Global Edition

December Interview: Robert B. Cook, CEO De Vere Hotels & Village Urban Resorts

12.13pm 13th December 2013 - Interviews - This story was updated on Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Robert Cook, Chief Executive Officer - De Vere Hotels & De Vere Village Urban Resorts
Robert Cook, Chief Executive Officer – De Vere Hotels & De Vere Village Urban Resorts

As De Vere gets ready to launch ‘The Country Club’ – a new premium lifestyle membership being offered at the headline properties amongst the De Vere Hotels and Resorts brand: Mottram Hall, Slaley Hall, Oulton Hall, and soon to be at The Carrick on Loch Lomond, Belton Woods, and Dunston Hall – Geoff Russell of Golf Business talks to Robert B. Cook, CEO De Vere Hotels & Village Urban Resorts.

Robert Cook, you joined De Vere Hotels as CEO at the beginning of 2012. What have been your priorities in these first two years in post?

Since joining De Vere, we have remained steadfast in our commitment to providing the highest quality of service and creating unforgettable experiences for all of our guests. To achieve this we have had to ensure that the right teams and individuals are in place at each of our resorts, and make appropriate investments where relevant to further enhance our offerings. This has been seen across a host of resorts, with significant investments being made across the hotels; leisure facilities and golf courses; where we have made great strides in improving drainage; machinery; and all-round golf course aesthetics and playability.

Could you tell me a little about your career before you joined De Vere?

Before entering the world of lifestyle and contemporary hotels, I spent six years with Intercontinental Hotels and was part of the pre-opening team at The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh when it was re-launched in 1991. Following this I joined Malmaison, where I spent four years, firstly as general manager of Newcastle and Manchester, and latterly as Operations Director. I then moved to Monte Carlo for three years as Managing Director of Columbus and Dakota Hotel Group. I returned to Malmaison becoming CEO in 2004.

In 2006, I was awarded the Caterer and Hotelkeeper Award for Manager of the Year, and in the same year Malmaison was awarded AA Hotel Group of the Year. In 2009 Hotel du Vin (under the same umbrella)also won that same award and for the sixth consecutive year, and won The Guardian Observer Business Travel Award.

In 2007, I received an honorary doctorate from RobertGordonUniversity in Aberdeen in recognition of his contribution to the hotel industry.

Any previous experience in the golf business?

Whilst I had not worked specifically in golf prior to joining De Vere, I most certainly hold the game very close to my heart. I have a single figure handicap and always look to make time for my regular fourball each week. Most of my friends might well refer to me as an ‘obsessive golfer’, and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to play Bandon Dunes and Whistling Straits in America – as I continue my quest to play the world’s best courses. It has always been a passion of mine to make the game more accessible and enjoyable to as many people as possible, and I also feel that my hospitality background has paid dividends in ensuring that De Vere stands out from the competition by focussing on every aspect of service involved in each guest’s visit to our resorts.

With 12 locations and 19 courses, De Vere is one of the strongest brands in golf, with trophy assets in many parts of the country. It’s clear that the company is continuing to invest in its portfolio. Could you run through some of the programmes that you have been working on?

We have made considered strides to improve all aspects of the properties in our portfolio. De Vere has consistently been part of a select group of organisations, at the forefront of successful investment into golf and leisure, specifically looking to grow the game of golf at all levels. We have carefully pinpointed areas we felt pertinent in evolving the De Vere brand perception and escalating the guest experiences at each resort. With the comprehensive investment program complete, the stage is now set for ‘The Country Club.’

We have been positioning ourselves to unveil a new headline membership, ‘The Country Club’. We made a series of strategic decisions and investments that have allowed us to reposition our offerings at marquee resorts. Whilst De Vere is home to 19 golf courses, we decided to focus on developing the position of what we would call our headline properties amongst our De Vere Hotels and Resorts brand; Mottram Hall, Slaley Hall, Oulton Hall, The Carrick on Loch Lomond, Belton Woods, and Dunston Hall.

De Vere Slaley Hall
De Vere Slaley Hall

‘The Country Club’ will deliver a premier lifestyle membership. The strategic progression of the resorts quality and service has been formally acknowledged with this all-new launch and reasserts De Vere’s premium position in the market.  Sales teams will begin to introduce the new brand to potential members with the promise of quintessentially British hospitality on every visit, to compliment the world class service and comprehensive leisure facilities.”

