Interview with Colin Mayes CEO of Burhill Golf and Chairman of UK Golf Course Owners Association. One of the largest golf course operators in the UK, BGL Golf has 22 courses at its ten venues, with leisure centres and Adventure Golf courses developed at selected sites
How do you assess the current state of the game here in the UK?
At this current moment I believe things are fairly positive and the weather over the last few months has certainly helped. We had a fairly mild winter and a decent spring and that enables people to keep playing. One of the things we have learned over the last decade is that if you can get golfers into the habit of playing golf, they keep coming back and weather does play a part in that, whether we like it or not. The picture is pretty rosy at the moment but, as a game, there is still a lot more we can do to increase participation. For starters, I’d like to see more interaction between the governing bodies.
Recently, there have been a number of joint initiatives from the greater golf world, and that’s great, but a lot more still needs to be done. The game is still far too fragmented. What we all need to do as senior people within the golf business is to get together and ask ourselves if we are really working hard enough to drive participation.
To be fair, last month, the senior Chief Executives of all the governing bodies did get together, but that was for the very first time, which in itself is pretty scary. Here we are, dealing with a game that has got over a century of tradition, but it’s only in 2015 they we’ve finally got in a room together to talk about participation. That’s a pretty damning condemnation, to be honest.
What has BGL been doing to drive participation at its clubs?
We’ve been investing heavily in our facilities and also spending a lot of time talking to our customers to make sure we’re giving them exactly what they want. That sort of communication is important because we know there is a lot more our customers can do with their spare time rather than just play golf. I think over the last three or four years one of the reasons why BGL has out-performed the market is that we’ve listened to our customers and we’ve been fortunate in that, even in the difficult years, we’ve still managed to grow membership. The pay-and-play side of the business has been harder. It has been hit harder than any other area but it has also started to improve. Generally, membership trends are positive and this year we’ve also seen a huge jump back in our income from pay-and-play which is really encouraging.
Have you done anything in particular to try to attract more pay-and-play customers?
About four years ago we started what we call our Player Card which is similar to the loyalty cards you get from other major retailers. One of the reasons we introduced it was because we knew we didn’t have enough information about our customers. People would phone up and they’d book. We might get a name or a mobile telephone number but that was basically the extent of it. So, four years ago, we made a concerted effort to get more information, get an address, get an email, so we could get in contact with them. That database is now pretty significant. It is way over 100,000 golfers. They are our casual players. They may visit us on a semi-regular basis, some as much as once or twice a month, some of them twice a year. But at least we know who they are, when they like to play, so we can send them offers we think will be attractive to them.
It was a bit hit-and-miss to start with but this year we’ve stopped a lot of what you’d call our traditional advertising in newspapers and magazines and have focussed almost all that activity digitally. You can track it and there’s much less wastage. That’s been a big change for us this year.
Are there any other keys to running a successful business in this day and age?
One is definitely keeping in touch with your customers, because, if you fail to do that, you haven’t got a chance in today’s world. You also need to understand where your facility fits within its local marketplace, who its competitors are, what they are offering and how you are trying to differentiate yourself from them. That’s all vital. You need to be very specific about knowing who your customer is, what he wants and then you need to set up your operation accordingly.
We put a lot of time and effort in with our general managers just to make sure they know their catchment, they know what their competitors are doing in the local area, and they know what they need to do locally to attract customers who will be loyal to us. I think that is a very important aspect of running a successful golf business.
BGL has been working very hard to attract young golfers hasn’t it?
Yes, I think one big change is that the successful clubs have realised they need to engage with youth. Many clubs used to disregard young people. There are still some clubs out there today who discriminate against juniors and it fills me with horror every time I go in and see examples of that. The fact is that a business that is suffering from a decline in participation numbers should be as open as possible to attract customers from all age groups, whether that’s youngsters, ladies, the disabled, it doesn’t really matter. We want people coming to our facilities. That’s the crux of the matter, so we need to reduce all those barriers wherever we see them.
How important is Adventure Golf in attracting youngsters into the game?
We started to get involved with Adventure Golf because we thought it would be a good way to attract more children to our facilities. We wanted them to come along with their parents, or their grandparents, and see for themselves that taking up golf, and enjoying the challenge of golf, is a family activity and something everyone can do. One of the big questions we asked ourselves was how could we engage the whole family. We looked at a number of Adventure Golf sites, mainly in America, and what we noticed was that the whole family was taking part. It was mother, it was father, it was often grandparents with grandchildren. These days it has become the norm for both parents to work just to keep the household budget together.
Quite often, it’s the grandparents who have to look after the children during the holidays. The grandparents, the ones we met and interviewed, said they were constantly looking for things to do that they could actively participate in alongside their grandchildren. It couldn’t be too frightening, or too energetic. They wanted an element of skill involved and, above everything else, it had to be something that allowed the grandkids to have some fun.
Adventure Golf seemed to tick all those boxes and when we opened the first site at Abbey Hill it was like a light bulb moment. We opened pretty close to the Christmas holidays and, even in the darkest depths of winter, we were seeing families coming up together and at every half term we saw this big influx of grandparents and grandchildren.
Has Adventure Golf had a knock-on effect on the rest of your business?
