The Covid Conundrum for Irish Golf Clubs

by | Apr 9, 2020 | 4 comments

(Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)

Kevin Markham

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The news for Irish golf is not good. Golf clubs have already closed permanently because of Covid-19, and more will undoubtedly follow. The small country clubs have taken a battering and many that were still recovering after 2008 have seen Covid-19 drive home the final nail. Killorglin closed a fortnight ago, Castleisland is on the brink (and may have closed by the time you read this) and there is at least one other yet to be announced.

At times like these it is hard to say with a straight face that there are opportunities for golf clubs during this crisis… but there is a bigger picture here that focuses on survival and future prosperity. As a club you have two hats to choose from: you can opt for the hard hat if you think your only solution is to keep your head down, do nothing and wait for the bombs to stop falling. Or you can reach for your thinking cap and work out how to make the most of a very difficult situation and prepare for the end of this crisis.

I have worked in marketing for over 20 years and while a lot of the ideas below will seem obvious, they are worth repeating… you might even find a diamond in the rough.

It goes without saying that the financial model you have been working with for years may be about to change. Depending on the structure of your club you could find that a falling membership leads to higher numbers of green fees (who may well be previous members). You will need to ensure the right balance between annual subscriptions and green fee rates to retain as many members as possible. You will have to consider the timing of income streams throughout the year and you will certainly need to look at the cheap green fee sites that you have used in the past which have crippled many clubs.

I don’t pretend to have any financial knowledge so I will leave that well alone. In the meantime, here are those marketing ideas, divided into five sections:

  1. Members
  2. Societies
  3. Outside the Box
  4. Follow Through
  5. Helping Hand

 

  1. Members

For most clubs, membership subscriptions are the key to success and longevity. At this difficult time your members offer the greatest opportunity to rebuild your golf club. Unfortunately, they also represent a considerable threat as some may now cancel their monthly Direct Debits or even ask for refunds for the period that golf is not being played. These are unavoidable consequences. Money is tight for everyone so it is no surprise. The challenge is how to react to this and how to be proactive in retaining members.

Keep Your Friends Close. Regular communications with your members will keep them engaged. Whether it’s by email or on social media, stay in touch. Run fun competitions (name the hole, who’s this putting), post images of the course/club in different years, ask for stories, keep them informed of greenkeeping efforts, etc. And don’t be shy in telling members that their support is essential to your survival.

Extended Membership. If members are informed that their ‘annual’ subscription is going to run until April 2021, instead of January, that is one mechanism to keep them loyal. You will lose subscription income over those first four months in 2021 but you can at least plan in advance for the loss and survival is the main concern at the moment. This is already proving a popular option to keep members onboard.

Discounted 2021 Membership. Sounds like a non-starter but some of your members will be in a position to pay you now for membership next year. If you offer a discount you might attract some much needed income right now.

Reciprocal Playing Rights. If you are a member at Galway Bay Golf Resort then you have reciprocal playing rights at Palmerstown House and Concra Wood. Fota Island offers similar arrangements with Dromoland Castle, Ballyliffin and Carton House. These are not the only clubs with such collectives by any stretch. Long before Covid-19 these playing rights were considerable incentives for members… and now is the time to exploit them fully. Reward loyalty by telling your members that you will be offering a free fourball at your partner clubs for use in 2020/2021. It is unlikely that all free fourballs will be taken up – indeed, it would be surprising if 20 per cent are used – but it shows a willingness to reward your members. It generates goodwill.

This can be done by any golf club. If you don’t have reciprocal partners it does not mean you can’t establish one now or at least forge some form of merger with another club (see below).

Club ‘Mergers’. Two neighbouring golf clubs in Dublin (Corrstown and Forrest Little) established an open partnership in February 2018, which gave golfers membership at the two clubs. As a full member at one club you automatically received complimentary five-day membership at the other.

There is no denying that more clubs will close in the months ahead and, by forming a partnership with a neighbour you will be stronger together… and more attractive to new members.

Lifetime Memberships. Clubs have used this marketing tool over the years to bring in a tidy lump sum (for clubhouse renovations, course upgrades, etc.). Yes, levies and loans have their advantages but lifetime memberships do not leave a bitter aftertaste.

Then there are your members who have paid their subs and are perfectly willing to endure the pain right along with you. And most of them will be more than happy to support you. All you can do is ask.

Clubhouse Benefits. Make a grand gesture by announcing a dinner/party for all once the course re-opens fully. This is what your communication channels are for and you can use them to ask for advice and opinions.

In the difficult months ahead, your clubhouse will play an increasingly important role in income generation… not just for welcoming members, societies and green fee payers but also for corporate meetings, as an event venue and/or a food destination, to name a few.

Merchandise/Green Fee Vouchers. In collaboration with your Pro, look at opportunities to sell your merchandise and green fee vouchers to your members right now (by email and online). Encourage them to buy caps, shirts, tops or vouchers as gifts for themselves and others. Be generous with your offers and ask for their support. Merchandise may not be delivered until after clubs reopen but that is to be expected. Vouchers, or course, can be delivered immediately.