De Vere has become one of the most pre-eminent names in UK golf, with a host of world-class resorts across the UK, many of which have hosted prestigious professional tournaments, including the ISPS HANDA PGA Seniors Championship and the renowned PGA Cup matches over the last year alone. De Vere’s investment into golf continues much deeper, with our on-going support for young up-and-coming professionals as Brand Ambassadors, as well as a continued emphasis on growing the game at a grass roots level through top-level PGA coaching and academies. These factors have led to huge acclaim for the expertise, professionalism and heritage of the De Vere Golf brand over recent years and ‘The Country Club’ will be looking to further build upon this reputation.

The aim is to create a vibrant environment, rich with activities, where luxury and escapism remain easily accessible. Golf and leisure are key elements in ‘The Country Club’ strategy and are two areas that our selected resorts are leaders in.

‘The Country Club’ membership will sit at the top of De Vere’s membership assets, offering guests a holistic leisure option, giving members the chance to live life unlimited by revelling in the award winning amenities and treat themselves to well-deserved luxury and premium experiences.

De Vere was invited back to run The Belfry last year. Owners, KSL Capital Partners, have a record of investment in golf resorts. Are you able to tell us anything about the future development plans for The Belfry?

The Belfry is an iconic venue that we have a rich heritage with. The plans for the future will become apparent in due course, but everyone is excited at the prospect a fully refurbished Belfry will bring.

I am not going to share too much at this stage, but we are working with an ownership group that has great ambition to create a premium experience for all who visit the legendary resort. Whilst acknowledging the heritage that The Belfry holds with golfers worldwide, developments have been made that will enhance the resort’s standing and change the current perception from just an iconic golf course to luxurious leisure complex.

Everyone agrees that The Belfry needs investment and yet whenever I go there I struggle to find a parking space. The business is still going well? What are your priorities for immediate improvement?

The Belfry is a hugely popular venue for the UK market. For operators, it is one of the most popular packages to sell and business has been good.

We have looked at our volume versus value strategy for inbound guests and believed that such an iconic venue was deserving of more premium positioning in the marketplace. The commitment was made by KSL to enhance the hotel and surrounding amenities to a higher standard and reposition The Belfry to the golf market as one of golf’s must visit destinations.

The hotel, restaurants and golf have all undergone a major transformation and we are delighted with the results we have seen so far.  The progress which has been made stands us in good stead for a launch next year, which will give golfers an indication as to the experience that will await them.

Back in 2010 De Vere was a pioneer in the now-popular concept of ‘Flexible Golf Club Membership’ when it launched ‘The De Vere Club’. After seven months you had sold more than 2,500 memberships, reportedly surpassing all your expectations. Has the Club continued to grow at a satisfactory rate.

The De Vere Club was a bold move and came at a time when we needed to react to the economic challenges and give consumers a fighting chance to remain active with a new style, flexible club membership. The uptake was fantastic and we were, and still are, very satisfied with the property.

Undoubtedly, many have been attracted by the relatively low cost of membership and the strength of benefits, which at £325 are far less than most people pay to join a traditional golf club.

The De Vere Club was more about adding value than cost cutting. It gave golfers a variety of playing options, allowing them to fit golf around their modern, transient lifestyles – which our research showed to be something significantly lacking from traditional membership offerings.

The growth has outperformed projections and we view the initiative as a great success.

Does The Club attract keen golfers who cannot justify a standard golf club membership, as it set out to do?

The De Vere Club allows golfers a greater flexibility of playing 16 different golf courses as part of their membership, including the likes of European Tour and European Senior Tour venues at Slaley Hall and Mottram Hall, as well as The Carrick on Loch Lomond and The Belfry. Therefore members are not only taking advantage of affordable championship golf courses but world-class leisure amenities.

I think the overall appeal has been the driver of the demand we have seen. I don’t view this as just a cost saving initiative, more a value added proposition.

Have you lost some full members because they saw this as a means of saving some cash?

I would say that we saw a move from some members, who were attracted not by the saving, but the flexibility and options it afforded them. The fact is, golf club membership is still a sought after leisure attraction for many and we have not experienced a negative drop off. The Country Club launch demonstrates our commitment to membership life and we believe the time is right for consumers to consider more holistic lifestyle solutions.

