After learning in April that Burhill Group finished in 7th place at the 22nd annual Sunday Times BDO Profit Track 100 awards, I wondered how they had achieved that success.
This is why I ask in this interview Colin Mayes (CEO, Burhill Group) and Sophie Burke (Group Head of Marketing, Burhill Group) about:
- their recovery plan for the post-COVID-19 pandemic period;
- Burhill Group‘s biggest HR challenges;
- what are the key drivers of digital transformation at Burhill Group-managed and owned golf clubs;
- how do they improve golf club membership payment discipline;
- how do they use content marketing to acquire new customers;
Colin, how has BGL managed to minimise its losses during the Covid-19 pandemic?
We were very careful in ensuring that we made use of the government’s furlough scheme in the most efficient way possible. Importantly, we kept all of our general managers involved in the business, albeit some of them with reduced hours. This worked well because it allowed us to keep on top of any inquiries that came in, and unlike many businesses, we kept the phone lines open.
On the golf side of the business, we kept a small amount of marketing spend active on platforms such as Facebook. Particularly for things like wedding inquiries – the response we got was that we were largely the only ones open for business.
Many of our competitors paused their marketing spend during closures, but through continuous, steady investment, we have seen a significant benefit. We also adapted some of our technology to offer virtual wedding tours, as well as keeping in regular communication with members at all our clubs throughout the period.
We worked very hard with the landlords at our Adventure Leisure sites to, where possible, reduce rent and overheads while we were closed. We pride ourselves on having good relationships with our suppliers, and that certainly worked in our favour in what has been a difficult time for everybody.
The combination of keeping our sales offices open and remaining in touch with customers through things like club newsletters has definitely helped minimise the impact on the business.
On the HR side, it was essential for us to maintain the contact and relationships we have with our staff. Individual managers were crucial, providing that extra level of communication to their teams. For example, I produced a furlough challenge for our marketing team which involved things like walking and cooking – that was well-received across the board.
Do you have a recovery plan in place for the post-pandemic period?
The short answer is yes, we do. We worked very hard to make sure that as soon as we could reopen aspects of the business, we had the teams in and ready to go. This was done in building blocks – two weeks out we brought staff back and started to prepare the sites for what we knew we could do with our outside areas.
Just like in the pub industry, where it has been appropriate, we have installed additional covers to accommodate more customers, should there be any inclement weather.
Guy Riggott, our Golf Division Operations Director, and our general managers, produced a very extensive reopening plan that they are still working through. Whilst we’ve got our golf courses open now, we are very much still operating a reduced service due to restrictions.
It has been pleasing to us that so many of our members have commented on the fantastic condition of our facilities in recent weeks. We worked exceptionally hard during the periods of closure to ensure that they returned to the best possible conditions out on the golf course and around the clubhouse.
So yes, the recovery plan that we had in place was largely based around the greenkeeping areas, together with food and beverage, and clubhouse operations.
Through the numerous lockdowns, we have managed the process of several club renewals. Burhill’s was in January, and it proved very successful despite the club being closed at the time. All our venues are showing very positive signs, with membership numbers up in all areas.
We are full for certain categories at quite a few clubs at the moment. The key though for us is not to rest on our laurels – next year we must keep our focus on retaining those new members.
An important part of the recovery has been the investment we made into our driving range facilities. First introduced at Wycombe Heights Golf Centre in Buckinghamshire, state-of-the-art driving range technology delivered by leading brands, TrackMan and Toptracer, has proven instrumental in increasing our footfall and sales activity.
The take-up of activity at Hoebridge, Wycombe Heights, Redbourn, and Ramsdale Park has been amazing – those ranges are doing double the trade that they were doing before. So, taking the risk of investing while our sites were closed has paid off enormously for us.
Our most recently renovated TrackMan driving range, at Birchwood Park, is also now ready to open its doors, with bookings being taken for the 14th May onwards.
We’re looking forward to getting the next phase of our food and beverage offering open in the coming weeks. There are also great signs that the wedding market is going to come back strongly, and it looks as though next year we may have a bumper year for wedding bookings.
