After working for Chrysler Jeep UK and then a company sourcing and selling premiums with some of the very biggest global brands including Disney and PepsiCo, I joined the Sir Nick Faldo-designed course Chart Hills Golf Club in Kent, where I was the Sales & Membership Manager. In 2014 I was asked to join the team at Littlestone at a time when a progressive and forward-thinking board, facing substantial losses, were looking at a complete overhaul of the club management.
With the emphasis on sustainability for future generations, I was part of the team that has turned one of England’s most traditional members clubs into one that pays homage to the enormous legacy of previous members and founders, but has one foot firmly in the future: running the club as a business, using best practices to ensure the longevity of Littlestone Golf Club.
The Saunders Story
I didn’t ever consider golf as a business segment I particularly aspired to join, in fact I would probably have run a mile if it had been suggested to me as a young woman. Golf was, and still can be seen, as the bastion of middle-aged white males, and breaking down those perceptions is sometimes difficult but the number of women playing and working in golf has increased considerably since I started. The business of golf is not so very different from any other and the skill sets are transferable, so when the role at Chart Hills came up I decided to go for it as I was travelling a lot in my previous job and had enough of airports and hotel rooms. My first hurdle was understanding the language as a non-golfer: what the hell was shotgun start for example?
Being from a corporate world, it took some time to adjust to the fact that every member has a voice and an opinion - and of course not all of them helpful - but the enormous range of experience and knowledge is actually invaluable.
The general challenge of a members club is finding the balance. This is about keeping the members happy but making enough money to keep the doors open and many clubs have suffered this fate in the past few years. The costs need to be managed and sensible budgets in place, while keeping the membership as the priority of the business. This can be very difficult as non-member income is imperative, so finding the equilibrium is a constant juggling act.
Many clubs don’t always employ people with the best skills and can often suffer with too many committees where egos get in the way of best practice. There is a fair amount of inward thinking and fresh young ideas and people are not always considered.
What elevates the Kent area above other locations in England?
From a golf point of view, Kent has a complete mix of excellent links and parkland courses as well as championship courses and excellent par-3 courses that cater for all levels of golfer. In addition, we have some superb training and coaching facilities whilst some of most established golf clubs ooze old-world charm and tradition. As a county that has a great deal of history, culture and tradition, we have off-course attractions in abundance as well as fabulous restaurants, serving our very own wine, ales and ciders, we also find that we are an appealing option for golfers from around the world.
Visitors who come for the golf are likely to schedule non golf-related activities. What are the top three you would recommend?
We have a wide variety of attractions in the area from Port Lympne, a wildlife park set in 600 acres of countryside, with a collection of upscale lodgings, including an historic hotel, the glorious gardens at Sissinghurst Castle designed by Vita Sackville-West, the vineyards at Chapel Down and one of England’s most iconic castles at Dover.
The golf world went through a difficult time following The Great Global Recession which ended roughly in ‘09. What lessons did golf facilities of all types learn from that period?
That it wasn’t infallible! Financial restrictions and lack of job security were one hurdle but most parents now share the responsibility of working and child care too so time becomes as big of an issue as money. The popularity of cycling also has had an impact as again time restrictions meant that rather than five hours away at the golf club you could be out with friends for a bike ride early morning and back home before lunch to be with the family. The lesson was to open golf up to be more family-friendly with affordable junior coaching and free use of equipment, to encourage participation of partners and children and make the golf course a destination rather than somewhere dad disappears to every weekend. Many clubs made assumptions that the bad times would be short lived and had made no long-term financial plans, with any money in the bank seen as a bonus and spent quickly, with little forward planning. The length of the recession resulted in heavy borrowing, which many clubs are still struggling to cope with. In many ways I think long-term it will actually aid the industry. There was a certain arrogance or maybe naivety that “it wouldn’t happen to them” - and for many it has. Spending is more considered and costs are examined more closely
Customer service is often touted by many in the tourism / hospitality arena. Define the term and how it is applied for visitors coming to the Kent area?
In my book it is simple. Treat customers as you would want to be treated and with a smile on your face. Mistakes are made, people have off days, but by talking to people and having a friendly and approachable manner, most obstacles can be overcome. Having said that, I don’t expect staff to be treated badly or spoken to inappropriately, and so in dealing with a customer complaint all sides will be explored and therefore the customer isn’t always right.
Visitors to the area will likely have Royal St. George’s, Royal Cinque Ports and Prince’s at the top of their golf bucket lists. What are some of the “sleeper” courses that will surprise visitors for their overall quality?
In addition to Littlestone, I would recommend that visitors play the clifftop gem at North Foreland, a deceptively-challenging course with its stunning view over the channel and friendly clubhouse. The two parkland courses at Hever Castle and Leeds Castle are a special and unique experience with two of England’s most iconic castles as a backdrop, whilst the London Golf Club in west Kent offers something completely different - two downland courses by Jack Nicklaus Design and a clubhouse run very much in the stay of an American country club, just 25 miles from the capital. In other words, we offer a diverse range of golfing experiences.
There has been plenty of interest in the tourism area on courting Millennials. What is the approach you see as being most effective?
In terms of golf, using their language and their media in order to break down the perception that the sport is just for a certain segment of society. Also bringing in good, constant junior programmes with young coaches, affordable equipment and encourage participation with their peers using Instagram and Twitter, and whatever comes next. It is never going to be easy as their virtual world offers them more and more diversity. There is a lot of talk about getting them off their phones and tablets, but I think we need to incorporate this somehow, although I don’t have any specific answers exactly how we would do that. But are we asking the Millennials themselves?
If you could change one thing in golf unilaterally - what would it be and why?
Some of the attitudes on golf. As a woman working in golf, I cannot lie and say I have never seen sexism or chauvinism. I have been witness to some extraordinary comments and overheard some ludicrous conversations. I do think it is better than it was and fortunately I work with a fantastic board of directors who are open and progressive to change and don’t tolerate these “old” ideas and views.
What are the key countries Visit Kent focuses upon in coming to the area?
Our marketing partnership, Golf in Kent, focuses on attracting golfers from the rest of the United Kingdom and northern Europe, such as Holland, Belgium and France, thanks to their easy accessibility via our network of motorways, the port of Dover, Eurotunnel and Eurostar. We also promote our golf offering to Scandinavia and Germany as they have a lot of travelling golfers whilst Americans also love to visit us for our golf and history.
The biggest challenge facing the region from a tourism perspective is what?
We are lucky in Kent that we have so many diverse places to go and interesting experiences to enjoy. I am a firm believer in working with other attractions to offer a complete experience to a visitor coming into Kent. Joined-up thinking works and I am now part of a new tourism group to promote our little bit of Kent, the Folkestone, Hythe and the Romney Marsh area. I can only see great things for Lent, our transport links with HS1 and the Channel Tunnel means we are 40 minutes from London and three hours from Paris.
How important is having The Open Championship return to the area in 2020 when Royal St. George’s hosts the event for the 15th time?
Clearly it’s very important to us as it puts Kent in the golfing spotlight in the build-up to, and during, the event and is watched on television around the world by millions. It also represents a huge amount of additional spending in the county during and around the event in terms of accommodation, transportation, restaurants and so on and encourages golfers to play other courses in the county.
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