This can also be done for a national/international audience, assuming your club has that kind of presence. Carne Golf Links recently ran an email campaign with this in mind… and one of the options was a Lifetime Membership, at close to half price.

Raffle. Ask members for prizes and run a raffle – either online or by post. If you have members who run businesses then the chances are that they are in a similarly difficult position to yourself. They will be looking at ways to promote their services and products and a golf club raffle is one of them. You may not want to hold the actual raffle until after things return to some level of normality but you can incentivise members now by promoting 2-for-1 type offers.

Unwanted Prizes. Some lucky golfers win enough prizes that they never even take them out of the box. They end up in garages or attics, mostly forgotten. Prizes cost money and as golf clubs attempt to save every cent during and after this lockdown, why not ask members for their unwanted prizes that can then be used in the future.

 

The most important thing you can do is maintain the goodwill you have with your members… as well as your suppliers and partners (e.g. hotels). Keep them informed and engaged and you will benefit in the long term. Be flexible, be kind, be helpful. Don’t be Tim Martin from Wetherspoons, who hung his staff and suppliers out to dry, and has been vilified ever since.

 

  1. Societies

Society bookings across the country have been cancelled. Be proactive by keeping a log of all relevant societies and staying in touch. Be ready to make offers when courses reopen fully. This applies not just to societies that have cancelled this year but societies from previous years that did not rebook for 2020. This could even be an opportunity to attract new business.

How about offering a society a (limited) free group booking in 2021, assuming they complete a booking/outing in 2020? This assumes courses will re-open in plenty of time in 2020.

 

  1. Outside the Box

Crowdfunding. If you have a specific vital goal that you wanted to achieve in 2020 (e.g. reconstructing a green, adding new showers, introducing new drainage) you could try the crowdfunding route. Depending on the size and acclaim of your course you could be looking at just your members and local area to participate or you could be looking internationally.

In return for donations of varying value, people who support the campaign receive something in return such as green fees, golf balls, club merchandise, dinner, membership etc. Murcar Links, outside Aberdeen, ran a crowdfunding campaign to replace its irrigation system in 2018. Contributions started at £1 and rose to £12,000. There were eight donation categories and, as an added bonus, all donors entered a draw for three free hotel stays at a local five star resort.

International Memberships. Brora Golf Club, in the Scottish Highlands, is struggling to survive following the inevitable visitor cancellations. It is not an unfamiliar refrain but the club bounced back by building their merchandise sales and by offering an international membership option for £323. True, this is limited to clubs with a more international presence but it can be utilised for Distance Memberships as well.

Identify Allies & Advocates. Your members have ideas and resources to help you. Ask them for their thoughts on how to keep the golf club going, how to reach new audiences, how to build green fee business. Just one good idea could make all the difference. You could even offer a free annual sub to the member who produces a winning idea.

Or just ask them to volunteer in whatever way necessary. There will always be those who want to help.

Reaffirm and review partnerships with accommodation providers and create new or improved stay-and-play packages. Hotels etc., are facing difficult dilemmas, too, so they should be more than willing to engage with anyone who can drive business their way after this crisis is over.

Twinning. Carne Golf Links is ‘twinned’ with Gearhart GC in Oregon. The two clubs have a positive relationship that sees groups visiting the other country… and then playing further afield. Clubs who do this will learn from each other, especially as different countries have different ways of doing things. And it doesn’t cost anything.

Taxi. Build goodwill with members by introducing a taxi service on Friday and Saturday nights when the club reopens. Anything you can do to attract your members into the clubhouse to spend money should be explored. If it doesn’t work, you just discontinue it.

 

  1. Follow Through

There are plenty of strong ideas that many clubs have been employing for years. Now is as good a time as any to revisit them.

New Audiences. This is hardly a new idea and it is probably one you have tried before but identifying new audiences will help to grow the game… and, potentially, membership at your club. At a time when you may only be thinking of looking after your members what about arranging school visits with your Junior Captain and/or talented youngsters or assessing how to hold a junior day at the club? Lady golfers remain a growing sector, which is well looked after by the CGI. This presents opportunities as you can benefit from their expertise and resources. And what about older audiences (e.g. bridge clubs) which will always remain a vital bracket for golf. How do you find them, how do you communicate with them and how do you attract them?

Social Media. It is easy to cast social media aside… but if you have a half-decent presence on Facebook then you will know better. And that’s only one part of it. Twitter and Instagram are significant channels and so too is YouTube. Yes, there can be a reasonable amount of work with YouTube to create videos, but the other three channels are free and instant.

