The Golf In Society Podcast

The Future Of The Golf Experience

September 25, 2023 Anthony Blackburn - Founder of Golf in Society
The Golf In Society Podcast
The Future Of The Golf Experience
Show Notes Transcript

Welcome to Episode 4 of The Golf in Society podcast! In this episode, join host Anthony as he sits down with Will Hewitt, the General Manager of the 59 Club.

Anthony and Will dive into an intriguing discussion about the importance of providing first-class customer experiences in the golf industry. They explore how hospitality venues can enhance their approach when it comes to catering to our ageing population.

Tune in as they share insightful stories, practical tips, and valuable insights on how the golf industry can adapt to meet the needs of older adults. Whether you're a golf enthusiast or interested in improving customer experiences, this episode offers something for everyone. Don't miss out on this thought-provoking conversation!

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Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to our latest edition of the Golf in Society podcast. I have got the pleasure this afternoon of having Will Hewitt from the 59 Club with me. Will is the General Manager of the 59 Club UK. And their business is all about customer experience. And for those of you that have followed the Golf in Society story so far, you know the importance of making sure that the customer experience we deliver to the families that we support is first class. And often going beyond and above what they have experienced in their life living with a chronic illness. So I think it would be really great to get an industry insight today from Will in terms of the 59 Club and how they approach making sure that customer experience is first class. And how golf venues and hospitality venues can think differently about engaging, I suppose, more successfully, and more compassionately with some of the families we help facing challenges later in life. So without further ado, Will, welcome to the Golf in Society podcast. Thank you very much for having me. It's pleasure to speak, as always. We will start by just giving a little bit of context to the audience really. And just pull out a couple of stats in terms of the aging population and the size of the market, really. So it's forecast that by 2030, one in six of the UK population will be over 60. And putting that into a global context, by 2050, 60+ population around the world will double to almost 2.1 billion people. Now, that is a huge chunk of the market. And I think it's quite interesting, because as we all know, the majority of the core customers who play golf are probably in that 55+ age bracket. So it's quite interesting, we are talking today about the growth in the aging population and also, it being a key audience to the golf market. And possibly, as we go through it, we will explore how we can better make sure that we keep all of those golfers enjoying their golf right the way through their 50s, 60s, 70s, and into the 90s. So I suppose the first barrier we always face, Will, is a lot of the people that we support, 50% of them have never ever been to a golf club before, let alone play golf. And one of the biggest challenges I have is them saying that, "Golf! That's not for me." And I would just like to get your perspective in terms of how you think we overcome those perceptions and traditional barriers to accessing golf. Yeah, I think it's pretty fair suggestion. You typically drive into a golf club. And there's usually a big sign in the carpark that says, "Visitors Welcome". And but probably fair to say that that's not necessarily how we always make people feel. And I think if you were to think about the reasons why people struggle to get into golf, I kind of typically think of three key reasons. One, you would think the time. People would cite some kind of time constraints. The game of golf takes too long. They would potentially say, "It's too expensive." Cost of golf equipment and the clothing and the balls and the clubs is a big financial outlay if people are looking to kind of get all the gear before they get started. And then finally, probably, is just the perception that golf clubs can be a little bit stuffy. And it's quite an intimidating environment to walk into as your first experience of something when you are potentially later in life. It's probably a different thing if you are a junior and you are entering into that environment with people of a similar age range and a similar ability level. If you are entering into the game of golf later on in life as a grown adult or a more mature person, you are probably starting to engage with people who might have been playing the game for 30-40 years by that point. So access is a really interesting thing. The quality of welcome. The management of expectations. It's a really interesting thing to start looking at. But those barriers do exist. Interesting to see recent numbers to suggest more people in the UK are playing golf than ever before. And that that is a result of the COVID pandemic. Starting to see numbers now. I don't think that trend will continue in that positive thing. Cost of living, cost of golf. The opportunities for people spend time doing other things are coming back into play. Yeah. But at the same time to talk about what we can do? And what people are doing? There are plenty of programs in terms of trying to get particularly certain groups into golf. Whether that's juniors or ladies, or people with additional leads. I think the part of that play, that has taken a little bit of a hit during the pandemic. Because I think a lot of the progress that was made over the past 10 years into attracting new people to the game kind of went by the wayside a little bit. Because all of a sudden the pandemic hit. And everyone wanted to play golf. So from this sustainability of golf and the success of the business of a golf club. All of a sudden membership were full. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to play golf. All of a sudden, people were willing to pay more for that experience. And so the hunger that existed within golf clubs for people to go out. And source new markets of golfers. And felt a little bit like a lot of that hard work kind of went on the back burner again for a little bit. So hopefully, we will start to see those kind of programs coming back to the fore. I think that people are given a lot of opportunities potentially, to get into golf now. Through some of the incredible kind of entertainment and practice facilities that is going on. Or is being added into certain facilities. So things like Track Mile Range, For Sight Range, Toptracer. And possibly a great introduction. Rather than sport is a relatively inexpensive and fun way to engage with the sport. Introducing people to the game of golf, primarily as entertainment. I think a lot of focus on pace of play and short course events.

