I spoke to Stephen Norton, General Manager at Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club, to discuss how the demands of golf club management have changed since the start of the pandemic.
Prior to the pandemic, we were actually in a strong position, with a good membership foundation that had been continually growing since 2015. I think it would be fair to say that we were bucking the trend to some extent.
However, the periods of forced closure due to the pandemic did allow us to take a step back, re-evaluate the products that we were offering, and align on our focus points moving forward.
The first step involved us looking at our visitor golf pricing structures; ensuring that our rates were a true reflection of our continually improving golf product.
While evaluating pricing, we also took the opportunity to streamline our selection of products and services, with the aim of increasing efficiency and overall experience. One thing in particular that we chose to discontinue was footgolf.
At Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club, we have a spectacular 18-hole golf course, and a short 9-hole course – in the past, the 9-hole short course had been used both for golf and for footgolf.
By removing footgolf we were able to shift our focus into rejuvenating the short course which has resulted in a much-improved product that members and visitors really enjoy playing.
The result has been obvious, the conditioning of the course is the best we have ever seen, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of rounds being played.
Perhaps the biggest change to our product offering was made in late 2020. Despite still facing a great deal of uncertainty, we took the brave decision to push forward with a £750,000 project to entirely remodel our driving range facility, installing TrackMan Range technology to 30 bays and two VIP areas.
Completed in May 2021, the driving range upgrade also included a new bar installed with two wood-fire pizza ovens, to serve food and drink to guests enjoying the new facility. This huge investment was a clear display of our intent and commitment to improving our offering despite testing circumstances, and since opening, it has been a segment of our business that has gone from strength to strength.
Alongside our driving range investment, we made a conscious effort to further increase the amount of focus put on the protection of our members and their experience in and around the club.
It is important to note that throughout large periods of the past two years we were still subject to some Covid restrictions, including a limit on people gathering both indoors and outdoors.
So, something that we highlighted as a potential issue at that time was society golf, due to the sheer volume of people. Typically, societies would be formed of more than 30 people, which was difficult to manage with restrictions on gatherings.
So, we took the decision to stop accepting society golf during that period. Of course, this was a risk on our part, but as we came out of the lockdowns, we looked forward with confidence and were more selective on when we wanted to offer up society golf. As of now, societies will only be accepted on weekdays.
The simple reason being that we want to prioritise the time that our members can spend on the golf course, and for them, the most important times are Saturdays and Sundays.
Tee time intervals & pace of play
Another change we introduced on the organisational side was our tee time intervals. Historically, we had always been an 8-minute club, so we were intrigued to trial 10-minute tee intervals and study its effectiveness.
We introduced this at the time of golf’s ‘reopening’, and we immediately saw some real benefits to the new system in terms of pace of play and overall enjoyment.
Therefore, despite a return to somewhat normality, we have chosen to continue with our 10-minute intervals. This made for quite a shift for us in terms of capacity each day, as we now have fewer tee times available on the sheet.
For a club that is as busy as we tend to be, the shift in mentality to offering fewer tee times has been challenging. However, our focus has been on improving the experience of playing golf at Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club, and we feel that this has been a positive step towards achieving that.
In recent times, we have seen a real uplift in the amount of golf that each individual member is playing. If we look at the figures for Q4 of 2021 vs Q4 of 2019, our members averaged around 27% more rounds per person in 2021.
There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, people are spending more time working from home, so they are commuting less. Also, people are choosing to spend holiday time in this country rather than going abroad due to Covid testing and restrictions. It has been fantastic to see so many members getting the most out of their memberships at Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club.
This has however presented some challenges in booking desired tee times but is something that we will continue to assess moving forward to ensure that we are offering the best solution possible to our members.
Employee experience development
We have seen quite a bit of change in the past 18 months, with the installation of our new driving range and numerous operational changes, but one thing that has remained constant is the fantastic attitude and dedication of our team.
They can see the benefits of what we are trying to do at the club, so they have taken the new approach on board very quickly. The biggest adjustment we’ve made in terms of people engagement would really be trying to strip it back to the basics.
Throughout 2020 and 2021 I think it is fair to say that lots of golf clubs found themselves fighting fires a little bit. There would be times when we were open just for golf, then the bar was allowed to open – there was constant change.
That meant that we had to continually alter the dynamic of our team, and lots of individuals had to adapt and take on roles that were different from normal. There were definitely some moments that felt chaotic, but the team here were steadfast in their commitment to the club and were an absolute credit throughout.
In 2022 we really want to strip things back to the basics with our people and try to deliver those things really well. For example, we want to ensure regular performance reviews, coaching, feedback, and training sessions all take place.
These are simple things that we all understand as part of effective management, but when racing between lockdowns and changes in restrictions, there can be times when they fall by the wayside.
The new year presents us with a great opportunity to take stock and align ourselves on where we need to get to. The member experience is a top priority, but that also combines with ensuring a great experience for visitors, and for staff working at the club – we want everyone to enjoy their time here.
We are a complicated business, as we also operate a health club, have a successful food and beverage service, and a state-of-the-art new TrackMan Range facility running alongside our thriving golf membership.
Naturally, we would like to grow the golf membership a little bit, but our overall goal is more encompassing and focuses on raising the experience within all aspects of our facility. The goal is to elevate the entire experience at Birchwood Park Golf and Country Club, from the moment a guest arrives at the time they leave the property.
We feel that throughout the pandemic period, we were able to consolidate what was an already thriving membership base and continue to develop it, while simultaneously improving our offering across the board.