Throughout 128 years of our club’s history, committee meetings had taken place in the clubhouse, a council building or gathered round a hotel boardroom.
On three occasions last month, that tradition was broken as several members of our Board logged onto their laptops and joined a Webex conference video call to discuss the latest actions required to help our Club plan through the coronavirus crisis.
Welcome to the new world of committee meetings in the coronavirus era.
Conference calls may have been around a long time in the business world, but in the golf club industry, they are one of the changes we have embraced since COVID-19 (coronavirus) reached our shores.
Our club has gone through a number of governance changes in recent years as our management has professionalized, and we’ve tried to reduce the number of committee and Board meetings on the schedule, but the lockdown has enforced another change as regular communication between those volunteers running the club becomes even more vital to see us through to the other side.
Given the unprecedented nature of what we are experiencing right now, having ‘little’ (45 minutes rather than the usual 2.5 hours) meetings but ‘often’ (once a week) feels like the right thing to do, particularly with the fluidity of the situation.
You can even do it with a beer or glass of wine in hand to keep on trend with what you’re doing in your new virtual social life, which come in handy as you nervously pour over the Finance Convenor’s latest budget projections.
Approaching the start of a new season on the back of a particularly wet February, the lockdown could not have come at a worse time for many clubs in the UK, including my own.
March is our primary month for our membership renewals – by far our single biggest income driver – and we had to convince people to part with £565 of their hard-earned cash to re-join the club for the season ahead.
Although spring was in the air, there hadn’t been much golf played over the last few weeks due to the weather and the usual raft of less frequent members were waiting until Augusta’s azaleas were appearing on their TV screens before reappearing from the winter hibernation.
It’s better to over-communicate than under-communicate
With the virus storm approaching, our initial key tasks were to keep the members informed with what restrictions were being enforced – through Facebook updates and frequent newsletters – and at first , it looked like the golf course was at least going to remain a safe haven.
The initial message was to keep a safe distance of 2m in the clubhouse.
This was closely followed by what became daily updates of what was happening next, with the bar being closed, then the Pro Shop and clubhouse, followed sadly by complete closure of the course, just two days after more than 100 golfers emerged in the late March sunshine to take part in our last winter Stableford and enjoy what would turn out to be their final fix of competitive action for some time.
The next phase of communication would be the vital one. An emotive heart-felt appeal by our club captain to encourage members to re-join for the 2020 season, not knowing when their next round of golf might be.
Although we are relatively inexpensive compared to many clubs across the country, it remains a big ask when generally less golf is being played by some sections of the membership, let alone the inability to play golf for the next few months.
It was important to get the tone right, balancing the financial implications of the club with people’s financial challenges, but several drafts later between the captain and the marketing convenor, we reached a version which we believed would hit the mark and create an impact – this can be found on the link below:
Members Renewal Newsletter: https://www.peeblesgolfclub.com/news/2020/3/24/a-message-from-the-captain
We also developed a corporate design theme that was used in the newsletter and across our digital channels, capturing the personal nature of our Captain and the key message from his communication.
This was developed into a version featuring our Club Professional, who had also delivered his own emotional and from the heart video message to the members, encouraging them to rally round the club.
I use Canva Pro to design all our marketing assets, which costs just over £100 a year – a more than worthwhile investment in your brand development.
To date, around 80% of our members have renewed their annual subscription, which compares well with the same time last year when there was full access to the course.
For our Board, that’s a significant result in the circumstances.
Our membership numbers had increased four years in a row up to 2017 but had dipped slightly over the past two years, although encouragingly junior and female membership have both grown as a result of significant work in these two sectors.
Positive Member Engagement
Positive member engagement has been an integral part of our Club’s strategy over the past few years with significant emphasis on our social media channels.
More than 1,500 people like our Facebook page and we have grown Twitter to over 3,000 followers, combined with just shy of 750 followers on our Instagram page, a good audience for a club of our size with around 700 members.
How do we get members to stay engaged when the course and clubhouse aren’t open? Our first step was to work with the head greenkeeper to write a short weekly blog on how the course maintenance is progressing.
He’s the only member of staff now working with everyone else being furloughed (including our Club Manager, so we’re now fully reliant on volunteers), with the big responsibility of keeping the course in good shape ready for our return to the fairways.
The spring is a particularly busy period for the greenkeeping team, but the work provides social good content and allows the members to “check-in” on their beloved course from afar and remind them that it’s still there and in good condition.
Updates are provided every Friday with positive feedback being generated from members and visitors alike.
A good communication platform should also be a two-way process, and the next phase of our plan is to launch a members’ Q&A, to keep our customers informed of the key issues involved in the current coronavirus crisis, so there are few, if any, surprises on the other side.
The committee has been keeping a note of all the key incoming queries, and rather than answer them all individually, we’ll be sharing a detailed Q&A next week on our website, so all members can view the bigger picture of the challenges we are facing.
There are recurring themes as most clubs will experience, particularly around finances, and we believe this is a vital tool in keeping members informed. If you can create this on a video, even better!
Let Us Entertain You
Amid the continuous doom and gloom of news coverage, it’s also important to keep members entertained. After all, they look to their golf club for enjoyment so this shouldn’t change despite being in lockdown.