Whether it's nine holes, six holes, [unclear 7:

00] and night golf, things like that. Just mean that maybe a golf experience doesn't have to be a day or half a day out. And then I think kind of how clubs are developing in terms of the welcome that they are looking to provide. How they are changing the face of their clubhouse facilities. The modernisation of their facilities. I think also makes it look a little bit more welcoming to somebody approaching a golf club for the first time. For me, you have just hit the nail right on the head with that last comment you made.

It's all about that, that first [unclear 17:

34]. I mean, you know that within how I decide on whether a golf club is going to be right for us to operate and collaborate with, is all about doing a mystery shop. And I start by imagining I have just landed on this planet that's got golf courses on it. I have never been to it before. And I just stand out the first touch point. Which is often coming off the road, coming into the carpark, whatever. And I just think about it through a different lens. And it's that, I have never been to this world of golf before. And for a lot of my customers bearing my 50% have never been to a golf course. Let alone played it before. That's really important to me. And I think that it will be interesting just to explore for a couple of moments. The importance of that mystery shopping work that you do as an organization. Yeah, so I guess the end goal of what we are looking to do is to provide golf clubs with objective data. To understand their own strengths and weaknesses. And the opportunities which exist within their member. And guest experience to improve. And we do that in two ways. We do it through gathering. To providing software to gather survey data. And we do it through a program of mystery shopping. So we send golfers into clubs, to have a typical golfer experience from the point of booking. The information they have received prior to arriving at a venue. The arrival experience. And the welcome they get. Some facility checks in terms of locker room practice facilities and so on the golf courses itself. But one of the key focuses that we touch on is the management of people's expectations as they are participating in that kind of journey. But also the interactions with the people that exist in a business. And one thing that I always say to people is we work with over 200 golf clubs in the UK. And not every one of those will be a bucket list golf course that people just need to take off. And want to have that once in a lifetime experience. But in terms of the quality of wealth. The quality of information they provide. The fun in the engagement. The stories that they tell. It is a completely level playing field. So whether you are turning up for a game of golf at Sawgrass. Or whether you are turning up at your local municipal. A lot of the opportunities are exactly the same in each of those clubs. Obviously, the level of investment and the golf course designer, they are not a level playing field. But human interaction. And information provision. And the way that you make someone feel. I think there is significant opportunity. And so we deliver programs of mystery shopping. And we work with clubs to understand what the opportunities are. And then we help them go through that journey of upskilling the people within their business. To appreciate those opportunities. And really see what difference they can make to someone's experience. Well, I think it's fantastic. And the reason why it's fantastic is that the audience won't know the detail behind signing up to be a mystery shopper. But I have got a few of my golf was living with either cognitive impairments or diagnosis of Parkinson's. That have actually signed up to your mystery shopping list. So they actually go into venues. And a part of the team of mystery shoppers. That basically give feedback on their experience. And I think that's fascinating move forward. Because it's almost like first step into how we best engage with people facing these challenges. Whether it be cognitive or physical impairments. And I think it's lovely that my golfers have stepped up to be mystery shoppers. But the fringe benefit that is, of course, they get access to your venue database. And get the opportunity to experience golf, hospitality. And for some of the carers that go with them.