It’s no surprise that at all three of our on-course Adventure Golf centres we’ve seen driving range income perk up. The children try Adventure Golf and then want to get involved in the real game. The number of junior lessons we do also start to increase because there are more youngsters coming through the club. Probably most importantly, it has also brought in a lot of people to our facilities who wouldn’t have dreamt about coming otherwise.
What do you mean by that?
Abbey Hill was a classic example. I will never forget it. The day we opened, we had a big party. We televised it on Milton Keynes radio and in the local newspapers. We sent out the message we were open to everybody. Remember, this is a pay-and-play golf club, that had been a pay-and-play since the day it opened, but still we were inundated with people who came to the opening and told us that, until they saw the ads, they thought Abbey Hill was a private facility.
I think, when most people who don’t play golf see a golf club, they automatically think it’s private and reserved for members. We all know within the industry that’s not actually the case, but that’s the perception and one of the issues we have to address in golf. We need to work harder to let people know they are welcome and that’s something Adventure Golf has helped us to do.
Have you got plans to extend Adventure Golf?
We definitely want to extend it further. We have learned a lot. We have four sites up and running. The first was at Abbey Hill, the second was at Hoebridge Golf Club in Woking and the third was at Ramsdale near Nottingham. The fourth site was in a big retail and leisure centre in Castleford. It has a big ski dome near it but, frankly, that one hasn’t been as successful as we would have liked.
The lesson we learned there was that just putting golf in shopping is not the answer. It needs to be part of a bigger leisure draw and this particular shopping centre was just outside the main leisure area. I don’t think adventure golf is the answer to everything and it’s certainly not successful everywhere. You do need to be very choosey in terms of your sites, but I think where you have the right demographics it’s a very good introduction to golf.
What is the secret to keeping youngsters interested in playing golf?
One of the key things is just having a welcoming attitude. Here at Burhill, a very traditional club, we have a great junior section. We have put a lot of time and effort into it and the members have supported it. One of the key things we did was start a Junior Academy. We asked members to commit a sum of money every year just to support that junior fund. The company also puts in a significant amount and it has been a great success. As a company, we run a Junior par-3 short course programme which we try to encourage all the courses to get involved in.
I think that all clubs with successful junior programmes have a couple of things in common. The first is that the membership has bought into it and realise golf needs youngsters coming through. You also need to create plenty of activities for these youngsters to engage in and have fun in. You need to make sure they are coming to the club with their friends and are enjoying themselves. A smaller item, but just as important, is to make sure you have the right Food & Beverage for them. Kids like burgers so there has to be burgers on the menu. We have children’s menus at all of the clubs. We feature those extensively so they know they can have a birthday party at the club.
The F&B side of the business is something else BGL has been working hard to develop isn’t it?
Yes, gone are the days when golf businesses can rely only on income they receive directly from golf. We all have to find as many revenue streams as possible and F&B is certainly one of those. Over the last few years, we’ve made a big effort to upgrade the Food and Beverage side of our business to try to attract more daytime visitors. Just to come up to have lunch, a sandwich, or just a coffee. This is another example of trying to get people who don’t play golf to step through the front door.
A good example of that is Hoebridge. We’re quite lucky there because there’s a school next door so we communicated with the school, told them we were open for coffee for the parents and, low and behold, it wasn’t too long before we started getting them dropping the children off at school and then meeting up at the golf club. I’ve no idea whether we’ve actually managed to get these mothers to play golf but it doesn’t really matter because at least it’s getting them to spend money in the centre. In the last three or four years, we’ve been seeing double digit growth in our Food and Beverage side of the business. That’s really been bucking the trend, a lot of restaurant chains would be delighted with that.
What are your plans for the immediate future?
I think the immediate future for us at BGL involves making our businesses even more appropriate for the customers that use them. We’ve got 10 clubs and this year we’ve certainly had extensive refurbishment projects at six of them. It might be on the course, in the changing rooms, in the F&B areas, the function facilities. One of the things you need to do in today’s business world, particularly in the business of golf, is you’ve got to offer facilities that are appropriate. When they are retail shopping, people are used to high standards and golf clubs have to provide the same. Dirty toilets and sub-standard F&B just don’t cut the mustard these days. We need to make sure we have the appropriate facilities and our focus is on continually investing in those facilities to make sure they are appropriate and, where necessary, build more of them.
An example of that is at Aldwickbury Park in Harpenden where we built a significant extension to the clubhouse which has been very successful for us because it enabled us to create a better area for the members and also more function space for external business. At golf clubs, it can’t all be about the golf course. It’s got to be about the whole business. A successful golf business needs a good golf course in great condition, but its clubhouse and other facilities have to be up to scratch, too. They need to earn their keep as well.
Have you any plans to extend your portfolio?
We would love to acquire some more clubs but we are in it as a business. It’s owned by a private family so we need to make sure we get acceptable returns. That’s an important part of the remit. It’s no secret we have looked at a number of golf clubs over the last few years and there will certainly be others we look at in the future.
The answer is yes, we’d love to acquire some, but only if we can do it on good commercial grounds. It has to be the right facility, in the right place. We’re extremely fortunate having the golf clubs we do. They are in good economic areas and they are pretty stable and most of the communities around our clubs are growing. That puts us in a very strong position. Until we can see potential investments that give us the same sort of opportunities, we will keep investing in our current sites rather than splashing out on new ones.
Colin Mayes, thank you very much.
Burhill Golf www.bglcompany.co.uk/golf