We have used our Instagram channel to provide the entertainment, providing a series of ‘Golf Club Memes’ to poke harmless fun at some of our better-known members, using lookalike images from the European Tour and other golf sites.
These have been extremely well received, using Instagram stories as our main platform to engage with our younger audiences.
What would have been Masters week also gave us the opportunity to have some fun on social media, creating a series of posts using one of our members (who dressed up as an Augusta-style caddy during last year’s Club Championship Finals day), who was then super-imposed by the magic of Photoshop into some magical Masters moments, using the hashtag #MastersNotMastersWeek.
This has been deemed an enjoyable ‘virtual banter’ replacement for the usual clubhouse bar shenanigans and a good talking point for those consuming their beers on Zoom drinking sessions over the past fortnight, helping to keep the golf club front of mind.
Launching a Fundraising Appeal
Good fun is all very well, but we still faced the stark commercial reality of a lack of bar and visitor income during the lockdown period.
Visitor income generated £58,000 for our club last season and our bar performs reasonably well being just a short walk from the main drag of our town’s local pubs, so we have a significant shortfall to fill.
Our newly formed Sponsorship sub-committee were also meeting regularly on conference calls and came up with the idea of an online fundraising campaign, primarily targeting members.
Again, we needed to strike the difficult balance of tapping into the members who could afford to donate, and not disenfranchising those who were facing crisis-related financial issues.
The launch of the Appeal this time came from our popular new Vice-Captain – a real man of the people – with the message very much in his own well-chosen words.
The initial target was to raise £2,000 through a JustGiving page, but that target was smashed in less than 24 hours and we have since increased this to £5,500.
A week later, and the JustGiving barometer is now showing 122% of the target achieved, with the current total standing at £6,740 at the time of writing.
Many members have e-mailed the Vice-Captain praising the concept and giving money based on what they have saved on beer money, coffees and petrol.
One of our neighboring clubs, Torwoodlee, based just 16 miles away in Galashiels, has launched a similar Appeal campaign and has reached just under £5,000 in a few days.
It’s certainly great to see members rallying round their clubs in times of need, led by a good communications strategy.
You can see the Fundraising Appeal communication on the following link: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/pgcmembersappealfund
Photography, and more photography
We are fortunate that at this stage of the lockdown in Scotland, we are still able to go outside and enjoy one hour of exercise each day to take in the fresh air and keep fit.
For this blogger, I have used the opportunity to get out on the bike and cycle up to my golf course on a few occasions, to take photos of the course and share these with our members to remind them of what will be there when we get to the other side.
Rather ironically, we’ve not had a drop of rain this month and blue skies have dominated the weather – perfect for capturing the course at its best.
Cycling is much frowned upon by the golfing fraternity normally, but I have stuck to the thick rough and the greenkeeper’s tracks to reach the best vantage points on the course.
The course photography has been shared on social media with the aim of “absence making the heart grow fonder”.
Over the past few years, I have helped build up an ever-expanding library of drone video footage and photography – all created by amateur enthusiasts – and this will stand us in good stead in the coming weeks as we dig this out and share fond memories of the course, our members and our events to keep our customers in touch with something very close to their heart.
I have presented at many Club Seminars in recent years emphasizing the value of good imagery to a golf club’s marketing activity, and there are some wonderful examples out there, whether you are a big club with a big budget or a small club relying on volunteers. Your scenery is one of your biggest assets, so show it off!
Contact the National Media
With the lack of tournaments to cover, our newspaper golf correspondents are looking for column inches to fill and several have turned to local interest stories to create content.
A proactive approach with the media can create rewards and by contacting the relevant media channels, positive national coverage can be achieved, as the recent article in The Scotsman highlights: https://www.scotsman.com/sport/golf/appeal-funds-set-two-borders-golf-clubs-proving-hugely-successful-2
For mid to small size golf clubs with limited resources, marketing is more important than ever before to keep your members engaged with the club, through emotive and transparent communication, good design, social media activity, and strong content.
This can be achieved on a low budget, using the many free or low-cost technologies at your disposal, such as Canva Design or smartphone photography, as well as good copywriting, creativity, and the age-old practice of putting yourself in the customer’s shoes.
Forecasting the Unknown
Finally, the role of the Finance Convenor is critical for the long-term sustainability of clubs, but their job is an unenviable one at present, given how many factors are unknown at this stage.
When will the lockdown end? Will it be phased? When will people be allowed to play golf again? When can we reopen the bar? Will we have any visitors this year?
The role has become one of scenario planning, analyzing the best case and worse case budgets with options somewhere in the middle, as well as a potentially revised operating model for the following year.
This job should not be under-estimated so your club is as prepared as it possibly can be when you come out the other end and it is therefore imperative that your Finance Convenor is involved in those aforementioned Zoom meetings at every step of the way.
The author: Ross Duncan is a former Marketing and Development Director for Scottish Golf and the current marketing convenor for Peebles Golf Club in the Scottish Borders. He can be reached on e-mail via [email protected] or you can follow him via the following channels: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rossduncan/; https://twitter.com/rossduncansport; https://www.instagram.com/peeblesgolfclub/