The [unclear 11:

36] experience as well. So I just think it's a fascinating stuff, something that could be quite special. Yeah. I think the other thing to mention on that is, the golf world is full of opinion. And that's partly why we love it, is because we all have an opinion. What's our favorite course? Who does this the best? Who does that the best? And we take a slightly different or very different approach. And that's deliberately not what we do. We absolutely want to send a pretty much an average golf punter to a venue to make an assessment of that venue. We don't send golf professionals. We don't send people like myself who have worked in the industry for many years. Because we appreciate that people like us are full of bias. Whether it's conscious or unconscious. And we are full of our own opinion. We want to deliver something which is repeatable. Which is consistent. And which is something which is pretty straightforward to measure. And so yes, of course, we work and we operate in a world which is full of opinion. We are very much about that objective data. So whether we send female mystery shopper. Or whether we sent male mystery shopper. Whether we send 21-year-old, 46-year-old, 65-year-old, then it should be a process which repeats. And within that there's always nuances to see perhaps how a slightly different individual is treated. Weather they see slightly different facilities and so on. But in general, it will be a process that repeats. And yes, there is an absolutely a place in our industry for subjective data. Because that's that gut feel that we all have when we leave somewhere. But dealing with facts, typically helps you make better decisions as an operator. Totally agree. And I think that the importance of people. Both in your business, and in what we do. Is at the heart of what we do. Because we put people at the heart of every single Golf in Society session. And we make sure that they as an individual, get the most out of their experience. When they are with us in a golf venue. And that takes a lot of time and effort. And it takes a great team of people with the right skill sets. So to be kind, to be patient, to be compassionate. And to inspire, and to be positive, and to engage. And to get people to really go away with that smile on their face. And thinking they want to come back from on. That's to me, is all about two things. First and foremost, it's all about people. And then secondly, it's about great venues. With great spaces and places that our customers can come and enjoy. And I think that's one of the challenges I found, Will. I have gone through different clubs is the level of understanding around, some of the challenges facing our aging population. Especially Dementia, is not great. And I think even within club memberships. The understanding of certain signs that might be manifesting themselves within members of certain golf clubs. And not always noticed and well understood. So for me, there's a whole bit around upskilling and retraining the key audiences. Either the hospitality team. And the club management teams. And the members. All the people engaged with golf, to really learn a lot of those softer skills. To understand a change of behavior. And to think differently about how they can positively turn that change of behavior around. So I don't know what your views are in terms of that sort of upskilling the, sort of golf industry. Yes. I think I completely agree with what you said. To me, I have often talked about the facility being the cake. And the people within the facility, a picture. And if you get kind of icing on the cake and the cherry on the top. And if you have got a good facility. Typically people be reasonably satisfied with what you are putting out. But to move that level of service and that experience on that next level. It's what can the people who work for you add to that experience. And so some of the key things for me would be, how interested are they in you? How infused are they in their interactions? How many questions do they ask you? Are they just passing the time of day? Or have they got a genuine interest in that? Does that come across in the intonation of their voice and their body language? When they ask you a question, are they really listening to what you are telling them back? And do they expand upon that? And that's what I think people are really starting to add value. And I think one of the things, maybe just to kind of cross over the first couple of questions you asked is. The world's changed a lot over the last five years. And I think the users of golf clubs will have some, to a certain degree of, change. You probably have a number of golf clubs in the UK that probably have, if you were to look at their membership now and their membership five years ago. 30 or 40% of their members now wouldn't have been there, three or, four or, five years ago. And so the question I always ask to people is, to the preferences, the needs and the wants of those new people frequenting your business. Yeah. Are they the same as they have always been? Or have times changed it? And as things moved on. And I would say that, I mean, do they want competitive golf? Or do they want social golf? How interested are they in using the clubhouse? Or do they just want to get changed in the car park and walk onto the golf course? Are practice facilities important for them? And then how important? How much do they want to have a relationship with the golf pro-team? Is their usage the same? Typically, you would go to a kind of private member's golf club. And midweek would mainly be the senior guys and the ladies. Who would be kind of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday. Then at the weekend, you would have some of the ladies. But you would have a slightly younger audience of working males. And that has changed a lot. We go to golf clubs every day of the week. And typically now you can see people who they work more flexi-time. They can take what time