These themes, procedures, attitudes and products may seem obvious, but the way they’re put together can make all the difference between a highly successful business and an underperforming one.
It should also be noted that these are our opinions and whilst we would like to think there is a good flow of logic running through the conclusions, other people will have other ideas and many of them will work very well in the world.
First, we need to identify the point at which the new golf order started. This coincided with the rise of colour television, Nicklaus and Palmer and our own Tony Jacklin playing superbly on the world stage. Much of this publicity for golf was generated by the International Management Group, IMG which was founded and run by Mark McCormack for many years. He realised that with superstar players, colour television and a burgeoning advertising opportunity, golf could sell itself to big business on a global scale. He helped to broker huge deals with airlines, banks, car manufacturers and watch makers and many of those still endure to this day. McCormack made his clients and himself fabulously wealthy, but he blew the doors off the fusty old sport of golf and took glamorous locations and crazy trousers into the living rooms of millions of people who had no real idea as to what golf was. Very shortly after this period, it was noticed that more and more people wanted to play golf. Queues for public and council courses stretched for hundreds of yards and there was clearly a need to build more user friendly golf facilities. Towards the end of the sixties, John Jacobs and Laddie Lucas started the first golf centres in Europe. These golf ranges, combined with basic golf courses took advantage of the spare space inside racetracks and took golf to a mass market. Tuition was to the fore and club hire became one of the most profitable elements of the new business.
Many others copied and improved on the offerings. World of Golf, founded a couple of decades later by Carsten Hallas, took golf to new levels again. He picked great locations and offered the excitement of a two tier golf range. Such facilities generated hundreds of new golfers every month in the season and more and more people started to play.
Golf surged in popularity and when the Europeans won the Ryder Cup for the first time, millions of people were inspired and interested in golf.
At around this time, the late Graham Hurst, a member of the R&A, was commissioned by them to write a report. The report - The Demand For Golf - was a fascinating study and completely misread by most people who scanned its contents and scooped up its conclusion - Britain needs another 600-700 golf courses. At the same time, farmers, by far and away the biggest landowners in the country, were being encouraged to diversify away from their core activities. Many of these farmers, armed with Hurst‘s report, trudged off to see the bank manager and borrowed a few quid to build a golf course. Others sold or leased their land to entrepreneurs who did similar.
There were two main problems. First, one of the key components of the report was the number of people on waiting lists at golf clubs across the country. This was interpreted as latent demand for golf, but in fact most of those people on waiting lists were on several other waiting lists too. So, to put it simply, the demand was hugely overstated. The second significant point that was overlooked by the over eager, would-be golf entrepreneurs, was that the report stated clearly that courses should for the main part be user-friendly and basic and provide inexpensive golf.
This didn’t suit those people who had grander ideas. Intelligent businessmen seem to leave their thinking behind when they get anywhere near the golf industry. Poor courses with pretentious club houses sprouted up across the country. High prices were charged, ridiculous assumptions were made by idiot accountants to justify over spending. Golf course architects were hugely in demand and many made a lot of money.
Golf’s ticking time bomb was created.
As soon as these golf courses started to near completion, the reality hit home. Waiting lists for almost all golf clubs vanished. Soon these new courses were fighting amongst each other to see who could put on the best events for the least money. Entrance fees, which were the norm when the business plan was written, became a thing of the past and hundreds and hundreds of golf courses struggled. Some closed, some went bust, some survived. But most of these courses today are no longer owned by the people that set them up.
But, despite all of these problems we are now left with the situation where golf is available more cheaply than in the past and is easier to access.
Times have also changed and this is perhaps even more of a challenge for golf operators today. Golf is a time-consuming sport and one that really needs a four or five hour period. In our ever more busy schedules, it is difficult to accommodate such a long period in any one day. It is perfect for retired people who have far more time, and maybe far more money than those who work full-time, but this has seen the average age of golfers rise alarmingly. Many clubs now have an average age in the late 60s or early 70s for all of their members. We are all living longer, so perhaps that is no bad thing and the camaraderie and community at golf courses is a great way of enjoying the twilight years. Downhill skiing, triathlons and motor racing may be beyond some people in their 70s, but most can play golf and enjoy all of its benefits long into their old-age.
For those of us running commercial golf ventures and those clubs which also seek to increase their client base to spread the burden of costs more widely for their membership, we have to look carefully at how we find more customers.
It is undoubtably true that courses in stronger locations have a much better chance of success than those with fewer people living close by. It is the proximity of mass population which is the most critical element rather than the number of clubs in any given area. A great course in a catchment area of 100,000 people, will perform less well than a more modest facility with many other clubs vying for customer’s trade in an area where 500,000 people live nearby.
