We all know that Irish golf clubs have enjoyed a Covid-19 bump in membership. Thirty new members here, 50 new members there, and over 100 in several cases (e.g. Birr, Seapoint, Royal Tara, Castlebar, Tramore). In Ireland, the GUI is reporting that the number of total new members is approximately 12,000, based on the increased volume of Golfnet cards printed between November 2019 and August 2020. The final figure and breakdown won’t be known until November.
During lockdown when only skeleton greenkeeping crews were allowed near the course, green fees tumbled, society bookings were cancelled and business from international visitors evaporated.
But the phases of re-opening meant that golf clubs benefitted unexpectedly. Several clubs reacted with special offers for new members, as well as specific limited memberships (e.g. one month trial membership at Macreddin and three months at Coollattin), but they almost needn’t have bothered. Such was the desire to get outdoors and get some physical activity that clubs were dealing with dozens of calls from people wanting to join.
Clubs that were struggling to survive have found themselves with hugely increased memberships – the average number of new members per club comes in at over 50. Nor is this confined to Ireland: England Golf reported that golf clubs have seen a combined 20,000 new members since clubs reopened. And in Scotland, one club alone reported 320 new members in that same short spell.
It is a bright light in an otherwise gloomy situation improved further still by the number of rounds being played: Jeremy Tomlinson, the CEO of England Golf says that the number of rounds played in June and July was up 60 percent on 2019. The same increase is anticipated for August. In Ireland, Lucan Golf Club tells me that July saw a hike of 85 percent in the number of member rounds played.
New annual subscriptions and fresh faces appearing around the golf course are a welcome fillip for clubs and balance sheets everywhere. The news is incredibly positive after the pessimism that greeted Covid-19’s arrival and the lockdown that followed. Many saw the virus as ‘The End’ for their club, especially with some existing members failing to renew at the start of 2020. The surge in new members has at least quelled that sentiment. Yes, two clubs closed (Castle Barna, Water Rock) while a further two (Killorglin and Castleisland) merged as one club but the concern that many more clubs would close has not yet been realised. In Scotland, a course that closed in the run up to lockdown re-opened, such was the demand.
The question now is what comes next? How do we use this surge in membership to our advantage, how do we welcome these new golfers into our clubs and how do we retain them? How do we deal equitably with new and loyal members alike? Ultimately, how do we contribute to golf clubs’ added stability for years to come?
Let me be clear: these are important questions because this is an opportunity that won’t come again. Up until 2007/8 there was an attitude that suggested that golf clubs were wallowing under the branches of an endlessly shedding money tree. After 2008, most of those money trees perished. These new members are not a reincarnation and you will need to work hard and think smartly if you want to retain them.
To this end, I asked for feedback on what clubs were doing for new members across a number of forums. The majority of responses were not encouraging.
I know there are still plenty of problems facing golf clubs (e.g. slashed catering and bar receipts, and minimal income from green fees, societies and corporates) but new members are like gold dust and should be treated as such. Consider the long terms benefits of a loyal member who pays their annual sub, who pays to enter competitions, who buys merchandise in the Pro shop, who eats and drinks in the clubhouse, who has kids and family and friends who could all become members, who can participate on teams, who may sponsor events, donate prizes, organise corporate or society days, and may become a committee member, a team manager, or a coach in the future.
Putting in some important groundwork can set the tone for a club’s relationship with such new members for years to come, building loyalty, securing financial stability and bringing new blood into the club.
It is also essential to consider that these new members are not your average new members. Many joined because there were no other sporting activities they could participate in – GAA most notably. Some of these will obviously disappear when life returns to a more recognisable form or normality, but clubs need to minimise that number.
From the answers I received it was apparent that some clubs do nothing at all to integrate these new members. Indeed, in some clubs, the existing members are none too fond of new arrivals as they fill up timesheets, play too slowly or just interrupt the status quo… which presumably means they don’t dress appropriately or they take a member’s cherished parking spot.
Then there are those clubs that do appreciate the value of new golfers, be they men, women, juniors, under-35s, five day or seven day additions… and be they nomadic golfers, lapsed golfers, new-to-golf golfers, or families.
“It is policy in our club every year – and not just this year – for our Phyxer Captain and his committee to contact all new members and invite them along on Monday evening where the first tee is reserved. Phyxers, as we call them, are golfers who play off 17 and above,” says Mick Kilcourse, Vice Captain, Castlebar Golf Club
How do you build a rapport with these members? Are you going to wait until the subs are due next year and just send out a letter demanding they pay up to continue their membership? Is that the way you want to do business? There are clubs that see this as being the normal way of doing things and then lament the fall in membership numbers.
That is the old way of doing things and while clubs are far more welcoming today, there are still those that are not. Please embrace these people within the club. I am not talking about giving them special treatment above what you give existing members but introducing them to club life and the benefits of membership is crucial to demonstrate what their membership subscription is for… and how it is spent.
Here are some tried and tested ideas that could prove beneficial to your club in these different times:
The Buddy Programme
Each new member is assigned a current member who can show them around the club, introduce them to members, explain the club’s processes and be a playing partner on the course. This may be logistically difficult with over 100 new members so, if that’s the case…
A New Member Event
Social distancing may prove a challenge indoors for a ‘welcome to the club’ type evening so why not a barbecue outdoors or a competition for new members (as mentioned above at Castlebar). Put three new members alongside an existing member and a lot can be achieved in four hours on the course. You might even find talent for your club teams.