off they want. They maybe a game of golf can happen within their working day. You look at the clubhouse space. The people wanted to use clubhouses isn't the same way as they used to. Or maybe they want more entertainment, more big screens. Maybe they want a place to set up their laptop and do a day's work. And maybe conduct some work meetings. Before they go out late afternoon and play a game of golf. Maybe things like the decor of the clubhouse. The pattern on the curtains. And the carpet doesn't suit their preferences. Maybe the menu isn't right. The type of beer you serve isn't right. And so that ability to move with the times. And to continually try and satisfy the needs of your customers is a Moveable Feast. It doesn't mean you get it right once. And that lasts for the next 10 years. Hopefully. It is very difficult to be all things to all people. And I think that's where a golf club manager's job is to be most things to most people for as much as the time as possible. I think it's very hard to be all things to all people. I think it's the training of the staff. The upskilling of the staff. The measurements. And the continuous improvement. I think it is probably pretty key. New venues open. Things change all the time. And having an appetite to continually find out where you are? And then want to get better. Is an attitude that can go from the top of the organization to the very bottom. And that is what you feel. I think, to go back to what we are talking about in terms of interactions. That human connection. And the kind of warm embrace that a club membership provides is something that we talk about a lot. There is a difference between being a member of a club and paying to use a facility. And there is a place in the market for both. But it's typically the relationship that you have with the people in that business that creates the more memorable experiences in my thinking. I think you are absolutely right. And one thing that is definitely striking chord with me at the moment is that we started off in society over six years ago. And I would imagine that the awareness of dementia. And the impact it was having on not just the individual, but the wider family network was limited. And the way that unfortunately, dementia diagnosis is growing all the time. And as we age, with more people are obviously developing this terrible disease. But I think there's stats out there at the minute that sort of 24 million people in the UK are touched by dementia. Either through their direct family or by friends and acquaintances. So I think there's a greater awareness among society. And I think, obviously, that filters through into the golf club teams, the hospitality teams. Because they will have family members or loved ones that are facing similar challenge. So I think that as a result of it, touching more people's lives, by default. I think a lot more people are aware of it now. And possibly are thinking differently about a change of behavior. And I think that's something that we can definitely build on is, the key players in golf venues. That maybe have had some experience. Sharing that experience with their colleagues. And the people that they work with. And maybe help when you get somebody upskilling, in that way through the peer group. I think that's very powerful. And I think that I am noticing that more and more as I go around the venues. Well, quite often, I find just creating the environment for people to share experiences. And like you said, if people, people quite often don't, something doesn't resonate. Until they hear it from someone else. And people feel like they are operating in isolation. And the ability to sit people in a room, which is quite often what we do. And talk about the challenges that they face. And some of the situations that go on both inside their work life and outside is a really powerful piece. And you quite often find that, people work with people in their own mind very closely on a day to day basis. Or what they deal with outside of work? But they probably, they get surprised about what they hear about what that person is going through? Or some of their interests and so on. And so just having the opportunity to take people away from the coalface. And have good open discussions about both work. And the kind of challenges that they face. And to talk about it as a group. And hopefully share some positive ideas about how people can move forward. I think is a really useful thing. Yeah. And it leads us on really to the sort of last part of our little conversation together, Will. You know me. I have got some big ideas about the future. About golf playing a huge part in transforming the health and well-being and happiness. Not only of people facing a challenge later in life. But also their unpaid carers. And, as I said to you earlier on, I have got two audiences really. I have got those that have never been to a golf club. And I have got those that have enjoyed a golf experience through their life. But fallen out of it. And if I just like to talk about that market, in particular. Because as far as I see, Golf in Society is there really. For when the club can no longer give the quality of experience to an individual or family that possibly get 20, or 30, or 40 years of their life. Years of their business to that golf club. And I would love to see almost that seamless move from basically being a full member. To being supported by your club. To then being in a position to signpost something that can keep that golf experience in that person's life. When the club can no longer deal with it. Because of a change that is no longer, something that the club can deal with. So that's my sort of vision. That we step in. Or our programs or our training step in. When that moment comes when people need to move on to keep that golf experience in the life. But the club can't actually deliver that service. Yeah. I am always a big believer. Like I said, I don't think a general manager can be all things