The great thing about our wedding venues is that they are largely not out of reach, in terms of price. Throughout January, February, and March we maintained a level of investment on our social media platforms, and we are now seeing the fruits of our labour in the number of new enquiries coming through.
It was absolutely the right decision for us as we remained visible to potential customers during a period when they had increased screen-time at home during lockdown – we were there to serve them.
What have been the company’s biggest HR challenges throughout this period, and how have you handled them?
Well, it is not always easy to find quality staff in some areas of the business, even with a venue like Burhill, which is in an idyllic and affluent part of Surrey. We have also noticed an increasing difficulty in hiring food and beverage staff since we left the European Union, which is becoming more common for many other businesses in the hospitality sector. We are finding the recruitment of management positions slightly easier than the hands-on groundwork at present.
The challenges for us in the future will be ensuring that we are providing enough training and support to our staff. Certainly, our online training activity has been a massive positive. The biggest human resource challenge though, I would say, is the recruitment of good quality food and beverage, and greenkeeping staff.
To combat this, we are looking at increasing the number of apprenticeships and training schemes that we offer in these areas. We are more than happy to work with technical colleges to provide some formal education as well as on-the-ground experience.
Sophie, what are the key drivers of digital transformation at Burhill Group-managed and owned golf clubs?
Digital marketing is key to most successful businesses in the modern-day, and as digital evolves, it is crucial to keep up with the ever-changing landscape. We recently launched an app across our golf division that is being refined and developed to form an essential part of this process, and as we are the country’s leading multi-site golf and leisure operator, app developers are taking our lead on functionality goals.
The great thing about digital is that everything is measurable. For example, we focus heavily on Google Analytics to review online behaviours. Google AdWords carries a significant investment for us as we want to be at the forefront when a customer needs us, and the majority of the time that will be via web search.
Our websites are also fully optimised, and linked to our CRM system and Facebook channels.
Equally, we invest heavily in Facebook and Instagram advertising, but unlike others, it is not necessarily leads that we focus on, rather the vital conversion numbers, which ultimately make revenue.
It became apparent that whilst we and our competitors were shut, we needed to remain ‘virtually open for business’, so unlike them, we continued our marketing efforts – a decision that has very much paid off.
During the closure period, a lot of clubs halted all projects. Not us. We continued to drive forward in anticipation of the day we could open again. One example of this is that you can now book your driving range bay online for our TrackMan and Toptracer Range venues.
This is something that has really pleased our customers and equally provided us with fascinating insights into trends and behaviours which are transferable to our marketing communications.
How do you go about improving the golf club membership payment discipline?
As mentioned above, our members can now renew their subscriptions via our app. We are now encouraging all members and visitors to download the app to book their tee times, top up their levy, renew their membership, book a bay, book a game of crazy golf, book a gym class (at relevant sites), or even order their food and drinks.
The most important thing is that we make life as easy as possible for our customers.
We want them to spend their time enjoying our facilities and we hope, that with continuous development, this app will enable them to do so even more.
How do you go about creating engaging content that is efficient in bringing in new customers?
Content has evolved. A stagnant, stock image is no longer acceptable. It is video and engagement campaigns that perform well. New customers want to see what you offer in innovative ways.
An example of this is that during our closure we offered virtual wedding tours at some of our venues. These tours resulted in revenue, but equally, our future brides and grooms loved the personal touch that we delivered. We couldn’t believe the number of couples who told us, “you are the only venue who has got back to us”.
It goes without saying that golf has seen a great resurgence, and we have capitalised on the fact that more people are working from home. They want to hit some balls at lunch, or they want to get a quick round-in on a Friday afternoon. People are spending, and want to spend, more time with their families.
We have something for the whole family at our venues. We have diversified our business to suit the customer’s ‘new normal’. That is another important factor, all customers are different, and have different needs and desires. There is no ‘one size fits all’, and we ensure that all our offerings are targeted to accommodate every individual’s needs.