Oatland’s plan to extend golf’s ‘sugar hit’

Booming. Resurgent. Unprecedented.

Golf’s popularity explosion the past 18 months has been described in a number of different ways but Oatlands Golf Club General Manager Sam Howe is focused on turning golf’s COVID-19 induced boost into long-term prosperity.

Research has shown that membership and participation numbers have increased significantly throughout the country the past 12 months and the experience at Oatlands in Sydney’s northern suburbs has been no different, Howe now turning to PGA Members to ensure the “sugar hit” isn’t followed by a crash.

With the help of Ian James at Retail Tribe, Howe is adopting the mantra at Oatlands of using PGA Professionals as the club’s CEOs – Chief Engagement Officers – and is already seeing that translate into a more stable membership.

“The upside for golf in COVID was completely unexpected at the beginning but we were already working towards improving our team of PGA Professionals,” Howe says of Oatlands’ engagement and retention strategy.

“When I started at Oatlands almost three years ago the club had one PGA Professional. We now have five PGA Professionals working here, an Associate Professional and a PGA/IGI diploma graduate.

“We had that ideal configuration just as COVID struck and then suddenly we had a captive audience of golfers with money that they would potentially to put into travel now able to spend it on golf lessons and more time on the golf course.

“We have seen our engagement with the golf professionals – which we measure very closely – increase 1,000 per cent on pre-COVID levels.

“PGA Professionals recognise that the health of the golf club membership equates to healthy lesson revenue. They are willing to do more than just stand on the tee and coach to play their part in building a strong, healthy golf club.

“Sometimes they just need the green light to do it and having a PGA Professional as the General Manager they perhaps feel more inclined to come to me with ideas that will not only increase their revenue from lessons but add value to the golf club as a whole.”

Having completed his traineeship at Muirfield Golf Club, Howe pursued playing for five years before taking the Head Professional position at Glenmore Heritage Valley Golf Club in Sydney’s west.

A management position at a bar and restaurant chain in the UK expanded Howe’s business acumen and after three years as the Director of Golf at Bonnie Doon Golf Club he began searching for opportunities to move into golf club management.

That journey began at Woollahra Golf Club before working as the Assistant Manager under Cathy Neagle at Elanora Country Club, Neagle’s encouragement ultimately convincing Howe to apply for the job at Oatlands in January 2019.

A vocal proponent of having PGA Professionals in management positions at golf clubs, Howe has no doubt that expanding Oatlands’ presence of PGA Professionals combined with the COVID burst has strengthened the club’s position.

“The club was very good at attracting members but the attrition rate was very high,” Howe concedes.

“COVID increased participation to the level that the club was able to – and had to – make some decisions around capping the membership to make sure that the members that we did have were able to get bookings.

“We thought in a best-case scenario we might reach those membership caps in a six-month period from when we implemented it in October last year and we reached our caps in six weeks.

“As a result of that we have seen at our recent renewal that ended on March 31 a 30 per cent decrease in the resignations forecast and we’ve got quite a few plans in place to try and improve that even further in the year ahead.”

Knowing that data shows members who engage in lessons are far less likely to resign their membership in that same year, Howe brought his staff out from behind the counter to actively engage with the members.

And take an active interest in the enjoyment that members are experiencing when they come to the club.

“Now that we have six PGA-affiliated staff members we can actively engage with a far broader cross-section of our membership and reduce the risk of them resigning,” says Howe, the club adding Jason Park and Paige Stubbs in part to improve communication with the large Korean membership and the female members within the club.

“We have now engaged Retail Tribe to implement a program in conjunction with our golf pros that will see each assigned care groups that they are responsible for making contact with and tracking that engagement.

“That will enable us to more easily identify who are the most at-risk members of potentially resigning their memberships and address that accordingly.

“We’re very focused on making sure that this isn’t just a sugar hit but a long-lasting upside for the club and changes the trajectory of the club for many years to come.”

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