to all people. And I think everyone has their role to play. But also understand that the limits to your own role. And when there's someone better placed to deliver an experience. Or better educated to advise and deliver something to the right quality. I think is absolutely the right thing to do. Far too often, experiences are compromised by people without the right level of skill. To finish off our chat together. That's a reflection on that organization and your own club. And that at the end of the day, when you partner up with an organization. And if Golf in Society are the organization who can support the program and deliver quality. Or the right motivation, trying to deliver those experiences. And there's far too many examples that we see on a monthly basis of people over stretching themselves. Or perhaps utilizing people in areas that where they haven't had received the correct training or skill. And in the short term, the person who suffers is the customer or the member. In the long term, it's also the business and the reputation of that business. Totally, totally. And if it's okay with you, I am gonna ask you the million-dollar question now. The future the golf experience, how do you see that developing in the next 10 years? And where do you see it in 10 years time, Will? I think there's already a little bit of a move to got to what we call the golf experience. Rather than a game of golf. But I see them as very different things. In terms of, a game of golf is what you experience on the golf course. A golf experience to me. And I don't know if I harped on earlier about the length of time it takes. But the game of golf to me is a day. And it's the experience you get from the time you think about going for that game to the end of evening that you leave in that golf club. So I think that's the total golf experience. How golf clubs use technology to provide better information? To manage expectations? Quality of websites? The information that's given to a golfer? Automation within booking experiences? Hopefully leaving more time for the people who are dealing with members and guests face to face to spend more time. Rather than spending all their lives on the telephone. I think a focus on fun. It sounds like a pretty obvious thing. But sometimes I think the game is a little bit too serious. And I never want to be that guy that says I love golf. And I love some of the traditions in golf and I love some of the legacy stories. But I don't love all the traditions in golf. And I think that some of those bits and bobs are a barrier. So I am not a guy who's gonna say let's do away with all that stuff. But opening up the doors, introducing new people to the game of golf. Making sure, I think golf does a reasonable job with youngsters. But then we have that big drop off. So probably people effectively using flexible membership options. Or membership options that allow people to still retain membership of a golf club. Perhaps as they have got young families and serious work commitments. I think it's not an easy piece of work. But I think a degree of flexibility there. Clubhouses as we touched on before. Being a place that serve a wider thing than just a place to grab a beer after a game of golf. So a place to meet with friends. A place to dine. A place to watch sport on the TV. A place to conduct business and kind of more flexible spaces in clubhouses. But in general, the one thing that I think will sustain golfers. Golf will be challenged to make no bones about it in the next five years. We have already heard stories of people seeing quite significant challenges with retention of those members. They got through COVID. The cost of living crisis in 2023. It's not going to go away in the next 18 months. That will exist. And so showcasing value for money becomes super important. And the one thing that everyone has to acknowledge is value for money means different things to different people. We don't all sit with the same value expectations. So some golf clubs will have members who play five times a month. Who think it's awful value for money. And some people will have members who play five times a year. And think it's great value for money. So we all think a little bit differently in terms of that. But a focus on understanding member and guests needs. And an ability to adapt your business. And do that in a slightly quicker fashion than golf clubs have traditionally. Means that you are going to be ahead of the game. So I think, in general, let's make no bones about it. A golf course, is the primary reason why people go to a golf club. And that's always going to be the same. The quality of the golf course, the architecture, the playability. But there is more and more value being given to the off-course experience. The entertainment, the fun, the welcome. So those human interactions and those basic connections are typically the reasons why people can't afford to leave you. It's the relationship they have with your members of staff. It's knowing that people genuinely care about them. And it's, I suppose, an emotional attachment. And your emotional attachment is usually to the people you play golf with. And the people you spend time with at the club. As opposed to the facility that you attend. Well, that was fantastic. What a great way to end our conversation together. Will, I just like to thank you sincerely for your time and given us such a great industry insight. And I just love talking to like-minded people. And like-minded organizations. Who put their customers at the heart of everything they do. And I am sure our audience are now better educated in terms of the 59 Club. What you do? Why we work so closely with you? Because we are kindred spirits on that customer experience. And yeah, thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts and ideas on how you operate on the future that golf experience. And the future of golf for the audience's that we support. So thanks, Will. Absolute pleasure. Thank you.