GBN Interview with Paul Armitage, a partner in 59club Europe West and North Africa, covering France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Morocco and Tunisia and recently appointed COO of Open Golf Club
GB Paul, your new roles must involve you in a lot of travelling. How are you coping in the COVID-19 crisis?
PA Well, we can still travel around in France, which is most important for the new job because we have got golf courses dotted around all over the country.
GBN How many courses are in the group?
PA Owned and operated there are 11 – one of them is in Belgium and ten are in France – and then we run a ‘marketing network’ in addition. Golf courses have been brought in under the banner of Open Golf Club and we actively promote them in exhibitions and IGTM. There are about 40 at the moment, all over Europe.
GBN You previously spent six years as Managing Director at Le Golf National, host of The Ryder Cup Matches in 2018. You must look back on that period with enormous pride and satisfaction because it all went so well.
PA Yes, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s time to move on. When I was first employed back in 2014 I was handed a lot of missions and all those boxes have been ticked. I could have chosen to run all the day-to-day operations at the Club but I’m the sort of person that needs a challenge. I like to be able to change things. That doesn’t mean I need full autonomy so I can do what I want – no – but I like to have an objective and to go through it from A-Z, changing things on my way to succeed.
GBN Who has been appointed as your successor?
PA When I announced my resignation, which was in December last year, I wrote a letter to my boss suggesting that he should give my deputy manager a chance. Philippe Pilato has been at Le Golf National for 25 years, almost since the day it opened.
He was a golf pro and he looked after the Academy. I thought we’ve got ‘a hidden gem’ here because we needed to implement customer service and a lot of tender loving care to put into what we were going to serve out to customers in the immediate future.
We were going to raise the bar, raise the prices and bring in a new experience. To get that to a successful end you need somebody who’s got a lot of empathy and love.
I said to Philippe look I think you are going to have to change jobs. He looked a bit down, thinking oh I’m going to get the sack here and I said no, no, you’re going to have to go home and think about this but I would like to identify a director of customer service for Le Golf National. Why do I want one? Because the Club needed someone who every day gets up and thinks about how they can give a wow or a great experience to customers. There was nobody in particular on the staff who was doing that.
He came back a few days later and said yes, let’s do it.
So that’s where he came from and he’s been a very, very, extremely good customer service manager. Then last year I took him up to Director of Operations – golf operations – and now he is GM!
GBN What have been the benefits to Le Golf National from hosting The Ryder Cup? Is there a payback for the huge investment of time, money and people?
PA There has definitely been a pay-back especially in the case of Le Golf National. First, the Ryder Cup obliged the French Golf Federation and Le Golf National to change, to not consider itself as a local pay-and-play public golf course but as a world class destination. I think we have created something there which is unique as a model because it’s probably, even at 150 euros or 175 euros, the cheapest round of Ryder Cup golf in the world. And it’s open. It’s not like many major golf destinations where you have to be invited by a member or you can’t get on. And the third thing is that we’ve got an extremely good standard for those who come from those kind of places where they’ll not be too surprised to come in and they’ll have customer service and a team, badged up and welcoming, and bag-drops and buggies and everything you need at a world-class major tournament destination.
So I think that’s the major benefit. We have repositioned Le Golf National completely keeping at the same time a local, regional and national customer base happy.
GBN And what about golf in France generally?
PA I think that this year everybody is struggling to have a normal year. I think COVID has knocked that on the head. There’s a lot of golf being played this year but there’s not a lot of normal golf, if you know what I mean: people travelling, playing in as many competitions as they have done in the past.
I think that France is resisting well though – official golfer numbers are down by around 3% this year.
The Ryder Cup in France also delivered as far as the media is concerned. Although we didn’t get live coverage on free to view terrestrial TV, we got a lot of media coverage, much more than we would have got from a French Open, so golf was definitely in the spotlight thanks to the event.
Now, when you talk to anybody about golf in France, there is the demystifying process which has been started so it looks and feels less elite. People in France definitely identify themselves more easily with golf.
A lot of people this September are coming into Open Golf Clubs for our ‘Golf Discovery Days’. They started last weekend and participation and sales have been quite good, in fact very, very encouraging for a COVID year when everything is supposed to be doom and gloom.
GBN And then golf is coming in the Paris Olympics in 2024?
PA Yes. I actually think that the Olympics could do even more good for golf in France.
We will get public TV coverage because it’s public television which has the rights to show the Olympics so there’s absolutely no reason why they should not put golf on TV. It’s almost definite that France will have both boys and girls in the Olympics. We probably won’t get a medal, but It won’t be like a Major Championship, at least we’ll have participation. I mean this month in the US Open there were four French players and I think that’s a record.
So from a ticketing point of view there should be a younger public coming to the Tournament because the ticket price will be very much accessible and it’s more of a general public environment. So, I think that the Olympics could do even more good for golf in France and is definitely great for French Golf 6 years after the Ryder Cup.
GBN Right, let’s talk about 59club because soon after you wrote your letter to your colleagues at Le Golf National in December, you must have been making your decision about getting involved with the 59club. We announced that in Golf Business News back in February.
PA Yes, indeed. I did everything the right order and there was absolutely no surprise to anybody about 59club. It was all talked through with the Federation and the staff and hopefully they will be using some of the 59club tools soon too. And the same with Open Golf Club.
There was absolutely no issue either with 59club because Open Golf Club will use the tools and are interested in the success of 59club. My role at 59club is to set up the business with Simon Wordsworth and our associate partner in France called Sylvain Marcati who comes from customer service in another industry to golf. I was determined to get this product on to the French market from 59club which helped me hugely at Le Golf National from 2017 onwards to improve our standards.