Golf as a sport is enjoyed by about 5% of the population, some would say it’s nearer to 6%, others would say it’s not even 5%. Nevertheless about one person in 20 can be counted on as a golfer. This is very bad news bearing in mind that for every pound you spend marketing in your area, 19 out of 20 of those that you try to reach will not be interested. This is why so many clubs have successfully moved into the wider leisure market in recent times. Leisure, which can include gyms, adventure golf, FootGolf, cycling, other sports, will attract a majority of the population and the fact that these sites offer more options, allows families to come together for their valuable leisure time.
A fantastic food and drink business will underpin all such businesses. For the last 10 years I have regarded our own facilities as pubs with extravagant beer gardens. That might sound a little glib to some people who are traditionally attuned to the finer aspects of golf, but if you look after somebody’s food and drink requirements before during and after their game of golf, you will be assured of their returning custom and goodwill. If you make it clear that their family and friends are also welcome to join you at the golf course, then you can quadruple the spend of any one customer. It makes a lot of sense.
The next 50 years
As the golf industry develops over the next 30 to 50 years, one thing is absolutely clear. Customer service will be the most important part in delivering profitable golf venues. Ensuring that your customers have a good time is not just about smiling at Bob in the bar. It is also about making sure that the whole of the facility is beautifully kept and maintained and that, where possible, customer’s expectations are exceeded.
More and more clubs will create buggy paths so that golfers of all ages and physical make-ups can play golf on a buggy 365 days of the year.
Clubhouses will offer more interesting and varied events. Those at the events will talk to their local community as well as the pool of members. Many clubhouses will become local community pubs.
If you want to attract younger people to your golf facility, then Wi-Fi is essential, dress regulations are a no-no and music is a great idea. Technology such as Toptracer will make range use more fun and appeal beyond golf.
If you wish to attract families to your golf facility, then make sure there is a great tuition offering, diverse menu, a coffee shop environment, and lots of fun things to do to keep everybody happy while they spend time together.
Tom Hilliard, who sadly died recently, was a great visionary and he, together with his exceptional team have turned Silvermere into one of the most modern, forward looking venues in golf. It is situated just opposite the far more traditional St Georges Hill Golf Club near Weybridge but just inside the M25. For the last Silvermere has been the place to go to for all sorts of innovations. Doug McLelland has worked his magic in running the biggest golf store in Europe from the site. The scale of the golf retail operation itself and there is staggering with the annual turnover allegedly exceeding £7 million in recent years - whoever said there was no money in retail!
The golf course itself is busy, very well maintained and provides huge enjoyment to thousands of golfers every year. It is a very good test, but perhaps doesn’t have the cachet of its close neighbour over the road. Nevertheless, it is extremely popular and a great place to enjoy this great sport. The Hilliards really got to grips with clubhouse activity. With a beautiful setting they have created the Inn on the Lake at Silvermere. This clubhouse provides basic changing rooms, but I large pub restaurant with a glorious patio overlooking the lake. There are also function rooms and other private areas for small groups. From early in the morning until late at night the kitchen is busy churning out delicious meals to all sorts of different types of visitor. Corporate businessmen using the location as a convenient meeting place. Golfers. Families. Tourists. There are lots of social functions with music and dancing. Weddings and birthday parties and other great celebrations all can be accommodated in this excellent location.
All the staff are friendly, well trained and in gauging. They are determined that you’re going to have a great time at Silvermere. It’s not surprising that the takings in food and drink are astronomical, far too vulgar to print.
Over the last few years Silvermere has transformed it’s golf range once again. 30 years ago it was the first golf range to have proper two-piece balls on offer to its customers. It used to have a huge bell for people to aim at and, if I remember rightly, a huge cheesy cut-out image of Nick Faldo provided by his sponsors at the time, Mizuno. over the years, the range, which was at that time just a single storey, was superseded by other more elegant offerings. Tom, Jeff and Doug tussled with the council and eventually gained planning permission for a two tier golf range which was perfectly integrated with the new greenkeeping storage area. Like all of the other projects that the team accomplished at Silvermere, the new range raised the bar again. First class tuition, outstanding custom fitting with top-class Srixon Z star golf balls, a fabulous design and plenty of space behind the bays made this a really special golf range. Now Toptracer has been installed in all of the bays and the golf range is now rammed from morning till night.
Silvermere is set in a great location, but it is only because of the vision of Tom and his team that it has become so exceptional. Substantial reinvestment married to audacious plans have produced possibly the most interesting golf business in the country.
There will be more golf businesses like this in the next 30 to 50 years, but if you want to see what the future looks like get down to Silvermere now.