 Has The De Vere Club succeeded in making golf more accessible and family friendly, which was another stated objective of the Club?

I think the environment we have tried to create at our resorts is about making leisure time inclusive. We appreciate the challenges of maximising leisure time in the modern world, so we have introduced family initiatives, opportunities for parents to escape and for children to be entertained. It is a fine balance in creating the right environment that you would expect from a premium venue. Our in-house experts work tirelessly to maintain an ambience and welcoming environment that caters to the needs and tastes of many.

Corporate Golf must be a very significant part of your golf business. How has that been performing in these difficult trading conditions?

Clearly corporate golf has taken a hit across many golf resorts. We have retained our core customers, but have looked to refine our product and through the introduction of corporate specific packages with ‘The Country Club’, alongside the investment made across the properties, we are looking to further reignite interest from the corporate sector.

Could you tell me something about the management structure of De Vere Golf?

We have restructured the golf and leisure business to meet the needs of ‘The Country Club’ brand. We have benefited from some strong industry professionals representing the De Vere golf and leisure brand and are focussed on maintaining the momentum of the investment made by the business. We have a series of Regional Directors, responsible for overseeing some of the high profile properties, who will form the back bone of delivering De Vere’s golf offering.

As the operator of 19 courses, how do you ensure that you benefit from ‘economies of scale’?

Our teams work with one another to create the strongest trade relations, whether it is with manufacturers, tour operators or other supplier partners. Each course is distinct, but in order to present our value for money proposition, we need to ensure that we present cost effective solutions, whilst always ensuring the highest standards at each resort.

De Vere has always had a close relationship with the PGA, most recently hosting the PGA Cup Matches at Slaley Hall and in June The ISPS HANDA PGA Seniors Championship at Mottram Hall. Many golf fans would like to see more European Tour events played in England – is that something that would interest you as a host?

I think any golf fan would love the opportunity to watch the best in the world compete. We successfully hosted a series of PGA Seniors Championships, and the engagement this gave spectators and our guests, with the likes of Woosie, Torrance and Lyle, gave us a great platform to showcase our resorts on a global scale.

The reality is that golf is in a challenging place in the upper echelons of the sport. The investment levels required to attract the big names and the staging requirements, make for a considerable investment and in many cases make it unmanageable. I think there is space for an innovative solution to reintroduce more UK based events to the professional roster and it is something we are considering.

Luxury Lodge at The Carrick on Loch Lomond
Luxury Lodge at The Carrick on Loch Lomond

How about as a sponsor? The Belfry must still be reaping the rewards of hosting The Ryder Cup, even though the last time that happened was more than 10 years ago.

The Belfry will be a venue that stands the test of time. It has such recognition that golfers will always want to pit themselves against the course that is the only four-time Ryder Cup host and relive some of those iconic Belfry moments themselves. I think The Belfry is a demonstration of what is possible with the right vision and the right team in place to execute. Associations have benefited the resort, such as the PGA, and with us being in the final stages of a multi-million pound development, we are looking to see The Belfry enhance its position as a premier venue in UK golf. The brand loyalty and recognition is befitting of a Ryder Cup stalwart.

What about other plans to grow your golf business? I know that you have four properties where there is accommodation in luxury lodges. Can you introduce that concept at some of your other locations?

Our lodges offer superb experiences. They have been designed with families very much in mind and provide an exclusive getaway option that has provided steady revenue for our business. ‘The Country Club’ brand is our next major move in the golf and leisure side of the business. We have made considered investment over the last 5 years in the golf courses, leisure facilities, hotel rooms and the F&B options. The increase in quality and our steadfast commitment to service has been part of our long term strategy to position De Vere properties as premium resorts.

The key is get the timing right to understand when consumers are ready to invest in their leisure time. We are referring to The Country Club as a lifestyle, less a membership. The memberships are aimed at the premium end of the market, and demonstrate that a holistic membership will provide better value for money, allowing consumers to have all their leisure needs catered to under one roof.

And what about overseas? I am sure that the De Vere Golf brand would attract customers wherever you were located.

I think we have enough on in the UK that focussing overseas is not something on the horizon. Just for now anyway.

Robert Cook, thank you very much.

De Vere Golf

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