I think we were capable of improving them ourselves but we weren’t capable of benchmarking to know if we were doing enough and getting there quick enough and moving things in the right direction and also the training aspect of 59club, the tool is very powerful. I wanted the French market to benefit from the wealth of products which only Le Golf National and another golf club called Terre Blanche were using. Now we’ve got nearly 30 golf courses working on it already.
If golf in France wants to survive we have to stop, and this is important to say, we have to stop playing just the price game. We have to stop just using price as the way of satisfying the customer and getting new customers through the doors.
We have to use the service quality aspect to get results as well and get the prices up because golf has an insatiable thirst for investment in machinery and staffing. It costs a lot of money to run a golf course. So yes, if we all get on the bandwagon of customer service and improving our standards then there’s no way a customer can say, why did you put the price of the green fee up by a pound or two?
And that’s why I brought it in. So we’ve gone through quite a few weeks of translating it. COVID came along and to be honest it’s put us back half a year or a year on our business plans but I’m not bothered because it actually came at a perfect time to get it just right. So we have spent ‘lockdown’ getting the tools translated correctly into French and now German. They will be going into other languages soon.
GBN Yes, because you’re involved in other countries too, aren’t you? Not just France?
PA Yes. We have created a company which will look after all of Western Europe apart from Spain and Portugal. We also have Morocco and Tunisia. We’ve got France, Germany, Austria, Holland, and Benelux so we’ve got a lot on our plate. A lot of it is taking shape right now and we are even looking at other European markets as we speak.
GBN Your objective to move away from concentrating on price, has that gone a long way?
PA There were a lot of golf courses just communicating price and not service or standards. Online prices were going, and in fact are still going, way too low because if you start with a rack rate of £40 for a green fee and then you offer 50% off that price; or you are in a network and you’re offering 50% off with a loyalty card then there’s not much left for the operator after commissions and you’re paying VAT. There’s probably only £15 a round left for you.
Out of that you’ve got to cut the grass, you’ve got to pay the staff to smile and you’ve got to get them in on a Sunday, which can be costly and difficult to recruit in France, etc., etc.
We should train up every single general manager in France, England, wherever about yield management. There’s no shame in saying we don’t know how to do it. Why would you sell a green fee on a Sunday morning for 15 euros? Well some people are doing it because they think that it’s the right thing to do. They think that if they don’t do it they won’t have a customer.
Well that’s not yield management, that’s shooting yourself in the foot. So, yes, I’m heavily into the business of helping managers to increase their customer satisfaction and their customer service which automatically, according to the lessons learned from Le Golf National, will turn into turnover.
People will come back. Repeat play thanks to quality is a reality. Customer service will do that once people have had a chance to compare. Word of mouth is still your best advertisement!
So all of that has gone through my thought process over the years. I have moved away slightly from discounts without thought process. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t do it at all, but I have really professionalised my attitude towards yield management. I still do reductions, but I want to do them when I have a good chance of increasing my revenues! Not lowering them!
GBN What is the impact of COVID on golf in France?
PA We’re pretty much back to what I would say is going to be normal as far as golfing is concerned.
GBN Normal or better than normal? There’s been a lot of talk about an increase in rounds played during July and August.
PA Oh yes, in terms of business July and August have been record months. They have been record months on a few Open Golf courses.
GBN Just a few moments left so can we talk about The Open Golf Club specifically? That’s the most recent announcement we’ve had about your career to date. You have been appointed as COO, I believe.
PA Open Golf Club is highly respected company here in France. They have been under the radar for quite a while. It’s a family business which today is still family-owned. Laurent Boissonas has taken up the reins. He wants to try and keep the spirit of a family company, but he definitely wants to modernise process and operations.
We have some wonderful facilities. They are premium places like Le Touquet with the hotels and 45 beautiful holes and then 30 minutes up the road is Hardelot, which is a European Tour qualifying stage venue – although not this year because there won’t be any, thanks to COVID, but next year I guess. Hardelot has 36 magnificent holes, very, very well-known to the Brits but not so well-known to the French.
Then we’ve got a van Hagge like Le Golf National at Seignosse, which is a magnificent golf course just north of Biarritz. In the mountains behind Cannes we have two golf courses and then around Marseille we have three and then in Paris we have two.
So we’ve got some wonderful sites. These golf courses are not desperate for investment either because the family have always kept high capex levels on the courses and they are pristine but we need to look at positioning the chain even more in the higher end of the golf market, making sure people know who we are and what we are about.
There’s a definite objective to do more customer service, modernising our approach by using modern tools such as online booking services. We also run all of the restaurants and hotels and we have a strategy there with some out of the box thinking.
So we will be coming up with new concepts in 2021, bringing in new lifestyle concepts.
The 9 hole concepts and the 6 hole concepts, they have a reason to be – there’s no doubt about it – but it’s still a lot about having a day out with friends or corporate friends. but you may need to do a couple of hours of work or an hour of work and deal with your emails before you go for the beer after a day of golf or after breakfast. We’re looking at that kind of aspect.
So yes there is lots of work to be done at the golf courses we own and then the other part of my job with Laurent is we’re going to kick off some new business revenue flows and we’re also going to be looking at good opportunities to grow.
GBN Within France or beyond?
PA I think we would look beyond but not too far.
GBN You are a very busy man, Paul.
PA I just love it and my family know it. I just love to be thinking and creating. I like to get into the office early and jot things down. It gives me a couple of hours before everyone else comes in just to formalise ideas. It’s exciting working on new concepts and when I’m happy at work I also perform better at home.
GBN That’s great Paul, thank you very much. Is there anything else that you would like to tell our readers?
PA Yes. Stay safe during the COVID crisis but come over to France as soon as it’s over and play some golf!