsible principally for membership sales and marketing, Saunders has made a number of changes. “We had something like 29 different permutations of membership category when I joined. We have rationalised that down to four main categories. They will apply to any new members and we have not imposed those retrospectively.” The membership across both Littlestone and the Warren stands at a healthy 900.

    “We have reduced the joining fee to a nominal £200, and kept the membership fees at both clubs static for 2015. For new members joining Littlestone Championship Links we still require a proposer and a seconder, but if they are new to the area or have no friends at the club, we can propose via the committee. It used to take up to six months to on-board a new member so we have shortened that now.” A points based ‘Fairway’ membership is also in place giving access to the club, competitions and handicap status, but without full member voting rights.

    Saunders has also introduced age structured pricing for two categories of young adults up to 30, a student rate and a £100 annual fee for juniors. “Actually any junior with a parent or grandparent here can play for free. We very much want to encourage junior and family members to both clubs.

    A star junior performer for the club is five-year-old Arthur Saunders (no relation) who has earned a place in the IMG Academy Junior World Championship in San Diego in July after finishing second in the Boys six and under division of the British Junior Golf Tour at Redbourn Golf Club. “Arthur is coached by Charlie Wilson one of our pro staff. He’s a wonderful little chap and is here every moment he can. He’s a great golfer and exemplifies the friendly welcome we offer to all juniors and new members. We’re holding a golf day to raise money for his expenses such as accommodation whilst in America.”

    Andrew JonesAnother aspect of Saunders remit is to promote The Warren as a visitor facility in its own right. “The championship course gets a lot of visitors and societies because of its history and reputation as an Open qualifying links, but The Warren has been a bit eclipsed. It has its own loyal membership and has usually been seen as a pay and play venue. We want to improve that and promote it as a course in its own right.”

    Littlestone is also making itself more accessible to the local community. “The clubroom is still exclusively for members and guests. But Adrian has now started a Sunday lunch in our dining room which is open to the public and proving very popular.”

    Remarking on the changes made since she and Simmonds joined last autumn Saunders says, “Of course there has been some resistance, but most members see the logic of what we are doing and support it. The club wasn’t facing any immediate crisis, it was more a question of drift. Everyone was well intentioned but there was a lack of commercial edge that would eventually have led to problems. We’ve streamlined processes, rationalised suppliers, negotiated better terms and brought in best-practices learnt elsewhere.”

    Saunders is keen to emphasise respect for the past is part of the process of change. “We have had the prime minister of the day as captain and the leader of the opposition as president at the same time. All that history and tradition adds to the lustre of the club. But the members now allow jeans into the clubroom and there is wi-fi. Tradition does not mean you cannot move forward and be more commercially aware while keeping hold of your traditions.”