What does the future hold for golf clubs in Norfolk?
This year has seen one golf club sold and turned into a pig farm while Thetford Golf Club has desperately restructured its business activities to avoid closing in what is its centenary year.
The Breckland club is, however, certainly not the only course in the county feeling the pressures of the current financial climate and the consequences of a rapid decline of membership numbers.
According to the European Golf Association membership numbers of clubs across England have fallen from 872,665 in 2007 to 761,335 at the beginning of this year – a drop of 111,330 or 12pc.
There is no escaping the reality that traditional membership clubs need to adapt to survive or face the very real threat of going out of business. The days of annual membership being the only option would appear incredibly outdated and they need to offer a more flexible membership model and be more open to green fee-paying customers if they are to prosper.
The prospect of forking out hundreds of pounds of their hard-earned cash in fees at the start of every year has forced golfers to look for more cost-effective alternatives to membership. The huge availability of cheaper tee times, be it because of visitor deals or the rise of online tee times, and there are quite a few different companies that do that, has seen the rise of the 'nomad' golfer who searches around for better prices and who plays a selection of courses.
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This is further backed up by the fact that despite the membership numbers falling, the amount of people still playing the sport has remained steady. A participation report carried out by Sports Marketing Surveys Inc. found that more people have been teeing off over the past three years.
The number of adults (aged 15+) who said they played golf at least once on a full-length golf course in the past 12 months has risen from 3.89 million in 2007 to 3.94 million in 2011.
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And if those figures don't give club managers reason for cheer then the fact that the number of people in England playing golf at least once a week is up by over 69,000 compared with six months ago should do.
According to the latest figures from Sport England's Active People Survey this rise is a reflection of a growing national enthusiasm for sport. Golf is also reaping the benefit of the work of the England Golf Partnership (EGP) and its network of County Golf Partnerships, which reach out at grass roots level to attract new golfers and returners to the game.
It's these bright spots of opportunity, among the doom and gloom, that Eaton Golf Club manager Peter Johns is determined to capitalise on.
'Eaton Golf Club remains true to its traditions as a traditional members' club. It is owned by its members and run for their benefit. It has a strong membership of over 800 golfers, but is not immune to the pressures facing many golf clubs, and like all others is keen to attract new members,' said Johns.
'Golf clubs generally are facing a tough environment with member numbers decreasing as individuals experience increased pressure on their income and more calls on their time. There is also an increasing trend among some clubs to offer cheap deals for greens fees tempting many occasional golfers to give up membership altogether.
'Membership loyalty is on the wane as clubs offer subscription deals encouraging members to shop around at renewal time.
'Competition is fiercest amongst the hotel chains and proprietary owned clubs with endless deals designed to attract people to play on their courses. Their business models demand that as many golfers as possible are pushed through and additional revenue from catering and accommodation is maximised.
'Ultimately the provision of golf through cheap deals is not sustainable for many and Norfolk has already seen the demise of The Norfolk at Reymerston and other clubs are facing financial difficulties.
'The poor weather over this summer has led to a fall in casual golfers visiting clubs and paying green fees. This affects some clubs more than others, with those who have a higher proportion of their income coming from members and providing a higher quality product faring the best.'
Johns added: 'Competition has put pressure on members clubs and many are tempted to follow the market and offer increasingly cheap deals to attract short-term income. However, members clubs have to consider whether offering discounts to new members, which they are not prepared or financially able to offer to existing members, is fair or sustainable in the longer term. Such offers can cause understandable resentment amongst the current members who believe they should be entitled to equal treatment.
'Eaton Golf Club believes that grabbing at short-term income at the expense of its existing members is ultimately a short-term approach. Of course clubs need to move with the times, but there is still a place in the face of such competition for a traditional members club providing a high quality product to its members and guests.
'Interest in golf remains strong from the excitement of Europe's great win at the Ryder Cup to the success of local events such as the Pro-Am tournament at Eaton in September.
'However, there are probably too many courses in the country to be supported by the number of golfers. Clubs will have to choose their strategy, fight for numbers by offering discounts and special deals or concentrate on offering a great quality product and looking after their members.'
Johns alludes to the fact that traditional members clubs must raise their game in a bid to offer an alternative to the hotel chains and proprietary-owned clubs. They must appeal to non-traditional golfing profiles, market themselves better, appeal to women, offer free coaching, cut costs, employ professional staff and offer flexible membership solutions.
It is in the last two areas where De Vere Dunston Hall excel and it is the reason why they are reporting a growth in golf revenues and an increase in the number of people playing around their course. The hotel chain now offer an interesting model of a flexible point-based membership which starts from �295 for 100 points. When you play they take points off your card and the amount of points used depends on where and when you play. Dunston has also grown its business, in 2012 on 2011, in relation to the number of group society days its hosted, green fees taken and residential weekends.
De Vere Dunston Hall's membership sales and PGA professional, Stephen Chick said: 'Our business is growing. This is down to the success of a good sales team and good members of staff all feeding off one another who all need each other. The core fundamentals are all in the right place.
'We are very proactive. I fill out a monthly sales plan and we don't wait for business to come to us. We are proactive with our outbound activity. I fill in a daily activity report with my outbound calls, appointments booked and appointment success ratio, leads gained that day through Dunston Hall and through the central booking facility in De Vere. We are sharp,' added Chick, who is one of only 20 people in the country studying to be an advanced pro.