If you already have these channels set up then now is the time to put them to good use. Keep members and interested parties entertained with images of the course, the surroundings, the wildlife, the facilities, the bar, greenkeepers at work, the changes you’ve made to the course. Every picture tells a story and it keeps your club front and centre on the social media stage. Ask golfers about their experiences at your course and you will get a conversation going that will draw in others. Getting the most out of social media does take time and effort so look at what other golf clubs are doing, who they are following and who they are communicating with.

At a time like this you want golfers to be aware of your presence and to see what you offer. You can make offers (e.g. two green fees for the price of one), run prize draws (for green fees or merchandise, typically), have your Pro post a skills video, ask questions of the Social Media world and just engage with golfers everywhere.

Member Get Member. To be blunt, golf courses are going to close their gates for good during this crisis. We are already seeing it happen. That creates an opportunity for a well positioned member-get-member scheme which could also attract nomadic golfers back to the membership fold.

Green Fees. There is little doubt that with so many big sports events cancelled and the likelihood of continued restrictions on social gatherings, golf will be one of the first sports to bounce back. Members and nomads alike will be keen to take to the fairways and green fee takings will be high. Longer term, however, finding marketing ideas and suitable green fee structures to maintain and build your green fee business will be the challenge.

It is time to stop with the €10 green fee through the ‘deals’ websites and get creative. Why are you giving away green fees at such low prices only to get a proportion of that discounted green fee? It’s called bottom-of-the-barrel for a reason and now is no time to be finding yourself trapped down there. Add value by including a bucket of range balls with the green fee. If golfers pay for green fees on your slow days then give them a scone and coffee in the price. Generate a booklet of 10 green fees that delivers an attractive discount (with only one to be used per visit) and ensures the golfer – with friends – keeps returning.

For all those green fee guests who had booked for rounds during the lockdown be sure to stay in touch so that you can reschedule as soon as possible. Attract them with an offer… but preferably without discounting the original green fee. Offer them a trolley as part of the price or a second green fee (for a future date) at a 50 per cent discount.

Green fees will become a more vital part of your income stream if the predictions of decimated memberships come true. If that reality comes to pass then rearranging your timesheets may be required to accommodate this changing balance.

It is also common sense that the most welcoming clubs and those that have a strong online presence (especially an easy booking process) will benefit fastest.

 

  1. Helping Hand

There are two key resources which will ease the path through these increasingly difficult times.

The GUI/ILGU/CGI are engaged at the highest level with government agencies to highlight the pressures on golf clubs and to establish recovery support measures. A club survey will be sent out this week to help Unions identify the economic impact on the sport. The governing bodies are stepping up to the plate so use their services to the full extent. Check out the Documents Folder on HERE

Failte Ireland has also outlined a more general and wide-ranging set of supports HERE

I appreciate that this may all seem rather simplistic – even idealistic – when our sport is facing a crisis unlike anything we have seen before but this is designed to give you ideas that will, I hope, lead to more positive outcomes in the weeks and months ahead.

And yes, I know you’re not in the office right now which makes some of these ideas hard to advance but, if you have your thinking cap on, you’ll find a way.

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4 Comments

  1. Liam Mc Grath

    Great article with lots of ideas. Well done Kevin and thank you.

    Reply
  2. Alan Mcevoy

    Hey Kevin. Dromoland have carlton, waterford Castle, and the heritage as reciprocal clubs. I wish it was fota ?

    Reply
  3. Robert darby

    Would love if yous could write a piece on why more young people dont take up the game of golf, im 40 in aug and out of around 20 lads i grow up with, 5 play golf but only 3 are full members in our local club, in my opion its not memberships that are to expensive its the cost of learing how to play is to expensive, compare it to say a gym membership, most gyms are 50 a month, you can use that gym 7 days a week for 12 hours a day and its still 50e, go the range for an hour, large balls 10e, do it 5 times 50e, so you be lucky to pratice on a range once a week and twice one other week, for most young people hitting a gym rather than a range or course is a no brainer,

    Reply
  4. Aidan Marsden

    Food for thought there Kevin for many clubs

    Reply

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4 Comments

  1. Liam Mc Grath

    Great article with lots of ideas. Well done Kevin and thank you.

    Reply
  2. Alan Mcevoy

    Hey Kevin. Dromoland have carlton, waterford Castle, and the heritage as reciprocal clubs. I wish it was fota ?

    Reply
  3. Robert darby

    Would love if yous could write a piece on why more young people dont take up the game of golf, im 40 in aug and out of around 20 lads i grow up with, 5 play golf but only 3 are full members in our local club, in my opion its not memberships that are to expensive its the cost of learing how to play is to expensive, compare it to say a gym membership, most gyms are 50 a month, you can use that gym 7 days a week for 12 hours a day and its still 50e, go the range for an hour, large balls 10e, do it 5 times 50e, so you be lucky to pratice on a range once a week and twice one other week, for most young people hitting a gym rather than a range or course is a no brainer,

    Reply
  4. Aidan Marsden

    Food for thought there Kevin for many clubs

    Reply

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