Introduction to Etiquette
For those very new to the game, invite new members to the practice green to talk about slow play, general etiquette, replacing divots and repairing pitch–marks. Raking bunkers may, however, have to wait for another day! Many clubs do this through an email newsletter but being more hands-on will make it clear that new members are valued.
Write A Letter
I’m not suggesting a handwritten letter with a fountain pen and a wax seal but a letter that has a person’s name on it is a powerful thing. Thank the member for joining, welcome them to the club, spell out the benefits and joys of club membership, make it clear that you are available to answer questions and give them plenty of information about your complimentary facilities, your teams, the Pro (and lessons), the clubhouse restaurant and bar. Why not throw in some mention of Junior programmes and family memberships.
If you have 100 new members then they will be coming from different walks of life and with different experiences and expectations of what golf is and what it might be like to be a member of a club. Plenty of people will be intimidated and may even be harbouring a negative view of “membership”. If you throw them in at the deep end you can expect them to sink; give them a helping hand and they can thrive.
Another response I received to my questions was: “Why would we do anything new for these members?”
Perhaps you missed the memo that Irish golf clubs have been in a tight place for over a decade. Perhaps you think that new members will renew their membership because ‘wow, aren’t I privileged to be a member of this club!’ Perhaps you fail to realise that an opportunity like this will simply not happen again. Unless your neighbouring course closes you will never have 40 to over 100 new members landing on your doorstep at once.
With such unprecedented volumes of new members, you have to start thinking outside the box if you want to strengthen your club into the future.
Time After Time
Yes, I know some will say that these people have been members for a few months already and that it would be too late to start communicating with them now. What rubbish. You have a whole range of excuses to contact them with all sorts of different news. Send them a questionnaire asking about their experiences so far if you’re that out of ideas.
“The plan for off season will be to host games, times and events to get new members to meet each other. Our Professionals have a list of their names and will give them a warm welcome as front of house while our weekly newsletter will keep them up to date with the news,” says Mark Ruddy, General Manager, Lucan Golf Club
How do you reinforce their loyalty/investment in the club unless you communicate with them?
The subject of money, subscriptions namely, is a difficult one. Some clubs have attracted members with special deals – be it a flat fee for the summer or a monthly price – while others have created a discounted rate to the end of the year. When the time for renewals arrives, don’t go from €150 to €800 in one fell swoop. That’s hard to swallow for anyone. It’s why so many clubs introduced the Under 30 or Under 35 category so that juniors and students were no longer asked for enormous hikes in membership overnight. Find a way around this age-old problem.
Regardless of how you do it, asking these ‘Covid-19’ members to renew at any stage will see some leave the fold. If, however, you have convinced them of the benefits and welcomed them and made them feel at home, they are far more likely to renew. That bit’s obvious but you still need to get over the hurdle of the inevitable increase in fees for 2021.
At Castlebar Golf Club, the introduction of an annual subscription in May 2020 that lasts until the end of 2021 allows new members over 18 months to experience club life as well as the joys of a sweet golf course.
Innovative ways to pay don’t appear with the wave of a wand and a club’s financial structures may simply not allow for novel ways of paying. I’m not suggesting Bitcoin here, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look into something beyond the monthly direct debit.
Another question is to ask what these new members are worth to you? There are clubs out there where the influx of new members has made the difference between closure and survival. That makes them worth a very big something. In fact, it makes all members worth a very big something. Why not try to find a way to give back to members during the year, giving them something to look forward to. A free lesson, a club barbecue, a bring-three-friends-for-free day… such extras can be the difference between renewing and not.
The End is not the End
You will lose some of these members. Accept it… but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end of the relationship. If they have acquired a taste for golf, then they may rejoin in the future. Put it this way, Covid-19 has introduced golf to people who may never have attempted to play this game. That can only be a good thing and suggests you should stay in touch with them … perhaps with a special ‘deal’ that allows them to rejoin or a complimentary fourball further down the line.
New members could be the making of your club so give them the respect they deserve. At the same time, please don’t leave your existing loyal members out in the cold… as our nation’s banks have been doing for years.
A case study at Castlebar Golf Club:
Mick Kilcourse, the club’s Vice Captain, provided me with the following example of how the club is treating new members:
“It is policy in our club every year – and not just this year – for our Phyxer Captain and his committee to contact all new members and invite them along on Monday evening where the first tee is reserved. Phyxers as we call them are golfers who play off 17 and above.
“New members are welcomed and brought out to play in a competition environment which is very relaxed. Afterwards, there is a little presentation in the clubhouse and again all new members are invited in and made to feel welcome.
“Phyxers feel it’s their duty in our club to take new members under their wing. It’s a long standing tradition and one that works well as generally new members are beginners and are not intimidated by the Phyxers as the standard is not threatening.
“Thus this group has proved invaluable in our club down the years and many members will openly state their appreciation for the Phyxers and how they felt so at ease once they joined.
“We are fortunate in Castlebar as we have an extremely social club with our clubhouse always busy with members and locals around the bar. New members are often surprised at how relaxed it is around the clubhouse which is how we like to keep it.
“With the influx of new members we gave the job of organising membership deals to two people within the club: myself and club chairman Gerry Daly. This meant all potential new members came through the same channels and were always told the same thing. One of the things we promoted was a 18/19 month membership to the end of 2021, meaning they will remain members beyond the winter next year and will therefore be far more likely to remain long term. This is particularly important as those from other sports could easily be lost in the short term.”