'De Vere actually grew its profit margins and membership has grown. We go through a process of needs analysis. If someone rings up for membership we are not like a traditional old golf club which only sells five or seven-day membership.
'We are flexible, we have corporate membership, a points-based membership. It's great for the infrequent golfer or someone on a budget. We have five day, seven day, points, golf and leisure.
'We can cater for so many different requirements, through being flexible. The clubs that are stuck in their ways just can't offer that. Some are over-priced and of course there is no joining fee. It's very modern and unique. We can cater for a lot of needs. The weather has not had a negative effect on us at all. The combination of rain and sunshine has been good for our course. The revenue is up year on year. It's been a very positive year.
'We try to accommodate everyone who plays here but members also get benefits in terms of discounts on food and beverage and the shop. We also have a network of golf clubs throughout De Vere which is very appealing to those members who also do a lot of travel with work for instance.
'If you play at De Vere you are technically a member of 11 other clubs including The Belfry. It just adds to our flexibility. That is a massive pull.'
Another key area for clubs is the work done by the professionals attached to the courses.
They are at the coalface of the golf industry and can help make or break a club, as chairman of the Norfolk PGA and Sheringham Golf Club professional Mike Jubb, explained: 'From a professional's point of view I would say we have had a tough year.
'The demand, though, for lessons is still there. All I would say is that the professionals are having to work harder to obviously keep their figures up and it is up to the individual professional to go out and target the youth clubs, the junior schools, try to introduce taster sessions in the golf clubs, which are all ways of creating income for pros and obviously trying to create new members.
'I am quite happy to go to a school and give them an hour of my time for free if it means that progressively we might get two or three new junior members from it so we are working hard but we should be trying to work harder as professionals to keep the game as attractive as it is. It is a popular game, the Ryder Cup should have been the boost for the industry, it is up to all the pros to get on board and work hard and look after themselves and the golf clubs.
'There's been a down-trend since 2008, I wouldn't call it a slump. My figures have held up quite well this last two years but I am having to work harder.'
And it works both ways as far as Jubb is concerned as the professionals need the support of their clubs.
He said: 'It is important for the clubs to give their professional support because it is a double-edged thing isn't it? If you have got an active pro that is bringing in youngsters and encouraging members then that obviously helps the other side of the club. My job requires me to support the club and its members, if you don't and you don't do your full day's work and you have other interests away from the club then that will always reflect, I think, on what happens to you and your business.'
And that's the truth, that at the end of the day all golf clubs are businesses and need to be run as such in order to survive.
The Norfolk Golf Partnership (NGCP), which is made up of the Norfolk County Golf Union, Norfolk Ladies County Golf Association and the Norfolk Professional Golfers Association, is an organisation dedicated to helping clubs remain sustainable.
'The Norfolk County Golf Partnership funds starter initiatives for clubs which act as a launch pad for them to move forward,' said Karen Young, golf development officer with the Norfolk County Golf Partnership.
'Clubs are given support and advice about different ways to encourage people to try the game and then retain them within the club.
'GolfMark – the national award for junior and beginner friendly clubs – plays a big part in encouraging clubs to look at their procedures and policies, to identify areas of weakness and how these can be minimised.
'For example some clubs realised that they had so few members between the ages of 18 and 30 that the members voted in staggered categories to encourage younger players to join without the full financial commitment that generally puts off 'time-strapped' people from joining a golf club.
'It also opens doors to linking with local schools and community groups which are new areas for clubs when it comes to finding different ways to introduce golf opportunities. In the past clubs had the luxury of waiting lists and people coming to them. Now they have to be strategic, dynamic and think outside the box.
'It is important that clubs identify their 'product' and put strategies in place to maximise their product without compromising the traditions and history of the game. Each club has something different to offer so it is not a 'one size fits all' – by focusing on their strengths and ensuring that their plans are flexible and achievable clubs can remain sustainable.'
So far there are 14 clubs in Norfolk with GolfMark status, three of which – Bawburgh, Barnham Broom and Dereham – have high achiever status with another three going through the process.
It's these kinds of proactive measures which are helping clubs become lean, mean and ready for whatever the current economic climate throws at them – it's survival of the fittest.
• GET INTO GOLF
Golf is among 21 sports which have shown a positive trend over the past six months and the results indicate that the long-term, downward trend in golf participation may be reversing.
The surge in popularity is shown by the latest figures from Sport England's Active People Survey and reflects a growing national enthusiasm for sport. Karen Young, inset, golf development officer with the Norfolk County Golf Partnership, said: 'Since April this year, we have had over 270 people take part in at least six weeks of coaching and 1,300 people have had some sort of one-off taster session. This is significantly up on the previous two years. In 2011/12 we had 355 attending at least six weeks of coaching and 670 through one-off taster sessions and in 2010/11 we had 456 attending at least six weeks of coaching and 363 through one-off tasters
Get into golf is a national campaign to inspire adults (16+) to take up golf and it supports the plan to make England the world's leading golf nation by 2020. The Norfolk Golf Partnership is backing the campaign and offers coaching courses across the county for mixed groups, women-only and for families. They are all run by PGA professionals and you will receive a basic introduction to the game, together with information about club membership and follow-on coaching opportunities.
• To find your nearest centre visit www.getintogolf.org or call 0800 118 2766.